Redeemed From Limbo

By Colman McCarthy,
who directs the Center for Teaching Peace and is the author of "At Rest With the Animals"
Tuesday, October 21, 2008; Page C02


A Memoir

By John Grogan

Morrow. 334 pp. $25.95

What impulse -- regret, devotion, prickliness -- drives pewfuls of Irish Americans to tell the world in moans, yelps or self-therapeutic confessions about their Catholic childhoods? Something must be in the holy water. In the old country, James Joyce led the impious way with "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." To cite just the short list, we've had Mary McCarthy's "Memories of a Catholic Girlhood," James Carroll's "An American Requiem," Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes," Mary Gordon's "Circling My Mother," Daniel Berrigan's "To Dwell in Peace," Anna Quindlen's "Thinking Out Loud" and Marilyn Sewell's bulging anthology "Resurrecting Grace: Remembering Catholic Childhoods."

Do we need one more? John Grogan thinks so. In 37 chapters, often garnished with sentences that are lyrical and observations that are wry and witty, he offers a memoir of being raised by pre-Vatican II parents who were models of what Flannery O'Connor saw as the Christ-haunted. They believed stoutly that only baptized Catholics had a chance at Heaven, with Protestants, Jews, Muslims and such ruck headed to outposts like limbo.

The Grogans' parish, near Detroit in the auto belt of southern Michigan, was Our Lady of Refuge. It was the North Star by which the family navigated through secularism's dark waters to the sacraments. At home, piety reigned. "For fun," Grogan writes, "my siblings and I would sometimes count the Virgin Marys in the house; at one point we were up to forty-two. They filled every room, and they were not alone. Commingling with them were various likenesses of Jesus, Joseph, John the Baptist, Francis of Assisi, and a wide assortment of other saints and angels. There were crucifixes everywhere you turned in our house, the anguished, dying son of God staring down at us from the cross as we ate breakfast, brushed our teeth, and watched television. There were priest-blessed candles and holy water and palm fronds. Rosaries were scattered about in ashtrays and candy bowls. It was like living in a religious supply store."

Gasping, young Grogan needed air. What unfolds is a classic narrative of someone distancing himself from hovering parents, in this case a righteous pair absolutely convinced they knew God's will for themselves, their children and those unfortunates bound for limbo. Seventeen in 1974, Grogan was breaking away. In high school, he put out an underground newspaper. He discovered girls, beer, pot and other liturgies in the Church of Youthful Searching. His sins were little more than drops of dust on angels' wings, but in college he learned how to put up a pious front to his parents, cozening them into thinking he remained the Mass-going, priest-obeying and rosary-praying Catholic that Mom and Dad raised him to be.

At 30, and a journalist who went from small-town papers in Michigan to a large Florida daily, he kept up the double life. He was living "in sin" with his girlfriend, Jenny -- a non-Catholic, wouldn't you know -- but fearing the wrath of God-fearing parents if they found out.

"Part of me struggled with wave after wave of dread," Grogan writes. "All my years of filtering the truth, of little deceits and outright lies, made it all the worse. . . . I considered myself moral, ethical, even a little boring, with nothing to be ashamed of. Yet I dreaded the news I had to break to them, and my biggest fear was that when I did, Mom and Dad would blame Jenny. 'He was such a good Catholic boy until he met . . . that woman!' " Thirty years old and still cowering before one's parents brings to mind the line of Groucho Marx's: "Are you a man or mouse? Squeak up."

Now 51, married to Jenny, raising three children and not a practicing Catholic, Grogan went from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale to writing a local column for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His book "Marley & Me" (2005), a tale about his yellow Labrador, became a bestseller.

Amid the weal and woe of this full-hearted and worthy memoir, one downer is the all-too-predictable bashing of the grammar-school nuns at Our Lady of Refuge, a crew Grogan claims "were renowned for their cruelty." Not again, okay? Haven't we had enough tales about knuckle-rapping, eraser-throwing and heartless Sisters Mary Benedict? Grogan, perhaps suffering from Post-Traumatic Nun Syndrome, can't resist flogging them still again: "Nuns and abuse just seemed to go hand in hand."

The home that Grogan refers to in his title is his father's. He made the long trip back when his father was dying in December 2004. At the funeral Mass, concelebrated by a bishop and six priests, Grogan gave the eulogy. Days before, he whispered to the semi-comatose man whose religious beliefs he had long rejected: "Dad, it has been an honor to be your son. I am so honored and so proud."

If the elder Grogan taught his son to obey the biblical commandment to honor his parents, and doubtless he did so a thousand times, the lesson appears to have been emphatically learned.

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