My exaggerated life, p.26
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       My Exaggerated Life, p.26

           Pat Conroy
 

  In the middle of all this, I’m not quite digging Lenore like I should have. No one else liked her either. They were all onto her except one—moi. Dad said to me, being as fatherly as Dad could, “Son, you don’t realize that you got small town written all over you. You’re not sophisticated, and you’re not cultured.”

  “Well, excuse me, Noël Coward.”

  He said, “You can make fun of me all you want, but you can’t see a big-city gold-digger going after you.” Dad said a Chicago boy could spot those women, and he said, “That’s what I get for raising you in the crazy fucking South.”

  From beginning to end he called Lenore Lenoinks—oinks for pig. Cliff called her a Neiman Marxist. They all said, Pat, she’s bad news. She’s after you for money. She’s after you for what you can give. She does not love you.

  I should have listened. I should have gotten out of it, but I felt something funny. I felt something odd over the whole thing. Certainly the woman in peril was one of the things I felt. This woman is in trouble, and this guy was coming after her, and this guy was mean. My loyalism had kicked in, and I couldn’t leave her in the lurch where she found herself. It became a thing of her lawyer saying, “You can’t sleep with him because you are not married. You’re in danger of losing your kids.” Lenore’s about to lose her kids, and I felt responsible for that. My rescue impulse went into high gear when that happened. I find it very hard to explain Lenore to myself, except she seemed pathetic to me. A woman that seems pathetic I always seem to try to help, and that’s an instinct that comes from seeing my mother getting the shit kicked out of her. Always I was a boy rescuing his mother. Anytime there’s an underdog, I’m rushing into the breach. Now it seems like a cliché in my life. My brothers and sister say, “Just give Pat an underdog, and he’ll be happy.” Marion O’Neill pointed out that I always had to be the hero, the savior, because Mom required it of me, and then my father was the brave warrior, the war hero. There was something in me trying to live up to what both my parents expected of me, but it was ruining my life. Marion said, “Pat, every time you see an injustice, you throw yourself in, and you don’t give a shit what happens to you.” I think I got married twice because I felt a deep sorrow for these women I was dating. The seducer was never my role; my role was the rescuer. These women seemed to have gotten their lives messed up, and always I see myself in the role of the hero, the role of the rescuer. It is one of the most loathed roles one can play, and I think it should be loathed. It is a self-glorifying role, and that’s the problem with it.

  My sister Carol would say this need to be the hero has also ruined my writing. “The one thing Pat always has to be, he’s always the hero of his own books.” She says, “Pat, I know there’ll be all these shitheads in your book, but they will be surrounded by a golden-haired youth of charm, wit, humor, and wisdom. He’s the funniest guy you’ve ever met. You want to take him home. You want your parents to get to know him. That character will be based on you. There will be hideous people that the golden boy must encounter, as he makes his way to the Promised Land; that will be me, Mom, and Dad.”

  Carol is hilarious when she says it. But these characters will do things I don’t think I would do. They show courage I don’t think I have. They say things in situations I hope I would not say. But it certainly comes out of me; there’s no question about that.

  I should have written more in those years, but one main thing happened to me between The Lords of Discipline and The Prince of Tides, one very great thing. It is Lenoinks. What I did is I ruined my life in between those two books. I’d gotten myself into such a psychodrama of constantly being assaulted by Alan Fleischer, him trying to take his children back from her, lawsuits; very simply I think overwhelmed me. Going to Rome was a defensive mechanism to get myself away, to get myself out of there, get her out of there, get her kids out of there. He was such an asshole, such a control guy. And he had to have their children. When Houghton Mifflin sold the paperback rights to The Lords of Discipline for $695,000, they split that with me, and that’s when we decided to move to Italy to get away from this guy.

  Alan actually won one round in Atlanta because Lenore and I weren’t married. That was it basically. He was; we weren’t.

  As we were walking to the elevator, Alan races over to me, says, “Conroy, prepare to be a loser for the rest of your life. I’m going to make you the loser, and you’re going to get so used to losing it’s going to become a part of who you are.”

