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Writing Straight with Crooked Lines: Jim Forest’s Memoir

Jim Forest, Writing Straight with Crooked Lines: A Memoir. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2020. 326 pp.  + ix.

For three decades, Jim Forest has written books on prayer, friendship, forgiveness, and a string of biographies on Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Daniel Berrigan, all of which offer snippets from his personal experiences. But in this memoir, we get the full story of Jim’s life and work, a story that traces his restless beginnings and his long, serpentine path to completion and peace with family, church, and God.

Forest was born on November 2, 1941 and grew up in what now seems like a different world. His parents were Communists, making him a “red diaper baby” in the lingo of the Old Left. His mother took him and his younger brother Richard to cell meetings occasionally and on door-to-door efforts to enlist subscribers to The Daily Worker. His father was a leader in the party and made headlines in 1952 as one of five Communists arrested for conspiring to overthrow the US government. After conviction, the case went through appeals until the government dropped it in 1958. His parents’ politics surely made Jim an outsider in U.S. Cold War culture, but it was his parents’ divorce that was probably more debilitating. When Jim’s father left, he pleaded to go with him. But along with this painful scene, we find a string of memories rather typical of an sensitive, imaginative, intelligent kid in the 1950s: reading Treasure Island and playing pirates, going to Ringling Bros. Barnum & Baily Circus, delving into the science fiction of Isaac Asimov, and taking religion seriously enough to get baptized in a local Episcopal Church. In the summers he would take unaccompanied trips out west to see his father, and then in 1956, he moved to Los Angeles to live indefinitely with him. Sadly, Jim’s stepmother was unwelcoming and the marriage itself was collapsing. After running away to the Bay Area for a spell, he went back to mother’s over Christmas of his senior year, never returning to his father’s home or finishing high school. In April 1959, at age seventeen, he joined the Navy.

Jim Forest’s time in the Navy would have been relatively uneventful—basic training and two years as a meteorologist in the U.S. weather bureau near Washington, D.C.—except that over Christmas 1959 he visited Holy Cross Monastery up from New York City on the Hudson River. On the way, he bought a book off the rack in the Port Authority, The Seven Story Mountain. He began reading it on the train, looking up occasionally, gazing out the window at the snowstorm. “Merton’s life story,” he writes, “has ever since been linked in my mind with the silent ballet of snowflakes swirling in cones of life beneath the streetlights.” He sensed a direction in his life, “true north.” His stay was so energizing and consoling that he arranged a return trip for the next Easter.

After months of parish shopping, volunteering, and reading Chesterton, Dorothy Day, and more Merton, he visited the Catholic Worker in the summer of 1960. By the end of the year, he was conditionally baptized a Catholic. Given the company he was keeping, in person and in books, as well as the events of the day, especially the Bay of Pigs invasion, Jim developed conscience qualms about being in the Navy that grew into a full-blown conscientious objection.  To meet the resistance from the Navy, he sought help from a Quaker organization and was referred by Dorothy Day to Robert Hovda, a Catholic priest, a theologian at Catholic University, and himself a conscientious objector. Hovda loaned him the book War and Christianity Todayby Franzicus Stratmann, the German Dominican priest who fled to Switzerland to escape death for his antiwar activities. By June 1961, Jim, the sailor-CO, was discharged and on his way to the New York Catholic Worker.

Jim had gotten to know Dorothy in periodic visits the prior year. He had watched her open the mail and tell stories about the correspondents, confided in her about his parents’ politics, and taken in her stories of soldier-saints like Martin of Tours and her bits of wisdom such as “you will know your vocation by the joy it brings you.”  Working side by side with her on a daily basis deepened their relationship. They shared Borsch at a restaurant nearby. She appointed him managing editor of the paper. In that role, he published an article on the Smith Act, which the government had used to convict his father. He also struck up a correspondence with Merton who was writing for the paper at the time. But things took a downturn when he caught flak in the wake of a prank that sparked Dorothy’s ire. He was at Gethsemane at the time visiting Merton. Dorothy instructed him to go on from there to Tennessee to cover a strike. He said he had to return to the City for an anti-nuclear demonstration he had organized. She insisted. He refused. She put her foot down: Go to Tennessee or don’t come back. Jim went to the demonstration anyway and ended up in prison. Once out, he writes, “I didn’t attempt to return to the Catholic Worker, a decision I have ever since looked back on with sorrow and regret. Only later in life, having gone through the whitewater of parenthood . . .  did I realize that, had I come back to Chrystie Street once released from jail, no one would have been happier to see me than Dorothy.” The relationship got patched up. Dorothy wrote him letter, confessing her tendency to anger, impatience, and self-righteousness, especially toward those closest to her. But the opportunity to return to the Worker had passed. Jim’s account of this episode makes for poignant reading.

