My exaggerated life, p.24
My Exaggerated Life,
I got involved with one hazing scandal that took place in 1991, when I was living in California. The Charleston Post and Courier ran an article about four jocks leaving the Citadel in one weekend because they were being hazed beyond their ability to endure. I wrote a letter, “If the jocks are leaving, the plebe system is out of control. When the jocks leave, something is really wrong, because they are going to school for free. Their education is being paid for.” And these were football players leaving. The Post and Courier named all the freshmen who had left on that particular weekend, but said they did not know the names of the people who allegedly abused them.
By noon that day I had talked to every one of the kids who left. And they told me this story that was horrible. People should have gone to jail. One jock had missed a field goal that would have beaten some big team, some big rival. If he had made the field goal at the end of the game, the Citadel would have won. This kid missed. Okay, he gets back to the barracks, and they come for him: You’re too much of a pussy; you cracked under pressure; if you crack under pressure for games, we can make you crack under the plebe system. They spread his legs like a field goal, and two upperclassmen put his head through his legs into a bucket of water and held him there until this kid completely and utterly panicked. They tortured him all night, and he had serious psychological problems from this.
All these kids were traumatized, and they gave me the names of the guys who hazed them in a second. So I wrote this excoriating, red-hot letter and told them if anything happens like that again, go to the police and have these people arrested because every one of those incidents was assault and battery. And I said, “Oh, by the way, you said you couldn’t get the names of the cadets who did the hazing. Here they are. I found them easily, and I’m in California. This didn’t take great detective work.”
The Post and Courier would not print the names. That’s the protective Charleston society. I said, “That is a problem right there. You put their Goddamn names in the paper and it stops.” It just infuriated me. It was awful what they did to these kids.
But they had got the plebe system pretty well under control they thought in the ’90s. Then they discovered they were using The Lords of Discipline to institute the old plebe system. A guy who was a year behind me in T Company came back as a commandant at the Citadel, and he said what he could not believe is, “They thought they’d done a good job in curbing the plebe system, except there was one sort of underground movement of a group of cadets who were trying to bring back the plebe system as it used to be in the old corps, and they were using your book as an example of how to do it.” I said, “Oh great!” They were actually finding out how to do it the old way by referring to my book, which became a kind of textbook to them. It never occurred to me somebody would want to do that. I think you’d read my book and decide never to have anything to do with the Citadel. At least you’d be repulsed by the plebe system. You would not want to be that nightmare in some poor guy’s life.
Now the current Citadel president, General Rosa, is definitely serious about curbing the plebe system, because I picked up the paper this year and read where they expelled four or five kids for hazing, and they have now made it an honor violation if a freshman does not report hazing. This is a complete overturning of the honor system, and it means they’re really serious about getting rid of hazing. When I was there, if a freshman had turned in an upperclassman for hazing, that freshman would have been gone that night, no questions asked—gone, disappeared. But I think there have been great changes in the military itself, and all these military colleges that used to have horrible plebe systems have changed.
Not too long ago when I had cataract surgery, the nurse asked me, “Are you from Beaufort?”
I said, “No, I got here when my dad was a Marine.”
Then she says, “I met my husband when he was in the Army after he graduated from the Citadel.”
I said, “My God! What a coincidence.”
She said, “Are you a Citadel graduate?”
“Yes, I am.”
“When did you graduate?”
She says, “That’s the same class Pat Conroy was in.”
I said, “Yes, I am distinctly aware of that.”
And before I could say anything, she says, “You know, my husband really had problems with his book.”
I said, “Oh what a jerk that guy was. What a monster. To think he would treat our school like that.”
Then she said, “I suddenly got it. You’re Pat Conroy aren’t you?”
Then the anesthesiologist comes in. He’s sort of grumpy with me, and he said, “I just want you to know, Pat, that I am Citadel class of ’78, and five of my brothers were also Citadel graduates.”
I said, “There was a time I would have jumped out of here and run screaming from this hospital.”
And he said, “There was a time when you should have.” So we both roared with laughter, and I felt somewhat better as he eased me toward unconsciousness.
Cliff told me once, he said, “Pat, The Lords of Discipline comes out, and I thought you had it made like no one else. Lots of money, you were single, living in Atlanta. Then you marry she-devil, and you blew it all.”
Something in my body must have said, “This is no way to live. You seem happy.” Because I went from that to Lenore, something in me must have missed great trauma, great horror. I soon rid my life of that portrait of happiness and joy. What I did is I went from living a nice, unemotionally involved life to a life where every day was like living in the center of the battle of the Somme. What upsets me, of course, is there’s something that was natural about all that to me. I seem able to accept more of that than most people can, and I bring disaster on myself. I am attracted to chaos. I move toward chaos. I can pull it out of the air and make it quite chaotic around me. I wanted chaos in some strange, weird way, connected to my childhood. When all hell is breaking loose, I grow calm in that. I can take something great and make sure it’s not great. I can take something wonderful, I can damage it in midair as it’s flying toward me. I can always do that. I can always manage to turn something nice into something hideous. I have an expertise for finding ruin in the midst of splendor. I am the toreador wearing the suit of lights who does all that work with the bull, and then instead of inserting the sword to sever the spine of the bull, at the moment of truth I put the sword in my own spine. I think that was a pattern that I got into my whole life.
