I was 11 years old when Norman Morrison set himself afire in front of the Pentagon to protest the napalmed slaughter of civilians in Vietnam. But I remember the 1965 event as if it happened yesterday. The high drama of a man killing himself by fire seared itself into my young mind.
In the years since, I've thought about Morrison's self-immolation many times. Was it a genuine peace witness, or the over-the-top act of a disturbed man? Even by Christian standards, which put a high premium on sacrifice, is this kind of sacrifice appropriate? And on a less abstract level, was Morrison right to leave behind a widow and three young children? Was there a moral difference in kind and not just degree between his sacrifice and that of a familyless Buddhist monk or nun? Was Morrison's act more selfish than selfless?
Anne Morrison Welsh, Morrison's widow, has been haunted by these sorts of questions too, and her memoir Held in the Light is a sensitive, touching, and honest attempt to chronicle her search for answers. The book begins with a phone call on a November afternoon in 1965 that alerted her to the fact that something awful had happened to her husband, and ends with long passages in which two of Morrison's children, Emily and Christina, reflect on their own efforts to come to terms with what their father did.
One of the most thought-provoking aspects of Held in the Light is that it clearly underscores the irreducible complexity of human motivations. Norman Morrison was a young man who clearly agonized over the suffering of the Vietnamese people, and wanted to do something to end their ordeal. But he was also a loner and a man of paradoxes who seems to have had trouble at times making connections with people who were up close and personal (as opposed to anonymous people on the other side of the world). He was an impulsive man who believed in divine inspiration--"guided drift," as he and Morrison Welsh jokingly called it--and apparently received the "inspiration" to self-immolate only hours before actually striking the match. Although Emily and Morrison Welsh resist the possibility, it seems apparent from Morrison's final letter to them (quoted on p. 36) that he intended to offer up himself and Emily in a fiery, Abraham/Isaac-inspired sacrifice. God only knows why he changed his mind, at the very last moment throwing Emily safely to one side.
Morrison's death left his family emotionally frozen, and their recovery took years. (Son Ben died while in his teens, leaving Morrison Welsh and the two girls. Morrison Welsh's description of Ben's last illness and death in Chapter 4 is heartbreaking, leaving the reader bewildered and angry: how much must this family endure?) A journey to Vietnam, a visit to My Lei, and the realization of how grateful the Vietnamese people were for Morrison's act (Chapters 6-8) helped the healing process, as has time.
Has Held in the Light answered my questions about the propriety of Morrison's act? Not really. The book's third chapter is where Morrison Welsh asks the same hard questions, and some of the responses she heard from others and cites there are insightful. One of the most revealing is from Marian Manly (p. 46), who wrote "It is easy to dismiss Norman Morrison's dreadful act as the meaningless self-destruction of a deranged fanatic. It was desperate; it was futile; but it was not meaningless. What he was tryiing to say was: 'See what it is like for a man to die by fire. See it for yourselves. You, who make impersonal war, devising strategies and tactics in your air-conditioned offices, look and see!'"
I get what Manly is saying. But in reading about the horrific suffering Morrison's action imposed on his widow and three children, I found myself growing angrier at him with every page I turned. And yet Morrison Welsh's book forces me to ask myself why, and in doing so to think long and hard about just what it means to be a witness for peace. And that kind of reader-unsettling is one of the best things a book can do.
* From T.S. Eliot's "Murder in the Cathedral," quoted by Morrison Welsh (p. 53) in her effort to plumb the significance of Norman Morrison's act.