My Exaggerated Life, p.22Pat Conroy
And I see girls all over the place. I see about 30 percent of the class is girls, and I am shocked. These boys clubs are hard to break into. I’m going, “My God, let me ask a question. What are you young women doing here?” And they look up, and of course they can’t answer me. They’re plebes. I said, “Let me just ask you this one question. Is it as miserable and unhappy and hellacious and stupid for you as it was for me when I was a freshman at the Citadel?” Okay, they can’t answer, but I saw these imperceptible nods of their heads, going up and down. I said, “Well, I’ll be damned. I did not know this would happen.”
The woman taking me around was a Chinese American who’d been adopted. Her parents had been hippies in San Francisco, and both died of drug overdoses, so this girl was adopted by another hippie family. And here she is one of the top-ranked kids in the Coast Guard Academy. She was sharp as hell. She said a national law was passed that women were allowed in the service academies, I think it was like ’76 or ’77, so it happened a while back. Great; I was delighted.
So that night the commandant of the Coast Guard is sitting in the front seat right in front of me. That was one of the best times in my life. I had those kids rocking and rolling, telling stories about the plebe system. It was one of the great times. The commandant comes up to me right after, shaking my hand. He wants to take me down in his helicopter to Washington, D.C., to introduce me to his staff, and he wants me to come back once a year to talk to the Coast Guard Academy. It turned out to be as nice as it could be.
The next day, I have four women from the Coast Guard taking me to the airport, back to San Francisco. So we were talking, and I said to the driver, “What do you want to be when you get out of the Coast Guard Academy?”
She shocked me by saying, “I want to captain a destroyer ship.”
I go, “No kidding.”
Another girl in the backseat, “I want to captain a submarine, sir.”
One wanted to be a Coast Guard pilot. One wanted to be a helicopter attack pilot. I’m thinking I have not met women like this too much in my life. This is amazing.
So before I get on the plane, these women said, “Mr. Conroy, can we ask you a question, sir?” I said sure. They said, “We loved your talk about the Citadel last night. Could we ask you, when the first girl applies at the Citadel, that you support her? She’s not going to have much support, and she’s going to need all she can get.”
I always love being the idiot male. So I said, “Oh, excuse me, girls. You do not understand the Citadel. That will never, ever happen in my lifetime. There are many miracles that could take place in this country; that does not happen to be one. That will never happen because of South Carolina; it won’t happen because it’s the Citadel. You don’t know the Citadel.”
And one of them answered me, rather brilliantly I thought, “I beg to differ with you, Mr. Conroy, but you don’t understand women.”
Now, tell me I did not just fall in love with that particular young woman right then. I was thrilled. I was absolutely thrilled with it. I said, “You know, I can’t imagine it happening, but I promise I’ll help that girl.”
Well, about—Goddamn—six years later or seven years later, I get a letter from those four girls. Said, “Mr. Conroy, we remember your time at the academy. It was one of the best things that happened to us during our cadet years”—or our midshipman years, I think they called it. “And we remember especially your very moving talk about your work on the honor court and how the honor court affected you deeply and how seriously you took it, and we believed every word you said. The first woman, Shannon Faulkner, has applied to the Citadel. You promised us you would help her, and we know as a member of the Citadel honor court, you will keep that promise.”
Screams erupted in the house; those Goddamn women will get me killed. But that day I called Shannon and said, “Hi, Shannon Faulkner. I’m Pat Conroy. I’m about to become your best friend.”
She had already applied, so I was pretty late on the scene. I had not heard of it, I think because I was living in San Francisco. I got to her too late. I really did. I think if I’d gotten to her earlier, I could have helped her. But already she had learned to throw her own press conferences. The people helping her navigate the very rough shoals of the Citadel were the National Organization for Women and the ACLU, and they just were not the ones to prepare a young girl to go to that school.