Marion O’Neill helped me see that my comfort zone was chaos; I functioned best when I was looking over my shoulder, seeing Dad beating Mom. My instinct was to run into it. The problem is that I seemed to learn very little from having Marion point that out. Marion led to Lenore; that doesn’t seem like what Marion was trying to instruct me about. I still made these stupid, impulsive decisions, and then had to live by them. It’s a shame I could learn nothing from my former experiences, nothing at all. I will die wisdom-less. I don’t think any wisdom has accrued to me yet. On my grave they’ll say He Didn’t Learn a Thing. The best you could say is I was living a life that gave me material for a writing life.
Anyway, I was dating a lot of different people then, and sleeping with them. I found myself popular with girls. This made me nervous, and I was sick of dating. I hated dating. I’d rather get married and divorced than go on dates.
“Hi. How are you?”
“What sign of the zodiac are you?”
What sign of the zodiac? I just hated dating. I wished I had liked it a little bit more than I did. Somewhere in here, Bernie Schein comes up to me and says, “I’ve got you a date with the woman you’re going to marry. Her name is Lenore Fleischer.”
I’d heard of Lenore because of an article I’d written on divorce for Atlanta magazine. I described these metaphors for broken marriages. One woman’s husband was very proud of his salt water aquarium. A whole wall in the house was this aquarium with beautiful fish and healthy plants. A year after their divorce, it was a wasteland. It was like
When my marriage was breaking up with Barbara, our great little dachshund, Beauregard, runs out of the house and gets hit by a car right before I get there. I see it happen. I get out of my car and swoop the dog off to the vet’s. We set the dog up on the table, and the vet takes x-rays. I am sitting there talking to Beau. I said, “Beau, you dumb son-of-a-bitch. I told you not to go out that door. You’ve never listened to me. I’ve never said one thing you’ve listened to.”
The vet comes back with a picture of Beau’s back. His spine is severed. I just crack up, and by crack up, I mean I’m bawling uncontrollably. Then I realized I was a man, and I was a Citadel man, and tears were inappropriate, and that a steely jaw was much more appropriate for the situation. I did not see when Beau crawls over on two legs that are still good. Suddenly I feel him licking my tears. I completely collapse. But when I saw that x-ray of the severed spine, I knew I was looking at my broken marriage that nothing could put back together. That was my metaphor.
Lenore and Alan Fleischer were in this article. I hadn’t met her, but I’d heard this story about the time Lenore and Alan had been to family therapy. They were in marriage counseling because Alan was having an affair with a woman named Alice, whom he later married. Lenore and Alan come out, and they’re in two cars. Alan always drove a Porsche convertible, so he’s in his Porsche, and she’s in whatever she’s driving. They like cars. He’s the type who’ll beat her car in with a hammer. Alan does frontal attacks. He beat my car in with a hammer once. A bully, a small guy that’s a bully, he’d always come up to me to fight me. My surprise of him approaching me with his fists every time he saw me was he was very small. He was a nice-looking man, but very small.
Their cars were parked in this porte cochere, his in front of hers. So she gets in her car, crying, and straps in the baby. He gets in his Porsche, but comes back out and says, “Lenore, you might as well get used to it. I’m going to marry Alice, and there’s nothing you can do about it. She’s going to be the mother of your children because I’m going to take them away from you. We’re moving away from Atlanta; there’s nothing you can do about that either. There’s nothing you can do about anything, so you might as well give it up. And you’re going to be living with no money.”
She’s crying, says get out of here, I’m getting out of here, and he said, “I’m not going to let you just drive out.”
She said, “Just get out of my way.”
He said, “I’m not going to let you just drive out.”
So he goes and stands with his arms crossed in front of her car, which unfortunately is parked behind his car when he makes this stand. Lenore starts up the motor and says get out of my way. No, you’re going to talk with me, we’re going to talk this out. Lenore puts it in gear, guns the motor, and crushed him between her car and his car. He slumps to the ground, and she speeds off. He was in the hospital for a couple of days. I don’t think she even damaged his car because his body protected it, but she damaged something internally in him, like one of his kidneys. I cannot remember precisely what it was, but she put him in the hospital for a couple of days. Conroy never got between his car and hers, let me tell you. I learned from that story. But I knew she was marriage material.
It makes no sense. You can make no sense out of it. And when you get to the funny part, raise your hand so I can enjoy the joke too. Every time I think of Bernie saying he’s got me a date with the woman I’m going to marry, I want to kill him. Bernie will say, “I liked her tits.” That’s Bernie’s deep assessment. “Great tits.” I wish he had said, you know, “My God, she subscribes to the New York Review of Books,” something like that. But, Bernie Schein: he liked her tits. Bernie is somewhat defensive about this, but not totally. Bernie says, “Pat, I introduced you to her because I wanted to lie on her chest.” And I thought, you enjoy lying on her chest. And so I fantasized lying on her chest while he’s lying on her chest, and that’s basically the whole story. Girls think of pedigrees and degrees, how your children will look, and how they’ll be raised, what kind of houses they’ll be raised in, what kind of cars you’ll drive, what kind of pearls you’ll wear. Conroy thinks of body parts.
When we went on our first date, a double date with Martha and Bernie Schein, Martha thought Lenore was nuts that night, because Lenore told her, “The strangest thing just happened. I looked in the mirror on my way out of the house, and I didn’t see anybody in there. I didn’t see anybody in my face.” And Martha’s thinking, “Uh-ho.” But Martha didn’t tell me, she told Bernie, who did not tell me.
Later, when I heard that she looked in the mirror and didn’t see anybody, that seemed funny to me. Even later on—beep, beep, beep—warning signals flashed from all over the place. But I am sure my attraction to chaos, my attraction to dysfunction—everything was drawing me toward her. The whirlpools had begun, and I would always be dragged toward the center of the worst that is around me. What disturbs me is why did I not learn to control it? Why did I have to seek it out? Why did I have to find it? Even today, I can be at a party, and I’ll walk up to the woman who is most troubled, and I will be attracted to her. I can do this anywhere I go. It is like something electric. This ill-led life will skitter across the room to attach itself, even for ten minutes, to another ill-led life. Show me the woman with the saddest story, and I will marry her. Point out a girl, give me a sad story, and I’ll leave any woman I’m with and marry the girl with the sad story. Of course, it terrifies me. Marion O’Neill thought I did it because I found comfort in it. I found great comfort and satisfaction and relief whenever I got myself in the worst situation on earth. I can figure out ways to replay my childhood over and over again, no matter whether it’s my writing, my relationships, my friendships.
And in a military brat childhood, I don’t think we learn about people. You never get to know people in the way you get to know them when you go to school with them year after year. The military brat comes into town, doesn’t know anybody, has to make friends quickly with whoever he can, and it doesn’t matter anyway because he’ll be gone after the end of the school year. With Lenore, I got in quickly, always thinking I could get myself out whenever I wanted, but then I got stuck.
I could tell she was neurotic, and she had a reputation for craziness, which of course would have thrown a normal guy off the track. But crazy—you called my name? Ah, I hear that bell in the beggar’s alley, and Lenore was a beautiful girl. There was cleavage involved, and Conroy is a shallow, shallow, shallow shit of a man. Also, she was smart, and I’ve always liked smart girls. She was a red diaper baby, and I generally liked the communists of the ’30s. The people who made Conrack were communist, blacklisted during the McCarthy era. I met a million in Hollywood. They seemed like better people than me. You know, the whole thing of mankind being equal.
Also, Lenore was from New York, she was Jewish, and I’d always loved Jews. That is always the group I drifted to because they always seemed smarter than anybody else. I’d go into their houses, and that was like culture to me as I had never seen it. There were real books, there was real music being played. There was a culture. There was almost always a piano, and the kids took lessons. When I took piano, my mother copied down on a piece of paper where the keys are and laid out this piece of fucking paper on the dining room table. She had darkened the black keys, and she said, “Now, practice for an hour.”
I said, “Mom, I hit these little notes but I don’t hear nothin’.”
She said, “Use your imagination.”
But in these Jewish homes, I would see real pianos, and the kids could really play them, and that’s where I saw the most significant cultural life when I was growing up, within these homes of Jews around the South.
Bernie Schein’s mother Sad
He and Mrs. Schein used to come over to my house the year I was getting fired because they were worried about me. He would come over every year to do my tax returns. He would say, “Young man, I have noticed that you are like my son Bernard and do not seem very good at the mathematical part of life.”
Then, my mother and my grandmother always told me, “Jews make great husbands. They’re nice to their wives.” And I know why I was hearing that. Stanny said, “They’re even nice to their mistresses.” I don’t know if Stanny was speaking from experience or not, but she acted like she knew what she was talking about.
Unfortunately, Lenore’s parents were the worst on earth. Gert and Herb Gurewitz. He was a communist organizer for most of his life, organized workers in New York City. Then when that fell apart I think they both were teachers. He must have been the worst English teacher ever to live. I do not know if he ever read one of my books. I think the only thing he ever said is, “You must think you’re pretty big stuff down South, but nobody I know ever heard of you.”
When he visited Atlanta, he’d see me saying hi to everybody. “You running for mayor? Why do you say hi to everybody? You don’t know these people.”
“Maybe it will make them have a nicer day, Herb.”
“Why would saying hi to you make them have a nicer day?”
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