Departing in early 1962 from “Dorothy Day University” (a chapter title) left Jim feeling like “a derailed train” (the next chapter title). He threw himself into organizing for the Committee for Nonviolent Action, got married, had a son, got a stable job at Catholic Relief Services, a better paying job for a Madison Avenue business journal, then the perfect job as managing editor of Liberation, a monthly journal linked with the peace and civil rights movements. There he met A.J. Muste and Bayard Rustin, the legendary activists who worked with King and the S.C.L.C. But the long commute and hours created tension in marriage and childrearing, so he found a job closer to home with the Staten Island Advance. His marriage came “crashing to earth” anyway, which was painful for him because of his own experience with divorce. It was a dark time. What kept him going was the work and friendships connected to the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

The launching of the CPF originated in the summer of 1964 when Forest, Dan Berrigan, and Jim Douglass discussed the idea over lunch at a peace conference in Czechoslovakia. It would be Catholic and pacifist, with special attention on conscientious objection. That fall they laid the groundwork. The time was ripe.  The Cold War was going full tilt, the US was escalating military operations in Vietnam, and Catholic teaching was becoming more critical of war, especially nuclear war. In November, Merton gathered an interdenominational group of peace activists at Gethsemane for a retreat, “The Spiritual Roots of Protest.” It included A.J. Muste, John Howard Yoder, John Heidbrink, the Berrigans, and Tom Cornell, among others. The reflections focused at one point on Franz Jägerstätter, the Austrian Catholic farmer, husband, and father who, in 1943, was martyred for refusing to serve in the Nazi-controlled Austrian military. Merton said, “If the church could make its teaching alive to the laity, future Franz Jägerstätters would no longer give their witness in solitude but would be the church as a whole reasserting the primacy of the spiritual.” That captured the aim and purpose of the CPF which officially opened its doors on New Year’s Day 1965. The co-chairs were Marty Corbin, the managing editor of The Catholic Worker, and Phil Berrigan. The board included Merton, Dorothy Day, and Archbishop Thomas Roberts of Bombay, India, an outspoken voice for peace in the UK and at Vatican II. The co-secretaries were Tom Cornell and Jim Forest, who quit his newspaper job to do it.

For the next several years Forest, Cornell, and others in the CPF spoke at rallies, conferences, and teach-ins around the country; counseled fifty people a week on conscience issues related to military service; sponsored the controversial draft card burnings; and provided educational material on Church teaching on war and peace, including a widely circulated booklet, “Catholics and Conscientious Objection,” written by Jim and given an imprimatur from the Archdiocese of New York. As the Vietnam War expanded, the pressure was on to move “from Protest to Resistance.” In 1967, Dan and Phil Berrigan argued for more dramatic actions to stop the war and in May 1968 took that step with the Catonsville Nine draft file burning. Jim was press secretary for the Defense Committee. Later that year, he joined the Milwaukee Fourteen in a similar action. It created ripples across the country. Forest and the others mounted a defense drawing on Catholic teaching, international law, and personal statements of conscience that left everyone, even some prosecutors, deeply moved.  The trial made national headlines.

