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The Serenity Prayer: Faith in Times of Peace and War

In 1943, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the Serenity Prayer, an appeal for grace, courage and wisdom that's become a mantra of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and appealed to people around the world. We speak to Niebuhr's daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, whose book explores the circumstances that led her father to write the prayer.

23:14

Other segments from the episode on January 14, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 14, 2005: Interview with F.X.Toole; Interview with Elizabeth Sifton; Review of the film "In good company."

Transcript

DATE January 14, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: F.X. Toole discusses his collection of short stories
and his time in the ring as a cut man
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Clint Eastwood's widely acclaimed new movie, "Million Dollar Baby," stars
Eastwood as an aging veteran of the boxing world who runs a beat-up old gym
and is approached by an ambitious, young female boxer played by Hilary Swank,
to train her for the ring. Eastwood found the inspiration for his character
in the late F.X. Toole who spent years in the fight game as a cut man, the guy
in a boxer's corner who stops the bleeding between rounds so he can stay in
the fight.

At the age of 70, Toole published a collection of stories about boxing called
"Rope Burns." One of them, "Million Dollar Baby," is the basis for Eastwood's
film. We thought this would be a great time to listen back to Terry Gross'
interview with Toole recorded in 2000.

F.X. Toole learned to box in his late 40s, too late in life to have a career
as a fighter. But his years working with other boxers and patching their
wounds inspired him to write a trunk full of novels, stories and plays. He
didn't want his boxing friends to know he was writing their stories, so he
used the pen name F.X. Toole. But when his first collection, "Rope Burns,"
was published in 2000, the good reviews blew his cover and we learned his real
name was Jerry Boyd. Toole died two years later at the age of 72 from
complication from heart surgery.

Let's start with a clip from "Million Dollar Baby." Morgan Freeman plays a
retired boxer, blind in one eye, who helps run the gym owned by Eastwood's
character, Frankie Dunn. Freeman is talking to the young female boxer played
by Hilary Swank. She wants to go up against tougher fighters and is
frustrated that Frankie is holding her back. So Morgan Freeman tells her the
story of an old fight when Frankie was in his corner as a cut man.

(Soundbite of "Million Dollar Baby")

Mr. MORGAN FREEMAN: (As Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris) They should of stopped the
fight but, you know, I was black man of ...(unintelligible). Blood is what I
was there for. Round after round, I kept getting Frankie to patch me up.
He's talking about throwing in the towel. But he ain't my manager, he can't
throw in nothing. Round after round, he's arguing with me. I'm almost
laughing 'cause ...(unintelligible) of him than to me. I go 15 rounds, lose
by decision. Next morning, I lose the eye. In 23 years, he's never said a
thing about it. Doesn't have to; I can see it in his face every time he looks
at me. Somehow, Frankie thinks he should have stopped that fight. Should
have saved my eye. Spends his life wishing he could take back that 109th
fight. I wanted to go to 110. Thing is, if you're going to get to the title,
maybe he's not the one to take you there.

DAVIES: A scene from the new film "Million Dollar Baby." Terry spoke with
F.X. Toole in 2000 when his collection "Rope Burns" was published. He read
from the first story of the collection, which is about a cut man.

Mr. F.X. TOOLE ("Rope Burns"): (Reading) `I stop blood. I stop it between
rounds for fighters so they can stay in the fight. Blood ruins some boys. It
was that way with Sonny Liston, God rest his soul. Bad as he was, he'd see
his own blood and fall apart. I'm not the one who decides when to stop the
fight and I don't stitch up cuts once the fight's over, and it's not my job to
hospitalize a boy for brain damage. My job is to stop blood so the fighter
can see enough to keep on fighting. I do that, maybe I save a boy's title. I
do that one thing and I'm worth every cent they pay me. I stop the blood and
save the fight, the boy loves me more than he loves his daddy.

`But you can't always stop it. Fight guys know this. If the cut's too deep
or wide or maybe you've got a severed vein down in there, the blood keeps
coming. Sometimes it takes two or three rounds to stop the blood, maybe more.
The boy's heart is pumping so hard or he cuts more. Once you get the
coagulant in there, sometimes it takes another shot from the opponent right on
the cut itself to drive the blood far enough from the area so the stuff you're
using can start to work. What I'm saying is there are all kinds of
combinations you come up against down in the different layers of meat. When a
good cut man stays ahead of the combinations, he can stop most cuts, but not
every one.'

TERRY GROSS, host:

And that's F.X. Toole reading from his collection of short stories, "Rope
Burns."

Let's talk a little bit more about what you do as a cut man. What are some of
the medicines that you have to stop bleeding?

