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Forrest Church And The 'Valley Of The Shadow'

Unitarian minister Forrest Church believed that the knowledge that we must die makes us question what life means. Church, who died Sept. 24, 2009 after a long battle with cancer of the esophagus, was the author of Love and Death: My Journey through the Valley of the Shadow.

13:05

Other segments from the episode on September 29, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 29, 2009: Interview with Dan Fante; Obituary for Forrest Church.

Transcript

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Dan Fante, Confronting His Demons On The Page

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Door-to-door salesman, taxi driver,
telemarketer, private eye, hotel night manager, chauffeur, those are just some
of the jobs my guest, Dan Fante, held before becoming a writer. But probably
the more germane fact is that he didn’t think of himself as a writer until
after spending many years as a drunk, years he describes as train wrecks with
off-the-wall, winner-take-all relationships.

Fante is the son of writer John Fante, who’s best known for his 1939 novel,
“Ask the Dust,” a novel set in L.A. during the Depression. The book was rescued
from obscurity when the writer Charles Bukowski discovered it, helped get it
republished in 1980 and wrote the introduction, in which he described John
Fante as his God. John died in 1983. Now, Dan Fante is in his 60’s, sober, with
several novels of his own revolving around his alter-ego, Bruno Dante, a
character who has held many of the jobs his creator Dan Fante has but has not
yet achieved sobriety.

In Fante’s new novel, “86’d,” Bruno has left his telemarketing job to work for
a limo service while trying to deal with his demons. Dan Fante, welcome to
FRESH AIR. I’d like to start with a short reading from the second chapter of
your novel, “86’d.”

Mr. DAN FANTE (Author, “86’d”): I have no idea why I am crazy and angry and
edged out most of the time, and why alcohol and painkiller pills and Xanax-type
stuff are the only things that help to keep me remotely calm. I have no idea
why I experience my life as pointless and screwed up. And I know that most
people don’t pour a cup of bourbon into their milk and oatmeal in the morning.
That’s just how it is.

GROSS: Well, thank you for reading that. You know, I’ve thinking, you’ve been
sober for years now, right?

Mr. FANTE: I’ve been sober – I’ll be sober 23 years in December.

GROSS: Congratulations.

Mr. FANTE: Thanks.

GROSS: So it must be pretty weird to be sober after a long time and then
immerse yourself in writing about somebody who’s not…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …to always be going back to that place.

Mr. FANTE: It’s an interesting question, yeah.

GROSS: How does it feel to always go back to the place of needing alcohol and
needing pills and taking too much of both and getting really sick and getting
into constant trouble?

Mr. FANTE: Well, Kafka said a good novel should be like a blow to the head. And
that’s – you know, there’s something I’m trying to say. There’s something I’m
trying to say about the humanity of this character, and it’s not yet been
exhausted. So I go there, and I can feel him because that’s who I used to be.

GROSS: If you think of alcohol and pills as self-medication, what conditions
were you medicating for before you got sober?

Mr. FANTE: Oh, my mind. I had – and I’m not sure why. I had the mental part of
alcoholism as well as the physical addiction. And the mental part is this kind
of obsessive, ruminative mind that just – I even named it. I named the voice in
my head. I called him Jimmy(ph), and he would just judge, judge everything I
did and judge your driving and what you were wearing and the brand of
cigarettes you smoked. It was always, there was always this voice in my head.

GROSS: Your character has that voice, too, your character in your novel.

Mr. FANTE: Yeah.

GROSS: So did drugs and alcohol silence the voice, or…?

Mr. FANTE: Oh sure. They silence it while you’re doing the drugs and the
alcohol, and then there’s the Mr. Hyde part of that character that’s released
in action. You don’t hear the voice anymore, but you become the character.

So you know, jail and, you know, fights and car wrecks and all this stuff that
people like me go through when they have a, you know, a jones for alcohol and
cocaine or whatever they’re using, is when I’m - that stuff is inhabiting me,
I’m not the same guy. I’m – you know, without that stuff, I’m not violent, and
I’m not angry, at least not now. In those days, when I was sober, then the
voice would really scream. The voice is the worst after a night of drinking.

GROSS: Have you ever been to, like, a psychiatrist or psychologist about that,
like seriously?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FANTE: Well, let me say it to you this way, Terry. I’ve been – I did 14
years of therapy. I was rolfed, rebirthed and did Reichian therapy, and that’s
just the R’s.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So what helped…?

Mr. FANTE: I did a lot of self-help because I thought self-help would fix it.
Self-help don’t do it, you know.

GROSS: What helped?

Mr. FANTE: There’s a spiritual program in the 12 steps of recovery that saved
my butt, you know. I just, I had to give up, you know. Sober, I got beat down
enough that my – I had to just surrender, just keep giving up the thoughts and
keep asking for help. And you do that long enough, you know, you do that for
five or 10 years, and your life begins to change, and that’s - for some people,
it doesn’t take five or 10 years.

I had what I call a vital spiritual experience when I was about – after a
suicide attempt when I was about four-and-a-half-years sober, I was in a
monastery with some guys on a 12-step retreat, and I started weeping, and I’m
not a weeper. And I cried and had snot running down my face for about two
hours, and I didn’t know what was wrong with me. And when I got up, everything
was different. The colors were different, everything was different. And I felt
this amazing sense of love, just profound sense of well-being, and that’s never
left me. That was 18 years ago.

GROSS: You have a poem that relates to this spiritual feeling that you’re
discussing. It’s called “Asking.” And at the back of your novel, “86’d,”
there’s the equivalent of bonus tracks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FANTE: That’s right.

GROSS: There’s, you know, various short pieces that you’ve written, and a few
poems, and I’m going to ask you to read “Asking.”

Mr. FANTE: “Asking.” For years, I thought that talking to the gods was an
exercise done privately, under unforgiving, distant stars, ridiculous
unrequited prayer evoked by staring at old, cold books with mean, small print.
Then I discovered that just ain’t it at all. God can be found in the thank-you
voice of a guy at the counter in the supermarket or the quietness of a
stranger’s parking-lot smile or the rattle of weeds across a dry, summer Mohave
or watching my unfettered fingers jump, jump, jumping across the computer keys,
deep in the middle of typing three hours worth of unscrubbed truth. God for me
turned out to be a conscious choice, a self-evoked experience, just like love.

GROSS: I really like that idea at the end, of God for you being a conscious
choice and that love for you being a conscious choice. That sounds like you had
neither God nor love in your life for a long time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FANTE: Well, I had a lot of sex.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FANTE: With all kinds of – I probably had sex with everything except a 1987
Ford pickup, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FANTE: But no, it’s a choice, and it comes by consciously going there, by
consciously asking and seeking that experience, and it begins to happen, you
know?

GROSS: In your novel, the character starts writing as a result of rehab. In
rehab, he has to fill out a questionnaire, and the questionnaire has questions
like: When you look back on your life, what memories are still uncomfortable
and painful? What incidents make you feel dirty? And what about yourself do you
experience as inadequate?

Did you have to answer questions like that in rehab, and did that inspire you
to sit down and start writing, yeah?

Mr. FANTE: No, it inspired me to hate 12-step programs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FANTE: No, the – I stumbled on a guy who had many years of sobriety and
recovery, and he gave me this format of writing what’s called an inventory in
the 12 steps, the fourth step. And his form of inventory was to write the story
of my life an hour a day for 12 consecutive days at exactly the same time every
morning and not to look back, and when I was done to call him and read it to
him. And so I called him, and I said Ken(ph), I want to read this fourth step
to you. And he said: Well, how long are you sober, kid? And I said well, I’m
sober, you know, a year this time, but I’ve been sober three out of the five
years, you know. And he said – long pause on the other end of the phone. He
said, you know, that’s good in baseball. Call somebody else. And then he hung
up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FANTE: But what had happened to me, Terry, from that, and I didn’t know it
– I’m working on a memoir now about myself and my father and I’m just at this
part of the memoir. What happened from that, I had 31 typed-written pages,
single-spaced. And it occurred to me a couple of years later that I couldn’t
write a novel, but I might be able to write a page a day from that exercise.
And you know, I’m working on my 10th book right now. So I don’t write books. I
write pages.

