Null Set Decent, intelligent, and a journalist, You know what's occurred to me? In what has become of America, It's impossible to be all three.
It’s a rare thing for a book to receive a major review almost five years after its publication, but that, in effect, is what happened on the evening of Tuesday, February 14, 2023. The book in question is the one written by Hugh Turley and me entitled The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation. The book was published on March 7, 2018, which happened to be the 50thanniversary year of the mysterious death of the very influential antiwar Catholic monk in Thailand, which was virtually in the heart of the U.S. military’s Vietnam War theater of operations. The Phoenix Program, which involved wholesale assassinations of suspected Vietcong and Vietcong sympathizers was being conducted by American and American-backed operatives in nearby South Vietnam.
Merton had been found dead around 4 pm in the room of his guest cottage at the Red Cross retreat center near Bangkok on December 10, 1968, after he had eaten lunch in the wake of the presentation that he had given there. A faulty Hitachi stand fan was lying diagonally across his supine body near the pelvic area. The body was clad in the bottom part of short summer pajamas. There was a wound observed by witnesses in the back of Merton’s head that had “bled considerably,” but it was not mentioned by the Thai police investigators, who concluded, without an autopsy, that Merton had died of “heart failure” and was already dead from that natural cause before he encountered the fan. That head wound was not mentioned in any of the news reports, either.
The occasion for the belated “review” of our book was an installment of a webinar series entitled “Tuesdays with Merton” that is put on by the International Thomas Merton Society (ITMS) on the first Tuesday of each month. My co-author and I had greatly anticipated this one because the featured guest was to be the retired TV news anchor and journalism professor, Bob Grip, who is a past president of the ITMS. We mention Grip in four pages of our new book, Thomas Merton’s Betrayers: The Case against Abbot James Fox and Author John Howard Griffin. Most notably, we find Grip’s name invoked by Bonnie Thurston, another past president of the ITMS, who is featured in our “Lesser Betrayers” chapter:
Finally, Thurston concluded by stating that Robert Grip has done research and concluded that the [Merton] death was accidental. In other words, Thurston’s proof is, “because Robert Grip said so.” If Grip has published any evidence, Thurston did not say where it might be found, and we have not discovered it. (pp. 190-191)
Our Valentine from Grip
We watched the interview in the hope that we would find out what Grip knows about the Merton death case that has caused him to come to a conclusion so radically different from the one that we have reached. It is no exaggeration to say that Grip greatly exceeded our expectations, and he ended up giving us what amounted to a very big Valentine’s Day present. Even though the subject of the presentation was “Washington Watches the Monk II,” with a short explanation that he would explore the question, “Did the U.S. government monitor the actions of Thomas Merton?” which Grip did and concluded in the affirmative, but, in fact, he devoted a very large part of his presentation to our 2018 book. It really amounted to an oral and visual review of the book by a man who has spent his entire career in the oral and visual medium of television journalism, as well as teaching about it at the college level.
Of course, as one might expect, he is not at all complimentary toward the book, but he makes it abundantly clear that he has done virtually no independent research on Merton’s death and that what he might know about the actual details of the tragic event he could only have learned from our book. The closest he has come to independent inquiry is to ask the famed New York Times reporter, Seymour Hersh, who broke the My Lai massacre story, if he knew anything about the possibility of foul play in Merton’s death and Hersh responded that he didn’t. We are to conclude from that, we may suppose, that if the press’s accidental-electrocution story was presumably good enough for the skeptical-minded Hersh, then it should be good enough for the rest of us. We shall have more to say about Hersh later.
Apart from the invocation of Hersh in the breach, Grip, as we have suggested, gives us nothing as a critique of The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton that begins to reflect any original research. So how, one might wonder, with so little contrary information to offer, did Grip manage to spend his time running down our book?
At this point, if you are pressed for time or don’t think you have the stomach to watch the man who could have been the inspiration for the Ted Baxter character for 53 minutes, you might simply go read “Professor Secretly Trashes Merton Book,” which was my response to the brief review that Dr. Gregory K. Hillis, a professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies of Bellarmine University, posted—and has since taken down—on his very active Twitter page—a page to which he has now denied me access. In his few words, which we reproduced in full in our response, Professor Hillis manages to say almost everything that Grip does in the ample time that the latter was given. Like Hillis, Grip characterizes; he does not specify. He avoids mentioning any of the facts of the case that we present as evidence for Merton’s murder, a case that the prominent folk singer Judy Collins found so persuasive that it is embodied in her song, “Thomas Merton,” in her new album. Grip tells us about Collins and her lyrics to which he takes exception as the jumping off point for talking about our book.
Of course, all Grip’s characterizing of the book is negative, but as a veteran of the boob tube, he is able to do it in a way that Hillis couldn’t, even if Hillis were making a similar audio-visual presentation. When Grip mentions those foul authors of the book he looks as though he might have just driven by the fresh roadkill of a skunk or taken a big bite out of a lemon. “What abominable people those two guys must be!” the viewer is supposed to conclude. It’s all histrionics, utterly lacking in substance. Otherwise, exactly like Hillis, Grip relies almost exclusively upon nos. 2, 5, 6, 7, and 11 of the “Seventeen Techniques for Truth Suppression.”
At this point, permit me a brief digression. Since he only makes it to #11, he is drawing from a list that only made it up to thirteen in number when I first posted it in March of 1998. It resulted from my following with great care, along with my co-author of the Merton books, Hugh Turley, of the Vince Foster death case. The gulf between what Turley and I know about that matter and what Grip knows, I can assure you, is far greater than in the Merton death case, but toward the end of his presentation, Grip manages to do some world-class implicit mischaracterizing of the Foster case. He tells the viewers that right up in the front of the book we bring up that subject and his “antennas went up,” and he makes an antenna with his hand over his head to emphasize the point.
American journalist to the core, Grip is confident of the selling job that his crowd has done in convincing the American public that the notion that Bill Clinton’s deputy White House counsel, Vincent W. Foster, Jr., was murdered is only entertained by a few crazy right-wingers. Didn’t the sober and responsible right-wing conservative Republican independent counsel Kenneth Starr lay such suspicions to rest with his report? The fact of the matter, though, is that the cover-up of Foster’s obvious murder has been a thoroughly bipartisan affair.
What Grip, in his very dishonest fashion, fails to say is that we bring up the Foster case in the foreword to our book to explain how Turley and I got together in the first place. Most importantly, we inform readers that John Clarke, the lawyer for Patrick Knowlton, the dissident witness in the case, was able to get the three-federal-judge panel that appointed Starr to order Starr to include as a part of the report Clarke’s 20-page letter that completely demolishes the suicide conclusion. Turley and Knowlton, as we point out, worked with Clarke to prepare that letter.
The big reason why Grip can get by with referring to doubters of the government in the case with such disparagement is that his American journalism community completely blacked out the existence of that letter in Starr’s report. Not a single news organ across the political spectrum reported on the existence of the letter in the report. In Part 3, published in the wake of Starr’s report in 1997, of my 6-part series, “America’s Dreyfus Affair: The Case of the Death of Vincent Foster,” I call it “The Great Suppression of ’97.”
To understand the bipartisan nature of the cover-up, one only need know that President George W. Bush made federal judges of two members of Starr’s team, Brett Kavanaugh and John Bates, and President Donald Trump made Kavanaugh a Supreme Court Justice, and he did it upon the recommendation of the journalistic leader of the supposed conservative opposition to the government in the affair, Christopher Ruddy. Trump also made another member of Starr’s team, Alex Azar, his Secretary of Health and Human Services.
To get up to date on the Foster case, see my articles “Ken Starr’s Contempt for Your Intelligence”and “NPRavda Features Double Agent Ruddy.” Even better, read The Murder of Vince Foster: America’s Would-Be Dreyfus Affair, published in 2020.
Saint Patrick Hart
Fittingly, no. 1 in the “Seventeen Techniques” is “Dummy up.” No. 2 is “Wax indignant.” It is the cornerstone of both the review by Hillis and the presentation by Grip. To believe our “alternative theory,” as Hillis calls it, one must accept that the “deeply respected” monk, Brother Patrick Hart, among others he names, was a “conspirator.” Not only was the now late Br. Patrick universally respected, per Hillis, but he was also Hillis’s friend. Hillis, in effect, offers himself as Br. Patrick’s character witness.
Brother Patrick Hart, we should mention, was the monk at Merton’s home Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky who had been made one of Merton’s three secretaries shortly before Merton began his long trip that ended up in Thailand. Before that, he had been the long-time secretary to the previous abbot, Fr. James Fox. After Merton’s death Br. Patrick was put in charge of Merton’s voluminous papers and is always referred to as “Merton’s secretary,” with the impression created that he was very close to Merton and that he was the only such secretary. There’s a famous photograph of the two men standing together that burnishes the image of their closeness. It is representative of the general dishonesty that surrounded Br. Patrick and the reputation that was created. Br. Maurice Flood, who is standing by Merton’s left shoulder in the original photograph is cropped out. The photograph was taken by the other secretary, Philip Stark, with Merton’s camera, to use up the remaining film in the camera so it could be developed just before Merton left on his fateful trip. One can see the original, uncropped photograph on page 169 of Thomas Merton’s Betrayers.
Grip, like Hillis, reminds us of his own association with Brother Patrick and vouches for the man’s unimpeachable character, embellishing it with examples of the Gethsemani monk’s great humility. What scoundrels Turley and Martin are to speak ill of the man! How dare we!
What we did was to establish beyond any possibility of doubt that Br. Patrick Hart was the originator of the story that Merton was wet from a shower when he encountered the faulty fan. He wrote that in his postscript to The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton in 1973 despite being told that he could not write that by John Moffitt because there was no evidence for it. Moffitt had read over Br. Patrick’s draft, which we found among Moffitt’s papers at the University of Virginia. Moffitt, the poetry editor of the Jesuit America magazine was one of the four people who had a room in the cottage where Merton had died, although he was absent at the time. Neither of the two witnesses in the cottage said that Merton had showered. One, in fact, Fr. Celestine Say, who is a rock-solid witness in our estimation, was certain that Merton had not showered. He was awake in his room a few feet away from the shower and from Merton’s room, and he heard no sound from either place over the approximate two hours that they were in the cottage together.
The Thai police report mentioned nothing of a shower. Up to Br. Patrick’s confident, authoritative-sounding statement that Merton “proceeded to take a shower” upon his return to his cottage from the main building where he had had lunch after giving his talk, the only person to say that Merton had showered was a French nun who was at the conference, but she also wrote that Merton subsequently took a nap before the fan incident so it would have been irrelevant to the shock he received. The purpose of Brother Patrick’s shower invention was obviously to further the notion that Merton was electrocuted by the fan because of the known conductivity of electricity by water. That is certainly how it has been taken by the believers in the electrocution story. Furthermore, the nun was not a witness and was clearly simply repeating someone’s conjecture.
The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, which Br. Patrick co-edited, included as an appendix a letter purportedly to have been from the remaining Trappist monks at the conference, none of whom was a witness. That letter had previously been sent by the Gethsemani Abbey to a limited mailing list of members of the Gethsemani “diaspora.” Doubtless, the reason for publishing it widely for the first time was that it contained speculation that Merton might have taken a shower. It seemed farfetched because they described the dead Merton as being “in his pajamas.” To rid themselves of that problem, Br. Patrick and his co-editors snipped out “in his pajamas.”
Grip makes the shower perform a double duty, going beyond the other “standard account” believers, saying, “I can imagine [Merton] stepping on a wet terrazzo floor, losing his balance, reaching for the first thing he saw, which, unfortunately, was a floor fan that was plugged in, and that was the end of him.”
But even if Merton had taken a shower, it would have been in a bathroom that was off the vestibule. It wasn’t even adjacent to Merton’s room, where his body with the fan on him was found. There would have been no reason for the floor in Merton’s room to have been wet, and there is no evidence that it was.
Grip connects that conjecture of his to another fable that Br. Patrick continued to push almost up to his dying day, that is that Merton was hopeless around mechanical devices. The woeful evidence for that traces back to a joy ride he once took with the abbey’s jeep, and he managed to get it covered with mud. He never had a driver’s license and didn’t even know how to drive a car, you see. The conclusion that that episode shows how klutzy he was simply demonstrates the cultural ignorance of the abbey residents, who grew up in the same automobile culture as most Americans. Merton did not, having grown up in France, reaching adulthood attending a private boy’s school in England, going to Cambridge University for a year and then to Columbia University in New York City for the rest of his education. In none of those places was it incumbent upon him to know how to drive. The jeep drive would have been difficult for almost anyone who hadn’t done it before, and it says nothing about his mechanical aptitude. The fact that he managed to drive this vehicle with not just a straight gearshift but with 4-wheel drive is more a positive than a negative demonstration of his mechanical aptitude. But most importantly, if the fan was lethal to the touch, Merton’s skill with machinery or his supposed clumsiness is utterly irrelevant.
Back to Br. Patrick’s shower story, the very best evidence that he had no evidence to support it comes from his own mouth. In the book, we report on a telephone message from him to Hugh Turley from Br. Patrick (p. 129) in which he told Turley that there was no direct evidence that anyone said that Merton took a shower but that it was “hot and steamy” in Bangkok around noon, and he “must have taken a shower.” As noted in the footnote, the message came in at 2:14 pm, May 31, 2017. In short, Br. Patrick’s very influential declaration that Merton “proceeded to take a shower” is nothing more than the product of his imagination.
The man is just as unreliable in that postscript when it comes to question of whether that faulty fan might have been lethal to the touch. He wrote that one of the witnesses, Abbot Odo Haas, received a “severe shock” when he attempted to remove it from atop Merton’s body.
As a part of his television presentation, Grip plays a short clip of an interview with Fr. Rembert Weakland, the abbot primate of the Benedictine Order at the time who presided over the conference and who had arrived at the death scene shortly after the initial three witnesses. In that clip, Fr. Weakland said that Fr. Haas received a “slight shock.” Sister Edeltrud Weist, who was also a medical doctor, who arrived at about the same time as Fr. Weakland, wrote in her official witness statement that Haas got only a slight shock. The witness Fr. Celestine Say saw Fr. Haas recoil from the shock and when he asked him how strong it was, Fr. Haas had told him that it was not very strong.
Brother Patrick also turned out not to be consistent concerning the Hitachi stand fan’s shock of the witness. On page 176 of The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton, which Bob Grip claims to have read, we have the following passage:
It is a very interesting fact that Brother Patrick, the inventor of the shower story, who in the same essay in 1973 said that the abbot who attempted to move the fan off Merton’s body had received a “severe” shock, changed his account in 1998. In his introduction to The Other Side of the Mountain, which is Volume 7 of The Journals of Thomas Merton, which he edited, he repeats almost verbatim his story from 1973 of how Merton was killed, except this time he describes it as a “slight” electric shock.
But the “severe shock” story had already served its purpose of enhancing the story of Merton’s accidental electrocution.
Brother Patrick was just as deceptive regarding the key question of why no autopsy was performed on Merton’s body. In that 1973 postscript he said vaguely that “international red tape” had prevented an autopsy from taking place, as we note on page 72 of The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton. In 1980, as we note further on the same page, he fleshed out that “international red tape” in an assertion that appeared in a front-page article of the Louisville Courier-Journal. He made the absurd claim that there was a Thai law that required that the body would have had to be buried in Thailand if an autopsy was performed in Thailand.
The fact of the matter is that even had there been such a ridiculous Thai law and if there had been some international red tape to cut through to have an autopsy done, the question was as irrelevant as Merton’s aptitude with machinery or appliances. For reasons never explained, the U.S. military had violated normal protocol in such matters and taken possession of the body of the private citizen Merton at the conference center shortly after midnight and had whisked it away to a nearby U.S. military hospital, and Brother Patrick surely knew it. From that point on the disposition of Merton’s body became a U.S. intra-national, not an international matter. Apparently, the abbey made no attempt to get the doctors at the military hospital to perform an autopsy. According to Brother Patrick, they were just eager to get the body back to Gethsemani. Reading between the lines, though, it is evident that the abbey’s leadership had no interest in finding out the cause of death.
More Truth Suppression Techniques Employed
Number 5 is “Call the skeptics names like ‘conspiracy theorist….’ You must then carefully avoid fair and open debate with any of the people you have thus maligned.”