Mr. TOOLE: Well, there's a lot of stuff that's illegal, but most of the time
you're using--when I say `most of the time,' I'm generalizing, but you use
Adrenalin One-1,000(ph). It's a topical and it's a vasoconstrictor, not the
kind you inject. Then there's Thrombin, which is a coagulant rather than a
vasoconstrictor. There's stuff called Ativan. Much of this stuff is used
during surgery.

GROSS: What's your training like to do this? Do you study medicine at all or
did you just study with another cutter?

Mr. TOOLE: You study with other guys. You pick their brains. You have to
remember that what you're working on is a restricted area, and the tissue's
not very deep, OK? It's not as if you're trying to work on someone who's
suffering a stab wound in the liver. It's shallow tissue. During a fight,
sometimes you think you're looking down into a volcano, but, you know, that's
obviously not the case. So you're working on the face primarily--the
forehead, the scalp maybe. And so you learn how to stop that blood. You
don't learn how to deal with stab wounds.

GROSS: Tell me more about what goes on in the corner during the period
between rounds if the fighter is tired and he's bleeding. Who's paying
attention to him? What's everybody doing? Who's competing for his time
there?

Mr. TOOLE: Well, what you do is you get him breathing deeply from the
diaphragm, number one, and you water him down. You put ice packs on him and
you get him breathing, breathing, breathing. Now if he's cut, you've got to
do all of that and get the blood stopped at the same time, but the fighter is
completely focused on you and he trusts you. He's put his life in your hands,
which is one of the reasons I'm so careful about what I do with these kids.
And so he's focused on you, and he's learned through the whole training
process to listen to you while the crowd is roaring. He will hear your voice
above them all if you shout instructions up to him. But now he's cut and now
he's tired. You get him breathing. You get him breathing. You get him
breathing. You cool him down. And you'll be surprised how someone in good
condition, and I'm speaking cardiovascular now, will revive in just that time.
Now if he's terribly hurt, you know, I've called fights off, but that's the
last resort. You don't want to do that because, again, his future is in your
hands, but you don't want to make a decision to make his future his past
either.

GROSS: As the cut man, it's your job to stop the blood when your boxer's
bleeding, and I'm wondering how the whole idea of bleeding has changed in the
HIV era.

Mr. TOOLE: Well, you know, when the HIV really hit and AIDS was, you know,
rampant and it first, you know, got the publicity it did--What?--10 years or
so ago, first of all, we were instructed to wear rubber gloves. The fighters
at that time and since have had to take AIDS tests, so at that time, it was a
much bigger problem than it is today. Now I don't even think they hand out
rubber gloves anymore because, you know, the AIDS test comes along and it's
yesterday. You follow? And so they know whether or not these guys are
infected.

There was a heck of a heavyweight here not too long ago whose test proved
positive for AIDS. And here was a big monster of a guy. The odds are he got
it using steroids, because he was a tall, thin kid at one time and, you know,
two years later, he's a monster heavyweight.

GROSS: How would you get AIDS by using steroids?

Mr. TOOLE: The needle.

GROSS: Oh. Oh, I see. Got it. Got it.

Mr. TOOLE: So these guys might be in the gym and say, `Here, you use the
needle, I'll use the needle, you use the needle.' You know, people often are
quite foolish in terms of what they do.

GROSS: Huh. You know the expression `punch drunk,' where somebody seems to
have lost some of their senses, some of their capacity to think and speak
because they've been knocked around too much.

Mr. TOOLE: Sure.

GROSS: Do you see boxers who actually have that condition?

Mr. TOOLE: Sure. Yes. I work with one right now who (nasally) talks like
this. He talks through his nose, and he walks with a limp and you have to
say, `What? What did you say? What?'

Now why did that happen? That happened because he was a great young fighter
who never got into shape. He tells a great story. He says he prayed before
every fight. He said, `God, please let me get through this fight and I
promise next fight I'll be in shape.' And he said (nasally), `And I never got
in shape.' So he fought too long. He got hit too much. One of the reasons
he's talking that way is because his nose is broken, it goes off at an angle,
but, indeed, there's an example. And you know what? He has no regrets
whatsoever. He'll joke about the whole show.

GROSS: In your book, you write, `Boxing is an unnatural act. Everything in
boxing is backwards to life. Instead of running from pain, which is the
natural thing in life, in boxing you step to it.' You've boxed as well as
worked as a cut man. What's it like to try to get over those natural
instincts and replace them with boxing instincts?

Mr. TOOLE: Well, I boxed, but you have to understand my boxing began when I
was 48. And I sparred in the gym. I worked out in the gym. I did what we
call worked. And I didn't do it as long as I would have, and you also, if you
can imagine--I wear glasses, so when I was sparring, I was throwing punches at
shadows. So I probably took more shots than I would have.

What happens to you is you become focused on the idea of landing your shots to
the other guy, of doing damage to your opponent. And so you take shots and
you have to understand that you're in what, you know, Hemingway called `hot
blood.' And so the shots don't hurt you as much while you're excited because
adrenaline is part of the formula. It's later on that fighters, you know, for
a day or so afterwards will be holding their ribs or, you know, you'll see
fighters wearing dark glasses for a couple days, that sort of thing.

GROSS: I imagine it was a little harder for you to take blows or heal from
wounds in your late 40s.

Mr. TOOLE: Oh, sure. And I had teeth cracked. I had my nose broken before,
but I had it broken again. And I would have kept on boxing. I had to quit
because I developed a jaw problem, and I was told that I had to wear braces.
So you can't box and wear braces. So that's a regret that I have but,
nonetheless, a necessary thing for me to have done. Along the way, I found
that I was able to do this stuff. I was able to focus. I was able to
remember the mechanics--first of all, do the mechanics, the mechanics for your
mind. Now, you know, how do you hit this other guy? In a street fight, you
can rush up and grab someone by the shirt, by the throat, by the neck, by the
head, trip him, knock him down, kick him and all of that good stuff, but in
the ring, it's very hard to hit an opponent who's not going to stand there and
fight you back. If he just moves, you're probably not going to be able to do
much more than tap him on the shoulder.

So, you know, I learned how to do all of this stuff, how to cut off the ring,
how to throw punches correctly, how to protect myself, and so, you know, it
became a way of life for me to the degree that I actually quit writing. I
said, `Why am I ruining my life writing when I can do this other thing? I can
participate in it every day instead of being an outsider, instead of being,
you know, someone howling in the woods for all those years.' So writing
became unimportant to me, and I said, `Forget it. I'm not going to hurt like
that anymore.' So I know about hurt outside of the ring as well as inside of
the ring.

GROSS: You're talking about the hurt of rejection?

Mr. TOOLE: Absolutely. That would destroy me. It would just put me flat on
my face.

GROSS: That hurts more than the broken nose?

Mr. TOOLE: Oh, absolutely. No comparison. I'd take a broken nose any old
day. To sit there, you know, with that brown envelope in your lap and your
head in your hands and you say to yourself, `Who am I kidding? I'm no good.
If I was any good, somebody would have bought this. I'm just kidding myself.
I have wasted my life. I've thrown it away. I thought it was the muse who
kissed me, who tapped me on the shoulder and it was a whore that did. And
I've been drained of all my resources. Here I am a complete fool. Why am I
doing this? I've just kidded myself.' And I'd go through that and then
suddenly--not suddenly, but slowly I'd get back to my feet, suddenly another
story would play before my eyes, and I'd be back at it again.

DAVIES: F.X. Toole speaking with Terry Gross in 2000. We'll hear more after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's 2000 interview with the late F.X. Toole.
His boxing story, "Million Dollar Baby," is the basis for a new film by Clint
Eastwood.

GROSS: Now I know as a young man, you studied acting with Sanford Meisner,
the famous acting teacher at The Neighborhood Playhouse in New York.

Mr. TOOLE: Yes.

GROSS: You had written plays that weren't produced, but you wrote them. Any
connection between boxing and theater?

Mr. TOOLE: Yeah, there's a lot of showbiz in the game. And the audience is
there to be entertained. You entertain them differently than, say, in the
theater, and yet, the drama is there. It's real drama. It's going on right
before their eyes. And all sorts of things are being tested and challenged
throughout the course of X number of rounds. And the audience, when they see
it and see that it's done well, absolutely becomes enchanted with the activity
and are transported.

GROSS: Of course, in boxing, it's not stage blood, it's real blood.

Mr. TOOLE: It's the real deal.

GROSS: And you like that?

Mr. TOOLE: Sure.

GROSS: Why do you prefer real blood to stage blood?

Mr. TOOLE: Well, because it's real. You know, I was a bullfighter and I was
gored three times, and so for me to see blood pumping out is not that big a
deal. You know, I had won--you know, I was gored in the bladder, I was gored
in my left leg a couple of times. One of the times there were three
trajectories that were as long as your hand, and at the time, I weighed
probably 140 pounds. I'm 6' tall, so you can imagine how thin my leg was.
It's part of the territory. It's the price of doing business. It's--How
shall I say?--it's being there at the time when the greatest challenge is met
and then it's also being there when that challenge is met in a positive or a
negative way. And so, again, it's real drama. It's not playing. It's not,
`Well, I can go home after the theater or go to the local bar and have a few
pops and forget about it.' This is stuff that you take with you for the rest
of your life. And that's what I see life as, a series of experiences that
should be lived, not nullified, not anesthetized with drugs, etc.

