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My exaggerated life, p.16
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       My Exaggerated Life, p.16

           Pat Conroy
 

  Then I met a woman at one of Cliff Graubert’s book parties who’d written a couple of novels. Candace. I was talking to her, and she said she had this great shrink, and I said, okay, what is the name? She told me. Marion O’Neill. There was another woman at the same party who also saw Marion O’Neill. I liked Candace and could tell she wanted to have an affair. I slept with her twice, which I regret, but at least it got me to Marion O’Neill.

  I had to have a female therapist. I couldn’t stand these fucking guys I went to. I hated them. I had gone to a couple of shrinks who would just look at me. It drove me nuts. I said, hey pal, I’m paying you ninety million an hour for you to look at me? I want you to talk to me. I want you to say something to me. One psychoanalyst—I’m sitting there talking to him, and he stared at me, and I stared back at him, and finally I said, “Sir, are you ever going to talk to me?”

  “Do you have a need for me to talk to you?”

  “Yes, I do.”

  “Why do you have a need for me to talk to you?”

  Fuck you, I’m outta here.

  Marion was straight with me. I had to have straight answers. You’ve got to talk to me. Don’t sit there like a shrink fruitcake and just stare at me. You got to give me some advice. I got to know how I’m doing. The first thing when I got in her office, she wanted to know, “How did you get my name?” I said, this woman mentioned you. And she said, “Are you having an affair with her?” I said not really, but I thought it might lead to one. And she said, “You’ve got shitty taste in women, pal.”

  I thought, “I found my girl.” And I said, “Yes, this is one of the problems I’ve had in my life, Marion.”

  Then I said, “I think I might be crazy.”

  And she said, “Yes, I think you are. But I can help you.”

  I can’t tell you the relief I felt. These were the greatest words I’d ever heard. At least somebody had finally named it. I was feeling crazy. I was, to me, acting crazy. I was feeling completely nuts, isolated, alienated; feeling so completely despondent, so on-the-floor sad, and when she said it, it at least gave it a name. At last I had a name. Okay, I’m going through a period that’s crazy, but I can get out of it.

  Marion thought I had a reason to be crazy. We went through my whole childhood, my whole life, and there were legitimate reasons why I had problems, problems that were going to pursue me my whole life. Because you cannot make up for that ruined childhood. You never can quite correct that. You can learn to live with it, you can explain it, you can understand its effect on you, but there is no cure for that. Childhood is a matrix of immense power, and it works on you in ways you cannot control.

  She did not put me on medication. “Why would I put you on medication? You’d take it and kill yourself.” So I had the talking cure, which I learned to believe in. The talking cure is going out of style? Not for me. I think it saved my life. I told Marion stuff I’d never told anybody. It all later came out in the books. I’m sure I talked out my books—The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, The Prince of Tides, Beach Music—I’m sure I talked those books out to her in that therapy. I first had to release it to her, in the privacy of her office, because it filled me with shame, and it filled me with disgrace, and it filled me with absolute horror, that I had seen my mother beat up and I couldn’t help her, that I should have plunged a knife in my father’s back, that I should have done this, I should have done that, but I wasn’t strong enough to kill him. Her take was—considering my childhood and everything else it led to—her conclusion was: Why wouldn’t you be crazy with that?

  She was great for me: straight, direct, and honest. I learned things about myself I did not want to learn. But one day she told me, “I’ve never seen anybody under such stress and anxiety. I think you were raised to believe you could take stress. You can’t. You’re terrible at it. It kills you. She told me I am not good with friction, I am not good with high anxiety, I am not good with tension, and I am not good with stress. You just can’t do it, she told me. This was like sticking a pin into the Hindenburg. I felt this huge release, because I had felt stress my entire life and didn’t know it. I had been overstressed from the time I was I think a baby. And the thing about anxiety—it never leaves, it just moves elsewhere. It almost had you yesterday, but then you got away. So the forces of anxiety simply shifted, the troops are in movement, the infantries are on the go. They’re on foot, and they’re finding something else right now. They have their eye on things that you love.