GROSS: My guest is Dan Fante. His new novel is called “86’d.” We’ll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re joining us, my guest is Dan Fante, and his new novel is called
“86’d.” How would you describe your father’s writing and the impact, if any, it
had on you as a writer in terms of, like, the themes that he would write about,
the stories that he would write about?

Mr. FANTE: Well, it had an enormous impact stylistically, but my father was a
victim of the, quote, “modern,” unquote, literary canon. So I’m a postmodern
writer. My father could not say the things that I say. And toward the end of
his life when he could, in the late ‘70s, when he was dictating his last book
to my mother – he was blind – he could’ve been more graphic, and he wasn’t.

So he wrote primarily about his family and about his own experience with his
family and about his dog, but – so our themes are different, I think, except
for “Ask the Dust.” I mean, there’s a similarity in “Ask the Dust” to my work,
but I think he was trapped in a literary canon of 1931, you know?

GROSS: Whereas you’re writing very graphically about drugs and sex and not so –
I mean, I don’t want to give the wrong idea. It’s not pornographic or anything.
But…

Mr. FANTE: No, it’s true.

GROSS: Okay. Right, but I mean, you’re writing very much from someone who’s
really made a mess of his life.

Mr. FANTE: Oh yeah, oh yeah. I don’t think – you know, my dad became a
successful Hollywood writer when he was quite young - 22, 23 - and for the rest
of his life was seduced back into screenwriting rather than do what he was -
what his sensibility – he was born to be a novelist. He was born to be a
storyteller, but you know, he just couldn’t refuse half-a-million bucks a year,
you know, or the equivalent of that, you know.

GROSS: That’s what he was getting for being a script doctor?

Mr. FANTE: Oh God, he – his first paycheck, the guy walked in - now we’re
talking 1932 or ’33 - and the man walked in and handed him a check for $250,
which was the equivalent of maybe $3,000 or $4,000 for a week’s work today. And
he got up and went back, he opened his pay envelope and walked back to the guy
and said you made a mistake. You put a zero on the end of the 25.

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. FANTE: So, he couldn’t believe – so in 1932, if you made $250 for a short
story, and you did it every six months, you could live on that. My father was
making that every week in the movie business.

GROSS: So you went from a pretty prosperous home to basically living in the
gutter for a while.

Mr. FANTE: Well, although – yes, I mean, I grew up in Malibu, but Malibu wasn’t
Malibu when I grew up there. It was, you know, a beach town. Now it’s got the,
you know, $70,000-a-month recovery resorts and palazzos overlooking the Pacific
Ocean. It was just a big, windswept plateau when I lived there. But to call us
prosperous, we were prosperous when he was working, you know, I guess.

GROSS: Now, you held many jobs during the period when you were drunk and using
pills and other drugs, and one of those jobs was chauffeur.

Mr. FANTE: Yes.

GROSS: And the character in your new novel, “86’d,” is a chauffeur in L.A., and
I’d like you to read a paragraph in which your character describes what that’s
like.

Mr. FANTE: Okay. Working in the limo business in L.A. is a bizarre way to make
a buck, like licking up dog poop for God. The clientele for DaveCo(ph) in Los
Angeles was mostly made up of night freaks and zombies: rich, cranked-out movie
producers, spoiled, rock-star punks, gangster rappers with their black Glocks
tucked into the belts of their pants, alky ex-actors with too many DUIs and a
gazillion wannabe high-rollers, human beings who exhibit the most unpleasant
personality characteristics common to L.A., too much ego and way too much
money.

GROSS: So is that your experience of what it was like to be a limo driver?

Mr. FANTE: Oh yeah, yeah. No, I drove when I was – I drove Rod Stewart and Mick
Jagger and Ringo Starr. I drove Elton John. I drove John Lennon when he was
alive.

GROSS: Gee.

Mr. FANTE: I – you know, we had, you know, it was - we had quite a clientele in
those days.

GROSS: So when you were driving for all these rock stars, were you sober then?
Not that they were necessarily sober, but they’d probably want their driver to
be sober.

Mr. FANTE: Yeah, it – I had a – I knew early on, when I was driving a cab in
the ‘60s, early ‘70s, that I couldn’t drink and drive. I knew it because I just
– because my inclination is once I take a drink, I don’t stop. I have to keep
going. So I just wouldn’t do it while I worked. Now, that held true until I got
to California years later and owned the joint with a partner, and then all bets
were off. Then I started having, you know, I started getting arrested more and

had some problems.

