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My exaggerated life, p.21
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       My Exaggerated Life, p.21

           Pat Conroy
Jonathan had Phillips Exeter; he had Harvard; he had Oxford. He may have had a double major at Oxford. He had everything. He spoke Italian; he spoke French. I envied his education like nothing else. That was the education I would have paid to have. And he was the nicest guy in the world; also an excellent editor with excellent taste. We really enjoyed working with each other, and then I get a phone call from Jonathan that he was accepting a Fulbright fellowship, taking a year’s leave of absence from Houghton Mifflin to translate the Italian poet Montale, and he was going for six months to Paris, six months in Rome. I went berserk. I said, “You can’t go. You can’t do this. What do I do?”

  He said, “We’ll get you another editor.”

  I said, “That’s not the way I work, pal. I don’t like this at all.”

  I’m yelling and irritated, and so he says, “Pat, why don’t you go with us?”

  I said, “I can’t go with you.”

  Then I thought, why not? I was divorced by this time, and Maria Margarita and I had broken up, so I went to Barbara, told her I’d be gone for about five months, and promised to do something for her. Later I sent her and her boyfriend on a cruise.

  So that’s when I went to Paris and had one of the best times I’ve ever had in my life. I got a hotel room for $7 a night on the Left Bank. Jonathan and his wife got a much nicer hotel than I because he was on a fellowship, and we were there for I think four months, then they went down to Rome. I finished the book up and drove to Rome with Cliff and Frank Smith, who came over, and I gave him the finished manuscript of The Lords of Discipline in Rome.

  That may have been the happiest time of my writing life, being with Jonathan and Susan. They seemed a very happy couple; his wife, Susan, was wonderful. I had a great time, because they made it that way. I wrote all day every day, and we met for dinner. We ate dinner together two or three times, sometimes more, a week. Susan was doing her dissertation—I think it was on Picasso—and I’d go to museums with her. It was just wonderful to go to a museum with someone writing her dissertation on art, taking me through the Louvre, giving me the history of art. I mean, I couldn’t believe my luck. Here I am, poor redneck fucking Citadel-educated Conroy, with two people who both spoke French, both spoke Italian. I’m thinking, nice education, Citadel. Thanks tons. Susan and Jonathan seemed to be really enjoying themselves then and enjoying Paris together, and I envied that in a lot of ways. As I look back, I envied it too much and gave away my hard-won freedom much too soon when I got back to Atlanta.

  Each day I was writing, and with The Lords of Discipline, I thought I had finally gotten control of my style. The Great Santini, I didn’t think I had it then, but when I was writing The Lords of Discipline, there were times where I thought, okay, this is good. Life feels great when that happens. I was in Paris when I felt that happen, and it was magical to me. I had a balcony on the sixth floor, an accordion player playing next door. We were the artistes on the balcony. That’s where the artistes were put. I’ve never had such a good time in my life. Paris just lit me up. I had never imagined something like that happening to me, and every Hemingway, Fitzgerald wish fulfillment came true on that trip.

  That book came as easily as any book I’ve ever written. It felt terrific, because these things usually don’t come easily. I started with that sentence I’ve always loved. I’ll never write a better one: “I wear the ring.” I thought, okay, pal, now you’ve started to say things like you want to say them. I just absolutely loved that line, and I ended up loving the last line. I loved the lines in between. And I thought, okay, this is under control. I can do things other people can’t do, and I can try things that other people won’t try. It was a book where I finally felt the writing sounded like what I wanted it to mean. I could finally tell a reader what was on my mind, and I thought it had a completeness that I had lacked before. I thought I could tell a reader what I wanted to tell them in a completeness and an articulateness I had lacked before. I didn’t have it, and I couldn’t do it, and I struggled to do it, and I would only see flashes of it.