After spending a year-long “sabbatical” in prison, Jim joined the Emmaus House community in Harlem, visited Thich Nhat Hanh in France, then went to work again for the FOR. What stands out in this period is his moral consistency over two controversial issues. The first was abortion, which Jim opposed as an act of violence, an offense against the gift of life. This put him odds with many on the Left, including in the FOR. The second issue had to do with the Vietnamese government’s human rights violations, especially its persecution of Buddhists, which Thich Nhat Hanh brought to Jim’s attention. After drafting a statement and recruiting notables to sign it, many denounced “the Forest Appeal” (as it was called) and even accused Jim of being a CIA operative. Joan Baez, one of the signatories, assured her friends that the charge was entirely unfounded: he is “much too nice—and much too disorganized—to work for the CIA.”

In 1977, Jim took on the job of directing the International Fellowship of Reconciliation from the Netherlands. His peace work went international, with trips to Jerusalem, Oslo, Rome, and the Soviet Union. For years, he undertook an extended effort at “tunneling under the Iron Curtain.” A highlight came in 1985 when Jim attended a conference in Moscow on nuclear disarmament, part of Gorbachev’s glasnost policy. It allowed him to talk with notables such as Graham Greene and Gregory Peck, and to rub shoulders, literally, with Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal (sandwiched between them at a talk).  Another more substantial turn in Jim’s life came in 1987 when he became a communicant in the Russian Orthodox Church. This move was by no means a dismissal of Catholicism, though he lamented that much of what he treasured in Catholicism had been moved to the attic. Rather, it was a “change of address” in a neighborhood where he had long resided. His embrace of Russian Orthodoxy was refreshingly unencumbered by ecclesial rivalry.

For the past three decades, Jim has worked from home with his wife Nancy, whom he married in 1982, on what he calls “the family farm.” Leaving IFOR to freelance was a risky move that has proved successful, with Nancy an accomplished, award-winning translator, and Jim, an editor of several publications, most notably, In Communion, the quarterly journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and an author of a steady stream of books. Toward the end, this memoir moves into a sense of peace and reconciliation regarding marriage and family. This peace has allowed Jim, it seems, to reflect on his three previous marriages honestly and respectfully, with no hint of resentment or score settling. He admits to making serious mistakes in marriage and parenting, yet goodness emerged even out of his failures (his word). Hence the dedication of the book, along with a photo, to his six children and ten grandchildren—the hundredfold, as promised. A sense of completion likewise intones Jim’s recollections of his parents’ final days. In the hospital with cancer in May 1990, Jim’s father asked to borrow the crucifix from around Jim’s neck. It hung on the rail alongside the bed when he died days later.  On December 8, 2001, his mother died with Jim’s first child, Ben, at her bedside.

About a month before his mother died, in early November, Jim came to the University of Notre Dame to speak about peacemaking. With the nation going at war after 9/11, a sizable crowd came to the auditorium: grey-headed peaceniks from back in the day, devoted readers of his books, and a host of students, some attending for the usual offer of extra credit for a two-page report on the talk, but others, a growing number, who had heard him speak before and wanted to hear more. Jim told stories of his time with Day and Merton, relayed the wisdom gleaned from desert fathers and spiritual masters, recounted parts of his own religious journey. Afterwards, people lined up to ask about what he had said or to renew their acquaintance or sign one of his books. I recall watching as he took time with each and every person, greeted them with a hug or kiss, and looked into their eyes deliberately—a practice he learned at the Catholic Worker while leafleting on Lexington Avenue. He calls it “hospitality of the face,” a phrase he got from his friend Sister Mary Evelyn Jegen. It resonates with the personalism that Dorothy and her co-workers would demonstrate when sitting with the guests at dinner. It also resonates with the personalism Merton commended when he wrote to Jim, in the oft quoted “letter to a young activist,” that the work of peacemaking is not so much about ideas as it is about specific people so that “in the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.” \

What this memoir shows is how this personalism has guided Jim through the twists and turns, the crooked lines, of his life, all the while heading in one direction, “true north,” to God. What it offers readers is the consolation and confidence that, in spite of our own crooked lines, we are moving in that same direction, our lives gently being written by the same Writer.

   Michael Baxter lives with his family in Denver and teaches Catholic Studies at Regis University.


Houston Catholic Worker, October-December 2020, Vol. XL, No. 4.