GROSS: What about street fighting? Were you ever into that? I mean, it's
not in an arena, but there's certainly a lot of theatrics in a lot of street
fighting and a lot of posturing as well.

Mr. TOOLE: Well, I've been in a few street fights. When I was 49 or so,
something like that, I was in a street fight and I had part of my right ear
bitten off, as a matter of fact, but my opponent was about to go blind and the
only thing that saved him was his girlfriend pulling me off of him. So street
fights are nasty and ugly and the goal is to do maximum damage in a minimal
amount of time. And, you know, you've got, you know, your adversary down and
you want to make sure he cannot get up, and if he does get up, he's never
going to want to come looking for you again.

In boxing, winner, loser, they go across the ring and they embrace and say,
`Good fight,' and the loser says, `Well, he was a better man today.' If he
has talent and ability and one thing and another, that may well be the case.
So he'll come back and fight another day. Street fights you don't ordinarily
fight the second or third or fourth or 20th time afterwards.

GROSS: Who was the first person who read one of your stories and said, `I'm
going to publish this'?

Mr. TOOLE: It was Howard Junker, God bless him, at a literary magazine out of
San Francisco called Zyzzyva--Z-Y-Z-Z-Y-V-A. And one day I got a phone call
and he introduced himself and he said, `This is a terrific story. I want to
publish it.' And I said, `You're kidding.' And he said, `No, no. I want to
do it.' And we chatted a moment and I think, for the first time in my life, I
used the word `flabbergasted,' because I--really, I've never used that word
before, because I usually have plenty to say, right? But I just could not
believe it. It was--at that moment, I was vindicated, if you will. At that
moment, I was a successful writer.

GROSS: Had you sent him the story?

Mr. TOOLE: I'd sent him the story through the mail like I always have. I
never put any blurb about myself. I just submit the story. And I was always
very selfish about writing. If I was going to have any success in writing or
be published at all, I wanted to be absolutely on the merit of the work as
read by someone anonymous reading an anonymous writer. And that's what
happened, finally, after 40 years.

GROSS: You're somebody who, in a way, starts things or accomplishes things
late in life. You know, you started boxing at the age of 48. You're about 70
now? Is that right?

Mr. TOOLE: Seventy, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. And your first book has just been published. This is something
you've wanted your whole life. What's it like to get something that you've
always wanted, but get it at the age of 70, when, you know, you're not looking
ahead at your whole life any longer?

Mr. TOOLE: Well, it's sweet indeed. I will also tell you that if this had
happened to me at 35, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation,
because I was, let's say, something of a wild man. I would probably have
destroyed myself along the way because, given--I'm hoping to make some money
on this, but let's assume that I would have made some money. I would have
probably squandered it and squandered everything else along with it because I
would have wanted to push the envelope on principle but also in terms of
understanding the world and, if nothing else, to have more things to write
about. So it's probably the best thing that could have happened to me
individually.

I look around and I see so many young people who get success early on fold in
the stretch, if you will, and destroy themselves and destroy a lot of people
around them. And what a great tragedy that is, because I think many of them
end up with success that they don't feel they've earned. I've earned every
bit of it. However much I get, I will have earned it and I don't say that as
some kind of a nut puffing myself up. I'm just saying, `I paid my dues. Here
it is. Thank God it's here, and I'm going to protect it and nurture it to the
best of my ability.'

GROSS: Well, F.X. Toole, Jerry Boyd, I want to thank you very much for
talking with us.

Mr. TOOLE: It's been a great delight to be with you.

DAVIES: The late F.X. Toole speaking with Terry Gross in 2000.

The veteran cut man's boxing story "Million Dollar Baby" is the basis for
Clint Eastwood's new film

I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

DAVIES: Coming up, the story behind The Serenity Prayer, adapted by
Alcoholics Anonymous and popular around the world. It was written in 1943 by
the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. We'll talk with his daughter Elisabeth Sifton
author of the book, "The Serenity Prayer." And film critic David Edelstein
reviews "In Good Company," starring Dennis Quaid.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Elisabeth Sifton talks about her book "The Serenity
Prayer"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. The serenity prayer,
the prayer adapted by Alcoholics Anonymous, which we'll hear in a moment, is
known around the world but few people know its origins. It was written at the
height of World War II by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who passionately
opposed Hitler. Niebuhr is the author of the books "Moral Man and Immoral
Society" and "The Nature and Destiny of Man" texts well known to students of
theology. Today we're listening back to an interview with Niebuhr's daughter,
Elisabeth Sifton. Her book "The Serenity Prayer" is now out in paperback. It
tells the story behind the prayer and discusses her father's view of faith and
politics in times of peace and war. Sifton is a senior vice president of the
publishing company Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. She's worked in publishing
for 40 years, but this was her first time out as an author. Terry Gross spoke
to her in 2003. Sifton began with the reading of the prayer itself.

Ms. ELISABETH SIFTON (Author, "The Serenity Prayer"): God, give us grace to
accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the
things that should be changed and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the
other.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Elisabeth Sifton, I've always really liked that prayer. I had no idea your
father wrote it. I guess most people don't know your father wrote it.

Ms. SIFTON: Most people don't know. Many people think other people wrote it
or that it's so old that the origins are lost in the mists of time. He
composed it in 1943 for a little village church in northwestern Massachusetts
where he spent the summers.

GROSS: One of the things I've always liked about that prayer is that there
are things where I just can't tell if it's something that can be changed or if
it's something I must learn to accept. And that gray area between what can be
changed and what can't be changed has created considerable anguish in my life
over the years.

Ms. SIFTON: Well, exactly so. And it does for, I think, all of us or anybody
who has any care for the meaning of their lives. That's the condition that's
addressed in the third part of the prayer, a prayer for wisdom to distinguish
what can be changed from--or what should be changed from what cannot be
changed. I think my father felt--and he was a social activist and a very
deeply committed Christian believer in trying to strive for social justice and
improvement in ordinary people's lives. I think he felt that all too often
people settled for the status quo thinking it couldn't be changed and did not
give real thought to the possibility that it should be. And he meant that as
a personal thing, as you've mentioned. It's a matter of personal striving,
but it's also a matter of social engagement and community care as well.

The prayer became famous because shortly after it was written, it
was--composed, I should say, I don't exactly know how he scribbled it down,
prayers were very often for him simply spoken in the church service. But
shortly after he had composed it, a fellow minister, a friend of his and also
a person who attended this same small church in Massachusetts in the summer,
Dean Howard Robbins(ph) of the National Cathedral in Washington who is a big
shot in the Federal Council of Churches, asked if he could use the prayer in a
small pamphlet that was being prepared for use in the Army. And so my father
said, `Sure, use it for that.' So the first published appearance of the
prayer was in a little booklet prepared for servicemen in Europe.

GROSS: Now your father wrote The Serenity Prayer during World War II. He was
very opposed to Hitler. His father had come to the United States from Germany
in the 1800s. How did the war connect to his writing of The Serenity Prayer?

Ms. SIFTON: Well, that was the question I asked myself and I ended up writing
a book that's a good bit longer than I expected in order to arrive at the
answer. It seems to me that this issue, the issue of what should be--what
must be accepted has something that one cannot change and what we must strive
to improve or change or alter. And working at developing the wisdom to know
the one thing from the other, this way of looking at things had been sharply
honed and developed and shaped during the years of the 1920s and '30s.

In the 1920s, my father was a pastor in a working-class and middle-class
congregation in Detroit, a city that was facing enormous social upheavals and
difficulties with the development of the auto industries there. And in the
1930s, there was the great crash and there was the rise of fascism and
authoritarian and totalitarian regimes in Europe that threatened democracy and
freedom everywhere. So the question of whether one opposed these developments
and insisted that the drift toward accepting them be changed was a urgent,
urgent, urgent one for him. So I think the formulation brings to a head his
consideration of these anguished and difficult problems for more than 20
years.

GROSS: What really popularized The Serenity Prayer, and I think the reason
why so many people know it today is that it was adopted by Alcoholics
Anonymous as a prayer for people who were struggling to overcome their
drinking. And I think, you know, other groups have taken it on, too, and now
it's just become very widely known. How was it adopted by Alcoholics
Anonymous?

Ms. SIFTON: I don't have the documentary paper trail on this. I only
know--my father told me this; my mother repeated it--that at some point, I
think in the late '40s, after the war, they simply wrote and asked them if
they could use it and he said sure. Similarly, Hallmark Cards had also
asked him if they could use it and he had said sure.

The fact that they simplified it, omitting the grace, for example, from the
first sentence...

GROSS: When you say they, are you talking about AA?

Ms. SIFTON: The AA, excuse me.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. SIFTON: I don't whether they did that deliberately or it just happened.
Prayers, after all, get spoken even more perhaps than they get read, and as
they're passed around, they may just get a bit streamlined. But in any case,
the AA version which simply says not `give us' but `give me serenity to accept
the things that cannot be changed,' etc., etc., they may have just done that
in the course of things, not with a deliberate intention to alter it in any
way.

GROSS: I shocks to me to hear that your father was willing to allow Hallmark
to use the prayer for greeting cards. I mean, that's--in some ways, with no
offense to Hallmark, but in some ways, everybody's worst fear is that, like, a
wonderful piece of poetry or a profound literary statement will be used as
like a little bumper sticker or a greeting card or something, and even though
the words are the same, somehow it will be trivialized in that context.

