Professor Secretly Trashes Merton Book

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Thomas Merton, the great Roman Catholic writer, spent his entire religious career, from his acceptance into the Cistercian Order in December of 1941 until his tragic death in Thailand at the age of 53 in December of 1968, as a monk at the Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey near Bardstown, Kentucky.  If for Merton’s legions of admirers, the Gethsemani Abbey is “Mecca,” then the independent Catholic university, Bellarmine, some 40 miles to the north in Louisville is “Medina.”  In 1967, Merton bequeathed his voluminous papers to Bellarmine, which had been founded by the local diocese as Bellarmine College in 1950.  Since his death it has become the home of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University and the headquarters of the International Thomas Merton Society.  There are a number of other Thomas Merton Centers, but this is The Thomas Merton Center.

As one might expect, a number of the professors at Bellarmine are Merton specialists to one degree or another.  One of them is the Canadian, Gregory K. Hillis, Associate Professor of Historical Theology.  For those who might have failed to notice the “Ph.D.” at the end of his academic pedigree, there’s a “Dr.” in front of his name on his Bellarmine web site.

Last week, an acquaintance of mine told me that Professor Hillis was saying some very disparaging things about Hugh Turley and me and our book, The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation, on Twitter.  Understandably, I bristled at the news and rushed to see what he was saying.  I have been on Twitter since early 2015, @dcdave2u, but I must admit that I don’t know my way around it all that well.  I put in some key words in their search engine to see what the good professor was up to.  Nothing came up resembling what had been described to me.

I then found his Twitter page,  Wow!  He’s been on Twitter since 2011 and he has 6,015 followers.  He also proclaims himself to be a lover of baseball.  Searching his tweets at his site for the beanballs he was said to be throwing at me, at this very moment I see in which he says that he is talking about his favorite Merton book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, to his honors seminar.  His purpose in tweeting that, I suppose, is to let a lot more people than just his students know that he knows quite a great deal about Thomas Merton.  But as I scroll down his tweets, I don’t see the first thing that he has tweeted about The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton.  But by now, I think I know why.

Twitter has a feature that allows you to block out your tweets from anyone that you select.  The purpose, as it is explained, is so that you can insulate yourself from annoying trolls.  Apparently, you can be very selective about the blocking, because neither Turley nor I can see how Hillis is bad-mouthing us, although I can read his other tweets.  Turley tells me that he, in fact, can’t read a thing from Hillis.

I’m certainly no annoying troll to Hillis or anyone else.  I only recently heard of the guy, and I didn’t know that he was on Twitter.

I got back to my friend and he told me that Hillis had spread his calumny in the form of a series of tweets, limited by the number of characters allowed, which read sequentially amounted to a brief book review.  He then did me the favor of piecing them together, supplying his own paragraph breaks where they seemed appropriate.  Here is his handiwork, leaving off Hillis’s tangent at the end about works by Merton that, naturally, have nothing to do with his death:

In the last few months, I’ve had numerous people email & tweet me about a book called “The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton.”  It’s a self-published book that endeavors to prove that Merton did not die of an accidental electrocution, but that he was assassinated by the CIA.

I recently received a copy of the book, and I just finished reading it.  I’ve been asked so often about my opinion about the book that I thought I would say a few words.  First, the book is self-published for obvious reasons.  It is not a work of serious scholarship.  It is filled with conjecture and innuendo, which is, I suppose, to be expected from a book challenging the traditional narrative of Merton’s death.

Second, the authors certainly demonstrate that Merton’s death was a very odd one, and they raise interesting questions about the traditional narrative.  However, in order to believe their alternative theory, the reader needs to accept that a respected civil rights activist & friend of Merton’s, John Howard Griffin, was a conspirator, as were two deeply respected monks, Abbot Flavian Burns and Br Patrick Hart, the latter of whom is a friend of mine.

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.

Is there something weird about Merton’s death?  Absolutely.  I’ve never known what to do with it.  But in terms of believability, the narrative presented in this book is just not credible, no matter how often the authors assure us that “the best evidence indicates beyond any serious doubt that Merton was murdered.”  Indeed, in order to establish their theory, they malign people of good faith and character about whom they know very little.  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.

Merton’s death was strange & unfortunate, but what is most important about him is what he did & wrote during his remarkable life.  Many people continue to view him as an exemplar and more than a few ask for his intercession, regardless of how he died.  If you’re new to Merton, read Merton.  Don’t read this book.  I recommend starting with an edited collection of Merton’s journals.

Hey, did you notice that the book is self-published and therefore virtually worthless compared to the sage opinion of Dr. Gregory K. Hillis, Ph.D.  Don’t read it.  In George Orwell’s newspeak, “Ignorance is bliss.”  “DON’T READ THIS BOOK.”

Jussie Smollett comes to mind.  Did Professor Hillis really think he could get by with this, trashing Turley and me this way and we wouldn’t find out about it?  Having been on a college faculty, I am familiar with the nasty, backbiter type, and now Twitter has facilitated the predilections of such people on a much wider scale.  But the wider the scale the greater the likelihood the slander will get back to the target.  Do you really want to take the word of a man of such character?

Yes, our book is self-published.  We had a contract offer from TrineDay Publishing, but at about the same time I noticed for the first time that a very impressive book that I had reviewed was self-published, Alison Weir’s Against Our Better Judgment: The Hidden History of How the U.S. Was Used to Create Israel Her book has been very successful, as one can see from the customer reviews on Amazon.  As she explained to me in an email, the tools available now make self-publishing much easier and with the rise of Amazon at the expense of bookstores, old-fashioned publishers are far less necessary.  Furthermore, given the power of the people she was taking on, she didn’t expect to have much success with an American publisher, anyway.

Alison’s situation seemed very similar to ours,  We also wanted to keep total control over our work, and TrineDay’s publishing schedule might have caused us to miss the 50th anniversary of Merton’s death, so we went the self-publishing route.  And hecklers like Hillis notwithstanding, we have been happy with our decision.

Of course, there’s a lot more that’s wrong with Hillis’s review than the “self-published” jibe.  Taking a page from his book, one can easily see why he would want to keep it confined to his own Twitter playpen and out of the sight of anyone with critical faculties or people who might know something already about our book or about the circumstances of Thomas Merton’s death.  Even without any knowledge of the subject, one should be able to spot the critical flaws in Hillis’s approach.

Greg, the Mischievous Mischaracterizer

The great social commentator, economist Thomas Sowell, once wrote in one of his newspaper columns that as a college professor he often marked in red on his students’ papers, “Specify, don’t characterize.”  Sowell’s pen would have bled all over Hillis’s six paragraphs.  All he has done is to characterize.  The problem with that method is that there’s nothing to stop the writer from mischaracterizing.  Even worse, unless he is completely unable to comprehend what he reads or he is lying about having read our book, Hillis has maliciously mischaracterized it as a work lacking in serious scholarship.  I would invite him to hustle over to the second floor of Bellarmine’s W.L. Lyons Brown Library and confer with Dr. Paul Pearson, the head of The Merton Center.  His question for Dr. Pearson should be, “What is the best book for learning the facts about Thomas Merton’s death?”

That was the starting point of our research some years ago, as we write in the book.  We asked Pearson that precise question, and he recommended two books, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton by Michael Mott, published in 1984, which is the authorized Merton biography and John Moffitt’s 1970 work, A New Charter for Monasticism: Proceedings of the Meeting of Monastic Superiors in the Far East: Bangkok, December 9 to 15, 1968. 

Dr. Pearson was right at the time, we were to discover.  Michael Mott is, indeed, the author of what Hillis calls the “traditional narrative,” such as it is, insofar as one can decipher what Mott has written.  Mott, you see, is actually all over the place and very dishonest in his own narrative, as we explain in the paper that I delivered at a Merton symposium in Rome last June at which Dr. Pearson was a panel member.

“What seems the most likely reconstruction,” writes Mott, “is that Merton came out of the shower either wearing a pair of drawers or naked.  His feet may have been wet still from the shower.”

Who puts on his shorts while still wet from a shower?  Mott also had to have known for certain that Merton did not take a shower, because he had the same death-scene photographs and the same letters from the witness, Fr. Celestine Say, that we uncovered.  Say was there, virtually in the same room the whole time.  He said that when they found Merton’s body with the fan lying across him, he looked like he might have been getting ready to take a shower, but during the roughly two hours before, when they were separated only by mesh partitions, he had heard not a single sound from Merton.  He took the photographs, he said, showing Merton wearing pajama shorts just as they found the body.  These two photographs show Merton lying on his back with a Hitachi floor fan lying diagonally across his body at the pelvic area.  Mott states that the photographs were taken after the scene was disturbed, which he had to have known was not true.  Mott also speculates that the body might have been dressed in shorts for modesty’s sake, but he had to have known for certain that that was not true, either.

You don’t even have to rely upon Fr. Say’s account to see the flaws in Mott’s foundation for the “traditional narrative.”  Mott quotes the police report’s description of the scene, which describes burns on the shorts, presumably produced by the fan that produced burns on Merton’s skin.  He also quotes the portion of the police report that says that the “dead priest” fell into the defective fan, having died of natural heart failure.  According to the police report, then, it couldn’t have been accidental electrocution that killed Merton.

Pearson, for his part, in his keynote address recounting Merton’s life and having read our book and knowing that I was in the audience, concluded his own narrative with a summary of Merton’s last oral presentation and then wrote, “Later that same day, after lunch and the afternoon break, Merton would be found lying dead underneath a freestanding electric fan in his room.”  Please notice there’s no trace of Hillis’s precious “traditional narrative” like a shower or an accidental death from electrocution.  Later in the program, neither Pearson nor anyone else at the symposium would have anything critical to say about my presentation.

