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Book Reviews   |    
Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul
Reviewed by Maureen Kaplan
Psychiatric Services 2005; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.56.7.880
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by Tony Hendra; New York, Random House, 2004, 271 pages, $24.95

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In Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul, Tony Hendra has written a memoir and homage to the Benedictine monk who provided a secure base of unconditional acceptance throughout the tumultuous years of the author's life. Hendra is best known as a satirist and the first managing editor of National Lampoon.

In this highly readable narrative, Hendra recounts his growing-up years during the 1950s, a time filled with typical outdoor explorations and adventures of a Catholic schoolboy in rural England. What is not so typical is his sexual awakening when seduced at age 14 by a lonely wife, whose husband responds by taking Hendra for a visit of several days to the monastery at Quarr Abbey. Although the book's marketing focuses on Hendra's seduction, this event merely serves as the circumstance surrounding the author's first encounter with the book's central character, Father Joe. This wise and funny man with gnarled hands and feet became for Hendra the "still center, the rock of my soul." In recounting repeated visits to the monastery, Father Joe is lovingly recalled for his warmth and understanding, humor, and enigmatic wisdom. For Hendra, Father Joe is more therapist than priest, evincing the "wisdom I craved—though it was never what I expected; his judgment alone I feared—though never once did he pass judgment on me."

The story is most compelling in the author's account of his late adolescence, when he contemplates becoming a monk. Under Father Joe's guidance, Hendra immerses himself in history, philosophy, and theology. Despite his devotion, Father Joe insists that Hendra take a different path, and we follow his reluctant attendance at Cambridge University. While there he has another awakening after seeing the theatrical satire Beyond the Fringe, starring Dudley Moore and Peter Cook. Hendra's new passion to become a satirist takes him to America, where he finds success as a writer but discovers himself to be a failure as a husband and father.

In the second half of the book, Hendra depicts his struggle to become a success in Los Angeles; with only intermittent work, he resorts to drugs and alcohol to quell his anxiety. This part of Hendra's account drags a bit—his self-absorption is as tedious to read about as it would have been to experience. Once again, it is the patient and unyielding love on the part of Father Joe that finally draws Hendra to reconnect with the only person capable of leading him to self-acceptance. Father Joe personifies that hovering presence Freud spoke of—one who listens but does not judge, the therapist we all wish we were, the therapist we all wish we had. As Hendra finds redemption in a new marriage and as a new father, his internalization of Father Joe is complete. Their journey together is more profound than words can adequately express. For anyone who is interested in how the unconditional acceptance of a therapeutic relationship can heal, no matter what the venue, this book will move and inspire you.

Ms. Kaplan is a doctoral fellow at Smith College in Chester, Vermont.

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