  His brother wasn’t there for this one, so I said, “Where’s the other midget?”

  He went crazy and started swinging at me, and his lawyer kind of grabbed his arms and pulled him off, and I said, “I’m praying for your sake now, those boys have a good grip.” But it was always something; it was always confrontational. Alan came at me every time he saw me.

  I’m in court constantly. One day I tell this judge, “This guy’s driving me nuts, Your Honor. I’ve been in court since I started dating this woman. We talk about getting married and moving to Rome just to get away from all this. I hear that a terrific life is available outside this courtroom.”

  This sealed my marriage. Why did I do that? Will somebody tell me? Okay, my IQ wasn’t that high; I wasn’t that smart; my education was very, very iffy; I’m an autodidact, that most pathetic of all creatures. But what was I doing when I did that? And why, for God’s sake, did I not do this differently?

  The next time we’re in court, the judge says he will grant permanent custody to Alan “unless Mr. Conroy actually marries Mrs. Fleischer and they actually do move to Rome.” He had it in the court order. The only reason she keeps her children is we got married and moved to Rome. I owe it to the order of Judge Bell why Conroy the Rescuer got married. The next week we got married, and she kept her children. And that’s how we moved off to Rome. Rome was Alan’s accidental gift to me, and that was her accidental gift to me.

  THREE

  Rome/Atlanta/Rome

  1981–1988

  That was a turning point in his life, from sort of living an ordinary life to getting involved in a psychological drama.

  MARION O’NEILL, Ph.D., ABPP, clinical psychologist

  Some people make an early acquaintance with a dark, disfiguring anarchy so strong that they cannot consider a day complete without the music of chaos roaring in their ears.

  PAT CONROY, South of Broad

  Rome worked out splendidly for me. It could have been ruination, but it wasn’t. I am even grateful to Lenore’s incredible, extraordinary asshole of a husband because he gave me the gift of Rome. Everything about Rome made me happy. It makes me happy in memory.

  The first place we lived was Olgiata, a compound for Mafia people in a new suburb north of Rome with big mansions. Lenore had decided this was the best place for the children; I was completely repulsed by it. We were in this huge modern house, built in 1974, and it was 1980 when we were there. This was not why I came to Italy. We eventually moved into the historic district of Rome. I couldn’t believe how beautiful this apartment was we found. We shared a courtyard with the Belgian ambassador. We had a great terrace that overlooked the Roman Forum and the Colosseum; we saw the back of the Campidoglio from that terrace. It was beyond anything I ever imagined, and I was happy there. I had a nice office for writing upstairs. I could sit up there and write and watch the Forum and the Campidoglio; the view was magnificent.

  Thomas Wolfe wrote something I loved about walking the streets of Brooklyn relentlessly. He was trying to drink in the city; he gulped; he swallowed. I bought into all that horseshit. I had three years in Rome, so I really got to walk that city and know that city, noticing everything, every detail, every single thing I passed, every smell I encountered, every taste, and finding myself alive like I thought Wolfe was. Rome was perfect for me in that because it was a walking city, and God, it was beautiful. Every place I turned, every alley I went, there was something so wonderful, so beautiful. And I knew I was walking over cities buried beneath me. Walking the streets,
I thought this is as near to heaven as I’d ever get. Rome was about a hundred times more beautiful than I ever imagined it. I got to see the inner Rome; I got to see the private Rome. It was thrilling to me in every kind of way. It satisfied that itch I had to live overseas, and if possible, bring kids over there and give them that experience of being raised abroad. Now where I got this, why I got this, I don’t know, but it was there.

  Lenore’s two children and Megan came over to live with us; Jessica and Melissa would come for the summer. Megan has always said that those were great years of her life. She became a teenager there, a young fourteen- and fifteen-year-old. I wanted to drop them in an Italian school, but Gregory and Megan went to an English-speaking Catholic high school in a gorgeous old monastery close to Circus Maximus, and Emily went to a different elementary school. I had always wanted to live in a foreign country, have my kids know what life in a foreign country was, and this was some sort of strange fantasy of mine I got from nothing else but literature.