  Marion also told me, “Don’t fall in love with every woman you meet.” She said, “Pat, you have no taste in women whatsoever. You like them all. Be careful about that. That is hurting you.”

  I would have fallen in love with Marion had she not been so completely unapproachable in that way. It was an accident, a total, complete, and wonderful accident that she was so utterly impervious, unsusceptible, and bulletproof. I did not even try to flirt with her. She was no-nonsense. There was no bullshit. I could not fool her. I could not use my charm to deflect her. I could not use my stories to get away from her. Sometimes I hide behind stories and don’t reveal myself. Marion let me get away with nothing. She simply stared at me like a buzzard, waiting for me to rot properly in the sun before she made her move.

  At first I was embarrassed about actually going to a shrink, and she had to work through that with me: the Southern male of the nontherapeutic breed, the Citadel man, the son of a fighter pilot. I had to get through some of that. Therapy is what men say they won’t do. I’ve had male writers boldly tell me they would never go to a shrink; their psyches are so attuned to literature that they put all of their demons into the writing itself. Of course, to a point guard, that sounds like macho bullshit. My father told me I should never say it out loud so nobody knew. It would hurt my reputation as a writer and everything else. And after my second breakdown years later, I have had people want to attack me for it. What has happened a lot is Citadel guys coming up to me at book signings. They’ll say, “You admitted in the Wall Street Journal that you actually had a nervous breakdown and required psychiatric care.”

  “Yes, I did.”

  “Well, why would anybody give a shit what you have to say?”

  “I don’t know. A lot of people don’t.”

  “But you admitted going to a psychologist.”

  “Yes, and here I am. I’m standing here and you’re buying one of my books, so it seems to have worked out somewhat well.”

  Marion used to say that men were usually not open to talk about their emotional life; that was most of her work, getting men to talk about their emotions. And she said, “Pat, here’s where you’re going to be all right: you can talk about your emotional life.” She said I had the kind of anxiety that would never lead to ulcers because I do not hold my feelings in. Somewhere I must have a hidden vagina or a female organ, because I can talk about my feelings, and I can cry. Marion assured me my anxiety had a way of getting out into the world, and I think she thought that was writing. What therapy is like is also what writing is like. Every book I’ve written has been called forth from a dark side of me. Marion told me: “A lot of your cure comes from your writing, and the deeper you go, the better it’s going to be for you and your mental health. There are things you have not dug out yet. You’ve got to make sure you keep digging.”

  Everything I think I do and say and write is a huge Sisyphus-like rock that I got in childhood and struggled to push up a hill. The English would say I’ve only written misery memoirs, but what the English fear most is a book that can actually help you psychologically get through life by releasing the demons you keep inside. This terrifies the English; they cannot stand it. And some writers seem terrified that there could be any therapeutic aspect in their writing, because if it was therapeutic it would somehow take away from the literariness of their work. So they can’t possibly admit there may be some psychological healing that can be done in the writing out of a novel. And that’s always, to me, just seemed like fear of the critical establish
ment. I imagine Homer crafted his epic poetry because he was working out some kind of psychological issue—maybe his blindness—who knows?

  When I write, I go to someplace that I don’t know about to write, and I think I did that when Dad was beating me. Because when Dad would beat me, it was either so traumatic or painful, I simply had to go to this place, which was almost putting myself through a self-psychosis where I could not take in everything that was assaulting me but I could close it off. I could take myself out of the situation when Dad was beating me. I’ve even had dreams about going out of my body and looking down at what was happening, not believing it was me that it was happening to, but observing it. So when Dad beat me I would disappear into myself and go to this place inside me. I had to go somewhere when this took place. It’s the same place I go when I write, because I have to go somewhere when I write.

  Marion O’Neill thought it probably helped me survive without becoming psychotic like Carol. She said, “Pat, I think what happened is when you got beaten as a child, you had to withdraw or dissociate from what was happening to you, and you learned how to do that.” And she said, “I think that goes with your writing. I think you do that same thing when you write. You go into this world of yours, and that’s why you can’t remember anything you’ve written afterward.”

