Into the Abyss and Back

Held in the Light: Norman Morrison’s Sacrifice for Peace and His Family’s Journey of Healing
By Anne Morrison Welsh, with Joyce Hollyday. Orbis Books, 2008. 177 pages. $20/hardcover.

Up from Chester: Hiroshima, Haverford and Beyond
By Allan Brick. Xlibris, 2009. 206 pages. $19.99/softcover.

The Plain Language of Love and Loss: A Quaker Memoir
By Beth Taylor. University of Missouri Press, 2009. 150 pages. $19.95/softcover.

These three pieces of autobiographical writing all center upon a fateful moment in the authors’ lives—suicides that took place in November 1965. Two of the authors write about the same person’s death; the third addresses a suicide that may have been indirectly related to the first.

That fall, the Vietnam War was escalating and causing many Quakers great concern. In late October, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, a popular progressive newsletter, had carried a particularly graphic account of the brutal destruction of Duc Co, a Vietnamese village. Norman Morrison, executive secretary of Stony Run Meeting in Baltimore, was anguished by the account; on November 2, he immolated himself in front of the Pentagon.

This astounding act became a sensational story for the media. But in the long run, Morrison’s sacrifice had no discernible impact on the U.S. war effort. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, whose office window looked out on the immolation site, wrote in his 1995 memoir In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam that he was affected deeply but reacted "by bottling up my emotions," not by changing course.

In contrast, Morrison’s death evoked an overwhelming response in Vietnam. Expatriate Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh had explained, in mid-1965, that "To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance." The Vietnamese also knew that unlike monks who had set themselves on fire in their own country, Mo Ri Xon (as his name was rendered in their language) was a husband and father of three young children. They saw his sacrifice as clear evidence that there were people in the United States who opposed the war and cared deeply for them.

Norman had taken his youngest child, one-year-old Emily, with him to the Pentagon, where she was found unharmed at his feet. North Vietnamese revolutionary poet laureate To Huu addressed the symbolism of this act in a poem, "Emily, My Child," expressing what he imagined Norman would say to his infant daughter to explain his sacrifice. A whole generation of Vietnamese children learned this poem by heart.

Anne Morrison Welsh, Norman’s widow, shared his deep concerns about the war—but, as she relates in Held in the Light, she didn’t learn what he was up to until a phone call came from a reporter late that afternoon while she was preparing supper. She writes, "If Norman had told me what he was planning, I would have done anything to stop him. I would have blocked the door, or called the police, or something—anything. I don’t know how, but I would have stopped him."

Understandably, the family’s road through grieving and healing was a bumpy one. Comforting her children the next day, she writes, "I held them close, telling them that their Daddy would want them to be brave—a declaration I now regret. My words were a noble effort, but they did not address my children’s shocked and broken hearts, or mine."

The night of Norman’s death, a few trusted friends from Stony Run Meeting gathered at the Morrison house. One of them was Allan Brick, an English professor at Goucher College, whose wide-ranging autobiography Up from Chester has a central chapter on Norman Morrison.

Both Brick and Welsh describe the pressures the group was under that evening—reporters were swarming around. As they tried to cope with their grief, they also realized that what they said publicly would be very important. Brick chaired a press conference the next day at Stony Run Meetinghouse. He writes: "Norman’s act was a sacrifice and a testimony and I had to do everything I could to cast it in that light. But at the same time I was deeply divided about this act in which he may have initially intended to sacrifice his one-year-old child along with himself."

In his book, Brick remembers Norman as "a handsome, idealistic, theologically trained Presbyterian"…"a Bible-quoting Christian Protestant enamored of Quakerism" as well as a convinced Friend. "I first experienced him as very forthright in his social action expressions, …but he was often confused in his oral communication…My heart went out to him." But Brick also judged Norman to be "a disturbed person" who "carried a heavy freight of messianism."