  When I first started writing, I didn’t have the story, but I was writing as my protest about the plebe system. I did not like the cruelty or abuse that was rampant at the Citadel when I went there. I did not like the fact they lied about it. The whole school lied; the state lied. It didn’t happen. They denied it. It was group denial. It all seemed like a conspiracy to me. I was trying to tell the truth of the place and what it is like to go through a system that is unmoored by the cult of masculinity.

  When I finished, I then had to prepare for the ram. I had to prepare for the reaction. It was always much worse than I had anticipated. Whenever I’m writing, a form of idiocy takes over me. I say good-bye, I depart from this world, and whatever I write seems to belong only to this other world I go into. So I don’t fully understand the impact my work will have until it’s too late. I didn’t know the Citadel would go absolutely ape-shit crazy when that book came out, but they did. The Lords of Discipline was immediately banned from campus at the Citadel. Of course, that meant every cadet would read it. That’s all it ever means. It means they made sure that it was read by every single cadet who was alive. But my world exploded around me when that book came out. Instantly I was in a fight with my college. They came out roaring against me, and of course, I had to roar back. I wrote several letters in defense of my sorry ass; I had a great letter-writing career. I’d have to look it up in the Post and Courier, what I wrote to them, but it was back in my fiery early days, not like now when I’m this empty husk of a katydid clinging to a tree and waiting for the wind to come carry me off to Jesus.

  The best place to write a letter to the editor in the United States is the Charleston Post and Courier. They put your whole letter. They do not fuck with you. I remember once I wrote the New York Times a letter, which they told me they didn’t censor. I said yeah, you censored it, guys. And they said, you know, we reserve the right to edit. I said yeah, here’s what I can tell you. If you make it better, you’re a good editor. If you make it worse you’re a bad editor. If you take out stuff that’s important, you’re a censor.

  My letters to the Charleston paper about the Citadel were funny, and I could always kick their ass, because the Citadel wasn’t funny, they weren’t witty, they had no answer, their answer was an institutional answer of denial, which never can hold up. Generally the Citadel found out they did not want to go up against Conroy in the press too much. The Citadel said I exaggerated, and I said I exaggerated nothing. I described exactly what happened to my classmates and me in R Company, and we could tell you the names of all the upperclassmen who tortured us. I was once on the Citadel honor court, and I kicked guys out for lying. If the Citadel tells me I’m lying about the plebe system, I will charge them before their own honor court.

  When I was interviewed, the reporter would tell me the Citadel said I was a lousy cadet. I’d say, no, look it up. I was a very good cadet who did not make rank because I would not torture freshmen. The Boo told me, “They’re looking for somebody that you tortured, that you were hard on when he was a freshmen, and they got frustrated they couldn’t find anybody.” I said, “That’s because there’s nobody.” He said, “That’s what I told them, Bubba. You didn’t do that.”

  Then the Citadel put out that I was a wild man, against all authority, against the military. That is something they were projecting onto me after the fact. I wasn’t a rebel at the Citadel. A rebel at the Citadel walked tours their entire time there; they bucked the system; they found ways to go out after taps; they went drinking; they went to spend the night with their girlfriend and sneak back in at reveille. I never walked a tour my entire life at the Citadel, because I had enough trouble just getting through the school. I didn’t want to be punished by the school as I was going through it, too.

  I believe I lit into some innermost sanctum by displaying the plebe system for everyone to see. I exposed the lie that was told by the Citadel, that there was no hazing allowed, it was against the law, it’s strict
ly forbidden to haze the freshmen. They said they didn’t do it or didn’t stand for that or would not tolerate it. This was patent bullshit. But we knew intuitively that we could not break the silence about what really happened in the plebe system. There is something with men and their rituals, men in ritualistic organizations. Skull and Bones at Yale, the plebe system at the Citadel, fraternities everywhere, it’s the same. You go through it, and you don’t tell what went on. A serious part of the military code is that the worst thing you can do is whine or complain. It’s the same with athletics. You play hurt; you don’t complain about being hurt. So I broke the code of silence, and they went nuts. I broke a taboo that had never been broken. And the whole system worked on us remaining silent about it. I did not anticipate the power of exposing that.

  When The Lords of Discipline came out, was it true or was it not was the question. When any newspaper called the Citadel, they would renounce the book and say that is not the Citadel as we know it. Now, the Boo explained to me then that the Citadel wasn’t like what I experienced when he came through as a cadet. Mostly the upperclassmen just ignored the plebes as if they were not human beings. I said, “Oh, the agony of that, Colonel. How did you stand it? Oh, what pain. That must have been awful, to be ignored by the upperclassmen. I would love to have been ignored by the upperclassmen.” But he said it changed. When he came back to teach, he was absolutely in a state of shock. He could not believe the cruelty that had taken over the plebe system. He was stunned by it.

  What happened was, when General Mark Clark became president of the Citadel, they had a problem with American G.I.s during the Korean War being broken by various forms of torture in the concentration camps in North Korea. So he decided to make the plebe system at the Citadel the toughest in the world so we would not break if the North Koreans got a hold of us. He wanted to make the whiners quit, to get rid of those guys. The Citadel couldn’t be like West Point, where they had the smartest cadets in the world, so his claim to fame was going to be the Citadel had the toughest men that came out of it. And here’s also how the ego of the Citadel answered Harvard and Yale and Princeton: they’re a lot smarter than we are, but we can beat the shit out of them. If you survived the plebe system at the Citadel, that was going to be a mark of honor and glory that you would get from nowhere else. That was our way of making it through the world. We can kick the shit out of them. It all came down to the mystique of the Citadel man: We are tough; we can take anything; we can do anything. Of course, young men loved going along with it; you know, we’re going to be the toughest. The tragedy of it is, once that cruelty begins, then the next test of the plebe system is putting the next kid through something worse than what you went through. That’s how it built up into something absolutely ferocious. When I went through it, it was out of control, and it continued to be out of control.

  General Clark came in I think about 1954 and left when I was entering my senior year, so I was there in the full blossom of his plebe system. Naturally, when Conroy went, it was at its worst. It was just my great good luck and God watching out for his favorite child. But the older graduates, who had not gone through anything like that when they were there, they thought I was some kind of psychopathic liar that made this stuff up to hurt the school. They thought I was a lunatic who had completely invented this nightmarish world, this bizarro theme park where cruelty ran rampant. They said what I wrote about the plebe system was all lies. It wasn’t lies; I was writing journalism when I wrote about the plebe system.

  What that was to every Citadel graduate when I wrote that: a betrayal. What was The Great Santini when I wrote that: a betrayal. When I wrote The Water Is Wide, that was a betrayal of these Southern values I felt were horseshit from the time I was a little boy. When they say betrayal, I always recognize the sham words, the made-up words used to silence. It can come from anywhere, but it’s always to silence. So whenever I hear the word betrayal, I hear censorship; I hear do not write; I hear you are breaking rules; I hear the Catholic Church; I hear the Jim Crow South; I hear the Citadel; I hear the Marine Corps rules on base. What I hear is you cannot write this, this is sacred, and when it is sacred you cannot enter that cathedral; it is forbidden. And everything in my body revolts against that; everything in my soul is completely repelled. I’ve always fought that kind of censorship. “You can’t write about this. You can’t write about that.” Anytime I hear that, it irritates me badly enough to make me want to write about it. When people say don’t, something in me says full speed ahead.

  One time my sister Carol said, “I hear you’re writing about me in this new book.” Yes, I am. “You can’t write about me; I forbid it.” Fuck you, I’ll write anything I want. I don’t ask people’s permission, I’m sorry. “I refuse to give you permission to ever write about me in any way, shape, or form.” I said oh, I didn’t hear myself asking for permission.

  And I said, “Carol, no one tells me what I can write about, and I don’t care who it is. They do not tell me that.”

  She said, “Well, I demand that you take out whatever you based on me.”

  I said, “You can demand all you want. But I’ll write what I want.”

  I said the same thing to Joyce Maynard, when I met her. She always asked me if she should write about her relationship with J. D. Salinger. I said, “Write about anything you want to. Never let anyone tell you what you have to write, what you should write, what you can’t write, or what they’ll read, otherwise you’ll drive yourself crazy.”

  In the world of literature I don’t like bindings; I don’t like handcuffs; I don’t like readers who point and say you cannot go there; you are not allowed to go there; you’re not free to go there; that is off limits. I hate the limitations anybody tries to put on the world of literature. I imagine this came from great English teachers; I imagine this came from literature itself as a lesson I picked up. And then of course my natural sense of rebellion. The Catholic Church told what movies you could not go to, books you could not read; they had lists of banned books. This is the old military brat, the old son of a Marine, the old Citadeler: when I hear the gates crank shut, something in me goes nuts. When I hear censorship coming down, I just don’t like it. At the Citadel, I got censored all the time. No, you can’t write that, and sometimes it was even no, you can’t think that. And over the years and over the thousands of books, I think there are some truths you come up with for yourself, especially if you have the desire to become a writer.

  With everything I’ve tried to write about, my relationship with Mom and Dad, my relationship with Carol, my relationship with the South, my life at the Citadel, I wanted to say something about it, and I couldn’t ask them what they thought. Your service is to your art, and nothing else makes any difference in the world, not your love of your mother, not your love of your children. It simply doesn’t. When it comes down to writing a book, you are at service to art. And if you’re not, do something else. What you always want to be serving is that thing that called you in the first place, that thing that was there in the room with you when you were reading in bed as a teenager, that thing coming off a book, that thing that was stirring, and you could not read this stuff without it stirring something inside you, and it’s still stirring, and that’s why you’re writing.

  There is no room for timid souls on our high dive. My writing life would be worthless if I did not write about the things I wasn’t supposed to. Telling the truth trumps every single thing. Politicians can talk for hours and not say one thing. This is also true of most people—there’s this giant conspiracy of silence to protect your own nest, which is always under attack. So it is the writer’s job to say something, to tell the truth. And I am a writer. That’s the only thing I’ve ever been or ever could do well, and I try to tell the truth in my writing.

  The Shannon Faulkner story is another highlight in my poor relationship with the Citadel. It began in about 1988 when I was living in San Francisco. My wife used to set up talks; that was her business deal. She would set up the tal
ks and send me off. So I’m going around; I’m talking. She sent me off to one at the Rhode Island School of Design, where my daughter Melissa was a student, and I was talking to a few other schools in New England. I come to one on my itinerary, and it says the Coast Guard Academy. The Lords of Discipline had been published in 1980. It was not a big hit with military academies.

  I call my wife. “There’s been some mistake. You have the Coast Guard Academy for me to speak to.”

  She said, “Not a mistake. They really want you to come. This captain is dying to have you there.”

  I said, “Are you sure?” She knew no more about military colleges than I know about fashion schools, but I said okay.

  The guy that meets me is in hysterics. He said, “My God, I never knew you were so controversial. I never would have invited you here had I known my job and my livelihood would be in jeopardy.”

  I said, “Don’t worry about it, Captain.” I think he was a captain.

  This guy told me in agony that the commandant of the Coast Guard heard I was coming, called him up, and said if I said anything controversial he would fire this guy. Even though the guy had tenure, he’d figure out a way to get rid of him. I say, “Relax, pal. We’ll have a ball.”

  He had three cadets with him, this young woman and these two handsome guys, and they were my military attachés guiding me around. I said, “Yes, yes, I always wanted an entourage, and now I have one. I feel like MacArthur.”

  I didn’t have rank at the Citadel, so I said, “Do you all have to do anything I want you to?” They said, “Yes, yes, sir.” I said, “Good. I want to march you around campus, because you’re very high ranks.” So I stood them in line. I would yell left, right, left, right; I did about-faces. I had a ball with them. So then we went to the first thing, which was, I was talking to the plebes. They’re all these miserable freshmen going through the plebe system.

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