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My exaggerated life, p.14
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       My Exaggerated Life, p.14

           Pat Conroy
 

  But I love his writing more than that of anybody else I’ve ever met. Jim did not have a good heart; Jim was a great artist. There is integrity with those people when they sit down to write. I am grateful to him beyond belief, and I still have the letter where he accepts me into his class.

  I never wanted to move from Beaufort. I could have taught there the rest of my life, but that did not work out, and I had put my family in a perilous spot in Beaufort, and I knew it. Now I’ve gotten to be an avuncular sort of elder, but I was a polarizing figure in the state for a long, long time.

  I grew up with this indefensible South: slavery, Jim Crow. So I became a liberal out of self-defense, and when The Water Is Wide came out, there was an explosion in Beaufort. Southerners reacted like you were afraid Southerners would. I wasn’t invited to have a book signing in the stores, so Mom and Barbara arranged for the store owners to have one at our house on Hancock Street. But we had the Daufuskie kids there, and the owners of the book shop would not come into the house that had an integrated party going on. I was going to throw them off the porch, but then my mother, the great diplomat, comes out, and they agreed to sell books at the door because they would not go inside the house where there were blacks being entertained.

  Then, when they wanted to film the movie in Beaufort, the town wouldn’t let them do it. That would have been the first movie ever made in Beaufort, but Beaufort didn’t realize its mistake until the movie got made on St. Simon’s Island. I started to realize that Beaufort was not a place where my family was going to be comfortable. It made Barbara really uncomfortable, and she wanted to get out of there. We were both military brats, so who knows if the reaction to the book didn’t set off something in both of us—it’s time to move on; it’s time to go somewhere.

  Also, I think Barbara was having her first stirrings of wanting to go back to school, and she really wanted to get out of Beaufort, get to a big city. Mom and Dad were retiring to Beaufort, and Mom was putting pressure on me to sell our house to her and Dad. We lived in a remarkable house on the Point; we paid $26,000 for what still looks to me like a mansion. I could not get over it. I owned a house before my parents did. And I’m so proud of that house, I can barely say. Nobody encouraged us to move more than my mother did. No one encouraged Barbara going to law school more than she did. I think Mom was already planning to get out of that marriage and saw the nice life she could have in Beaufort, so she plotted to get that house away from Barbara and me. I did not know she was planning to dropkick my father through the front door and send him on his way out. The mistake Mom made, and it was a fatal one, was she didn’t realize she would be cut out of almost all Dad’s retirement. They corrected that later on, but it was too late for Mom. So Dad got this terrific retirement; Mom got nothing. That was to come.

  We chose Atlanta because that is the city I knew best of all growing up, and it was where Stanny lived. Moving is one of the skill sets I have brought to my life; I know how to get out of a place. Then the military brat optimism kicks in: let me make the best out of this I can. I have found that to be the greatest gift of the military brat’s childhood: let me do the best I can with what has been handed to me. And often you didn’t like what was handed to you, didn’t like it at all.

  But Atlanta, I ended up loving Atlanta, loving my time there. Another writer would have moved to New York or started teaching writing. I probably should have done something like that, but I did not know how.

  TWO

  Atlanta

  1973–1981

  I had no experience in writing down the graffiti left along the margins of a boy’s ruined heart.… As I wrote, the child of the military in me began to fall apart. I came apart at the seams. For one thing a military brat is not allowed to do is commit an act of treason. I learned the hard way that truth is a capital offense …

  PAT CONROY, My Reading Life

  Pat keeps talking about my saving his life. I really didn’t save his life. He saved his own life. What I helped him do is to see that his life is worth living.

  MARION O’NEILL, Ph.D., ABPP, clinical psychologist

  We moved to Atlanta in 1973. Conrack came out in 1974, in a small theater on Peachtree up toward Buckhead. It was a fundraiser for Paideia, the school my kids went to. The kids were all young then; they didn’t know what the hell was going on except there was somebody running around with my name up there on the screen who looked a lot better than I did. It absolutely creeped me out to hear the name Conroy being called out over and over again. I cannot see that movie now because he goes around with my name. I cannot even look at that movie.

  I did have some wonderful moments with it. When it came out later at the Fox Theater, I got to take my children there to see Conrack, which I loved doing because I had been to the Fox to see Gone with the Wind with my mother. I’ve always loved the Fox since I was a kid, and that seemed like a great moment.

  My mother l-o-o-o-ved it. L-l-l-o-o-ved it. She loved the public part of it and the status it gave her. There’s a picture of Mom talking on the same stage as then governor Jimmy Carter. She went down to where they made the film in Brunswick for its opening, and Carter was down there. He and Mom were sort of the masters of ceremony, and my mother, never looking more beautiful, is there with the future president, and she looks like she was born to be on that stage. It’s a great picture. I love that picture. She adored it. She loved every bit of it.

  It was somewhere during this time that she told a newspaper reporter that she always knew Pat was going to be a writer, and she said “When the nurse brought his naked body to me the first time and laid him into my arms, I knew a writer had been born.”

  I said, “No kiddin’ Mom, you knew that then?”

  “Oh yes, son, mothers have this instinct.”

  So I said, “And in that motherly instinct, why didn’t you choose to name me Rutledge Ravenel Conroy? Why do I sound like an Irish bus driver from the fucking Bronx?”

  And she said, “He’s never understood the elegance of simplicity.”

  That I’d made my mother proud meant a lot to me. It gave me some enjoyment. We can all deny it, but it will make you proud if your parents are proud. I don’t remember Dad much in that period because he was still going through the divorce and in denial about the divorce. Dad did not go to the opening because Mom was going to be there, although by then he’d moved to Atlanta.

  Then I went around the country traveling with the movie in the role of the good Southern white person. I knew nothing about teaching. I knew nothing about anything. They were pointing me to places, and I would go and talk after the movie was shown. Usually it would be teachers I talked to. This moment I always loved is Jon Voight’s head is the last thing you see on the movie screen. They’re playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in the scene between Jon and his students; he’s leaving by boat, and he wants to cry, but he’s a Hollywood star; he can’t cry. So his beautiful blue eyes are trembling and shimmering as he says farewell. There’s been progress made, but the horrible authorities have won again. So anyway, he’s going off. Okay, the screen would flicker off and the fifty-foot beautiful head of Jon Voight would disappear, and then suddenly, the lights would come on; there’s reality; there’s day; there are your lights. At that exact moment after Jon Voight’s beautiful head disappears from the screen, the lights come on, and Conroy rises like a toad out of the audience. And to my mind there’s a gasp of horror. An actual physical repulsion takes place in the crowd that I can feel, or at least vividly imagine. I even thought that somehow Jon Voight had stolen my soul. Later, when I was writing The Great Santini, I put a small character in there named Johnny Voight, and what I wanted to do, if they ever made a movie of The Great Santini, was have a bit part where I played Johnny Voight so I could retrieve myself.

  I was also on Sesame Street as the godlike teacher of the century, beloved by children. Of course, these kids had no idea who the fuck I was. I just walked out there, and then I learned that, oh yes, there’s a baby tiger, the
hell with you. The kids don’t care about anything else, nor did I care about the kids, so it was a line about a tiger.

  I’m about twenty-five, twenty-six when all this is going on, and it was much too early to have success. Okay, I’m twenty-five years old; I’m in Life magazine. A movie has been made about me. I was not expecting that. And I think nothing screws you up like early success. Sudden fame like that does nothing but fuck you up. I had learned early to keep my head down with Dad, and he did not allow me to develop an ego. I found it best to keep low, hide in the grass, know where the shrubbery is, get out fast.

  But it was overwhelming having all that happen when I was that young, especially because it was something I simply had never considered would ever happen to me. And all of this happened after I was brought low to the earth and a herd of elephants had trampled me in my front yard and my body had been used to fertilize the gardenias. I couldn’t get a job anywhere in the world teaching. My teaching career was over. I tried to get other jobs; I couldn’t get them. I just didn’t know what I was going to do. I did not know how it would ever turn around. Things were not looking good for the old kid. My life had been so bleak, so dark; it was so impossible to look forward to anything, and then suddenly my fate seems to change on a dime. I had a chance at an actual real life. I did not seem as doomed as I was right after I got fired.

  I don’t think I was prepared for it. It seemed like it all happened at once, and I did not have time to process any of it. I was fired; I was desperate; I’m looking for jobs; I write The Water Is Wide in a three-month white heat. A man comes by, tells me about his agent; I call his agent; I have that ridiculous scene with Julian and his secretary, then he sells the book to Houghton Mifflin. Holy God, it all seemed to take place at once, exploding around me. It all just seemed to happen rapidly without me being in control of any of it. I think too much happened to me in too little time, and I simply did not bear up under it all very well. It seems like I processed nothing. I let events swallow me up, eat me alive, tear me apart as I broke down.

  First of all, I was still in a state of shock about being published. That shocked me; that process shocked me; how inept I was going through that process shocked me; my going to New York to visit Julian was full of surprises. But in America, you know, a book is nothing. A movie is something. And that does a number on everyone around you. Every single person around you becomes aware of that, from your children, to your spouse, to your mother and father, to your brothers, to your friends in high school, to everyone. It changes every single one of your relationships instantly. I went up to some kind of event at the kids’ school, and one of my daughters said to her friend, “I’d like you to meet Pat Conroy.”

  I said, “Daddy. You’d like her to meet your daddy.”

  “Yes, this is my daddy, Pat Conroy.”

  And I thought my God, it’s gotten to the kids. It must have been overwhelming for Barbara. But as far as I could tell, it just made her more ambitious, made her want to go to law school, and got her in to law school. That seemed like a good response to it. She found something solid, and it led her into a very, very good career.

  But this is where I think early fame hurt me, interfered with my life and fucked it up: I had no idea that my being a writer would attract women to me. It just never occurred to me. And since I’d never dated, I think this ended up breaking my marriage up and screwing me up. I was a good Catholic boy, a nice Catholic boy; so this screwed me up. I tried not to make it hunting season, but I was simply responding to the testosterone God put in my body. But if not for fame, I would not have had women coming at me. It wasn’t because of my ebullience, my life force and charm. It wasn’t as if my personality had improved that much or I’d had a dick implant. It was simply because fame is an aphrodisiac that I had not really understood until it happened to me. So if not for fame and my lack of dating in high school and college, I would not have had affairs.

  It was always shocking, women coming on to me. It just shocked me. I should have been protecting the marriage with Barbara and these kids, and I have always regretted that I did not. Basically, I was just your common, dreary asshole new at fame who was too big for my britches, and my marriage with Barbara did not have a chance because I did not handle the first incoming of fame very well. I became an asshole because this came to me way too early. I think I could have handled it better if I’d been older. But I was a kid. I went to Daufuskie when I was twenty-three; I was fired when I was twenty-four; I started writing The Water Is Wide, which came out in 1972. My generation had not quite gotten started, and I have Jon Voight playing me in a movie. I was early, and that will kill you. This is where I think fame fucked me up, and I saw that it fucked me up, and I tried to fight against it after this. I see fame doing no one any good at all, so I try to draw back and not let those forces in. There’s some shield that I put up where that cannot penetrate, and I choose for it not to penetrate.

  The Water Is Wide sold five or six thousand copies in hardback. But after the movie, I think the paperback rights went for $125,000, shocking Houghton Mifflin. Julian Bach was shocked, but happy. Everybody was shocked but happy. During this period, the mid-’70s, selling six thousand hardbacks was considered successful. Nowadays if I only sold six thousand hardbacks, the publisher would drop me. They would not wait for my career to build. They don’t wait anymore.