They were certainly helping her and bulldogging her all the way. She couldn’t have done a legal thing at all without them. But they were making her say and do things that were good for Joan of Arc, not good for getting a girl through the Citadel. Anyway, I call Shannon and give her advice. My advice was, “I would keep my name out of the newspaper any time you can. I would not give press conferences.” But by this time, it had taken off where she could not control it. I couldn’t even give her advice on it; it was just a free-floating disaster going on.
I fought in the paper with General Claudius Watts, the Citadel president, who wrote a letter saying it wasn’t appropriate for women to go there considering the mission of the Citadel. I am not a quiet man, and I got into the fight. In my usual shy, retiring manner, I wrote a letter to the Columbia State paper, where the legislature is, coming out for women going there. I got more death threats over that than over anything The Lords of Discipline ever brought me. It was a pain in the ass.
The Citadel called me and said, “Please don’t come to the campus. It’s dangerous for you here.”
I said, “Don’t worry. I have no plans to come whatsoever.”
My life has been explosive this way, with constant explosions going off, many of them self-made, many caused by my reactions to things which I did not have to have. I did not have to react this way. Other people seem to have fairly good lives, and these things don’t bother them at all. They don’t even think about it. They go to work, go home, go along. I too could have not given a shit. But as Cliff Graubert once told me, “You give a shit. Nobody else gives a shit. But you always give a shit.” My friend Mike Jones used to say, “If I ever get in trouble, I’d call Pat. Why? Because he gives a shit.” That could be my epitaph: “He Gave a Shit,” although I’d like to be the Marlboro Man, leaning against fences, smoking cigarettes, not giving a shit about anything. The writers I admire are the ones who never get quoted in the newspaper, the laconic western type. They say, “Yup” and “Nope” to reporters, and there’s a part of me that wishes that had been my lot in life, but unfortunately, God made me a mouthy creature. And I always believed in stuff. It’s because I’m the son of a warrior; I’m the son of someone whose whole life was to be sent into battle, waiting to be sent into battle, waiting to take flight upon the bad, the enemy, the corrupt. I’m simply doing what my bloodline has told me to do. Usually it’s an instant defense of the underdog, because I grew up hating bullies. But it can be anybody.
So I have a great ability to piss people off. I have noticed this. Until I became the very shy, retiring man I am today in a body cast after he’s been brutalized by life, I always kind of said what was on my mind. I’ve not been one to hold it in much. It’s been part of what I’ve had to deal with. I’ve told more people in my life to get fucked than I’m comfortable with. In my later years I’ve tried to shape it more delicately like a Lalique vase, but it is a tough thing. If I see something that’s obviously wrong, I will say it out loud, which a lot of people just don’t like. A lot of people in high positions just don’t like it. But it’s always been part of my thinking that I don’t care what anybody thinks. I truly don’t. It’s America.
During all this, the questions kept coming, “Does it bother you that you’re hated by Citadel graduates?” No, it doesn’t. “All Citadel men say you’re not a typical Citadel man. Every one of them says you’re not typical, that you don’t represent them. You have nothing to do with this school except you graduated from there. Can you tell us the difference between you and other Citadel men?”
I said, “Yes, I can, very easily. I’m richer, I’
And they would say, “What makes you think you’re so much better than the average Citadel guy?”
“I don’t, but there is this: I can out-write all ten thousand Citadel graduates whenever I would like to, every minute of every hour of every day for the rest of my life, and there’s simply nothing they can do about it.”
I used to love saying things I knew would piss them off, and the school went berserk. They went absolutely berserk. Now, why did I say that? I don’t quite know, but it usually comes out when somebody asked me a question that irritates me and they deserve an answer quickly. I call it the Santini part of me. Once I was interviewed by a snot-nosed Ivy-Leaguer who was asking, “What are your ambitions, Conroy?”
I said, “I want to write better than anybody who went to the Ivy League in my generation.”
Then he says, “Well, how do you think you’re doing?”
I said, “I’m doing a lot better than you.”