GROSS: Now, you’ve written about all the odd jobs that you’ve had over the
years before you became a professional writer: Most of my adult life had been
spent being one kind of pitch man or another. I’ve always found myself

gravitating toward the jive and shuck - selling. This is strange to say
because, by nature, I don’t like people, and I’m a loner. So what kinds of
things did you sell over the years?

Mr. FANTE: Oh God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FANTE: Well, I mean, my best gig was I was a telemarketer. I sold – you
know, when I lost the limo business and hit bottom and was homeless there for a
while, I bumped into a guy who was a recovering heroin addict. And he had a
phone room - and this was in the early ‘80s - and I began to sell computer
supplies at the beginning of the blossoming of the computer-supply industry.
And I made – oh jeez, I made, I don’t know. I think my best month, I was
averaging about $25,000 a month.

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. FANTE: And that was in the, you know, the middle ‘80s. And then I just, you
know, I had a house at the beach and a sports car and an aerobics-teacher
girlfriend. They all got relocated, Terry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What do you mean?

Mr. FANTE: When I took that first drink, things changed.

GROSS: Oh, I got it, I got it.

Mr. FANTE: And that was the end of my career in the – but I had about a three-,
four-year run in that industry where I did very well, and then - but that
bottoming out - what happened was – it’s very interesting – I couldn’t lie to
people anymore. I got sober after, and I just couldn’t lie to people anymore on
the phone, just couldn’t do it. So, you know, I wound up homeless again, living
in the back bedroom of my mother’s house with her giving me $50 a week for gas
for her seven-cylinder Chrysler New Yorker that was 10 years old. And I just
started walking to meetings, and I didn’t know what to do. So I started to
write. That’s when I started to write.

GROSS: Dan Fante will be back in the second half of the show. His new novel is
called “86’d.” I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with Dan Fante who's written a
series of novels about his alter ego, Bruno Dante, who lives the life Dan Fante
once lived - drunk and holding down jobs that used his skill as a pitchman,
like telemarketing and carnival barker.

In the new novel "86'd" Bruno has another job that Dan Fante used to have,
driving a limo. Dan Fante is now writing a memoir about his late father, John
Fante, who was a screenwriter and novelist, best known for his 1939 book "Ask
the Dust" set in LA during the Depression. It was republished in 1980 at the
urging of writer Charles Bukowski, who described John Fante as, my god.

I'm wondering if you have any passages from your father's work that you could
quote for us that stand out in your mind and would give our listeners a sense
of his writing.

Mr. FANTE: Yeah, there's two. The first one that I brought with me because it -
people often ask...

GROSS: Oh, I'm glad you did that. Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FANTE: Yeah. People often ask me why I write and so I have this quote from
Kerouac - Jack Kerouac on my wall and I’ll read it now.

"I want to work in revelations, not just spin silly tales for money. I want to
fish as deep down as possible into my own subconscious in the belief that once
that far down, everyone will understand, because they are the same as me that
far down."

GROSS: Yeah, that's great.

Mr. FANTE: Yeah. That's why I write.

GROSS: And do you any passages from your father's book that stand out in your
mind?

Mr. FANTE: I have, you know, I have something - I brought "Ask the Dust" with
me and this is this wonderful quote from the first two or three pages of John
Fante's "Ask the Dust."

"Los Angeles"...

(Soundbite of crying)

Mr. FANTE: Sorry - makes me cry.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. FANTE: "Los Angeles, give me some of you. Los Angeles, come to me the way I
come to you, my feet over you streets. You pretty town, I loved you so much.
You sad flower in the sand, you pretty town."

GROSS: Obviously, it's very emotional for you to read that. From reading your
own writing, the sense I get is that you and your father were pretty alienated
from each other when you were young and it was only later in life that you
really got to...

Mr. FANTE: That's true. Yeah.

GROSS: ...got to know each other well?

Mr. FANTE: No. I think got to accept one another probably.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. FANTE: So it was - we started out disliking each other and tolerating each
other. And then toward the end of his life, when I started to write, I once
wrote a poem for a guy in upstate New York and - to dedicate his home. This guy
was a very wealthy - I was a limo driver at the time in New York City - and
very wealthy designer. And he took this 200-year-old farmhouse and completely
redid it - gutted it and completely redid it.