According to Brick, Norman’s suicide threatened antiwar activists with despair—it "sharpened our own sense of being ineffective." He resigned his college position, first to become regional peace secretary for American Friends Service Committee’s Baltimore office, and then to work as national program secretary for Fellowship of Reconciliation in Nyack, N.Y. Eventually, feeling powerless in these positions and sensing that the antiwar movement "was a mess," Allan went back to teaching English in the 1970s, at Hunter College in New York City.

Meanwhile, Anne Morrison carried on with her responsibilities as mother to a family devastated by loss (especially the older two children, Ben and Tina, who were six and five years old when Norman died); still, she continued to work against the war, often closely with AFSC. The family’s plight was further compounded by Ben’s struggle with osteogenic sarcoma and death at age 16. (Whenever the family traveled to Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital in New York for treatment, they stayed with the Bricks, who lived in northern New Jersey.)

After Norman’s death, Anne had received messages of condolence from North Vietnam, including a personal invitation to visit from Ho Chi Minh, which she declined. It wasn’t until 34 years later, in 1999, when a similar invitation came—this time with encouragement from the U.S. embassy in Hanoi—that she finally felt ready to accept.

Anne traveled with her two daughters and their partners, and the warmth of their reception amazed her. She listened as people earnestly recounted exactly where they were and what they were doing at the moment they heard of Norman’s sacrifice. "Maybe," she says, "I was finally, truly understanding how deeply and uniquely Norman’s act affected the hearts and minds of the people of Vietnam."

Enthusiasm was even greater as people greeted Emily, the subject of the well-known poem; the family was unprepared for the level of attention paid to her. Emily, who had cried the first time she read "Emily, My Child," found a special way to thank To Huu when they met—reciting a poem she had written for him.

Anne gives space in her book to her daughters to tell their own stories. Christina writes tersely that, in grieving for her father and healing from the loss, "a farewell note would have helped." In Vietnam, she says, "The people we met treated us like family and poured love and gratitude all over us….I felt deeply honored and appreciated for our family’s sacrifice in a way that I never had been by our own culture." Hearing from people "who cried as they told us how much my father’s sacrifice meant to them…was indescribably healing for me." She adds poignantly, "The farewell note I didn’t receive from [my father] is mine to write."

Emily addresses the mixed feelings many had about her father taking her with him to the Pentagon: "By involving me the way he did, I feel Norman was intrinsically asking the question, How would you feel if this child were burned too?… I believe I was there with Norman ultimately to be a symbol of truth and hope, treasure and horror all together. And I am fine with my role in it."

On the return trip from Vietnam, Anne found herself writing in her journal: "Whatever else, I believe he was trying to his utmost to be loyal to his Christ on the cross." As she later looked at her words, it occurred to her that this, finally, was her eulogy for him.

Anne is sometimes asked if she believes the taking of one’s life can ever be justified. "When I consider the suffering my family has endured,…I would have to answer no." she says. "But in the larger scheme of things, I cannot say no. After looking into the eyes of the Vietnamese people, hearing their stories, and learning about the message of universal love that Norman’s action conveyed to their hearts, I realize that out of the ashes of agony and loss rose something profound. Because Norman’s death, terrible as it was, was an act of love and courage, it conveyed unspeakable beauty and truth."

I insert a personal note here. Back in November 1965, I was a graduate student at University of Wisconsin, preparing intensely for my November 22 preliminary exams; I don’t recall hearing of Norman Morrison’s self-immolation. But two weeks after his death, a second event drew my attention to it. In Bryn Gweled Homesteads, the Quaker-inspired cooperative community in Bucks County, Pa., where I grew up, a 14-year-old neighbor whom I had babysat hung himself.

Geoffrey Taylor did not leave a note; his motivations are far less certain than Norman’s were. But a factor seems to be that he had been harangued at a Boy Scout meeting about his pacifism the night he took his life.

When I returned home for the holidays, I found a community in deep sorrow. And that’s when I remember learning about Norman Morrison. There was talk that Geoff could have been influenced by Norman’s example; not surprisingly, my thoughts about Norman were not charitable. I remember saying to others that one should never praise an act of suicide lest someone emulate it.

Geoff’s sister, Beth Taylor, who was 12 at the time of his death, begins The Plain Language of Love and Loss by describing a happy childhood in a basically healthy family. She admired and got along well with her brother, who was regarded a leader among his peers and was even a class president. But in the fall of 1965, tension crept into Geoff’s life when he changed schools, leaving behind his usual circle of friends, and came into conflict with the community surrounding Bryn Gweled over his opposition to the Vietnam war. Atypically, on the day he died he and Beth had had a nasty fight. Then, over supper, there was tension between Geoff and his father about a presentation Geoff planned for the Boy Scout meeting.

Beth probed and interviewed people as she tried to pinpoint what was going through her brother’s mind that evening. It proved very difficult to uncover exactly what had happened at the meeting. She concludes: "Somehow these tensions—conflicting messages about what did it mean to be human and a good Quaker, a pacifist, a man—all seemed to collide in Geoff in November 1965, scorching his soul until he erupted in a spectacular, volcanic meltdown."

The central theme of Beth’s book is not Geoff’s suicide, but her own story of devastation, recovery, and healing. In this regard, her approach is like Anne Welsh’s. Beth draws tender pictures of her parents, devastated by their loss; of her community; of the growing, warm relationship with her sister, Daphne; and of her marriage and her role as the mother of three boys.

Beth, a senior lecturer in Brown University’s Nonfiction Writing Program, calls her book "a Quaker memoir." But somewhere in the middle of her adult life, she "began to understand that…I was never going to live in the homemade, Quaker meeting, kind and gentle, lefty liberal life I had been raised in. I had loved it, but it had blown up the night Geoff died."

In their childhood religious education, Daphne recalled, "we didn’t grow up learning the Bible. We grew up learning pacifism and the Vietnam War." Beth had had occasional mystical glimpses in Quaker meeting, but now she had a powerful experience of the presence of Christ, and she found her-self in a new spiritual place. "I longed for the camaraderie of Quaker meeting, the comfort of shared spiritual searching. But I also wanted intelligent appreciation of the oldest story ever told—the story I had come to see writers were always rewriting in their own terms and eras: of how we crucify the messenger, or those we love, and how we never learn from it, and how all we can do is ask forgiveness, again and again and again." She joined a Congregational church.

Meanwhile, Beth found her brother’s memory "lurking like an unsettled ghost, unresolved in his sadness, and penetrating my ostensibly successful adult life with undying pleas for attention." His ghost would also return when she worried about suicidal thoughts in her own sons. She articulated her thoughts about Geoff to one of them: "I loved him, and I wish from the bottom of my heart that some misguided grownups and kids weren’t so hard on him. But I’m mostly angry at him because he never realized how what he did would hurt so many of us for so very long."

About Morrison, she says, his self-immolation "was the antithesis of my understanding of God’s way, of Christ’s teachings, of Quaker faith. He was ‘mad’ in my mind—not courageous—and he may have been partially responsible for my brother’s lapse in sanity."

Norman Morrison and Geoffrey Taylor were very different people, but the hurt felt after their suicides was comparably severe. In the end, maybe understanding these acts is less central for us than learning how it is possible to heal such painful and lasting wounds. Anne Welsh and Beth Taylor have both poured their hearts out in their books, which I see as powerful accomplishments. Allan Brick adds valuable perspective on Norman’s personality, and in the rest of his book—in addition to providing a very thoughtful chronicle of the various chapters of his life—he does an important service by opening a window onto the despair and chaos in the peace movement throughout the fateful years of the Vietnam War, and beyond. Probing and cleansing these deep wounds is part of a healing process for us all.

Robert Dockhorn

Robert Dockhorn, senior editor of Friends Journal, is a member of Green Street Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa.