My exaggerated life, p.29
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       My Exaggerated Life, p.29

           Pat Conroy

  Nan can’t write worth a lick, but she has a great literary mind, and she knows good writing. She knows what it is, what she wants to hear. I drive her crazy with my overwriting. Nan has always said I’m the hardest author for her to work with, because I like these bombastic, impetuous, impossible plots. That embarrasses Nan, because she mostly publishes books where if something happens, it’s a glance between married couples when they both know they want to have an affair. It’s a simple glance, or a man spilling his wine. He gets yelled at by his wife, and he looks over at another woman, who passes him her napkin, and they know they will be together the rest of their lives. Nan likes that. But in the overdose of imagination that I go into, and my overwrought, fever-brained thinking, I can’t just have a rapist; I can’t just kill a rapist; I have to have a rapist eaten by a fucking tiger. I always collect stories, and the story of the tiger at the gas station was one of those in The Prince of Tides. Nan thought it was ridiculous to have a tiger. She hates these stories and looks for them and tries to eradicate them when I’ve shoehorned them into my books, but I love them too much.

  I am always overbaked, overdone, over everything. And you know, I do prefer that stiff upper lip, but I cannot do it—those British gentlemen in their clubs, perusing newspapers and smoking pipes, and getting quietly drunk in those great leather chairs in front of fires in the fireplace and portraits on the wall, before they return to their loveless lives and loveless marriages and unknown children. I went to England with some book I had written, and at one of the dinner parties, an Englishwoman sitting next to me said to her friend, “I say, did you hear that Penelope’s son fell in the Tube and had both legs severed?” Her friend—I can’t do English accents, I’d love to be able to—but her friend said, “Pity.” And I’m going, “What the fuck are you saying?! Both legs severed?! My God!” Of course, then I realized I had my typical overreaction and was horrified by my overemotionalism at this legless child who lay in a hospital in a coma somewhere. But that’s me.

  And in my whole life, every teacher has mentioned my odd prose style. I don’t know when this hit me, but it evidently hit me fairly early, because every time I wrote something, it sounded different from everybody else in the class. Sometimes a teacher would like it a lot; sometimes they’d hate it. I got a C in a creative writing class at the Citadel because Colonel Carpenter hated the way I wrote and would mock it openly. You know, “Come on, there’s simplicity, the elegance of simplicity.” Everybody talks about “the elegance of simplicity” as if they made the phrase up; I’ve heard it more times than any writer in history. Even Gene Norris would say, “Cool your jets, Mr. Conroy. Just cool your jets.”

  I did come across people who absolutely loathed my writing, but I came across people who loved it. Fat Jack Martin, my fabulous history of England teacher: “Mr. Conroy, stand up and face the class. I want the class to get a close look at what these sewer pipes of Europe can produce, and its absolute perfection when it comes to the Irish. And yes, Mr. Conroy, of course is getting angry at me. Notice the red face, notice the flashing eyes. He is sitting there loathing me. In the Irish you get loathing, but Mr. Conroy I ask you, explain to me an island nation that has never, ever built up a navy. Explain to me a language-loving nation that only produces those harmless Irish ditties. Explain to me a warlike nation which has never won a single battle.” He was hilarious with me, and he’d always write on my papers: “Dear Mr. Conroy, I do not believe you understand, or absorb, one fact of English history, but you write your ignorance down so beautifully,” and he told me he loved my writing.

  I remember this following me even before I’d written anything. When all the guys went to Europe, I would write postcards to Tim Belk, and Mike Jones would say, “Would y’all listen to this bullshit.” He’d read something I’d written and have the whole place laughing their ass off because it was so flowery, pretentious, and stupid. I’d be sitting on Hadrian’s Wall and getting moved by it, or sitting in some cathedral getting lost in describing it and sounding like a Hallmark card on steroids. But I get letters from readers all the time saying, “You’re not writing for yourself. It’s us that need the tiger. We need the tiger.”