And, so I wrote a poem to dedicate the house. And the guy went to the
Metropolitan Museum of Art and he had a calligrapher inscribe it on parchment
and then he had it pressed between two pieces of glass to last 500 years. And I
went back to California and read the poem to my father and he paid me - I was
probably 38 years old - he paid me the first compliment he'd ever paid me in
writing. He looked at me after he read it and he said, I couldn't have written
that. So we went up from there.

GROSS: Wow, first compliment at age 38?

Mr. FANTE: Yeah, I guess. He was not a - you know, my father was a very
patriarchal - from an Italian-American background. He's a tough guy, you know,
and he had to, you know, his father was an abusive drunk and so, you know, I
just - my father was an artist. He was just not connected to the planet and the
only thing that connected him...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FANTE: ...were his two moods: One was angry and the other was angrier, you
know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So you kind of studied with a great mentor in terms of your anger?

Mr. FANTE: Yeah. Yeah. No - as I'm, you know, a Picasso at a typewriter, you
know? You know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FANTE: And a son of a bitch to live with, you know?

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. He had diabetes and towards the end of his life he had a
series of amputations? Tell me if I'm wrong, I think it was his toes, then his
feet, then his legs?

Mr. FANTE: Awful. Yeah. Oh, it was...

GROSS: And he was blind at the end.

Mr. FANTE: Just - yeah. It was pretty...

GROSS: What was left of him spirituality? Like at his emotional core, what was
left with him as his body kept getting diminished?

Mr. FANTE: Well, you know, after - I mean he was traumatized by these thin-
lipped surgeons in Santa Monica, wearing bow ties and with two golf club bags
in the trunk of their car and they just kept hacking his body parts off, you
know? And rather than take the whole leg, they'd take a couple of toes, three
months later they take a few more, then they take the foot at the ankle. Then
when that didn’t – then when that became gangrenous, then they'd go above the
knee. So he had that - double the ones I've just talked about for each leg. And
so he had that many surgeries and it was, you know, it was hideous. It was just
a kind of a living dismemberment.

And then, as a bonus, after those surgeries, he got glaucoma and went blind in
about 10 days, so he had a rough time. And - but during that time, after he
went blind, an amazing thing happened. He was in the hospital and incoherent
and we thought he was going to die and he got a call - phone call from a
screenwriter - a director-screenwriter named Robert Towne. Robert Towne had had
a film option on "Ask the Dust," at that time, for 20 years. And...

GROSS: Let me just say, Robert Towne's probably best known for writing the
screenplay for "Chinatown."

Mr. FANTE: Correct. So Towne - the phone range in my father's hospital room and
I picked it up and it was Robert Towne and I said Pop, it’s Robert Towne, and
he immediately became coherent and for the rest of his life he was - but if it
was business, if it was about his work, he was on the money. And then blind, a
double amputee, he dictated his last book to my mother, word for word, while I
sat there occasionally and listened - word for word - never paused and he would
do a page or two a day and in two months he'd dictated and it was brilliant
stuff - brilliant stuff.

GROSS: Where were you in your life when your father died?

Mr. FANTE: I was sober for… I was sober and working in telemarketing. And I
remember a year and a half before, I went to a Christmas dinner at my parent's
house and my father had just gone blind and I brought the wine, and I finished
off about a gallon of a good Rosé - good supermarket Rosé - and I told him he
deserved to be blind and he was a rotten old son of a bitch, and that night I
got one of my DUI's and I tried to kill myself in the Malibu jail at night.

And, but when my father actually died I was sitting next to him; I had been
sober a year so, and I was holding his hand. And we had made our peace, you
know? We loved each other.

GROSS: So what do you have of his now that you cherish most and just in terms
of like original manuscripts or, you know, other personal possessions that mean
the most to you of his?

