My Exaggerated Life, p.17Pat Conroy
Stanny was one of the biggest pains in the asses of all. “I never saw your father once hit anybody. He was a wonderful man. A great provider.”
And I’d have to say “Gosh, Stanny, I can’t remember him ever doing it around you, but I can’t remember him ever doing it around anybody.”
Of course Dad had turned on the charm around everyone else. He was Mr. Snake Boy pretending he was a human being. I never felt anything when he did it except contempt, but it evidently worked very well. I had no idea he had been this ambassador of goodwill and the rest of the family saw him as a great guy with a great personality. We found out he had been going to see the cousins, the Harper boys, and taking them all to get ice cream. We were shocked by this, because we can’t remember him ever taking us to get ice cream. I think there is something about men like my dad who want to be recognized throughout the family as a kind of nobility, and in their own household they take it for granted they are nobility and are not answerable to anyone. They’re not responsible to anyone; it is their business how they treat their children; my children. It’s a sense of ownership, but they don’t own the nieces and nephews, so they have to woo them.
Then Mom came up to Atlanta to tell me I wasn’t a very good writer. And, you know, thanks, Mom, it’s great to hear it from the woman I love the best in the world. She said, “You gave the book to him. I was the leader of that house. I was central. I directed everything that happened, and everything that happened in that house happened because of me. I was so much smarter than he was. I was so much smarter.” She was more of a warrior, she told me, and she could plan her battles. Dad couldn’t; he just exploded. But she’d prepare her wars in the field against him and do them properly. “You missed it. You weren’t a good enough writer to see it.”
I simply said, “Mom, I saw it too late, but I saw it. I wrote about what I needed at that time. It was a perfect mother, like I thought you were. That is the woman I included in The Great Santini. And it weakens the book, but that’s all right, that’s how that kid made it through that horrible family.” And I said, “Mom, I’ll get you the next time out.” But when The Prince of Tides came out, thank God she was dead. I’m not sure I would have had the guts to publish that with her still alive.
Dad did me that great favor of disappearing; everybody thought he had committed suicide. But he came back with a letter that was terrific, letting his family know that they could be as mad as they wanted, but his son wrote this book. Even if the book is critical of him and hurt his feelings, he was proving that he was going to back me up. I appreciated that, and our beginning started with that.
When they had the book party for The Great Santini and somebody came up and had Dad sign it, something changed in Dad. He started accompanying me to signings where he’d sit beside me, and he started having a ball. He developed a sense of humor that I never knew he had. I don’t think he knew he had it. And he played off the character. I gave him a role where he could be the opposite of the one I presented in the book, and he said, “I’m going to make a liar out of you the rest of your life, son.” He made all this stuff up about this wonderful, fabulous man who was sitting beside me.
When the movie came out, then the glitz of Hollywood took over, and they both adored it. They both loved it. It took the pressure off the book. Beaufort of course went crazy, and Mom’s living there. Her son brought these people there, and they’re renting all the motels, and all the restaurants are filled. She’s calling me up, “Robert Duvall gets here next week; they’ve rented this house for him. Oh, Blythe Danner, they’ve rented a house right beside the one we lived in.” It totally thrilled my mother. Dad I had to bring down from Atlanta, and we watched the basketball scene of the movie being filmed.
During all this, I never had a family life that seemed stable. I had made it unstable. Everything in my life seemed like a mess. Then I hooked up with Maria Margarita in the Dominican Republic. This makes it more of a mess. That was the affair that broke, I think, the marriage up. I was smitten with her, and that was the final straw in the marriage. You know, I have found that the other woman does not please the woman you’re married to.
The Atlanta Sunday Magazine had run an article about The Water Is Wide. One of the things that ended up happening from that: the University of Georgia calls me up and asks me to go for a USIS thing in the Dominican Republic where I talk about literature. So I said, da-da-da, Conroy’s getting around. This’ll be the rest of my life. I’ll be traveling to foreign countries; I’ll be meeting presidents, prime ministers, ambassadors. “Hello, Mr. Ambassador, how are you? I’m Pat Conroy. It’s good to meet you, sir. Oh, no, no, I can’t serve as your assistant. It’s the wrong time.” You know the fantasies you go through.
I think I had just finished The Great Santini, my first breakdown had occurred, and I’m coming back from this breakdown. So I go to the Dominican Republic. I’m excited; I’ve never been to a Latin American country. I go there and talk, and I’ve got a translator, gay guy; God, he was a sweetheart. Miguel. Everybody’s named what they should be: Miguel, Maria.
I get this class, this lovely class, and the first question that comes up: “Are you working for the CIA?” I said, “No, are any of y’all? Because it’s much more likely y’all are than I am.” It turned out to be a magical week. Maria’s in there, but I did not notice her being in there particularly. Everybody was smart; everybody was communist. I never met a bright person from a Latin American country who was not a communist during that era.
I’ve never had such a nice week, and at the end, they gave me a party. I said, “Let me invite this class to America. You all come to Atlanta, and I’ll take you on a tour of Southern literature,” and so about seven of them did. We piled into a car, and I took them to Flannery O’Connor’s house, to Thomas Wolfe’s house, to James Agee’s little school. Then I went and introduced them to the kids from Daufuskie. We stayed with Mom and had a great time.
Driving them back to Miami, I realize I’m falling in love with this girl, and I was like, oh great, let me fuck my life up in another entirely different way. But I thought she was just magnificent. Her father once ran for the president of the Dominican Republic. He was imprisoned by Trujillo for a thousand years. He’s one of those guys. Maria Margarita was as radical as anybody in the world. She said what she most hated about me was my love of freedom. Because I must cement myself to the party and to the party rule, and she said, “We would have to keel you the first day of the revolution.” I said what a shame. And she said, “We must put you on la pared.” I said, “What’s la pared?” She said, “That’s the wall.”
Anyway, she was exciting. She had gone to the Sorbonne. She had her master’s, loved film. And Latin America is intense. I’ve still got the letters she wrote me, the most passionate love letters. “Gringo, I love you. Gringo, I tear you with my teeth like you are the meat that I chew.” I’m thinking, holy God. “I love you so much, even though I think you’re a pig, like all Americans are pigs, and because you’re an hombre, you has to be a pig.”
But also, because she was intellectual, she introduced me in 1977, ’78 to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to Vargas Llosa, to all of Latin American literature, which was a great find at that time. I was early to that parade and loved it. This is writing that I just adored. Latin American literature, what I know of it, and I know a lot of it, was fostered in me by Maria Margarita. Where she got her master’s degree and undergraduate had magic for me the way Harvard’s got magic for me, and the Sorbonne makes my heart sing.
When Barbara and I were separated, I went down to live with her for about a month, in her house, where Maria would sneak in the room at night and say, “Gringo, if my father catches me in here with you, he will be honor bound to keel you.”
And I said, “Well, get out of here, beat it.”
“He must keel you, or he must keel himself.”
I said, “Well, I have a solution for that. You go back to your little bedroom.”
And she said, “No, gri
So I said, “Maria, you say I’m going to be killed, you’re going to be killed, your father’s going to have to kill himself. This is too complicated, okay? This is too complicated. Stay in your own fucking room.”
She was hilarious to me. I mean, “Gringo, I luff you.” She says, “I luff you more than these American ee-diots you have dated before, these blonde ee-diots. This is the love of a Dominican woman. Passione grande; this is love that cannot be duplicated by the American ee-diots. And even though I may not do the filthy tricks gringos know and practice as they watch porno, you will have the love that will last forever.” I found this all hilarious. And, “Even though I must keel you after the revolution, I will love focking you until the revolution comes.” I used to scream laughing at this. And I think it appealed to a romantic view of love that I had. Foreign countries, and who knows what fantasies I developed in the stupid world I grew up in.
Well, she went to New York to get her master’s degree in film at the New School. She had one from the Sorbonne in something else, but she wanted one in film. So I would go visit her. God, one-room apartments in New York: this was the smallest thing I’d ever seen in my life. But that was our love nest in New York.
We finally broke up one day. “Oh, gringo, you have such American sensibilities, it makes me seek. It makes me seek.”
She had a real temper and threw me out of her apartment, hurled my suitcase into the street, which I found very Dominican. I was crying, so I get a cab, I go home, and then of course there’s a telegram waiting, “Gringo, I love you with my heart,” you know. “I’ll come to Atlanta to live with you. We’ll get married. I will have gringo children.”
And at that time there was just too much coming down, so I did not write her back. And I’ve regretted that. I thought I would marry Maria Margarita. But I just don’t know what that would have been like. I have no idea if we had gotten married what it would have been like on a daily basis. I figured this would be kind of tough to live with. And I knew if I married her, there would be this tension with the kids. I worried about that, and I should have. Also, I couldn’t quite figure this one out either: the Santo Domingo novels of Pat Conroy.
The Great Santini came out in ’76. Barbara and I may have gotten divorced in ’77, ’78. This happened in my little crazy period where I have trouble with remembering time for this period.
There was no good reason for me to leave Barbara at all. I gave her plenty of reasons to leave me. I don’t remember a great fight to keep me. But I can’t think of any reason that would have been legitimate for us to get divorced without these other women coming in. She was also impatient with my craziness. Barbara is one of these girls: I want to get my life straight. If this guy can’t do it, I’ll find somebody else. She always used to say, “Crazy scares me. I don’t like it.” So she was pretty rapid about calling it quits. And I don’t think she had any regrets—none that she expressed at the time or has expressed since then. I was taking my family on a walk down the Via Negativa every single day, and it was hard on all of us.
We went several times together to Marion to save our marriage kind of thing. And I think Barbara walked out of the session. “He’s the one that’s crazy. You fix him. I don’t need you.” I have never blamed her for that. I had the first of my great depressions when I wrote The Great Santini, and I’m sure it scared her. I feel bad for getting Barbara into that. I still feel bad. It was not my thinking that things were broken; I thought I was broken.
When I look back on it, I realize Barbara had never had freedom. Wes, her first husband, was pretty controlling, a Marine. In Atlanta, she was in law school. That was a good time in her life. I think she enjoyed it. She loved her friends. She had a healthy ego, and she was finding out how smart she was. She was almost a pioneer at Emory Law School. She was among the first women who were going through, one of the first women graduates, one of three in her class. Then she became an assistant district attorney in DeKalb County.
Barbara ended up having a marvelous career. When she retired a couple of years ago, she had this big retirement ceremony. One of the chief justices of the Georgia Supreme Court came and read an appreciation of Barbara, said that Barbara Conroy changed the way briefs were written to the appellate and supreme courts of Georgia, and she set a standard that will probably never be met again. He said it will never be the same in the appellate court or the supreme court after Barbara Conroy. And of course, our kids went crazy and loved this.
But before the ceremony was going to happen, all three of the girls said, “Dad, what time are you going to get there? What time are you coming up?”
I said, “Girls, let me teach you a little lesson in life: I have not been invited.”
And they said, “Oh, you know Mom, it’s an oversight.”
I said, “I don’t think so. I think Mom, this is her big day, she wants to play it out as her big day, so let’s let her do it.”
I was right. Barbara told me, “Pat, you would have taken away some of my glory that day, and I just thought I would keep it all to myself.” It pleased the shit out of Barbara. And she has always been grateful that I put her through law school. Nowadays Barbara and I call each other quite a bit to talk about the girls. She comes to Fripp and vacations there, so our relationship is very strong now.
One of the worst days of my life is when I had to tell those three girls Barbara and I were getting divorced. It almost killed me. I’m thinking I am fucking these three girls’ lives up for no reason except I’m an asshole. I remember the little-girl heads in that house on Briarcliff Road in Atlanta, Georgia. I think Megan was about five, and the complete lack of understanding, the complete lack of knowing what’s going to happen. I hated the looks on their faces. It was awful. It was just a terrible, terrible moment in my life. I thought, here I am, fucking these little kids’ lives up before their lives have even begun. For what, I have no idea. I was a womanizer for a while. I’m thinking of me, a one-night stander. What the hell was that all about? That did not lead to much happiness. I still loved their mother, and she was sick of me. She had a need for me to take the blame, which I can do because I come from the ancient Catholic tradition of guilt, penance, and hair shirts. But I take all the guilt onto myself because that’s where it belongs.
I didn’t know divorce would affect me as long as it did. It seemed like a great failure, divorce. There was a drag down on the spirit, an anchor weighed against me of thinking I could never be made right. One moment after I had just gotten divorced nearly killed me. Every divorced father takes the kids to Disney World, so I took mine to Disney World one summer. I wrote an article about it so I got it all free. On the way back, Megan is riding in the front seat. She’s the littlest, and she must have been six or seven then, and she said, “Daddy, I need to ask you a question.” I said, go ahead, kid. And she said, “Melissa and Jessica are worried that you’re not going to be their daddy anymore now that you and Mommy are divorced.”
I pulled over and said, “Girls, sometimes adults don’t remember to say everything. But let me tell you: You’re always going to be my girls.” I just had not thought of it. They were adopted, and they were worried. I said, “You’re always going to be my girls.”
And, “We were worried that Megan was your only real daughter.”
I said, “Nah, I adopted you all, it’s on paper, it’s official, I’ve got to have you; I can’t even throw you back if I wanted to. It’s me and you, girls, and that’s it.” I told them I was just trying to do the best I could. I was never going to be their real dad, but I was going to be their dad. They could make of that anything they wanted. I was gonna love their ass, that was my job.
Children—they ride like gargoyles of guilt on your shoulders your entire life. They’re sitting up there like rain spouts, only blood is pouring out of their mouths. They have dreadful lives, and you try to comfort them and give them joy, but you can do no
When I sit down and think about it, I can see my time in Atlanta was a very happy time for me in many, many ways. It wasn’t perfect, but it was really good.
I always have this need to form some group of people, and Cliff Graubert was one of the first people I met in Atlanta because he had a sign outside his Old New York Book Shop, “Hardbacks 25 cents,” and I thought, my God. I didn’t own any hardbacks, and I thought, that’s incredibly cheap. Of course they were all crap, but it got me into the store, and I started going through the stacks thinking, good God almighty. I realized I was going to use that bookstore like no one had before or since, and I really did. I thought, I can get another college education out of this bookstore. When I saw the books that came through, I really thought that I had found some undiscovered gold mine that would feed me the rest of my life. I plundered that bookstore for the next thirty years.
Cliff had sold furs before he sold books. I said, “Why did you choose books—for the love reading?”
Fuck no. He said, “My father had a friend who had a bookstore in New York; he said he wanted to get rid of it, wanted to retire, so I said, “Hey, books, it’s like anything else you sell.”
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