  Anyway, therapy seemed to open up my life, which I liked a lot. Self is an unknown territory to many people. It ain’t to me. I think the best country you can visit is that of self, and if you have never done that, you’ve missed a great part of life.

  When they were desperately looking for blurbs for The Great Santini, I could tell there was some worry about the book, and finally this one publicist said, “Pat, we’ve sent your book to writers all over America. We can’t get anybody to blurb your book. Do you have any other ideas?”

  I said, “No, I don’t.”

  It didn’t upset me because I didn’t even know what a blurb was then. And I never filled out this form that might get me blurbs, because I didn’t know anybody. Anne Siddons had not made it yet; Terry Kay had not made it yet; Paul Darcy Boles was nobody, so I just didn’t know anybody.

  One day they told me, “Pat, we almost had a blurb for you.” And they sent me a postcard by Ward Just, this journalist who started doing novels late in his life. So Ward writes Houghton Mifflin, “Dear,” whoever the editor was, “I couldn’t possibly use my name to further such a poorly written book. But tell the author when that sister appeared on stage, the book took on something that seemed like life. Ward Just.”

  I remember it hurt my feelings. But as publishing life goes on, years later I receive a book in the mail for a blurb. It’s called something like The Ambassador’s Daughter, by Ward Just, and I write back on a postcard, “Dear Editor, tell Mr. Just I could not possibly lend my name to such a poorly written novel. But tell him when that ambassador’s daughter appeared on the page, it took on something that almost seemed like life, but not quite. Pat Conroy.”

  Okay, I thought about it. I didn’t mail it. I didn’t mail it. It was the bad me acting up. But I enjoyed the thought of mailing it.

  Because I got pounced on when they tried to get blurbs for me, it’s turned me into this Beast of Blurb Land. That’s how I became a blurb slut, which is a phrase stolen from Josephine Humphreys, who told me, “Pat, you and I together are called the Blurb Sluts, because we’ll give everybody blurbs.” I did not want any new, young writer just starting out as I was once, not having a blurb from at least one writer. So I will give anybody a blurb.

  Now, I did not realize for about ten years, Bernie Schein was giving blurbs out for me on a frequent basis. I’ve had people say to me, “Mr. Conroy, my God, I feel like putting a hickey on your neck because you gave my poor book the only blurb it got.” And they tell me the book; I’ve never heard of it.

  I’ve lied about it so many times, I just, “Oh, you’re welcome.”

  Finally I called Bernie. “Is that you?”

  He said, “Pat, you’d give them if they could get to you. They just can’t get to you. So I do you a favor and do them a favor. They are so grateful to me for the rest of their life for getting you to do it. And frankly, Pat, I’ve become a lot better blurb writer than you are.”

  These people would give their books to Bernie and say, “Give it to Pat,” and Bernie: “I’ll give it to Pat. I promise.” Or somebody will call Bernie and say, “You know Pat Conroy. Can you get me a blurb from Pat?” “I’ll be happy to.” And I never hear from the person.

  I said, “Bernie, how many blurbs have you given for me?”

  “Oh,” he said. “Not many. Couple hundred.”

  A woman came up to me the other day, she has a self-published book, and she is in full adoration mode. She says, “Pat, I cannot thank you enough for giving me a blurb.” And, you know, “It changed my life; it changed my husband’s life; we’re naming our first child after you; we named both of our dogs after you.” She goes on in this moment, and I always know I shouldn’t ask what the book’s called, and it was something like, you know, Full Dancing Bobos or something. She said, “You don’t remember the book?”

  “I remember it, yeah, it’s great. I loved it, I couldn’t put it down.”

  But I have never seen, never heard of the book; the book was never sent to me. And yet, there’s my name with this elaborate blurb. And I called Bernie, I said, “Bernie, you cocksucker, you’ve done it again.” And I said, “Bernie, I wish you’d quit doing that. It’s so unprofessional. It makes me look like an idiot. But of course you don’t mind looking like an idiot.”