Mr. FANTE: Do you know, it's extraordinary, but when I wrote my first novel I
was quite insane and suicidal when I wrote my novel "Chump Change," and it
reads like it. I was at the, living in my mother's back bedroom with her, as I
mentioned, giving me gas money. And I went out to the garage one day and I
found his typewriter - an old Smith Corona portable that was all dusty. And
then I found half a ream of yellow legal typing paper. It was the same paper he
wrote his last novel on when he could see and type. I wrote my first novel on
his typewriter using his typewriter paper.

GROSS: In the acknowledgments of your new novel "86'd", you thanked Bettye
LaVette, the great...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...the great soul singer...

Mr. FANTE: You betcha ya.

GROSS: ...you say for changing your life with a single blues song.

Mr. FANTE: Absolutely.

GROSS: I'd love to know what that song is - and how it changed your life.

Mr. FANTE: She sang at the inauguration of Barack Obama, it's been a long time
coming' but a change is going to come and...

(Soundbite of crying)

Mr. FANTE: ...boy - that was it for me. Little Richard did the same thing when
I was 12 years old. When I heard Little Richard sing "Lucille" I said that's -
that man is not of this planet. There's something completely mad and
transcendent about that guy. And he's still the same. He's just - the spirit -
there's something that's beyond the voice that's - there's something that
connects viscerally to those two people.

GROSS: I guess you weren't thinking of political change when you heard that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FANTE: I was thinking of Bettye LaVette and how she can - man, she can lay
it down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. FANTE: Oh, my pleasure, Terry. Thank you for having me on and talking about
my stuff and my book and my father's work. It's a great pleasure for me.

GROSS: Can I just ask you one more thing?

Mr. FANTE: Sure.

GROSS: It feels like your emotions are very like, some of your emotions are
very much on the surface - very close to the surface is what I mean...

Mr. FANTE: Uh-huh.

GROSS: ...and that you get in touch with your emotions. And I'm wondering,
during the period when you were kind of deadening things with alcohol and
drugs, were you as given to being emotional then, or did you...

Mr. FANTE: Never.

GROSS: Were you killing that off?

Mr. FANTE: I'm sure I didn't cry for 25 years. Sure of it. Not and even death
and bad stuff - divorces, jail - I didn’t shed a tear for 25 years. Not when,
you know, when there's nothing between me and who I am. When all that peanut
butter is gone, you - you know, it's pretty easy to demonstrate emotion.

GROSS: Right. Okay. Well, thank you again. Good luck with the book and thanks a
lot.

Mr. FANTE: Terry, thank you.

GROSS: Dan Fante is the author of the new novel "86'th."

(Soundbite of song, "A Change is Gonna Come")

Ms. BETTYE LAVETTE (Soul singer): (Singing) I was born by the river in a little
bitty old tent. But oh, just like that river I've been running ever since.

It's been a long, long, a long time coming, but I always believed that a change
was gonna come.

GROSS: Coming up, we listen back to an interview with Unitarian minister
Forrest Church, recorded last year when he knew he was dying of cancer. Church
died last Thursday at the age of 61.

This is FRESH AIR.
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..SGMT:
Forrest Church And The 'Valley Of The Shadow'

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

Death was a central part of the definition of religion for Unitarian minister
Forrest Church. He said knowing that we must die, we question what life means.
Questions about life’s purpose acquired a new sense of urgency when Church was
diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus three years ago. That was just a dress
rehearsal for death. The cancer was treated, and he returned to his work.

But early last year, the cancer returned with a vengeance. Church died last
Thursday at the age of 61. We’re going to listen back to the interview I
recorded with him about facing death one year ago. He had spent three decades
as senior minister at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in New York City.
One of his many books was about his late father Frank Church, who was a
Democratic senator from Idaho. When we spoke, he had just published a book
called, “Love and Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow.”

I want to start by reading something that you say in your book that that really
got to me, and this is right after you were - your thoughts about your life,
and you thought imminent death, right after your first diagnosis. You write: I
embraced the diagnosis and started girding myself to die. No disbelief, no
anger, no bargaining. In fact, if anything, I walked around in a pink cloud for
a day or two, feeling my death, getting used to it. Was my theology working, or
was I simply in denial or shock? Looking back, was your theology working or
were you in denial or shock?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Reverend FORREST CHURCH (Unitarian Minister): It was working. Every minister
spends a lifetime preparing for this exam. The most important work we do is
done with families in bereavement. But we really don’t know, having given all
of this advice and held all of these hands and walked all of these journeys
through the valley, how we ourselves are going to respond. And it was a great
relief to me that I was able to embrace my death. I sensed that if you’ve made
peace with your life, you can make peace with your death. But if you haven’t,
it’s much more difficult.