Now that strikes me as particularly obnoxious and unnecessary and warlike. I don’t like that part of me, because I know that comes directly from the fighter pilot, the uncensored Santini underneath.
So I got involved in the Shannon Faulkner controversy and wrote some stinging letters. In this one little letter to the Beaufort Gazette I said, “The thing I’ve noticed about South Carolina, not one South Carolina woman that I know of has stepped forward publicly to say they’re behind Shannon Faulkner’s entrance to the Citadel. And it occurred to me, South Carolina women would not even be able to vote if it had not been for Northern women. The people who fought for women’s rights, it’s never the women in the South. And once you get here, you get this poor Southern girl hanging out to dry by the Citadel, being humiliated by this corps of cadets, and you do not hear a single woman’s voice raised. There has not been one thing to support her, not one meeting, not one rally to support her in this entire state.” Feminism down South, that’s always been something that has not stood up to poor loudmouth Conroy’s high, high standards.
Good God almighty, I pissed off the girls of the state. I was dog shit with Citadel graduates. I have rarely pissed off people like I did with this one. I got a lot of letters to the editor saying I was an asshole. I was called so many things by so many people. But no one is more used to that. At book signings the Citadel guys would come up and say, “Where’s your fucking ring? The Citadel made you return it, didn’t they?” and I said no. They said, “We heard you had to return it. They forced you to return it.”
I said, “They can’t send guys big enough to make me return it. I earned that ring. I keep it on my writing table.”
There was a line of Citadel grads at a wedding reception I went to just waiting to tell me in what ways they thought I was full of shit, not a real Citadel man, because I went weak in my soul over humanoids like women.
I’d say, “Thank you very much, sir. I appreciate it. Nice talking to you.”
“I just think you’re fulla shit, Conroy.”
“Thank you very much, sir. It’s a pleasure talking to you.”
Then all of a sudden younger grads were coming up saying the same thing as the older grads, but here’s where I wouldn’t take it. The black guys were coming up, and they would tell me I was full of shit. I said, “Oh, please, please let me tell you how the white boys reacted when you guys came to the school. I was there; I was an eyewitness; I knew the first kid. Martin Luther King wasn’t called ‘nigger’ as many times as this kid was. They went crazy when you guys came. And this is the same thing, perhaps worse.” I thought it was worse; I did.
But I got calls from Fritz Hollings, who was our senator, and Joe Riley, who was the mayor of Charleston, thanking me for coming out for the women. They had come out for women and caught unmitigated hell from the Citadel alumni, which they both were, and I had taken all the heat away from them. No one even spoke to them anymore about it because everybody forgot that they had actually come out for it, so they could hide behind me. And they were both grateful. Governor John West wrote me and said, “Pat, thank God, you got the pack off our back. And now we never hear about it again because you’re taking all the flak. We feel kind of bad about it, but not real bad about it.”
It ended up with some women from Beaufort wanting to do something, so they had a rally for Shannon Faulkner which we got about 250 people to attend. TV came in, Shannon and her family came down, stayed at my house. She liked it; it was nice; she got some positive publicity. But I did not get to teach Shannon how to act like someone who is going to the Citadel. The ACLU had gotten to Shannon before I did. I was up signing Beach Music the day before she was going in, so I went to a party for her in Greenville, South Carolina, the day before she was going to start at the Citadel. Her father was taking her down. It was like a wake to me. I’d heard Shannon telling her cousins and her friends, “I will not submit to the plebe system. No one makes me submit to anything.”
So I take my drink and I walk out into the night air thinking, okay, this will not last long. And I’m followed by her grandparents; all four of them were alive then. They said, “Mr. Conroy, you’re upset about something.”
I said, “Nah, I’m okay.”
And one of them said, “You don’t think Shannon’s going to make it?”
I said, “Don’t tell her that, but no, I don’t, because when she said she would not submit.… The plebe system is submission. It is a complete, absolute submission of self to a system. I don’t happen to believe in the system, but I had to submit if I was going to survive. So I did submit. I submitted utterly. I made no attempts to change an ancient culture. And I just worry about Shannon’s approach. Also she has no other woman going in with her. I don’t know how she’s going to survive.”