  And he said, “No, when I think about it, Pat, it makes you look much more like an idiot than it does me. And I like you to look like an idiot, and I like to make you look like an idiot.”

  Now this is appalling to all human beings except Bernie. Once he did it to our friend Terry Kay, and Terry won’t stand for it. As Terry says, “Conroy, I have some principles and dignity which I can fall back on. You have nothing.”

  What he did with Terry is, Bernie wanted to get a short story published in the Georgia Review. Stanley Lindberg was the very distinguished editor of the Review, so what Bernie does is he writes a letter from Terry Kay to Stanley Lindberg. “Dear Stan, the next great short story writer in America is an undiscovered writer named Bernie Schein, living in Atlanta. I’ve read some of his stuff and it deserves to be in anthologies and compared to the best in literature. I think Georgia Review should publish him. Terry Kay.”

  Terry knows nothing about it until he gets a call from Stanley Lindberg, “Who’s this guy Bernie Schein?” Terry Kay goes nuts. He goes crazy. He explodes with rage. He tells me he will cut Bernie’s dick off and feed it to a trout if Bernie ever does that to him again. He calls Bernie up and screams at him. Bernie just laughed.

  Bernie’s daughter Maggie was a very good ballerina, and he was fund-raising for her school, writing up a fund-raising letter. So I get a letter in the mail that says, “Dear Atlantans, I believe that everybody who truly believes in the arts in Atlanta, Georgia, should sit down right now and make out a check for a million dollars to Patsy Bromley of Terpsichore Dance Studio.” I’m thinking that’s the dumbest fucking thing I’ve read in my life. I’m quite amazed to find my name on the next page: signed, Pat Conroy. I’m so pissed off I run over to Cliff Graubert’s bookstore. As I run in—fuming, furious—Cliff hands me a check for $1,000,000 made out to Troupe de Terpsichore and Patsy Bromley.

  He said, “I certainly believe in the arts, Pat. And I want you to know that.” Then, of course, he falls down on the floor laughing and, “What an asshole you are. Why do you let him do it?”

  I said, “I can’t quite figure how not to let him do it.”

  I’ve never quite figured it out, I still don’t know. And people always wondered why I put up with it. All I can tell you is that most of it tickles me, and it tickles the shy boy in me who would never say or do any of the things Bernie does.

  Terry Kay cannot believe that I give Bernie th
is leeway. “Excuse me, Terry. Will you please explain to me exactly what I can do about it?”

  “Goddamn it, Conroy. You can protest.”

  “Oh, yeah, Terry, protest to Bernie? ‘Bernie, I’d like to issue a protest about your overuse of my name’? Okay, I can beat Bernie up, I can take a tire iron to him and beat him into the ground. Do you think it would stop him? No! He’d still do it, he’d do it more.”

  Because that’s Bernie’s nature. He would continue to do it. What can I do? You know, arrest his mailman? Do I put an alert out: “Bernie Schein is sometimes writing blurbs for me”? The hardest thing to do is protect the integrity of your signature. And tell me how you stop Bernie Schein. I don’t know how.

  Someday, it’s going to happen with Bernie. I know that. “This book sucks.” But so far, it’s been okay.

  When The Great Santini came out, it just exploded all over the place. Even I underestimated the fury it would unleash when you begin that little journey of telling things about a family they don’t want to hear, are not prepared to hear, are completely prepared to deny. I got called the name of every traitor in history. I was Judas Iscariot; I was Benedict Arnold. I knew when I wrote the book I was going to be called a liar, but my God, I didn’t realize how much I was going to be called a liar. I did not know how many people would side with my father. I did not know Mom would go crazy, and it was Mom who said I was messing up her life. For a redneck girl from the Alabama and Georgia hills, Mom had done what she felt was extraordinarily well, and to have that sullied, to have that damaged by me … I didn’t realize she had kept it totally quiet and nobody else knew it. She’d never told any girlfriends; she’d never told her sisters; she’d never told her brother; she’d never told anybody that this had been going on.

 
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