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The Man Who Changed His Skin
Thirty years ago John Howard Griffin, a white Texan, became an itinerant Southern black for four weeks. His account of the experience galvanized the nation.
February 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 1
After Merton’s death, in 1968, the Merton Legacy Trust asked Griffin to write the monk’s official biography. He accepted the task gladly. Recurrent foot tumors and bone deterioration from diabetes kept him largely confined to a wheelchair, and he welcomed a return to purely literary labor. He spent the next nine years working on the book. As he had done before, he sought to understand his subject by slipping inside his skin. For nearly three years he spent two weeks out of every month at Merton’s Kentucky hermitage, faithfully observing the monastic routine, a Spartan schedule of prayer and work beginning each morning at three. He discovered a tranquillity there that made these among the happiest days of his life.
By the end of four weeks, he ached with hurt and humiliation. The adventure had turned into an ordeal.
By 1973 Griffin was too ravaged by diabetes to work away from home. As his health declined, the work proceeded more and more slowly. He missed his first deadline and then a second. Finally, in 1978, despite Griffin’s pleadings, the Merton Legacy Trust named Michael Mott as Merton’s official biographer. To compound Griffin’s woes, his publisher demanded the return of its substantial advance. The settlement left him virtually bankrupt.
For the last two years of his life, Griffin was tortured by pain and despair. Emotionally he never recovered from the loss of what he thought would be his masterpiece, his contribution to the world’s spiritual literature. Physically he suffered from kidney trouble, lung congestion, impaired circulation, and regular heart attacks, sometimes several a week. A bearish man, he dwindled to a hundred and fifty pounds. In 1979 his left leg was amputated and he was confined to bed.
He, Piedy, and their youngest daughter were forced to live on overextended credit cards and Piedy’s secretarial job. When he could, Griffin worked on his thirty years of daily journals, with an eye toward eventual publication. Sometimes he rallied to give interviews or entertain friends or even cook a meal. But more often he had neisither the wind nor the fire to do more than rest and reflect.
He died on September 9, 1980. When a friend asked the cause, Piedy said simply, “Everything.” In the years since his death, a myth has spread that Griffin died from cancer caused by the Oxsoralen he had taken years before. He did not, and the suggestion of martyrdom would have offended him. He was in pain, though, in his last days, and perhaps he often thought of a favorite poem by Langsten Hughes. He had used it for his most famous title: