Writing Straight with Crooked Lines: A Memoir
Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2020
I’d like to start with something I hadn’t really realized until I sat down to write this review: Jim Forest and I have lived in the Netherlands for almost the same length of time. In the early 80’s, when I was focusing on potty training, Jim was focusing on keeping nuclear weapons out of the country where I was busy growing up. I’m grateful to him for that.
Now, the book! As with all of Jim’s books, I found the writing style engaging, even if some of the events he recounts chilled me to the bone. I knew the Vietnam War era from history books; what Jim describes is the reality of living in a country where not wanting to kill is a crime. The book succeeds, in a very matter-of-fact way, almost as if it’s in the background, to describe the atmosphere of some very tense years. Had it been described with a great deal more drama and pathos, it would not have made such an impression on me.
Starting at the beginning, his childhood as the son of communist parents, we appear to be taking the journey along with a young Jim Forest as he recounts joining and leaving the Navy, the progress in forming and running the Catholic Peace Fellowship, and his friendships with people like Dorothy Day, Thich Nhat Hanh, Phillip and Daniel Berrigan, and Thomas Merton. [Editor’s note: Mr. Forest’s book has earned the endorsement of such luminaries as Archbishop Rowan Williams and Joan Baez, who refers to him as “my brother in nonviolent arms.”] Wikipedia provides an overview of the main events of Jim’s life, so I’m not going to summarize them here. What is interesting in Jim’s narrative are the people he meets over the course of his long career in the Peace Fellowship, and the first-person account he gives of events that many even now recall during the years of the Vietnam War.
Throughout Jim’s story, we meet a number of extraordinary people who were, or have since become, quite well-known. Some are up for sainthood. And yet this book is no hagiography; all are people with all their strengths and convictions, who did wonderful work—and who sometimes were mistaken, overzealous, or just plain in the wrong. This same honesty Jim applies to his own life. The heights are real heights, and there is no glossing over the lows. At times, as you read, you might be tempted to roll your eyes and/or facepalm.
All these real people, writer included, do what they feel they must in a quite extraordinary time. Both war and activism run the risk of being glorified. Jim doesn’t glorify activism; he shows quite clearly that there is a price to pay for standing up and taking action against injustice, both in scrutiny and judgment by the government, as well as in one’s personal life. There are great and memorable events described in this book, for sure…but at the same time, it also breathes an air of activism as a life of not giving up on trying to change what is wrong—even, or maybe especially, if it takes years and the work might at times appear mundane. and though the seeds are sown the harvest is still a long way off. If you are looking for saints breezing bravely through life like invincible superheroes setting everything to rights overnight, you’ve picked up the wrong book.
We see these people through Jim’s eyes at the same time we see him through his own eyes, describing the events of his life soberly and without boasting. What speaks most strongly in this book is a lifelong desire to learn, from people and events now well-known and famous, to the smallest things in nature. Although he spent many years surrounded by those he considers great teachers—or perhaps because he is surrounded by them—Jim never seems to consider himself one of them.
I’d be curious to see what would happen if someone wrote a biography of Jim Forest. He has more to teach than he lets on.
Writing Straight with Crooked Lines: A Memoir can be purchased from the publisher or from Amazon.
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Monica Spoor is an Orthodox Christian and the author of Spirituality on the Spectrum: Having Autism in the Orthodox Church. She holds a Bachelor’s of Theology from the Evangelische Theologische Hogeschool in Ede. She also volunteers with special needs children, does translations, and serves as secretary of the regional advisory board for the department of welfare. She has written previously for Orthodoxy in Dialogue, blogs at Dark Side Monologues, and tweets @MonicaSpoor. She resides in Veenendaal, the Netherlands.