The difference - all of us have ongoing business when we’re given a terminal
diagnosis. But the question is, do we have unfinished business? And I
discovered I really didn’t have any unfinished business, and that allowed me to
be present for whatever was going to come. I didn’t have to find myself bathing
in regret or filled with anxious anticipation. I just sort of entered the zone,
and I’ve been there for sometime.

GROSS: Okay. So, on the one hand, you feel like you reached acceptance of your
death right after your diagnosis, and you kind of entered the zone.

Rev. CHURCH: Yeah.

GROSS: But at the same time, you write in your book, your wife, who…

Rev. CHURCH: Right.

GROSS: …who was on the way to a trip to India when you were diagnosed, when she
came home, she kind of knocked you out of that and said…

Rev. CHURCH: That’s right. Well…

GROSS: Don’t be so accepting of this.

Rev. CHURCH: She pointed out to me in no uncertain terms that this death was
not mine alone. It was fine for me to splash around in the waters of acceptance
and to say that I had no unfinished business, but there are lot of other people
around me who had unfinished business, I mean, my children, my four children,
my wife. And that shifted my - it sort of knocked the air out of my presumption
and allowed me to focus on their needs and concerns, as opposed to sort of
taking too great a pleasure in my own spiritual satisfaction.

GROSS: You know, you write in your book, you know, again, about how you don’t
believe in an interventionist God, and you say, once you start praying to God
to cure your cancer or asking God why he didn’t answer you prayers, the
questions never stop. And then you refer to, like, a bishop who said his faith
was shaken by the tsunami.

Rev. CHURCH: Yes.

GROSS: And then you say, you don’t like it when people say about a tragedy or
about, you know, an illness or death, well, God has his reasons. It’s just part
of God’s plan.

Rev. CHURCH: This is God’s plan.

GROSS: What do you object to about that? Why isn’t that the…

Rev. CHURCH: Well, I can see how it can give comfort. But God doesn’t throw a
three-year-old child out of a third story window or allow a drunken driver to
kill a family crossing the street. This is not part of God’s plan. These are
the accidents of life and death. And if God, for instance, is responsible for a
tsunami that obliterates the lives of a hundred thousand people and leaves
their families in tatters, then God’s a bastard.

I cannot believe in such a God. For me, God is the life force, that which is
greater than all and yet present in each. But God is not micromanaging this
world, that that is a presumption that we are naturally drawn to because of our
sense of centrality and self-importance, but there are 1,500 stars for every
living human being. And the God that I believe in is an absolute, magnificent
mystery.

GROSS: Was there a period where you thought that if you weren’t right with the
diagnosis, if you couldn’t handle the pain or the recovery or the fear of
death, the approach of death, that you would have been proven to be a fraud?
Because here you’ve been, you know, making death a central part…

Rev. CHURCH: There’s…

GROSS: …of your vision of religion.

Rev. CHURCH: There’s no question about that…

GROSS: Yeah.

Rev. CHURCH: …there’s no question about that, and that’s why I was so relieved.
And I tested my own acceptance because I was afraid that I could fool myself. I
would so need to do well. I need to ace the death exam, having made death such
a pivot of my own theology. Otherwise, there would have been a kind of - most
deeply felt, I think, by me - a sense that I have been a snake oil salesman of
some sort.

GROSS: We’re listening back to an interview with Unitarian Minister Forrest
Church recorded one year ago. He died of cancer last Thursday at the age of 61.
We’ll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We’re listening back to an interview recorded one year ago with
Unitarian Minister Forrest Church when he knew he was dying of cancer. Church
died last Thursday at the age of 61.

When you were young, you romanticized death. You write that a lot of your
heroes…

Rev. CHURCH: Yes.

GROSS: …are writers and poets who died young.

Rev. CHURCH: Who died young. Yeah.

GROSS: You even told your friend when you were 19 that you were confident you
weren’t going to live past the age of 25.

