Conroy, John 1951-
CONROY, John 1951-
PERSONAL: Born March 29, 1951, in La Spezia, Italy; son of Al (in refrigerator sales) and Mary (a bookkeeper; maiden name, Buckley) Conroy; married Colette Davison (a psychologist), May 31, 1986. Education: University of Illinois, B.A., 1973.
ADDRESSES: Home—2722 West Potomac, Chicago, IL 60622. Agent—Wendy Weil, 747 Third Ave., New York, NY 10017.
CAREER: Chicago Guide (now Chicago), Chicago, IL, senior editor, 1974-76; Reader, Chicago, staff writer, 1978-91; writer.
AWARDS, HONORS: Awards from Society of Professional Journalists, 1976, and Women in Communications, 1977, both for "Mill Town" series; Peter Lisagor awards, 1977 and 1991; Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow, 1979; best nonfiction book award, Friends of Literature and Society of Midland Authors, Carl Sandburg Literary Art Award, Friends of the Chicago Public Library, both 1987, and Boston Globe Literary Press Award finalist, 1988, all for Belfast Diary: War As a Way of Life; research and writing grant, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, 1990; John Bartlow Martin Award for public interest in magazine journalism, 1991.
Belfast Diary: War As a Way of Life, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1987.
Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture, Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.
Contributor to periodicals, including Chicago.
SIDELIGHTS: John Conroy has won significant acclaim for Belfast Diary: War As a Way of Life, his account of war-torn Northern Ireland in the 1980s. From the early 1920s, when an accord with Britain divided the country into Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State (later named the Republic of Ireland), violent skirmishes occurred between Northern Ireland's Protestant majority, who generally supported the political union with Great Britain, and its Catholic minority, some of whom sought a union with the Republic of Ireland, and refused to accept the division of Ireland or retention of ties with the British.
The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was formed in 1919 as a nationalist organization seeking a united, independent Ireland, yet its members claimed that terrorism—arbitrary acts of violence, often against the general population—was necessary to prompt unification. Although outlawed, the IRA continued as a clandestine organization, and when the two branches—the Officials and Provisionals—split in 1969, the Provisionals embarked on an intensified terrorist campaign. In an attempt to restore order to a province on the verge of civil war, British Army troops took to the streets in August, 1969. Thus begun what the Irish, both in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, call "the Troubles."
Although the British were initially tolerated by the Catholic community as a protective force, the tide of opinion slowly turned, and the IRA targeted both civilians and British soldiers. Since then, neither the IRA nor the British Army has been able to claim victory in the struggle, and in consequence the citizens of Northern Ireland have lived under the continual shadow of violence. During the 1990s, there were signs that the more than seventy-year-long war might be coming to an end, and peace was generally restored to Northern Ireland, but scattered outbreaks of IRA violence continued.
Conroy based Belfast Diary on his own observations and experiences in Belfast in 1980, when he lived in a Catholic area. There he attempted to fathom the citizenry's manner of conducting everyday affairs while exposed to violence. Conroy found himself at risk from both Catholic and Protestant factions, each of whom suspected the American freelance journalist of belonging to the opposition and questioned his political allegiance. He was held at gunpoint on three occasions by members of the Provisional IRA, and he once escaped danger from a band of intoxicated Protestants by claiming to be Jewish.
In a Sunday Times review, Sally Belfrage deemed the author of Belfast Diary as an "expert at absorbing and abstracting information" about Northern Ireland. Boston Globe contributor Shaun O'Connell wrote that Conroy "articulates the divided mind and sad heart of this walled-in community, illustrates its violence and dramatizes its resilience." Jamie Dettmer, reviewing the book for the London Times, described it as "a sensitive and perceptive chronicle," and recommended it to "anyone who is interested in understanding the problems in Northern Ireland." Likewise, Martin F. Nolan, in his assessment for the New York Times Book Review, lauded Belfast Diary as "a well-written, sympathetic and clear-eyed view" of Northern Ireland.
Ten years' worth of research all over the globe yielded Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture, which Tom McGrath in U.S. Catholic called "a compelling and disturbing new book." In writing Unspeakable Acts, Conroy studied torture the world over, focusing mostly on those acts of torture conducted under liberal democracies rather than on the more widely recognized instances of torture under totalitarian or authoritarian regimes. The book resulted from his work with the Chicago Reader, when he learned about an appalling case of police brutality, and along the way he began to collect stories of torture conducted by the British in Northern Ireland, and by Israeli soldiers against Palestinians.
Though his focus is on the acts of cruelty committed by states that generally maintain the rule of law—there is little about North Korea, Cuba, or Iraq in Unspeakable Acts—Conroy's purpose is not to excoriate the West. His aim, rather, is to show that torture is endemic to the human condition. Wrote David Bosco in the New York Times Book Review, "Conroy wants to do more than bear witness. He punctuates his reportorial chapters with essays on the history and psychology of torture....The famous Stanley Milgram experiments—in which a disturbing number of test subjects willingly administered what they thought were painful electric shocks to others—are a key exhibit. Perhaps because so many people can be brutal, Conroy has trouble mustering repugnance for the actual torturers he meets. Almost ruefully, he admits that 'I never met the monster I anticipated.' Instead, he sees the monster in all of us."
Unspeakable Acts, according to Ann Collette in Book, is a "clear, concise and, at times (due to stomach-turning details) appalling-to-read work." In the book, Anne-Marie Cusac wrote in the Progressive, Conroy "manages to comprehend a phenomenon many of us find incomprehensible." She lauded him for his "intellectual honesty and unflinching humanity," revealed in observations such as this one, from the book: "When most people imagine torture, they imagine themselves the victim. The perpetrator appears as a monster—someone inhuman, uncivilized, a sadist, most likely male, foreign in accent, diabolical in manner. Yet there is more than ample evidence that most torturers are normal people, that most of us could be the barbarian of our dreams as easily as we could be the victim, and that for many perpetrators, torture is a job and nothing more."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Book, July-August, 2000, Ann Collette, review of Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture, pp. 80-81.
Booklist, March 15, 2000, Joe Collins, review of Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, p. 1297.
Boston Globe, November 1, 1987, Shaun O'Connell, review of Belfast Diary: War As a Way of Life, p. A16.
Chicago Tribune, March 22, 1988, review of Belfast Diary.
Human Rights Review, April-June, 2001, Adam Jones, review of Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, pp. 165-69.
Library Journal, March 15, 2000, Tim Delaney, review of Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, p. 108.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 3, 1988, review of Belfast Diary, p. 12.
New York Times Book Review, December 20, 1987, review of Belfast Diary, p. 14; October 8, 1995, review of Belfast Diary, p. 40; March 19, 2000, David Bosco, review of Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People.
Progressive, July, 2000, Jodi Vander Molen, review of Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, p. 44; January, 2001, Anne-Marie Cusac, review of Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, p. 37.
Publishers Weekly, February 14, 2000, review of Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, p. 184.
Sunday Times (London), February 14, 1988, Sally Belfrage, review of Belfast Diary, p. 12.
Times (London), April 22, 1989, review of Belfast Diary.
Tribune Books (Chicago), October 11, 1987, review of Belfast Diary, p. 7.
U.S. Catholic, November, 2000, Tom McGrath, review of Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, p. 54.*