Grip is a bit worse than Hillis in this regard. Grip slings around the pejorative “conspiracy theorist” charge promiscuously. Hillis simply says, “The authors are specialists in raising questions about suspicious deaths (this is not their first such work) and they clearly enjoy raising such questions. That is their prerogative. But no one should think that this book represents anything more than the conjectures of two authors who have made a hobby of writing conspiracy theories.”
We’re just some sort of perverse hobbyists, you see, doing this for kicks. As long as he’s merely engaging in characterization, he might just as well have said that we were honest, independent seekers of truth. My guess is that most people approaching the book with no agenda of their own will come away from it with the same impression that Judy Collins received. That’s certainly what the numerous published favorable reviews and the 92 raters on Amazon, at this point, who have given the book an average of 4.3 out of 5 stars.
Concerning the avoidance of debate, when Hugh Turley visited Bellarmine University, Professor Hillis refused to meet with him, and as noted, he has banned me from his Twitter account. For Grip’s part, and the part of the ITMS, please notice that on YouTube the comments on his presentation are turned off. They are not inviting any sort of healthy debate on the matter.
Here is number 6 of the “Seventeen Techniques” in full:
Impugn motives. Attempt to marginalize the critics by suggesting strongly that they are not really interested in the truth but are simply pursuing a partisan political agenda or are out to make money (compared to over-compensated adherents to the government line who, presumably, are not).
We see it from Hillis, who fashions Turley and me as just a couple of crackpots who get our kicks spinning out crazy conspiracy theories. To Grip, we are practitioners of the art of “yellow journalism,” which, as he notes, sells books. I suppose that it’s possible that he might even believe his charge. After all, it must be really difficult for a man of his ilk and his experience to comprehend or identify with people whose motivation is simply pursuit of the truth. Where might he have encountered such a person in his line of work?
Number 7 of the “Techniques” is “Invoke authority.” As we note in our response to his review, the authority that Dr. Gregory Hillis, Ph.D. invokes is his own exalted self. People have sought him out for him to render his judgment on this new book that they have heard about. “Should we read it? Please share your wisdom with us.” His answer is a resounding, “No.”
Grip does Hillis one better on this one. He invokes the review of our book that appeared in the 2019 issue of the ITMS publication, The Merton Annual. It was written by the man whom we fashion as the captain of the ITMS varsity in the foreword to Thomas Merton’s Betrayers. That foreword gives an overview of the (overwhelmingly favorable) reaction to The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton, including that of Judy Collins, while noting that the ITMS has been alone in reacting negatively, and they have been a virtual monolith in that regard. The reviewer that Grip invokes is the noted Canadian scholar, Michael W. Higgins, who has a quite extensive Wikipedia page. Grip represents the Higgins review as a total destruction of our work, and as manifestly intellectually challenged as he is, he might even believe it. As we note in our foreword, though, when it comes to matters of substance, Higgins has so many good things to say about the book in his masterful tightrope-walk of a review that with selective quoting we have used it to promote the book on the book’s web page. We note there, though, that he still manages to endorse the standard “accidental electrocution” story. In the foreword we quote the most negative things he has to say, and we sum it all up by observing that he uses that same collection of truth suppression techniques as Hillis, substituting #14 for #11. No. 14 is “Lightly report incriminating facts and then make nothing of them.”
That brings us to no. 11, which is, “Reason backward, using the deductive method with a vengeance.” In deduction, one begins with a known, accepted fact, and uses it to explain an event, going from the general to the specific. That may be contrasted to induction, in which one begins with collected specific facts which one might use to arrive at a generalization. Hillis reasons backward pretty much throughout his review, but the best example of it, as we point out in our response, is in this paragraph:
Third, as interesting as it would have been to have Thomas Merton so loathed by the CIA that it would devise an elaborate plan involving an apparently shifty Belgian Benedictine monk, as well as a cover-up involving the U.S. embassy in Thailand, the entire American press corps, as well as Merton’s friends and monastic brothers, such a narrative is just not believable, at least to me.
Upon more careful examination of the record, in Thomas Merton’s Betrayers we have taken the U.S. embassy off the hook, even though U.S. embassies around the world are known to be laced with CIA operatives, and there was never universal acceptance of the accidental electrocution story among Merton’s friends and monastic brothers. In the sequel we show how they were deceived like the rest of us from the beginning by the tiny cabal of the Gethsemani leadership, which included Brother Patrick Hart. That leaves us with “the entire American press corps.”