The Hillis Approach

In lieu of specifying, that is to say, instead of addressing any facts or evidence, Professor Hillis, in his wisdom, makes liberal use of several of what I have called the Seventeen Techniques for Truth Suppression, in particular, nos. 2, 5, 6, 7, and 11.

Number two is “Wax indignant.”  We have cast aspersions upon people who are not just respected, but “deeply respected.”  How dare we?  What he doesn’t tell us is that Merton’s secretary, Brother Patrick Hart, who died at age 93 just a few days ago, made up his story that Merton “proceeded to take a shower” when he returned to his cottage after giving his talk and having lunch.  Brother Patrick confessed to us on the telephone that he had no evidence for it.

When he made that announcement almost five years after the death in the postscript to The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, one of the volumes that Hillis recommends in lieu of our book, he also saw to it that the words, “in his pajamas” were snipped out from the description of Merton’s discovered body in a letter purported to be from the remaining Trappists at the conference.  You can read about it in our article, “New Directions’ Misdirection on Thomas Merton’s Death.”

John Howard Griffin and Fr. Flavian Burns engaged in similar acts of legerdemain in furtherance of the story that Merton died from accidental electrocution, as we lay out in great detail in the book without any trace of “innuendo,” and any conjecture we do is very limited and identified as such.  The perceptive reader, which Professor Hillis is clearly not, will notice that Mott in his own conjecture about the likelihood that Merton took a shower, has no reference to what Brother Patrick wrote.  After all, Brother Patrick stated it as a fact, and he did so almost five years after the death.  In the interim, John Moffitt, who was at the conference, in his 1970 book made no mention of any shower, nor did anyone else before Brother Patrick, including the compilers of the police report.  Moffitt, after reviewing a draft of Brother Patrick’s postscript, told him that he could not say that Merton took a shower, but the “deeply respected” monk did it anyway. (One must wonder how such wretched scholars as we located the draft and the exchange of letters.)

Number five in the “Seventeen Techniques” 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.”  Hillis really nailed that one, and, as we see, he went to a bit of trouble, using the tools of Twitter to do so.  Don’t expect Hillis to be sponsoring any visit by Turley or me to Bellarmine to make a presentation where the whole question could be aired out.  People will see that we have simply dug up facts that Hillis and other professed Merton scholars never bothered to look for.  Hillis, following the example of Brother Patrick, and perhaps engaging in an act of psychological projection as well, has flat-out lied about our work.  “Baldly and brazenly lie,” by the way, is number 15 of the “Seventeen Techniques,” so let’s credit Hillis with that one as well while we’re at it.

Number six is “Impugn motives.”   So, check this out: “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.”

Shades of “conspiracy buff.”  We are mere hobbyists who write what we do for fun, because we must get some sort of perverse kick out of raising ridiculous doubts about the revealed establishment truth.  Don’t we know that people in power, the press, and the CIA would never lie to us?

Maybe Dr. Gregory K. Hillis, Ph.D. actually believes what he has written for his select followers on Twitter.  What would a craven careerist academic invertebrate understand about our motivation, anyway?  His failure to specify, though, is on full display in all its malignant glory.  We explain in the foreword of the book, after all, how we came together over the Vince Foster death case and how Turley later collaborated with the dissident witness in the case and his lawyer to write Failure of the Public Trust, and we guide readers to their web site, FBI  Having presumably read the foreword, Dr. Hillis, Ph.D., also knows that the judicial panel that appointed independent counsel Kenneth Starr ordered Starr to include in his report on Foster’s death the letter that the three of them wrote that demolishes Starr’s and the press’s Foster suicide thesis.  Pretty good work for a hobbyist, I should say.  But the press that Hillis apparently reveres completely blacked out the existence of that 20-page letter (no. 1 in the 17 Techniques).

Readers of the foreword would also know that I have written 75 articles on the Foster case, and being directed to my web site they would see that the most important case that I have tackled is that of the supposed suicide of Secretary of Defense James Forrestal. They would also learn on my web site that I was responsible for shaking loose from the Navy their official investigation of Forrestal’s death that had been kept secret for 55 years.  They would also learn that, as with the witness letter to Kenneth Starr, the press blacked out that news as well.  What they would not learn is that in the near future I shall be coming out with the book, The Assassination of James Forrestal.

Number seven of the truth suppression techniques is “invoke authority.”  In Hillis’s case, the primary authority that he invokes is his own exalted self:  “In the last few months, I’ve had numerous people email & tweet me about a book called ‘The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton,’” he begins his short essay, but he doesn’t tell you what any of those other people might have had to say about the book.  Rather, he proceeds to share with us his own very low opinion of the work, as though the sole purpose of all these other people in writing to him was to partake of his superior wisdom, which he then proceeds to share with his acolytes.