Rev. CHURCH: Past 25. Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And then…

Rev. CHURCH: That basically set me free from many, many responsibilities that I
otherwise might have had to take on my shoulder.

GROSS: Like what?

Rev. CHURCH: Well, if I was going to die young, I simply – my obligation was
simply to live absolutely fully, pull out all the stops and not worry too much
about, you know, minor things like careers and families and all of that. It was
a very romantic notion that in some ways was dispensed with, was ended by the
death of my closest friend whom I’d actually boasted that I was going to die by
25, giving a kind of glamour or romance to my life that it might otherwise not
have had. He died at 19 of pneumonia when he was skiing.

And all of a sudden, death became real. It was no longer the exquisite angel of
romantic poetry that was going to embrace you on the ship’s deck. It was a
hard, real reality that demanded a response.

GROSS: So, what was the difference between you before and after your friend’s
death? You said before - it sounds like it was very liberating just to think
about dying young because it was…

Rev. CHURCH: It was completely liberating…

GROSS: Yeah.

Rev. CHURCH: …because as I said, it removed responsibilities.

GROSS: Yeah. Everybody’s got their way - or a lot of people have their way when
they’re young of finding a way to…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev. CHURCH: Exactly.

GROSS: …to try to be free as you can in that moment.

Rev. CHURCH: It was also an act of self-importance. I mean, I couldn’t imagine
outstripping my famous father and, you know, the only thing that I could do
that would be dramatic would be to die young that would take no particular
effort on my part.

GROSS: Oh, interesting. And then you wouldn’t even have to worry about
measuring up to him or anything. Yeah.

Rev. CHURCH: I wouldn’t have to compete, because I’d have live up to him if I’d
compete with him. I am sure that was part of it.

GROSS: Now, something else you write about in the book is that, for a while,
you drank.

Rev. CHURCH: Yes. I self-medicated.

GROSS: Yeah. And I think, you know, anyone would wonder about a minister who
drank, if you were in a good enough place spiritually to lead a congregation,
then why would you need to self-medicate?

Rev. CHURCH: Well, it obviously was - there was a something - there was a
demonic dimension to it. It was, in some ways, a God substitute. It was, in
some ways, driven by fear. It was not anything that anyone noticed, I - other
than myself and my wife. It was something that bothered me a great deal and had
taken possession of a part of my soul. There’s no question that that I was
beguiled by and distracted by the lure of the bottle.

And it wasn’t until - I mean, I spent - I had so many attempts to stop, often
successful enough to let me believe that I wasn’t dependent. But it wasn’t
until 2000, when my wife basically told me that I could be her roommate or her
partner, but she was not going to have someone who is not fully present at
home, that I stopped drinking. And I haven’t had a drink since. It’s been a
marvelous second life. I didn’t change any of my views, by the way, Terry. It’s
- what I thought before, I now felt. My theology was now felt at a very deep
level. My fear was gone. It’s all been gravy since then.

GROSS: I want to get back to mortality. How much time, would you say, in your
typical day, you spend thinking about death?

Rev. CHURCH: At this point, Terry, I probably spend almost no time thinking
about death. For the first time in my life, I’m living completely in the
present. I have - as I said about a terminal illness where you have time - in a
sense, it allows you to sort of co-script your final act. To be able to write
love and death was to be able to put a coda on my life. I’ve been able to
conclude my active life, as opposed to it just ending.

I’m not yet at the point of being on my deathbed. So I’m in sort of an in-
between place. Each day is - I read. I chat with my friends who are ever-more
attentive. We take our friends for granted, as well. And when there is a short
amount of time, they come out of the woodwork - old, old, old friends - and we
spend lots of time together. And I’m just in the present.

When the time comes, when I am closer to my deathbed or on it, I’m certain that
I’ll begin probably even fearing to some degree, the passage. But there’s not
fear in my mind now and there’s no preoccupation by death. It doesn’t - I don’t
push my nose up against that dark pane in my window. I stand back and let the
light shine on me.

GROSS: Forrest Church, recorded one year ago. He died of cancer Thursday at the
age of 61. He spent nearly three decades as the senior minister of All Souls
Unitarian Church in New York City.

You can download Podcasts of our show on our Web site: freshair.npr.org.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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