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My exaggerated life, p.15
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       My Exaggerated Life, p.15

           Pat Conroy
 

  Later I was burning with all that, seething with all that. Then, the summer before I got fired from Daufuskie, Dad was going to Vietnam. The family came back from the movies, and I went up to bed with Barbara in our house on Hancock Street. I hear Dad hitting Mom downstairs, and I go down to stop it. That night, I beat Dad up.

  Barbara’s yelling from upstairs, “What’s going on in my house?”

  “Nothing, dear.”

  “Oh, there’s something horrible going on in my house. I demand to know at once.”

  “It’s nothing, dear.”

  When Barbara comes down, I realize I have never told her a thing. I’d never told anybody anything about the abuse I’d gone through as a kid, or my family had gone through. That was the hidden self that I had kept really hidden because we feared if Dad were ever arrested for child abuse or wife beating, that would be the end of his career. Mom used to say, “None of you will go to college.” Not that the Ivy League was waiting for the seven Conroys out there, but we would not even have gone to chiropractor or beauty school. I grew up in one of those households where the problems were not acknowledged or talked about, so there was always a festering, there was always a geyser exploding from inside. It was going to come out somehow.

  After I settled people down that night, I then go out looking for Dad, who’s not in the house, and find him passed out on the Green. Get him up—he’s drunk—and walk him back. Out of nowhere, I say, “I love you, Dad.” He looks at me and starts running. It tickled me so much that I’d finally found the words he could not take. I’d finally found the phrase that could drive the Great Santini away. So I started saying, “I love you, Dad. I love you.” He would turn each time I said it, stumbling, and turn, stumbling. I suddenly realized I had discovered a power that I had no idea I had. I had words that were more powerful than anything he had, more powerful than his fists, more powerful than his beating up of his wife and kids. I had discovered something that was beyond anything he could put up against us, anything he could throw against us. Any sort of armament he could fire at us; I had found some shield. That shield had developed in this secret place in me, and I didn’t know it was there. It took me years to figure out where that came from. And I think my writing life has been dependent on where that came from, how it was in there, how it developed in there, how it survived in there.

  Then when I went into the bedroom that night, I told Barbara everything. That and beating up Dad broke something. That night broke something where, okay, the truth is out now. It’s fair game now. I think I began writing The Great Santini that night, not literally, but it certainly began things in my head.

  Later, after The Water Is Wide, I was invited to the Marine Corps Officers’ Wives Club in Beaufort to talk about the book. The officers’ wives were very proud to have an officer’s wife’s son address them. It was a nice day, and I get up there to the Officers’ Club, where I’ve been innumerable times, I’m surrounded by these pretty women who reminded me of my mother, my mother is there, and something got set off. Something was actually set off in my then feverish, now addled, now calcium-deposited brain.

  Nowadays I am famous for never talking about the book I’m trying to sell. I have driven the book reps nuts in every company that’s ever published me. I just go and tell stories and have fun, and I want the audience to have fun. If there’s a funny story about the book, I’ll tell them, but otherwise it’s boring to talk about your own book. It is boring to me. I’ve listened to writers, and God, I’ve listened to more writers trying to sell their own books than anything in the world, and it bores me; it’s a boring form of human speech. And I’ve always told the reps, “Look, here’s my theory. If they like me and enjoy me, they’ll buy the book. If I bore them to death about the book, they’re not going to buy a book. That’s my theory, so let’s see how it goes.”

  That day, I was supposed to talk about The Water Is Wide. That’s what they asked me to do. I got triggered, I wasn’t expecting it, and I ruined the day by talking about Dad knocking me around, knocking Mom around. I just wanted to tell them for your kids, that shouldn’t be, that should not have any place in a Marine Corps life or heart. That should not happen to you; it should not happen to your kids; your husband should not do that. Well, some women in there went crazy with fury. I can always piss off half the known world whenever I want to. But Mom and I noticed that other people loved my ass for it. It turned out for me to be the absolute beginnings of The Great Santini because of the emotion it raised.

