On February 23, 2013, the day Dad died, I sent a letter to an author I know slightly, telling him that he’d given me the strength and impetus to forgive my father and let go of the anger I’d felt toward him my entire life. I described Dad’s death and the role I played in his Last Rites. I sent the author a painting I did of my father and a signed copy of Ghosts and Ballyhoo. I also told this man that I’d always thought of him as Saint Michael the Archangel, one of my heroes.
Here’s the author’s e-mail reply, edited slightly to conceal his identity.
Your choice is just that: your choice. It would not be mine. To me, the very last piece of the jigsaw … and the very last task … is renunciation of the Holy Mantra, that pernicious cliché which commands: “If you ever hope to truly heal, first you must forgive!” That living lie has derailed more victims from the path to salvation than all the lies of their tortured childhood combined.
Forgiveness is a choice, not an obligation. If *you* are at peace, that’s enough for me. The other human referred to in your letter required all kinds of religious trappings to accept that his death was made peaceful by “forgiveness.” I don’t share those religious views — or *any* religious views — and whatever decision you made that put *you* at peace is the only reality any of us can know.
I can’t even begin to describe what I felt reading that. The main emotion was absolute foolishness. I was the biggest jackass that ever lived, a perfect clown. He used no salutation, he didn’t acknowledge receipt of the painting or the book, and he had no reaction to my statement that his work had helped me cope with so many setbacks over the past twenty years. Sending him my letter, painting, and book was a huge lapse in judgment on my part. I was caught up in the moment.
The author’s response put a poisonous cloud over my forgiveness of Dad. It shook my conviction that I’d done the right thing, since this man writes exclusively about people who triumph over adversity. He seemed to think that my letting go of anger was fatuous and illegitimate. What ate at me is that I don’t believe in automatic forgiveness or that forgiveness is an obligation. In my letter I’d stressed that I’m not religious and that forgiving Dad was the hardest thing I ever did in my life. I didn’t forgive him for my sake but for his. Clearly this was what made the author hold me in contempt.
I’ve been asked why I needed the author’s validation. My answer is that I didn’t need his validation; I just wanted connection. He writes about what I lived. I had the urge to let him know that his ideas had touched me. Here, on this little rock, to which we cling as we hurtle through the darkness and silence of space, I thought I’d found a kindred spirit. All of us who want connection are looking for validation of a sort, since we don’t seek out those we know will disapprove of us or think we’re silly and disposable.
Though I regretted contacting the author, I didn’t regret forgiving my father, because it was instrumental in allowing Dad to face his greatest fear. I’d told the author that I also did it to end the ugliness. My forgiveness had indeed ended the ugliness for a few days, but now it was back, in all its original rotten, stinking splendor. I took part in Dad’s Last Rites in order to help him redeem himself, if only fractionally. It seemed the humane thing to do. I never expected that someone whose work I revered would deride me for it.
“Fuck him,” Tim said. “His e-mail shows that he’s a fraud. He’s been swallowed up by the entertainment machine. I know you really respected him, but either he’s changed, or he was never the person you thought he was. Put everything he said out of your mind.”
A quick detour that you won’t understand. Please bear with me. I used to be obsessed with the commander of the German flamethrower regiment in World War I, Major Bernhard Reddemann.
The creator of modern special forces tactics, he’s been forgotten by history. He’s such a mystery that nobody even knows where he’s buried. A brilliant soldier, he was deeply flawed on a personal level, given to insecurity, exaggeration, outright dishonesty, bigotry, envy, bitterness, impatience, impotent fury, and remoteness. Before 1914 he was Europe’s most respected firefighter. Since he co-invented the flamethrower—a move seen as a betrayal of his duty to save lives—he became a pariah and chronic failure after the war. His widow never mentioned him during the thirty years she outlived him.
In 2006, while doing research for my book on German flamethrowers, I discovered that the wooden memorial built to hold the regimental death book had disappeared in 1983. Though I traced it to the Pioneer School in Ingolstadt, the staff told me that it was no longer there. I launched a two-year quest to find it, even hiring a German genealogical researcher who went to the school in person, but she had no luck. It really upset me because I was sure that if I found the memorial, I would attain… something. As much as it pained me to do so, I gave up looking for it in 2008.
Back to the present.
Writing Ghosts and Ballyhoo allowed me to banish the hatred I felt toward military historians who rejected or ignored my work. It had infuriated me that they refused to acknowledge Bernhard Reddemann as a giant in the field of military science. But by 2012 I was at peace with what happened to my books, and I no longer reached out to historians to try and give them new information. I’d finally seen how much I identified with Reddemann, the main reason I wrote about him. Once I understood my motivations, I made the changes necessary to ensure that I didn’t share his fate.
After Dad died I realized something else that now seems so obvious: My need to convince people of Bernhard Reddemann’s importance was an attempt to connect with and save my father. It wasn’t possible to connect with or save Dad, any more than it was possible to convince military historians that Bernhard Reddemann is far more consequential than they know. I accept both outcomes without anger.
On March 13, 2013, my friend Rolf Schamberger, Director of the German Firefighter Museum in Fulda, sent me an e-mail titled “We have found it!” He’d located the memorial and death book of the German flamethrower regiment of World War I. It was at the Pioneer School in Ingolstadt all along. Rolf said he wanted to let me know immediately; the e-mail included several photos of the memorial and the death book.
Isn’t it strange that after I gave up my crusade to rehabilitate Bernhard Reddemann, let go of my rage at the world, stopped hating military historians, and forgave my father, Rolf found the lost memorial? Coincidence or not, it’s art. And Rolf’s discovery has obliterated the ugliness planted in my mind by the author I once thought of as Saint Michael the Archangel.
I did the right thing.