Ms. SIFTON: I think he felt that, yes, it might be and probably would be,
but that it was not for him to determine that it should be controlled and kept
pure or high brow in some way. He didn't of prayers like that. Prayers were
written and composed and spoken from the heart for everyone. And one didn't
control their use. Who was he to say how people would find it meaningful for
them? So I think he just let it happen. That's very much part of his general
ecumenical view that grace and serenity and courage and wisdom come to
everyone in all walks of life, in different parts of the world at different
times, and it is not for him to say who should or should not use this prayer.
He never, ever would have thought of copyrighting it or asking for royalties
on it, which often people jokingly say to me he should have done. It's an
all-American thing, I suppose, to want to make money from anything when it's
done that's been the least bit successful, but that would have appalled him.

GROSS: So Hallmark never paid him for the use of The Serenity Prayer.

Ms. SIFTON: Well, not that I know of. They might have paid him a fee just
at the beginning, but I don't know. That was in the '40s when I was a baby
and I don't actually know. And I have no record of it.

GROSS: What are some of the most unusual or interesting context you've seen
The Serenity Prayer used in or reprinted in?

Ms. SIFTON: Well, there are many kitschy versions of--I mean, it's funny to
find it on bookplates or on coffee mugs. Well, of course, that's inevitable
for, I suppose, in this day and age. I have a T-shirt with it on. But the
most interesting, you asked, the most interesting I know about is not one that
I've actually personally seen. But my friend, Joseph Lelyveld, when he was
correspondent for the New York Times in South Africa, saw the prayer quite
often on a plaque hanging on a kitchen or living room wall in many black
townships in Soweto and so on, and that moved me greatly to think--and it
would have pleased my father to know that this prayer was of use to the black
communities of South Africa in the terrible years of apartheid. But Joe also
pointed out to me that the prayer was--that he saw the prayer also on the
walls of white supremacists, apartheid supporters in South Africa which
suggest that whatever side you're on, you feel that it's appropriate for you.

DAVIES: Elisabeth Sifton speaking with Terry Gross in 2003. We'll hear more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's 2003 interview with Elisabeth Sifton. Her
book, "The Serenity Prayer" focuses on the well-known prayer by her father
Reinhold Niebuhr.

GROSS: You write about how one of the things that your father and many of his
friends tried to puzzle through, was where religion should fit in the public
life of a country that was founded on the principle of separation of church
and state. What were some of the ideas that your father had on that subject?

Ms. SIFTON: My father felt very strongly that the separation of church and
state was an important principle that must be attended to. More than saying
what he thought the government should do about this, he was concerned with the
health of the churches in the way the churches would approach this matter. He
felt all too often that Protestant and Catholic and other clerics were hungry
themselves for power and influence and therefore, compromised their distance
from the powers that be by sucking up to them, by enjoying access to privilege
and governmental power when they should keep their distance from it.

GROSS: And it sounds like he also thought that the church had often
challenged that power.

Ms. SIFTON: That's right. He felt that it was a part of the great Christian
tradition to derive their understanding of the church's role in modern society
the way the prophets in the Old Testament spoke of it, that there must be a
distance kept from the temptations and evils of secular--I don't mean evils of
secular society because secular isn't as evil. I mean the dangers of partisan
and selfish and overcommercialized activities, the churches say stay clear of
these and not succumb to them. He also was very skeptical of ministers who
became famous for their close association with political figures. He would
say of them that they were always trembling on the abyss of exhibitionism.
Exhibitionism is what many secular and agnostic and atheist people think that
ministers first and foremost are. And I can't blame them.

GROSS: Your father was critical in his time of both the left and the right.
Can you describe what his criticisms of each were?

Ms. SIFTON: His criticism of the left where he belonged himself really
because he was a social progressive and cared tremendously for the issues of
social justice and the betterment of all lives in any community, which I
believe is a left position. His criticism of the left in the '20s and '30s
and even into the '40s and '50s and '60s was that they tended to be cheerfully
and rather stupidly optimistic about their chances for improvement and
betterment, that they adopted what he called simplistic enlightenment ideas
about progress and mankind, if only people are rational and good to each other
and so on. And he thought the record of human history shows that this is
absolutely not realistic, that there must be a deeper and better understanding
of what makes people act the way they do and why there is so much evil and
harm in the world. It must be interpreted in a more demanding and complicated
way than many liberals did who would just preach--I say preach, even if they
weren't ministers--preach self-improvement and betterment. If only people
were smarter, nicer or more rational or more sensible, or if only this would
happen and that would happen.