He also strongly implies that the men whom we identify with hard evidence as primary perpetrators of the cover-up should be bowed down to as custodians of the truth about Merton’s death.  The abbey authorities and the “respected civil rights advocate and friend of Merton” have spoken, so that all that remains for the rest of us to do is to shut up and nod our heads in agreement.

It did not take us long to find, drawing upon our wealth of experience with other major cover-ups, that such capitulation before what Hillis calls the “traditional narrative” and that other professed Merton scholar and Canadian working in the U.S. groves of academe, Paul R. Dekar, calls alternatively the “standard account” and the “widely accepted account” is completely unwarranted.  As we write in our introduction on page 2, “Up to now, no one has examined the circumstances of [Thomas Merton’s] death systematically, critically, and what is most important, honestly.  That is our purpose here.”

I dare say that Bellarmine’s ranking expert on the subject, Dr. Paul Pearson, would agree with how we have characterized our effort, but Hillis counsels his followers that they stay away from these impertinent interlopers as he slings his mud and then crawls back under his rock.

That brings us to no. 11 of the 17 Techniques, and all we need do is quote its first five sentences and you will see how it dominates what passes for analysis by Hillis:

Reason backward, using the deductive method with a vengeance. With thoroughly rigorous deduction, troublesome evidence is irrelevant. E.g. We have a completely free press. If evidence exists that the Vince Foster “suicide” note was forged, they would have reported it. They haven’t reported it so there is no such evidence.

You can see his reasoning here:

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.

To the contrary, from our experience, the active role of the press in selling the unsupported accidental-electrocution story right from the beginning was virtually the biggest tell that something was amiss.  As for the CIA, one has to be very naïve, indeed, to believe that that organization is incapable of such an outrage, and as we say in the book, the notion that Merton was not worth their trouble sells the man greatly short.

We don’t know why the others engaged in the cover-up, but the evidence is there for everyone to see.  At that point we do have some conjecture as to what their motivation might have been—which, as we have said, we clearly label as such—but leave it to the readers to decide the “why” of the matter.  What we think we have made clear is the “who,” the “what,” and the “how.”

More Coherent and Trustworthy Voices

There are people of a good deal greater stature than Hillis—a pretty large universe—who agree with us, and the wild pitches he is throwing at us might as well be meant for them, as well.  Professor Edward Curtin, in his widely circulated review, wrote the following:

This is an extraordinary book in so many ways.  First, because the authors prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Trappist monk and anti-war writer Thomas Merton was assassinated and did not die in a fabricated accident, as has been claimed for all these years.

Second, because it is so meticulously researched, sourced, documented, and logically argued that it puts to shame and the lie to so many works, including academic ones, that purport to be profound but fall apart once carefully inspected, especially all those that have been written about Merton and his alleged accidental death.

Then there is Hillis’s fellow Canadian, Patrick Jamieson, the editor of Island Catholic News in Victoria, British Columbia:

…let me just say that it is in effect like a forensic audit of the evidence of the facts of Merton’s mysterious death, supposedly by electrocution after taking a shower. The book shows that he was not electrocuted and he had not just taken a shower. It closely reasons its way from point to point in true investigative fashion of some of the best of true crime writing.

It spells out all the contradiction, inconsistencies, misinformation, deliberate disinformation and outright lies that have compounded the story over the five decades. There is a great deal of puzzlement expressed in the book at why Catholics have left this crime unresearched and solved over all this time.

One can find more such reviews on the book’s web site at

Final Note

It’s hard to miss the irony in the manner of Professor Hillis’s furtive sniping at our work.  In a lecture that he gave about Merton at Notre Dame, which one can view on YouTube, he begins by praising Merton as a man of dialogue.  When it comes to the question of Thomas Merton’s death, though, Hillis is all hit-and-run.  He shrinks from dialogue like Count Dracula shrinking from a cross.  (If they first consume a bottle of Five Hour Energy or a can of Red Bull, conservative Catholic detractors of Merton might actually learn something worthwhile from that lecture.  I believe that one of the main reasons that many such people have little use for Merton is that such grotesquely non-traditional, heterodox Catholics as Fr. Daniel Horan, OFM, and Fr. James J. Martin, SJ, profess to admire him.  We learn from Hillis’s scintillating lecture that, contrary to popular opinion, Merton was in very many ways a traditional Catholic.)

David Martin

Addendum: Edited on February 14, 2022, to remove favorable mention of our book by John Smelcer.

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  1. […] when he addressed me. Since he’s heavily into Twitter, as I note in my article, “Professor Secretly Trashes Merton Book,” he really should have known better. I don’t know what he might be up to in that […]

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