  Nan says that I would fight her and disapprove of her suggestions. I will take her word for that. I don’t feel like I’ve been overly combative, but who the hell knows? I have fought for things I’ve wanted very badly. To Nan, I was Southern, out of control, needed a bronco rider to break the stallion. When I started writing The Prince of Tides, I said, I’m going to write everything I want to write and then let Nan figure it out. I didn’t want to hold back on anything. Unfortunately, I followed my own advice. But I think it pleased her that she had to be the lion tamer. And we had a great time working.

  Back in Atlanta, once again it is a nightmare with custody of Lenore’s kids. Alan has gone to the University of Arizona, where he is now chief of neurosurgery. I’m delighted he’s out of Atlanta, but he keeps the kids one summer and would never send them back. We had to fly out to Tucson, Arizona, for a custody battle. He’s put them in bar mitzvah school and in Jewish schools. It was a mess. Alan had also sent Emily and Gregory to a shrink who wrote to the court vouching for the reputation and character of Dr. Fleischer and saying how important it was for the kids to get a Jewish education. In his professional opinion, it was by far the best thing for those kids to be raised by Alan. Later, this shrink went to prison for life in Arizona for child abuse.

  It took about a month to deal with this and cost thousands upon thousands upon thousands of dollars. We had to fly our lawyer out, put him up in this great hotel. We stayed in this great hotel, and it was just a nightmare.

  On the stand, Alan made a mistake. Alan always makes a mistake. He gets on the stand and says, “I cannot allow my children to go home to live,”—and he points to me; he begins weeping—“with that crazy man, that crazy man.” He’s weeping. And as he’s weeping, weeping, I turn to Lenore, I point to myself, and out loud I say, “Moi?” The court collapses. Now, what I had done since I’d been there a month, I’d made friends with everybody, the stenographer, the deputy. I was going to lunch with the guards. And when I said, “Moi?” they had to shut down the court.

  Finally we win; we get them back. But I was worried about Gregory and Emily. I felt something in the air that was wrong, like there was a dark, dark secret in the corner.

  We know we have to send them to Arizona for Christmas, and we know he will not send them back. Yet we’re under court order to send them. Lenore’s on the phone, screaming. I hate screaming. I can’t stand it. And yes, this did come from my childhood. I can’t handle it. I just told her not to scream at me or not when I was around. “You scream all you want. Scream out the window. Go on the roof, scream, do it all you want, but don’t do it when I’m around.”

  But I hear him screaming at her on the phone. She screamed at him. They’re screaming back and forth, fighting over custody for Christmas, when Emily, who’s about eleven, comes in. And Emily, I adore. Emily was on a swimming team, and to show my stepfatherly love for her, I would go down to her meets, and I would see Emily plop into the pool in complete agony, and whether she was swimming the breast stroke or the crawl or the butterfly, it all looked like the same stroke; it looked like a pained animal had been wounded and was making her wounded way. Invariably she finished last. And in one of them, about fifteen minutes after the race was over, she was still struggling, and I would be sitting there, “Emily, it’s important to finish.” Sometimes she’d simply stop in the pool and tell everybody what agony she was in and how she could not go on another stroke, and then grab the rope and pull herself in. But I used to let Emily struggle with that, thinking that is what life is truly like. I see life as a great struggle for everybody.

  She was funny to me; she’d make up songs, and I started making up songs. I’d sing “Don’t cry for me, Arizona, the truth is I don’t like tacos. I don’t like nachos. That part of the nation, I only go there for visitation.” I would sing thi
s, and she would sing something back. But while her parents are on the phone screaming, Emily comes in, and I’m reading, as I always do, especially to shut myself out of this nightmare. So I’m reading. I’m sitting there reading, and we can hear the screaming going on downstairs with Alan and Lenore.

  Emily comes in, gets in bed, “What you reading, Pat?” Told her. Would you rather talk to me? I said, “Sure, I’d rather talk to you.”

  She says, “What do you want to talk about?”

  I said, “What do you want to talk about?”

  She said, “I want to talk about something that you’re going to hate me for, Pat, when I tell you this. You’re going to just hate my guts.”

  I said, “Nah, no more than I do now, so don’t worry.”

  She said, “Yeah, you will. It’s so disgusting. I shouldn’t have done it, but I did it.”

  So I said, “What are you going to tell me, kid?”

  It was rape in all possible ways, committed by her father. I felt my heart sink to my left foot.

  I said, “Emily, I’m sorry that happened. But let me tell you something. I’m telling you to your face, and you can take this to the bank. It’ll never happen again.”

  She said, “Yeah, I’ve got to go back to visit.”

  I said, “You’ll never go back there for visitation.”

  So we report to the lawyers. Alan, of course: we’re making it up. She’s making it up. She’s dreaming it. Then it was me putting filthy thoughts into her mind. Alan’s outraged. He’s going to sue me. So he comes to Atlanta to argue for visitation. He’s in court. He’s weeping. He’s always weeping. He’s one of those guys who can weep on the stand. He’s an egomaniac, so he loves the scene. He’s wailing, telling his sad story, “They’re trying to keep me from my children.” Then he starts saying, “This crazy man, Your Honor, he’s even accused me, falsely, of sexually abusing my own daughter. He’s accused me of sexually abusing my own daughter. What kind of man would do that? This is outrageous.”

  He has just put this in the public record. Ah-ha, public record: I will one day use this.

  We had an idiot Southern judge for this, and at the end he says, “Well, I’m not going to keep a daddy away from his children. He needs to see his children.”

  I walk over to Alan’s attorneys, and say, “Here’s what your good lawyering has done. You just got your boy arrested.” I told Lenore, “When we get home, we start packing for Europe. Emily ain’t going to Arizona again. I just want to tell you that. We should go back to Rome.”

  But going to Rome was against the court order; we’d be in contempt of court. I think it was either that night or the next night Emily and I went to the police and testified to what he did, gave them her whole story on film. They put a warrant out for his arrest, and we went back to Rome the second time just to protect this kid.

  When we’re in Rome I said to Emily, “If you have other stuff to tell me, tell me sometime, whenever you can.”

  Finally, in the first month we were in Rome, she said, “Pat, I think I can tell you some other stuff now.”

  I believe she was getting scared about him going to court, bringing her back home. That’s when she told me the worst stuff that had happened, and I wrote it down word for word. I wrote for seventeen pages. You would not believe it.

  It started when she was a little girl, the most savage rapes you ever heard of. It was awful. When you enter that world of child abuse, you enter a world where you’ve never been before, where there is a horrible breed of human beings, and any depravity is possible.

  Emily lies about everything, and because she lies about everything, nobody believes her about this. I believed her because her description was just too graphic. Here’s why I trusted it: she had described everything that happened—she was young when it started—and she knew details I didn’t think a kid would know. She knew things I didn’t know.

  She’s lied about everything in her life—everything—but it’s also I think what happens to those girls who are threatened if they don’t lie. They become liars, and then nobody believes them when they step forward with this truth. The one thing about Emily, she has never—since she told me this—she has never once told me it didn’t happen, that she was lying to me. That’s the one thing she has kept up as truth from the time she told me until now. And I always told her, if this is imagination, we need to know.

  Anyway, I’m writing it down, writing it down, writing it down. Horrible—God, it was horrible to write down. She told me everything with her pillow over her face, and said after I married Lenore, she couldn’t sleep because she waited for me to come in for her at night. She thought it was what fathers did to their daughters. And when you’re little, you don’t know that every father is not doing what he’s doing to you to their own kids. There was a time I thought every kid was going home and getting the shit kicked out of them by their dad. I was raised to think, okay, that’s part of it.

  Finally Emily finished. I said, “That must have been incredibly hard for you, but it ain’t happening again. I repeat, that ain’t going to happen.”

  Lenore seemed as shocked as I was to learn that this all started when she and Alan were still married. It was hard to understand how she didn’t know about it if she was there, but it was even harder to think she knew about it and did nothing. I give her the benefit of the doubt on this one.

  I sent Alan a copy of the seventeen pages and a letter. “Dear Alan, Emily just told me everything you did to her, the multiple rapes, and I just want you to know something. If you ever touch her again I’m going to cut off your dick, I’m going to make a wallet out of it, and I’m going to carry it in my back pocket the rest of my life.”

  Of course, the DAs went crazy. “You’re hurting our case.” I didn’t care. I told him what I was thinking. That’s what I was thinking. Deal with it how you want.

  There was a warrant out for Alan’s arrest in Georgia, but the state of Georgia did not seek to extradite him from Arizona, so he was safe. But when I was in Atlanta doing an interview for The Prince of Tides, a reporter for the Associated Press asks me, “What’s your next book?”

  I said, “My next book is about the sexual abuse of my stepdaughter, Emily Fleischer, by her father, head of the neurosurgery department at the University of Arizona. His name is Doctor Alan Fleischer.”

  He said, “I can hardly believe that.”

  I said, “Check the public records.”

  He checked it. The story went out on the wire. What happened—and it was interesting—it went out everywhere on the wire, but the Arizona papers would not print it. However, we had entered the age of the fax machine, and faxes are moving AP articles into Arizona households and offices. It becomes a scandal that the papers don’t print it. Then there’s an article about why they didn’t print it.

  Then of course Alan, who is always good for this, about maybe less than a month later—he evidently had great pressure on him—a month later had several patients die on the operating table. Now, if I’d been a brain surgeon, there would have been a series of dead people. But the rumor was Alan was almost comatose with cocaine. He was let go by the University of Arizona from his position. After that, he had nothing to stand on then, and he disappeared from my life.

  But Emily is a human tragedy. After she told me about the abuse, she would tell every cab driver she passed, every ticket attendant at a movie theater, “I was sexually abused by my father. I was sexually abused by my father.” She had this need to put that out there. It drove us crazy; it drove Lenore nuts. I thought it was something she’s working out, so I said okay, you know.

  Then, Emily’s at some Catholic school way out in bumfuck Rome. One day I come in from somewhere and Lenore’s in a complete panic, “I won’t do it; I can’t do it; I can’t take it.” Same old.

  “What happened?”

  “The nuns called. Emily’s been talking about how she was raped, said she was sexually molested. I’m not dealing with it. You have to go out there.”
r />   So I went out the next day, and there were about four or five nuns waiting as I walked in. I’m used to nuns. They looked like nuns; they acted like nuns; they talked like nuns.

  They said to me, “Mr. Conroy, thank you for coming.”

  I said, “Oh, think nothing of it.” You know, “I wish these were happier circumstances, but they’re not.”

  “We need to ask you some questions, Mr. Conroy.”

  I said, “Feel free.”

  “Emily claims that she was sexually molested by her father.”

  “As far as I know,” I said, “That’s true.”

  “And does this include rape and anal rape?”

  “Yes, yes, that’s true also from what she’s told me.”

  “This has been going on since she was three or four years old?”

  I say, “Yeah, yeah, it’s been going on a long time. It should have been caught earlier; it just wasn’t.”

  So they’re sitting there, and I’m looking at these nuns, and they’re looking at me, and I suddenly get it. I said, “Sisters, oh my God! I just figured out what’s going on! Do you realize I am Emily’s stepfather, not her real father?”

  And these four or five nuns simply collapse into their hands, and one of them was crying she had been so upset by my coldness in describing the way I had raped this child.

  “Mr. Conroy, we’re so sorry.”

  I said, “No, don’t worry. You thought you were sitting in front of a child rapist, and I was acting so nonchalant about it I can understand your being upset. But allow me to assure you that this did not happen exactly the way you thought it had happened.”

  You know, that’s my life. That is my life. An accusation often made against me—that I sometimes exaggerate in my stories—has always tickled me. It’s not so much that I exaggerate in my stories; it’s more like God has exaggerated in my life. When I learned that critics considered me melodramatic, I had to figure out what they meant. Then I got it: shit happens in my books. That’s because shit happened in my life. All kinds of shit. My life has been one long melodrama.

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