  But I realized quickly that I had screwed up with my marriage and made the most horrendous mistake of my life. Regret had entered my stomach and was crawling like termites. I had lots and lots of “Oh, shit, what have I done to myself?” moments. I had married this woman so she wouldn’t lose her kids, and stupidly thought we could always get divorced if it didn’t work out. But then Lenore got pregnant. Fate has this way of sneaking up on you. When you’re being led in a cart past the jeering crowds on the way to the guillotine, only then do you realize you have fucked up badly. Lenore had not told me she was going off birth control, but once she got pregnant, I thought: You got yourself into it, so make the best of it, pal. And I gave it a try; I gave it a run. That is something a military brat can do: make the best of what you have. The Citadel certainly reinforced that too. You’re given an assignment, and you carry it out. We military brats have our own sense of responsibility, our own sense of duty, our own sense of orders that were written by a higher power for us to carry out, and our mission was to do the best we could.

  But Lenore was my father with tits. And she was a screamer. She and Emily yelled constantly. They had the worst relationship of two human beings on earth, and it used to drive me crazy, as my mother and Carol nearly drove me crazy when I was a kid. I think Lenore rejected Emily because of the way she looked; Emily was born with a wandering eye and was not the beautiful child that Gregory was. Eventually they corrected her eye, but there was still a problem there I never understood. Whatever it was, it was poisonous. I used to tell her, “Lenore, God will never forgive you for doing that. You better pray He does not exist. Quit doing that.”

  “I can’t help it.”

  That was always her big excuse: “I can’t help it.” I could never stop her screaming at Emily.

  But I am not much of an argument guy. Once I established that I was not a person to be yelled at, and that I could not put up with somebody who argued every day about everything, Lenore was never horrible to me like she was to Emily. I told her, “That may be you and Alan, that may be you and your children, but I cannot survive that way. I need harmony and tranquility.” If she was screaming at me: “Excuse me, Lenore, wrong guy. I don’t do this, and I hope you know that. That’s not how I’m going to live, and I hope you know that too.”

  Lenore and I got along in my belief that I can get along with almost anybody. I always told her, “I have a theory about myself: I could be married to almost anybody,” and she said, “That’s because you make it such a point to be good-natured and try to be happy all the time and not argue.” I said, “I’ve never looked upon that as a great central flaw of my character, that I try to be easy to get along with.”

  But I think Lenore knew she was dealing with an idiot. She felt she was in a chess game with me, and she knew when to castle. She hid herself enough from me to make it okay on most days, at least when we lived in Rome.

  I think we might still be married if we had stayed in Italy. It was the best part of our whole marriage, because we were in a foreign country and we depended on each other. Lenore was much more competent in Italian than I was; she was competent at getting things done, which, in laissez-faire Italy, is the hardest thing. I made a rule for all of us: if we can get one thing done in Rome in a day, that’s great. Do not try to get two things done; it will end in frustration and hatred. Lenore was good at that, and I completely depended on her. She seemed to blossom in that role. She kept a great house; she was a great cook; she could throw a great dinner party and be charming at other people’s dinner parties. Lenore seemed to relax in a place where no one knew her, because she had a history in Atlanta. She’d been mean to people and burned many, many bridges. Rome seemed like a fresh start for her. I think she was pretty happy there.

  Then Susannah was born at the Salvator Mundi Hospital, and I allowed myself to go nuts over this kid. It’s amazing how women can have these masterpieces out of their own body. Susannah is the great gift of my middle age. I could feel a blossoming inside me, and I could welcome this child into the world in a way I was not in a position to do for Megan, because I’d had Megan in the most horrible circumstances, and with Susannah, I didn’t have that pressure of my life falling apart.

  She was a precocious little shit, talked early, walked early, did everything early, seemed like this little wonder child, smiled, was quiet, was not a pain in the ass in any way. What I loved is when I became responsible for the 3 A.M. feeding after Lenore quit breastfeeding her. Somebody had sent this little music box that sang “O, Susanna,” and Susannah learned to click it so the song would play. When she woke up at three, she wouldn’t cry; she’d click that music box, and I’d wake up hearing “O, Susanna.” I’d walk over in the dark, and I don’t know how this developed, but she would have her arm straight up, holding her bottle out. I would take the bottle, like in a relay race, say, “Be back in a couple of minutes,” and she would keep clicking that box so I could hear music when I was warming her bottle up. There was something about hearing this Southern song with this kid with a Southern name. I’d warm up the bottle, come back, she’d have her hand out, I’d pop it in her hand, she’d click the music box one more time, and that would be it. We did that every night. I got to hate it when she finally started sleeping through the night.

  As soon as I got to Rome, I started writing The Prince of Tides. Jim Roe was my financial advisor, and Jim had this delightful little thing he would tell me in a frantic phone call every once in a while: that I had married a very expensive woman. I had no idea how much she was spending. I never kept up with money. I still don’t. But because of Lenore and the lawsuits and everything, money needed to be made. That pressure was on me big.

  I don’t know how the book got written, except I saw something clearly when I was in Rome. I could see Beaufort clearly from Rome. I carry Beaufort with me wherever I go; I carry Charleston wherever I go. I missed Beaufort, and I missed the lowcountry. I realized that I had developed a deep devotion to that landscape on my way to and from Daufuskie Island every day. When I was in that boat, it was a forty-five minute trip, and I went through every kind of weather, every kind of condition you can imagine, and I learned to truly adore it. I’d always wanted a chance to go back and do the lowcountry, describe that landscape, and The Prince of Tides gave me that chance.

  Just as I could see the lowcountry clearly in Rome, I could see the book coming together clearly. I’ve always wanted to write about a coach, especially one who loves to read. I know a lot of them. I always liked those guys. I was one of them at one time, so I felt comfortable with this character. I’d had the experience of being a coach. I’d had an experience of being fired. When Barbara started law school, I drove the carpools; I was the soccer mom. It was: “My daddy doesn’t have a job,” and all these little girls would look at me like I’m a loser. I’m driving to soccer practice, and they’re staring at me, whispering, “He doesn’t have a job at all?” “No, he’s home all day.” So I’d had the experience of kids looking at me like I’m
a loser. I’d had the experience of divorce. By that time, I’d really had the experience of despair. So I could feel this book coming together.

  I loved writing about New York and Tom and Lowenstein being from two different worlds and hating each other’s guts at first, Tom being fragile enough not to want to take any bullshit from a Jewish psychiatrist in New York. Lowenstein was probably Lenore, Marion O’Neill, a fantasy shrink who did not exist, and the New York women I met when I first went up there. Lowenstein lived like I think Lenore thought she was supposed to live. The insight of Lowenstein certainly came from Marion O’Neill.

  And one thing that had amazed me the first time I went to New York—I was unprepared for the beauty of New York women, and I was unprepared for how professional they were. I did not realize that had gone on. It was ’72 when I first got up there. It seemed like these women were giants. They were all six feet tall; they all had Ivy League educations. They had terrific jobs, exciting jobs. That was a whole new exciting version of woman that had just started to come out, and the women’s movement had just started, and there was excitement in the air. I thought these girls were otherworldly. I had just come up from Beaufort, where, “Hey Pat, how ya doin’ honey? Let me put a hickey on your neck, will ya? You’re so cute.” In New York, I’m sitting there thinking, holy God, and talking about literature and history, current events. This was totally new for me. I was very excited to see women that educated and that accomplished. And it was interesting to be looked at like I was a hillbilly who somehow learned to use the D train. I thought for a guy in my circumstances, I was fairly sophisticated, but that’s only because I read a lot. I did not realize that experience-wise, I was as rube as they got. I was amazed by all of it.

 
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