The most hubristic simplistic attitude on the left that he deplored was, of
course, the Communist one. He was vehemently anti-Communist on very Christian
grounds. He thought it was a godless and hubristic idea to think that it was
in the power of human beings to reorganize their society in such a way as to
make everything come out right in the end, which the Communist assured their
followers their regimes could do. So that was his criticism of the left.

GROSS: What about his criticism of the right?

Ms. SIFTON: Ah, his criticism of the right was deeper and more complete and
more constant because the right was so much in power and at the helm, even
during the New Deal which challenged the right-wing orthodoxies of American
economic life. He felt that wealthy and powerful people who control the
leaders of power and economic ownership of the means of production, to use the
Marxist phrases, that these people had absolutely no regard or very little
regard or insufficient regard for the welfare of everyone and particularly of
workers and of the less fortunate than they, that in a very big, dynamic,
competitive, capitalist society like America, there was not any attention
being paid on the right to the ordinary issues of social justice and economic
fairness.

He wrote somewhere that rich princes always imagine that they are wise. They
imagine that they think they're wise because they're powerful and at the top
of the heap. And it never occurs to them that they're only there because they
have all the money, not because they are wiser than anyone else. So he invade
constantly against the powers that be that he felt were unjust and indifferent
to suffering.

GROSS: Your parents had an interfaith marriage. I mean, it wasn't totally
interfaith, but it was mild on the scale of what interfaith means.

Ms. SIFTON: Yes.

GROSS: But your mother was Episcopalian and your father's church was...

Ms. SIFTON: The Evangelical and Reform Church, which was a small denomination
founded by Germans in the 19th century and eventually merged with the
congregationalists which is--and they're now called the United Church of
Christ.

GROSS: Did your parents have disagreements about faith or about worship?

Ms. SIFTON: Not about faith, I think, but certainly about worship. They had
quite strong disagreements about worship. My mother, as an Anglican, she was
English and had been raised in the Anglican communion in England was very
liturgical. She believed in the great liturgy laid down in The Book of Common
Prayer. My father wasn't Evangelical. He believed that prayer and worship
must come as it were spontane--you must open up your heart and spirit and as
the spirit moves you, you pray. However, he greatly admired the liturgical
communions, as he called it, the liturgical churches for establishing a kind
of discipline over these prayers because he thought that it was important for
ministers and the congregation to understand that prayers and worship couldn't
be a time for personal blandishments and show-off times and that it was
important to adhere to some sort of discipline of worship that the regular
liturgies provided. However, in given instances, my father and my mother
would argue about these things.

GROSS: You're the vice president of Farrar, Straus, Giroux, the publishing
house, and you've been in publishing your whole adult life. This is the first
book you've written, and I guess I'm wondering why it's taken you so long to
write a book.

Ms. SIFTON: Oh, because I didn't have time to write a book. Helping others
get their books published was more than enough work for me. And I also didn't
have a subject that I wanted to write about. When I was in college, I studied
both history and literature. I never focused on one historical or political
issue or a type of work nor did I with literary work. And it's been a joy for
me as a publisher to work in both fields. And I never had--I'm a generalist.
I'd never had a particular subject I wanted to write about. But then wishing
to clarify the history of this beautiful prayer and its enormous popularity
gave me my subject. So I wrote it then. It's an amazing thing to write a
book after you've helped so many other people see a book being published.
It's very different from the other side of the desk, I'll tell you.

GROSS: What are some of the differences?

Ms. SIFTON: Well, here's a very simple one. If a writer gives me, as an
editor, a manuscript to look at and I say I'll get to it right away, I mean
that I'll get to it within the week, right? Or as soon as I can. And there
are 55 million other things I've got to do. Of course, I know that every
writer wants to be thought of as the editor's sole responsibility for the
moment. But I always try to say, `Listen, I'm not sure I can read that until
next Tuesday, you know.' And then the writer would say, `Oh, yes, I
understand that.' Well, as a writer, I cannot understand why people don't
call me within 20 minutes of reading my book, 24 hours maximum. That's one
example.

The writing and editing of it was not so different in a way. The late Laurie
Colwin, who's a friend and colleague of mine, said once when asked this same
question about writing and editing and, you know, the differences, she said
that she always looked at other people's prose as if it were her own and
addressed the editorial problems with care as if they were her own. But she
tried to read her own prose as if it were somebody else's ruthlessly, you
know. And I tried to do the same.

GROSS: Elisabeth Sifton, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. SIFTON: Thank you, Terry.

DAVIES: Elisabeth Sifton speaking with Terry Gross. Her book "The Serenity
Prayer" is now out in paperback.

Coming up, David Edelstein on the new film "In Good Company." This is FRESH
AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: New Dennis Quaid file, "In Good Company"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

The director, Paul Weitz, made his name along with his brother, Chris, as the
writer and director of the gross-out, scatological sex romp "American Pie."
But the Weitz brothers next film was the more grown-up "About a Boy," based
on the novel by Nick Hornby. Paul Weitz's newest film, which he wrote and
directed himself, is "In Good Company," starring Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace
and Scarlett Johansson. David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:

Salesmen carry a lot of freight in plays and movies about our economic unease.
And why shouldn't they? They're at the axis of our capitalist way of life.
They're the middlemen between fickle corporate Goliaths and fickle consumers.
Paul Weitz's "In Good Company" is a liberal, humanist sitcom set in a brutal,
global capitalist universe. The movie doesn't cut very deep, and it's
impossibly sweetened so that most of the characters get their just desserts.
But it's also funny and charming. And it manages to get at lots of disturbing
things about the way we live now, our deepest fears about our place in a
system that could make us clean out our offices at the drop of a stock point.

Dennis Quaid plays Dan Foreman, the old-fashioned, 50ish head of ad sales at
a sports magazine clearly modeled on Sports Illustrated. In the first scene,
he simply hands a copy of his magazine to a reluctant advertiser and walks
away, shocking the CEO by saying, `Its quality will speak for itself.' Now I
don't know that Dan could make it these days at a place like Time Warner. "In
Good Company" has a whiff of the early '80s when the Old Guard watched in
horror as the first wave of MBA barbarians stormed the gate. But this terror
is timeless, young men who bring a macho triumphalism to laying people off,
who refer to one another as `chain saw maniacs' and `ninja assassins.'

The assassins of "In Good Company" are sent by a multinational mogul called
Teddy K, who's played by the reliably satanic Malcolm McDowell. His agents
demote Dan and, to take his place, appoint Carter Duryea, played by Topher
Grace, a 26-year-old with no sales experience but one marketing coup,
dinosaur-shaped cell phones for five year olds. Carter has a mandate to cut
jobs and raise revenue as he explains to the older man, while force feeding
him sushi.

(Soundbite of "In Good Company)

Mr. TOPHER GRACE: (As Carter Duryea) Dan, Dan, Dan, I'm not letting you go
here.

Mr. DENNIS QUAID: (As Dan Foreman) You're not?

Mr. GRACE: (As Carter Duryea) No. You are an excellent salesman. You ran a
good team. I think that you have the potential to be an awesome wing man
here.

Mr. QUAID: (As Dan Foreman) An awesome wing man? Well, Carter, I definitely
see the benefit for you in having an awesome wing man, but what is the benefit
for me at this point of my career of being an awesome wing man?

Mr. GRACE: (As Carter Duryea) Well, one benefit at this point in your career
is that you get to keep your job. That's a pretty good benefit, don't you
think?

EDELSTEIN: Carter isn't vacuous, but he's a poke, a tool. He hasn't thought
through the meaning of Teddy K's corporate mantra, `synergy', which is the
movie's boogeyman word. Synergy is used like melanoma. It's anti-human.
It spreads. It squeezes out the good guys with a malignant monopoly. Quaid's
Dan is the stubborn voice of humanism while Grace's Carter stands for all that
is amoral and rapacious and--well, hold on. He isn't much of an antagonist
actually.

Grace cut his teeth on "That '70s Show." And he's a puppy-eyed, young actor
with an appealing self-consciousness. He dithers adorably. He could be
Robert Downey Jr.'s kid brother, Downey without the danger, without a soft
center.

"In Good Company" is supposed to be about Carter's conversion from corporate
machine to man, but there's no real drama or suspense because the script has
him lovably professing his insecurities right off the bat. The twist is that
Carter confesses them to Dan's college sophomore daughter played by Scarlett
Johansson. So Dan is losing both his little girl and his place in the world
to this whippersnapper. And Quaid plays the patriarchal anxiety and rage with
just enough style to keep it funny and just enough realism to keep it
poignant.

Carter doesn't sneer at Dan and say, `I've had your daughter.' He's abashed.
He's sheepish. He's genuinely smitten with the young woman. That's the
sweetened part of "In Good Company" that both men are protagonists, nice guys
wanting the same good things. So the movie has a soft center, too. And
director Weitz lets it run down. He makes mistakes in the pacing. But
they're the mistakes of a director who likes his characters and his actors too
much. And how smoothly it goes down. "In Good Company" is very much a
corporate Hollywood product. But there's an honorable place for a
writer-director who can work within a system and criticize it, who can remind
you of arbitrary economic injustice in the context of a romantic fairy tale.
I'd say that's some honest synergy.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.

(Credits)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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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