The Citadel was vicious. They even criticized the way she looked. They had sweatshirts with this caricature of Shannon in the background and the Citadel bulldogs crying and saying, “You’d cry too if the only girl on campus looked like this.” Or it would say, “The Citadel: 2000 cadets and one bitch.”
I think she lasted five days. There was one girl’s toilet for her. I’m sure they mocked her when she went into the toilet. The whole thing was not going to work. They didn’t even get a chance to work on her, but what they did, they scared her so badly. It’s terrifying. It is absolutely terrifying. They scare you to death. I can’t imagine being in her situation. She got sick, and I’m sure that was emotional, and went to the hospital.
There was footage on national TV of cadets celebrating, leaping up and down, cheering, and hugging each other when she left campus. They had a riot of happiness which the knobs and the upperclassmen participated in. That they let the knobs celebrate with upperclassmen was simply unheard of. They were cheering the car her father drove when she left campus. It was like a pep rally, cheering the car as it drove slowly through campus with a poor broken-down girl being taken away by her dad in humiliation. It was awful. I went crazy when I saw this.
Shannon was a chunky girl, so all the women reporters said she had let women down because she was chunky. I had to join in that fray, too. This one woman interviewed me, I think she was from Atlanta TV, and you know how these girl reporters are all good-looking and they’re in great shape. This woman is saying to me, please explain to us why Shannon Faulkner did not let all women down by going into the Citadel out of shape.
I said, “Ma’am, it doesn’t make any difference if you go in shape or not.” I said, “One thing I noticed is that fat boys from all over the South were sent there by their parents, and I promise you the Citadel has the best weight reduction system on earth. I knew one guy who weighed 300 pounds when we started out, and he weighed 170 when his mother saw him the next summer. So weight has never been a problem or condition has never been a problem; they handle that extremely well.”
And so this pretty young thing said, “Oh, c’mon, if she had been in shape she’d have had a chance. We can be in as good a shape as these boys,” obv
I said, “Oh, you’re talking about yourself, ma’am.” She said, yes I am. And I said, “Do you know I could break you physically in less than thirty seconds?”
She says, “I doubt that very seriously.”
I said, “I’d have to have you get down in push-up position.”
So she does it, and she’s showing off for her audience, and she said, “How many pushups do you want me to do?”
I said, “Okay, we’re going to do this a little differently. You go halfway down,” so she goes halfway down, and I said, “Hold it.”
In about ten seconds—I don’t know if you’ve ever done this—ten seconds, your muscles start to spasm. By twenty seconds you really start to spasm, and about thirty you fall to the floor.
I said, “Ma’am, you just proved to me you can’t even do one pushup, and you’re talking about Shannon Faulkner not being in shape?”
She said, “That wasn’t fair.”
I said, “Oh, do you expect the plebe system to be fair? Where do you think I learned that trick? One thing I know, pick any muscle of your body, I can work on that muscle, only that muscle, and I can have you screaming very soon after we start to work.” It’s a culture that is not widely understood, and not many people want to understand it.
When Shannon drove off, I drove from Beaufort to her house outside Greenville and met her that day to tell her that her life was not over. She was devastated; I tried to talk her down. I just hugged her and told her she did the best job she could and try not to worry about it. I stayed that night at the house with them and left the next day. And then she found out she was deserted by all those people who had been her champions before. They left her in the lurch with nothing. That’s when her mother called me and asked if I would give them a loan for Shannon’s education, because they had spent all their money on lawyers. So I said I would pay for it outright, and the reason I’m doing it is I want to tell you all this: the Citadel I believe is a better place than they showed you, so when the story is written I want it said that Shannon Faulkner’s education was paid for by a Citadel man, and he did so with pride.
My Exaggerated Life by Pat Conroy / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes