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Mark Shaw

Mark Shaw

Posted: January 14, 2010 11:23 AM

Every author risks unfavorable review when he or she writes a book. Hemingway received poor reviews, Kerouac and Emile Zola did too. Contemporary writers such as J. K. Rowling, John Grisham and Stephen King have also not been immune to such undesirable reception.

When I wrote this fresh biography of Thomas Merton, the gifted wordsmith Henry Nouwen characterized as "the greatest spiritual writer of the twentieth century," I knew the wolves would be howling. I received favorable comments from some. Merton scholar Robert Inchausti called said my work was "brave, beautifully written, and an honest tribute to Merton." Noted professor and author James Seaton said, "This is a compulsively readable book, written with the verve and pace of a mystery thriller." Mean-spirited reviews began to pop up immediately after my book's publication.

Since newspaper attacks in the form of op-ed columns are a thing of the past, the new way to pounce on a new book is by sounding off on Amazon.com. With the flick of a finger, anyone, anywhere, whether they have read the book or not, has the ability to assault it from every angle. In this forum, "They," those determined to kill my book for others included a fellow named "Hippy Monk," who said my work "badly written... prurient," and "pulp fiction," someone named M. Brennen, who said I had written "a hatchet job," an "anti-Catholic," and a Merton scholar named Jim Forest, an alleged "friend" of Merton's who labeled the biography "a bad book" filled with "purple prose." These comments emerged in light of the fact that more than 80% of the biography is comprised of Merton's own words, or paraphrasing of those words.

These three book banditos, and others like them, clearly reflected by the personal nature of their comments, had an agenda to scald my efforts to present the truth about Merton - the human side, warts and all, for everyone to see due. The critics' motives? Let us count them.

First, most critics are apparently upset that I exposed the love affair, or even mentioned it at all, despite Merton himself writing, "I have no business of keeping the [Margie] business out of sight." Second, as another Merton scholar wrote, I used a "lurid title," one reeking of "sex and scandal," a definite no-no. Third, what I wrote was, as noted, "anti-Catholic," insinuating that Merton was held prisoner at his monastery by those who wanted to control him, something Merton acknowledged repeatedly in his private journals. Fourth, I allegedly chastised the Merton classic, The Seven Storey Mountain, as being "not the whole truth," and asked that it be recalled until a disclaimer may be added so readers can know that more than a third of the original manuscript was censored, or "castrated," as Merton's friend Edward Rice put it.

Fifth, I was charged of having the the audacity to say that Merton discovered freedom through the forbidden love affair since opponents point out that he could have left the monastery at any time despite their knowledge that once the Vatican denied him leave, he would have never done so. Sixth, I committed the unforgivable sin of using Margie's last name [Smith] even though many other writers have done so for years. Seventh, I left open the potential that Merton did not die accidently but could have been murdered and pointed out that if this occurred, the culprits may have been Catholic Church operatives worried that Merton would never return to Gethsemani or worse, damage his image and its, by marrying Margie. And finally, eighth, with regard to the love affair, I detailed the erotic nature of their romance to the extent of alleging that they consummated it during a secret rendezvous at a friend of Merton's office in Louisville. How dare me despite Merton's acknowledgment of their "ecstasy."

Perhaps worst of all, I dredged up Merton's past before he entered Gethsemani, chronicling a man who was a womanizer fathering an illegitimate child, a drunk, an adulterer, a man who participated in a mock crucifixion that left stigmata on his hands, and a draft dodger. How could I be so crass, the critics raged, when in fact Merton wrote of these incidents so others would learn from them? And so they would understand why he yearned for someone to love late in his life so as to experience what true love was all about. This is why he called Margie "a miracle in his life," one who "completes me," one whom he finally gave up so that she would not have to endure the hardship connected with those in the Catholic Church determined to keep him in line no matter the cost to his psyche, one he described to friend Rosemary Radford Reuther as being "in crisis."

Who's behind the clever strategy, the assault on my book? Merton's fellow monk Peter Mursak warned me that "powers-that-be" in the Catholic Church could very well be the source. Whether he's right or not may not be proven, but there is something wrong with organizing a well-planned, concerted effort to keep people from reading a book. All any author deserves is a fair shot, and hopefully people will see past the derogatory, biased comments, read the book, and decide whether I should be burned at the stake, or whether I have truly presented, as I intended, an inspiring love story, and a loving tribute to Thomas Merton.