There you go. I rest my case.
As for Bob Grip, it’s not the fact that the entire press corps said so that makes the case for accidental electrocution but that the intrepid journalist Seymour Hersh hasn’t run across anything that would make him question it. Setting aside the obvious point that Hersh could hardly be expected to know and report everything of significance in Southeast Asia at the time, we might remind readers that neither Hersh nor anyone else in the American mainstream press has written the first thing about “The Largest Known Vietnam War Atrocity.” I have tried for years to interest them in the story, and only retired USAF Lt. Col. W.J. Astore has picked it up in his blog, Bracing Views. You can hear retired USAF Brigadier General James “Cotton” Hildreth tell his tragic first-hand story of the event here.
Grip, like Hillis, also gets in the jab that the book was self-published. Concerning that point, the general reception that the book has received—much better than the average book from a major publisher I should think—speaks for itself. Furthermore, publishing companies, like the mainstream press, we might be reminded, are very much a part of what I call the NOMA, the national opinion-molding apparatus.
Nevertheless, as I point out in my response to Hillis, we did have a contract offer from Trine Day but turned it down for various reasons explained in my Hillis article. For the record, Trine Day is scoring a major success these days with its two-volume One Nation Under Blackmail: The Sordid Union between Intelligence and Crime that Gave Rise to Jeffrey Epstein by Whitney Webb. (a graduate of Davidson College like Vince Foster and me, for what it is worth) Webb has revelations that I dare say go far beyond the ken of either Grip or Hillis, demonstrating a whole world of sordid goings on at the highest level that our fine press has generally kept us in the dark about. One absorbing only a small part of what Webb reveals would have no problem believing our revelations concerning Thomas Merton’s obvious assassination.
Finally, Grip dismisses our extensive use of the reports of the witnesses in the case. “Eyewitness accounts,” he tells us toward the end, “are typically not that trustworthy.”
Never mind that we also unearthed the two photographs that Fr. Say took of the dead Merton with the fan across his body because they thought the scene was so peculiar, and we discovered official reports that had been kept hidden for almost a half century, we would ask Bob Grip what evidence he has for accidental electrocution that is better. It would appear that he would prefer to believe the proven lies of his late friend, Brother Patrick Hart.
Officially, as we have noted, according to the Thai police report, Merton died of heart failure and was already dead before he touched the faulty fan. In his presentation, Grip reads from the initial New York Times by Israel Shenker that said that Merton had been “badly burned by a shock he had apparently received from a standing electrical fan that toppled over on him. The cause of death was officially listed as heart failure.”
What I’m sure Grip doesn’t know, but could learn from reading our new book, is that the wire service version of the Merton death story that The New York Times sent out, though, said that there was “no indication of the cause of death.”
Michael Mott, in his 1984 authorized biography, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, devoted seven pages to Merton’s death, and although Brother Patrick set the bar really high, Mott might surpass him in his dishonesty as he tries his best to sell the accidental electrocution story. And while Mott has certainly been influential, the die had really been cast from the beginning by the initial Associated Press report from Thailand, not the New York Times report that Grip references. The key portion of the AP story, written by John T. Wheeler, which we reproduce on page 42 of Thomas Merton’s Betrayers, is as follows:
Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who wrote “The Seven Storey Mountain” and other best sellers was electrocuted Tuesday when he moved an electric fan and touched a short in the cord, local Catholic sources reported….
Merton’s body was found late in the afternoon on the floor of a room he was occupying during a visit to Bangkok. A doctor who was summoned said the monk’s heart failed after the electric shock. A priest at the Church of St. Louis said Merton was missed when he failed to show up for lunch.
That story might just as well have been written in advance of Merton’s death. All the sources are anonymous, and the facts are wrong. Merton was not in Bangkok but a conference center in Samutprakarn, some 15 miles south of Bangkok; he was seen by everyone at lunch; and the Thai police, after consulting with their doctor, concluded that Merton was already dead from heart failure before he fell, with the fan somehow coming to rest on top of him.
In the final analysis, retired Mobile, Alabama, TV news anchor and former ITMS president Bob Grip is going with his fellow journalist, the AP’s Wheeler, instead of the work of a couple of veteran independent researchers.