I confess to being a coward when it comes to wading into controversy; I try not to, as a rule, because it only seems to bring out the trolls, the bane of all who write online. But when this new book came out just a few months ago, The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation, by Hugh Turley and David Martin, I thought I should take a look at it. I was alerted to this book by the journalist Patricia Lefevere, who writes for National Catholic Reporter, and is also reading it, so we have been exchanging emails. I finished it a few days ago and have been thinking about it ever since, so if that was the authors’ intention, it certainly worked with me.
Merton’s death—fifty years ago this December–has always been an odd kind of mystery. How many people—let alone famous spiritual writers and social activists–have been mortally electrocuted by a defective room fan? In Thailand, of all places, while the Vietnam War was raging next door? Somehow it seems not the way he should have died. Trying to imagine alternative deaths for Merton is an interesting parlor game: Heart attack? Stroke? Having read all eight of his published personal journals, I wouldn’t completely rule out suicide, shocking as that sounds; but he did seem to suffer from depression. And murder is not out of the question—he came into contact with some wacky people who might have killed him in some delusional fit. But the idea of our own government, through the CIA, knocking him off as a threat to national security, seems highly unlikely to me…even after reading this book, which shows you the authors did not convince me of their basic premise.
I will give the authors this: The details surrounding Merton’s actual death certainly are murky. The Thai police report seems lacking in essential detail (they say the official cause was a heart attack), there was no autopsy done, and witness reports are vague as well. I don’t know if that is intentional, or some kind of “cover-up.” Merton died alone, and there were several people who discovered his body, and their accounts seem to change over time. There’s nothing sinister about this: Memories are imperfect, especially if affected by a person’s perspective and emotional state at the time. When I was writing my biography of Father Irenaeus, I heard several different versions of his death: He died of a heart attack, but some of the friars were unsure if he had died at the friary, or in an ambulance, or at the hospital, or in someone’s car on the way to the hospital. And his former superior, who died in Albuquerque, NM in 1935, either passed away in a fall, an auto accident, or “took sick late at night”. I think this has something to do with the fact that these men, including Merton, were all clergy, and we’re a little squeamish about how they pass into eternal life. We might think they should do so in a dignified way, and I suspect that Merton died in a faintly undignified, perhaps slightly embarrassing way. It could simply be that he was found naked, and someone hurriedly yanked a pair of shorts on him. Wouldn’t you do that too, if it were your father, your husband, your best friend?
I realized I might have crossed paths with these authors, in a way. They begin the book carping about an ‘incomplete’ letter they had received from Father John Eudes Bamberger, a Trappist who was also a trained MD and psychologist, and had been the last person to see and examine Merton’s body when it arrived at the monastery. I was surprised that they did not interview him in person. When I was doing research for my own book, I had a very informal interview with Father Eudes, at the Abbey of the Genesee, at about the same time they sent that letter, I think. He was in his nineties, but alert and articulate, and we had a good, long talk. I was pretty sure he had not known Father Irenaeus (he didn’t), and I didn’t have any other questions for him, but I was startled when he suddenly and quite vehemently volunteered the information that he had performed the autopsy on Merton, when the body was shipped home from Thailand. He mentioned some “people” who seemed to think Merton’s death was a conspiracy, something he could not accept or believe. He then described how Merton’s body had looked—“all consistent with accidental electrocution.” So between that conversation and reading this very detailed book, I feel like I know more than I want to know about how Thomas Merton expired, and the state of his corpse.
And that’s the crux of it: This book has no role in the expanding canon of literature by and about Thomas Merton. The net result of it is reducing the great spiritual wanderer and gifted writer to a disfigured corpse. Is it important for us to know how he died? Isn’t his life, his work, his teachings the whole point of his existence? Yes, it would be nice to call him a martyr with a capital M, give him that title, but most martyrs for the faith give up their lives in a more clear-cut way, one that leaves no doubt as the heroism of their sanctity, It is, most of the time, a conscious sacrifice, that the poor martyrs have to face bravely. If the CIA did send an secret assassin to knock Merton off, poor Tom never saw it coming.
I don’t discount the CIA theory entirely, but the authors should have taken more care in crafting and preparing that argument. Though personally, I think that if the CIA were responsible, they would have done it in a more dramatic way, tied it to the Chinese or North Vietnamese, then alerted the media about the “irony” of the peace activist’s death. The chapter on the authors’ discovery of photographs of the death scene—found at Columbia University’s Butler Library–is fascinating, though the photographs are not included in the book. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting book to read with some valid points—if you can overlook the authors’ bitter, accusing and uncharitable tone to some of the people Merton was closest to. This is a book that needs a little more humanity and compassion, and might be more impressive and persuasive if the authors had not taken such a combative sort of stance. A good editor would have pointed that out to them…