  But Houghton Mifflin thought my book was a success and wanted me to write another one about education, which I did not have in me. And I was not interested in writing nonfiction at all. I had the Thomas Wolfe, Faulkner, Fitzgerald dream. I don’t think it made them very happy that I wanted to write a novel. They wanted me to write teacher books for the rest of my life; they thought it was a natural direction to keep going. But I didn’t even know anything about teaching when I wrote The Water Is Wide. So I said, I’m not teaching anywhere, I’m not going to teach anywhere, and I’d like to write the novel. And of course when I told them what the novel was about, they had never heard of a novel about a military brat. That did not excite them. Then when I was going to write about the Citadel, none of them had ever heard of it, I can tell you that. Is that a college? Yes, it is. Is it accredited? Yes, it is. Four-year? Yes, it is. Does it have active alumni? Yes, it does. Why haven’t I ever heard of it? Because it’s completely unknown in the real world. There’s always a problem with every book I write. A shrimper—who gives a flying fuck about a shrimper? Luckily, the paperback sale was always high enough to encourage them to get me to write something else. I think The Great Santini sold seventy-five hundred in hardback, and The Lords of Discipline I believe sold ten thousand. So the paperback saved my early career.

  Now with The Boo, I was writing about the good dad. The Water Is Wide, that was the good teacher; I wanted to be the good teacher. I wanted to be Gene Norris. Afterward, I was starting to face the reality of what Dad was, what our lives were, and what a lie we grew up under. That’s what drove me crazy, the lie that we all fell prey to, that we all paid lip service to: the happy family, the happy Conroy family, Dad calling us the magnificent seven.

  I remember having a one-two moment, a snap-to moment in Oliver Bowman’s wonderful psychology classes at the Citadel. He was a magnificent teacher; this guy was unbelievable to me; dynamite. In his class I was getting jolted all over the place. He hit us with some statistics: “When you have seen your mother being beaten by your father as a child, you have 64 percent more of a chance of becoming a wife beater when you are a husband.” Okay, I snapped to attention at that. “If you were beaten as a child, it goes up to 70 percent that you will probably beat your own children when they are born.” He goes all over this study that was done. I’m sitting there absolutely shocked. I’ve never told a soul what Dad did. Oliver Bowman made it sound like this is just a fact of life, and I have a feeling a lot of Citadel guys had fathers like mine.

  And I’m sitting there thinking okay, there is some poor girl running around out there that I have not even met who I will be beating some
day because I had an asshole as a father. And not only that, if we’re lucky enough to have children, good God, what luck for them, I’ll be beating the shit out of them like Dad beat me, and it horrified me. It just absolutely struck me with horror that this is even a possibility. I’d never even considered such a thing. It repelled me more than I can tell you, and I’m sitting there feeling complete and utter sorrow for some girl who has not even fallen in love with me or I with her yet, because she’s got a reason to fear that I’m going to be pounding her face in. She doesn’t know, wherever she’s sitting right now, and I don’t know it, but now I do. That was one of the moments of clearest distinction for me, where I would start looking at things, watching things, making decisions about things, and changing whatever it was inside of me that I did know about that would cause me to beat a wife or a child.

  What it led into is Oliver Bowman wanted us to write something personal about our family that we’d never told before. I think he figured that a lot of his students had something like this they were hiding. And he was gay, so he knew about secrets. I got plaudits for writing the bravest article, as naturally I would at the Citadel. I wrote about Stanny’s alcoholism. The other guys wrote about how they once stole three records from Sammy’s Music Shop on Main Street. One had gone joyriding in his uncle’s car and crashed it. It was all that kind of stuff. So when I wrote about Stanny getting drunk and falling downstairs, it looked like the real thing to him, but I knew it was fake. Even then I knew I was avoiding the big subject. I don’t think I had articulated it that well to myself at that time, but it was a very important part in my transition of what I had to write about. He got me thinking.

 
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