  At this time in Atlanta I started breaking down from the pressure of writing Santini because I knew as I was writing it that I was entering territory I was going to pay a great price for. I was diving too deep for where I was at the time, and it all just simply came apart for me. As I look back on it, I put immense pressure on the young boy I was. I just put huge pressure on that kid, and obviously I was not equipped to handle it. It was the pressure of taking on The Boo as a project, writing The Boo, which was banned immediately at the Citadel, marrying a woman with two children, taking in three kids from Daufuskie who didn’t have a place to live on the mainland, having a child of my own, and then getting fired from Daufuskie Island, which I did not know but would take me out of teaching forever and what I thought was going to be my profession. A movie comes out about me in 1974, and all this is in my twenties. Thinking that The Water Is Wide is just beginner’s luck, and then starting to write The Great Santini, starting to tell the stories I knew I was not supposed to tell, the stories I was not quite ready to tell. When I was writing that novel I was starting to face the reality of what Dad was and what our lives were, what unhappiness and what a lie we grew up under. I was not psychologically prepared to handle it. That was too much on me, and it brought me to my knees. It was just too much for me. I was taking in too much. Barbara had started law school, and that put on added pressure. My life seemed overfull, brimming, spilling out, too much of everything. I was not equipped to handle any of it. And that pattern continues through my whole life.

  Writing the book was having a horrible effect on me, and I was cracking up because in the background there was a sense of betrayal, that I was playing the role of Judas Iscariot to my family when I knew the rule of omertà as well as anyone on earth. I was picking a subject where I knew there would be an explosion in the tunnel. And I saw it continuing. If I kept writing I knew I was going to do it to the Citadel; I was going to do it to everything, because the only thing I thought could actually keep me alive was telling the truth about all that stuff. At the same time, I was so worried deep down inside that what I was dragging up was what was going to kill me. Then I realized that I wasn’t telling everything, I was suppressing, I was in the act of not telling the truth. I also had an anger to deal with, a fury I could not hold back coming through. All of this drove me crazy.

  Also, I was having trouble with Anne Barrett, who became my editor after Shannon Ravenel left Houghton Mifflin. Anne Barrett was this motherly, sweethearted, kind woman, and I was like a barbarian to her. She rejected the manuscript the first time because it was too violent and she did not believe in the character of the Great Santini. She thought fathers were fonts of wisdom; no father would ever treat his son that badly.

  “We don’t believe a father like this can exist,” my little New England editors were telling me.

  I said, “Anne, not everybody comes up like you, I promise.”

  “People like this don’t exist.”

  I said, “Anne, say it this way: ‘I don’t know people like this who exist.’”

  I had not even begun to tell the whole truth about Dad in that book, and already I was shocking people. When Bernie went through the manuscript with me, he came to a part where the father is beating the shit out of the entire family, which Anne had struck out. He saw that and said, “I wouldn’t cut that.”

  “Bernie, they cut it. Anne says it’s not believable. She says, America is not ready for that story yet.’”

  Now, what my head cheerleader sa
ys when he tells that story: “Pat Conroy made America ready for it.” By now we have enough reports of men and women who are brutalized by mom, by dad, by Joan Crawford, by men beating their children with their dicks, but at that time guys like my dad hid from their own cruelty because it was not well known. They could hide behind the whole idea of Father’s Day and the happy American family, which people believed in during the ’50s when I was growing up.

  In the middle of writing it as I was having a very difficult time holding it together, it was also tough for me to find a place to write in Atlanta. When Barbara went up to buy a house she asked what I wanted, and I said—we laugh about this now—I said, “All I need is a place to write, I don’t want it on a busy road, and I like a wood-burning fireplace.” Okay, she calls me up, we bought the house; it is on Briarcliff Road. If I took a left out of Briarcliff Road and kept going, I could get to Miami. If I took a right out of Briarcliff Road, I could have gone to Michigan. So, I considered that a busy street, and there was no fireplace, wood burning or not, and there was no place to write. So I had to find places. I do not have this ability to write on trains, buses, or sitting on park benches. I wish I had that more than anything, but that has never been available to me. So I had to go off and write in these places of retreat and solitude, and I usually needed a clear space ahead where I would not be bothered for months.

  I would sometimes come to Beaufort, rent, or somebody would often give me a cabin on a beach, and I would write down there. Norman Berg, a book rep, gave me a farmhouse in Dunwoody. That was a great place. I had a whole house to myself on his property of about forty acres in Dunwoody. I could go home at night if I wanted to.

  But sometimes I would just go away for two or three weeks to Charleston. Mayor Joe Riley would go with his family to the beach for a month. I think it was the whole month of August, maybe even six weeks, including some of July. They had a beach house on the Isle of Palms. They offered their house South of Broad in Charleston, and I was delighted. How I almost paid them back: I went into a depression and then tried to kill myself in his house. That must have been ’74 or ’75.

  I don’t remember great thought going into it; I remember great agony going into it. It didn’t seem there was much rationality in it. I was in such pain all the time. You can’t sleep, you drink, you’re bent double in anxiety, and what can you do? What can possibly bring you out of this? I’m not like my brother Tom; heights are out. I can’t do that, because I have a vivid imagination, and I could imagine this six seconds where I’m mumbling to myself, “My God, I didn’t really want to do this. Holy shit, what do I do now? Good God, it’s coming up fast. My God, the earth, it’s almost here. Lord, here I come.” This wasn’t for me; I found that out. That was out. Now, guns I don’t like because that’s the soldier’s death. I’d read about drowning, how you struggle your ass off and you’re dying to breathe, your body’s going into convulsions, then your final breath comes, and your body is in complete agony and goes into rigor mortis before you even die. Then my daughters’ faces would all come in a triumvirate before me, and I would see them reduced to prostitution, drug addiction, and marrying people who are on the Most Wanted list by the FBI. And I personally did not want to feel any pain.

  So the one I chose is the debutante’s death, the death that involves no pain whatsoever, just drinking a dry martini, falling asleep, and never waking up again as you slip off into dreams and then ultimately annihilation. I was a pill and liquor guy. That’s the way I chose because, one, I’m a coward, and it’s totally painless; two, I’m a coward, and I wouldn’t be aware of the actual moment; and three, my father could laugh his ass off that there was something so wimpy about me. “Pat took an overdose of something called Sominex.”

  I’d gotten together a lot of sleeping pills—what I thought was a lot—and a lot of Valium. I tried drinking liquor and taking what I felt was way more pills than I needed. The one thing about suicide I learned is, when you’re serious about it, it’s the release you’re after. That’s what seems lovely about it. You cause no worries anymore, and whatever it is that is bothering you will go away. What suicide looked like to me was just blessed relief. I remember, in going to sleep, I remember the great burden being lifted, being happy when I started getting sleepy that I wouldn’t have to deal with anything anymore.

  I woke up two and a half days later, surprised that I was waking up. Obviously I didn’t take enough pills, although I’d read about these things and thought I’d used enough. There was a reason I got a D in chemistry in both high school and college. I thought I’d taken quite enough pills, thanks. I thought I drank quite enough liquor to get those pills down. I don’t know what went wrong, but I woke up many days later in terrible, terrible shape, puking in Joe Riley’s bathtub, my guts heaving. I was surprised to be alive, but I felt like I was dead because I felt like shit. Then being shocked at what I had done, remorseful, guilt-ridden with survivor’s guilt that I had survived my own suicide. Then the faces of my children coming up before me, the fear of the damage I would have done to the people around me, the kids, to Barbara, to my parents, my brothers and sisters. You don’t think about yourself as part of a whole movement of people, but you are. Anytime I’ve known a suicide, I’m always staggered by the things they set off in a family. And that I almost caused that kind of agony, that distressed me as much as anything.

  And what would it have done to young Joe Riley, his sweet wife, his two young boys if I had done that in their house? I was a young writer; it wasn’t like I was much of a personage then. I thought what trauma to put these nice people through who have given me their house for the summer so I can be writing on my stupid book, The Great Santini, which depresses me so much that I try to kill myself in their house. And I thought, you’ve got to at least be nicer than that when you kill yourself. Guy gives me his house, comes by and finds me dead in his and his wife’s bed that they so graciously gave me and, you know, I mark him and his family forever because I’m nuts? I was horrifically embarrassed by this. I had read enough biography to know that writers were often depressed and this was not unnatural. It never occurred to me this would be the kind of thing I would do, though. What I now realize: it was during the suicidal times in my life, when I tried to overdose on drugs, that my sense of humor failed me and I saw nothing funny or hopeful in anything.

  After I woke up days later, Bernie checked in on me, and when he heard my voice on the phone, he got worried. My voice goes funny when this great sadness happens. I get weak voiced and whiny. My voice completely changes and becomes pathetic. Bernie heard this voice and rallied a posse. Mike Jones and Bernie came and got me out of Charleston, and we went down to George Garbade’s cabin on the Chechessee River between Beaufort and Savannah. The guys rallied around me and sort of took care of me. We fished and crabbed, we told stories that made us all laugh, and George was hilarious because he is just a good old boy. He’s the Daddy Rabbit, and he thought I just needed to get drunk and get laid.

  He said, “You know what’s wrong with you, boy? You’re always depressed. You know why you’re depressed? You think too fuckin’ much. You’re always thinkin’ too fuckin’ much. Now, be like the Daddy Rabbit, I don’t think about nothin’ at all. And you’re too fuckin’ sensitive. I just go along and one thing leads to another, that’s fine, nothin’ I can do about it. I ain’t sensitive about it. And don’t be readin’ them fuckin’ books. They’re so depressing anybody would want to kill themselves. Just hunt up some pussy and it’ll make you feel better.”

  We always loved the way George simplified the world for us. He’d say, “Pat, I know what’s going to help you out of your depression, boy. You need a hobby. You’ve got to get yourself a hobby. Like, golf is my hobby. You know, I feel bad, I just say, Goddamn, Rabbit, why don’t you just go out and play a little golf? And I do feel bad sometimes. I know you guys don’t think I’m smart enough to feel bad, but I do sometimes. So you need a hobby, son, you gotta get yourself a hobby. And once you get yourself a
hobby, you can concentrate on your hobby, and you don’t have to worry about these weird little thoughts that run around your little head, your little writer’s head. You gotta have a hobby. If you got a hobby, you’re not gonna kill yourself. You’re not gonna have time, because you’re goin’ to be busy with your hobby.” He was hilarious. “It may not be a hobby that I like, maybe you like stamp collectin’. Maybe you like collectin’ coins. The Daddy Rabbit, I love collectin’ broads, always have. But there’s all kinds of shit you can do for a hobby, go fishin’, play chess or bridge.”

  That was good for me at the time. It got me laughing again. I told him, “Yeah, George, I got it. I’ll just play some checkers.”

  Years later, when George’s son went to the Citadel, George met the general who was in charge. My name was anathema to the Citadel at this time, and George would say, “Now, General, you don’t understand my boy Pat. He had nothing against the Citadel. He had nothing at all against the Citadel. It’s just he’s always hated torture, and he’s always hated brutality. And you got to admit—Pat is sensitive, he’s just fucking sensitive. Pat would take everything seriously because he’s so fucking sensitive.” I always liked to see how George described me to the world, and there’s something dead right about it: I’m too fucking sensitive.

  I think I got out of Charleston almost immediately after that. I remember knowing I was back to something like my old self, because I tried to leave the Riley’s house immaculate. I called Joe and told him I was leaving the key somewhere. Then when I got back to Atlanta, I knew I had to see somebody fast.

  The writing of The Great Santini split me open, spilled me out on the floor, and threw me into Dr. Marion O’Neill’s office. I cried uncontrollably when I wrote that last chapter, cried for days. I thought I was going to go crazy and kill myself. Also, Barbara and I were not doing well, and that depressed me. I was still living with Barbara, but I had a place to go write, Norman Berg’s farmhouse. I would stay there—especially when I got to be so depressed—I would stay there sometimes for days at a time. I was only thinking of myself. I was not thinking of Barbara; I was not thinking of the kids; I was not thinking of family. I was trying to hold myself together and was having trouble doing so.

 
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