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My exaggerated life, p.30
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       My Exaggerated Life, p.30

           Pat Conroy

  Emily created drama anywhere she went, and I mean anywhere. Lenore was always trying to get rid of Emily for the summer—she would have sent Emily to the moon if she could have—so one summer in desperation, she sent Emily to the longest, boot camp-iest Outward Bound, somewhere in Maine. One of the things is Emily has to paddle her kayak out to an island that is uninhabited, and she has to live on this island for three days. Emily is not gifted at any of this: making fires, keeping dry, pitching tents, all this stuff. After two days, the authorities of Outward Bound have lost touch with her, Emily has called for a helicopter rescue, and Emily has been airlifted off this isolated island to a posh hospital in Bangor, Maine. It cost thousands of dollars. Emily is the only person I’ve ever heard of who was kicked out of Outward Bound. My God, the world explodes around her. Emily goes off to Outward Bound, and the next thing you know a helicopter is going over to pick her up. They send a guy risking his life, bounding down a ladder.

  Another summer, Lenore sent Emily to Camp Blue Star, up in the mountains near Highlands—a Jewish camp, famous all over the South. All these Jewish families had sent their kids there for years. Bernie had been there, so I think Bernie talks Lenore into sending Emily to Blue Star. But nothing with Emily can end up correct. Nothing can end up actually helping. There is a melodrama around Emily that is absolutely unbelievable.

  Well, Cliff’s wedding is taking place in Rome; Annie and Heyward have come over; Nathalie Dupree has come over; we give a party on our rooftop terrace. This is about when Emily liked to strike, and Lenore gets a phone call. So I hear Lenore in agony, “Oh, my God! I don’t know what to do. Holy Christ!” It was the director of Camp Blue Star. Lenore’s saying, “I can’t deal with this. I just can’t do it. I can’t deal with this. I just can’t deal with this.”

  I get so tired of it I said, “Look, let me deal with it. Whatever it is, let me deal with it.”

  I get a “Mr. Conroy, I’m the head of Camp Blue Star.”

  This guy’s father and mother had founded it.

  I said, “What is the trouble, sir?”

  He says, “Well, your daughter, Emily.”

  I said, “You need to know this. And make a quick note of this. She is my stepdaughter.”

  He said, “Well, you know, she’s had a rather unusual life.”

  “Yes, she has. What has she done now?”

  Okay, well they have a ghost story–telling night with all the girls. They’re up in this cabin, then they turn out all the lights, and the girls and the counselors take turns telling each other ghost stories to scare each other. I think it’s pretty traditional at camp. But, you know, I didn’t go to camp. My mother gave me used tuna fish cans to play with instead.

  So I said, “Well, what could she have done?” waiting for the explosion that I knew would come hideously, and it did. What she did was, when it was her turn to tell the ghost story, she told how her father, a Jewish neurosurgeon, had raped her time and time again, held her down, starved her, beat her senseless. He wouldn’t let her eat until she agreed to the rape. All these little Jewish girls are looking at her. And so Emily then brings out an audio-visual aide. She says, “But my stepfather, Pat Conroy, the writer”—she always used me in this kind of way—“When he took me to Rome to escape my father, he went out and bought me”—and I did not do this by the way—“He went out and bought me a rosary blessed by the Pope.” She brings out this rosary, hangs it over her neck, gets the little crucifix and says, “This was blessed by Pope John Paul the II, and it offers special protection to girls who have been molested by their fathers, and my father looks like Satan.” She raises the crucifix up in the air and says, “This will keep him away from me and all of you safe.” And then she looks out the window and says, “Oh, my God! That’s him in the window right now!” All of a sudden there are thirty-four screaming Jewish girls racing headlong into the night, down the mountain.

  Well, you know, they’ve got to do something. What do I suggest? I said, “Well, first of all I’d give her a medal for who told the best ghost story. Obviously, Emily won that hands down.”

  “This is not a joke, Mr. Conroy.”

  I said, “I didn’t mean it as a joke. But, you know, that’s the problem we’re dealing with.”

  Anyway, we had a nice talk, I brown-nosed him, and he reluctantly kept her.

  But Emily’s had a terrible time, so she can do just about anything with me. I cut her a lot of slack and wish her well.

  In most ways Rome was a magical time, and I’m very proud of what I accomplished over there. The Prince of Tides went on the best-seller list when I was in Rome, but one of my disciplines is I don’t look at lists, I don’t look at reviews. I did not realize that Lenore was showing Susannah where my book was listed in the International Herald Tribune every week. After fifty-one weeks, it dropped off. Susannah was down at the piazza where they bought the newspaper, and she burst into tears when my book was not on the best-seller list. I said, “Why did you do that, Lenore? What kind of values are we inculcating into Susannah?”

  When I found out The Prince of Tides was on the New York Times best-seller list, I felt nothing. It doesn’t make me happy in remembering it. I don’t have “Pat’s flooded with happiness at the memory when he first heard the words ‘You’re on the best-seller list.’ And he walked the streets of Rome, considering himself a Caesar of the moment. He stood over the city, and he knew the city was his at last. He held up his arms in a Christlike pose above the Campidoglio and said, ‘Yes, finally, the world is coming to me as I wished it, as I always knew it would. The earth is mine. It belongs to me. All women will soon be on their backs, all men will be on their stomachs, lying prostrate when I walk by them.” Unfortunately, I don’t have any of those moments in my life. I’m not a guy who can walk down the street and say, “Oh, I’m happy, happy, happy!”

  It always astounds me when I hear people say things like: “When I first went on the best-seller list …” or “When I was number one on the best-seller list …” Then there’s “I can’t remember if that was before or after I won the Pulitzer,” and “Life is different after you win the big one.” I mean, I just can’t even get my mouth to say those things.

  I’ve seen other people moan and groan about not being on the bestseller list, but I have never looked at that part of my life. I never look at the best-seller list ever, and this includes the time before I was on it, the times I’ve been on it, and the times after I’ve been on it. When I started writing, I decided I was not writing for that reason. And I don’t want that to become any reason why I write books. The way I grew up—Wolfe-obsessed, Faulkner-obsessed, writer-obsessed—that seemed to be not the way those guys I admired did it. Obviously they had to make a living, but I never came across that kind of obsession. I try not to worry or care if my books sell or not, because I don’t think there’s much I can do about it.

  If I’m going through the newspaper and see my name in any article, I turn the page. I read no article where my name is in it. If I see my name—Bam—it’s next page. And if I know my name is going to be in there, I don’t read the paper or the magazine to begin with. This is part of a protective shield that I tried to develop early. I think it started when Dad caught me cutting out articles about myself playing basketball. He slapped me and said, “What is this? Cutting out Valentines to yourself? That’s not what’s important. It’s how you play the game, win the game.” So I thought, “Oh, my God, this is egomania. This should not be important to a real athlete.” It may have started with that.

  But I built this shield up, and it is strong. Now it protects every part of my writing life. When I publish a book, I never look at it again. I can never look at the book again even when it’s sitting on the shelf. I don’t go back and say, “God, what a dope I was,” because if you reread, you will see every flaw. They will leap out at you; they will make you blind; they will drive you crazy. By the time it’s published, it’s set in stone, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It will tie yo
u in knots. So this protects me against something not being as good as I want. It protects the perfectionist in me that few people know about.

  The shield means I don’t remember one thing I’ve ever written. It always surprises me when somebody tells me they like something that’s in one of my books. I’ll say, “Oh, no kidding. That sounds great. I’m glad it’s in there. I had no idea.” I’ve had readers look at me like I’m nuts, because there are writers who can recite their whole book from memory.

  When people hear I don’t read reviews of my work, they don’t believe me, but I do not listen to anything that might get in my way at all. As a writer, your own insecurity is enough of a thorn to be piercing your flesh for the rest of your life, and I was not going to add anything to it. So I tried to have the outside world have as little to do with what happened in the writing room as possible. Critics can cripple you; I’ve seen them tear into writers. I’ve heard writers talking about bad reviews and hideous reviews, and I don’t want that to be part of my conversations. So I have my little disciplines that actually are very self-protective.

  When I got a good review, it did nothing for me, sort of like the Barbra Streisand scene where she sings to a standing ovation, but she sees the one guy who doesn’t like it. There’s something like that in me. Then I got some bad reviews with The Water Is Wide, and I thought, “God, it hurts my feelings. That’s horrible.” But what did I get out of it? I don’t see what the whole point is. If I could write a book better, I’d do it. I swear I would; I would do it. If I could please the critic, I would, but that seems impossible to me. If my books don’t work, it’s because of a lack of imagination and talent on my part, not a lack of desire. There’s not much I can do with these flaws staring me in the face. So I quit reading reviews after one or two of The Water Is Wide. I did not want to let that stuff in where it could get to me. I don’t need these people. They can say anything they want about my book, but I ain’t got to read it. They don’t get to hurt my feelings. All these little worthless shit-bird voices, however they flock together, in whatever chorus, are meaningless in the long run.

  Gail Godwin gave me a horrible review for The Prince of Tides in the New York Times. When I first met her afterward, she almost died. I said, “Relax, Gail. Don’t worry about that. Some people like it; some people don’t.” My attitude is they can say whatever they want to say—it’s America—but I ain’t got to read it. I’ve known a couple of writers who quit writing because they got bad reviews from the New York Times. I don’t think I ever got a good review from the Times. Dad used to memorize them. He would say, “My, the New York Times really doesn’t like my boy.” He would start quoting it, which tickled me more than anything else. But I’ve seen people hurt; they said they couldn’t write again.

  The one thing you have to avoid when you’re writing is being afraid, because everybody makes you afraid. The critics will make you afraid. Your professors will make you afraid. The writers who teach you will make you afraid. Your friends make you afraid. Your parents make you afraid. Society makes you afraid. Everybody has ways of putting you down as a writer. “Were you on the best-seller list? How many did you sell? Did you make a lot of money?” So everything is working against writers fully letting themselves flower unto themselves. I didn’t want to be afraid of anything. I wanted to be able to attempt to do anything, or say anything.

  It’s tough finding your way, but I’ve never seen a critic in the New York Times I didn’t think I could out-write. That critic hasn’t shown his or her face yet, so I don’t worry about what they think. I have never figured out why anybody who was reading great books in college would say, “By God, I’m going to become a critic,” unless they could not write these books they were loving. I decided critics were not going to be a part of my creative life, and I decided early I was not going to be a critic. They’d send me books to review; I just said no thanks. I did not want to be a part of some writer opening up the New York Times or the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the morning and seeing my review of their book as they’re drinking coffee and them getting sick to their stomach and hating me, as of course they should, for their whole lives. Now, critics will tell you they have a higher calling, you know: we need to keep the measurements high. Well, good, let them do it. I don’t need to.

  In about 1988, they tell me they’re not going to pursue Emily’s case in Atlanta because she’s living in Rome. Great. So we move back to Atlanta. They weren’t going to pursue it anyway. I could have stayed in Rome. But if I’d stayed in Rome, I’m afraid I’d still be married to Lenore.


  Atlanta/San Francisco


  I had scaled the heights of my talent … and knew … what it felt like to be famous. It didn’t feel like much at all.

  PAT CONROY, The Prince of Tides

  He was distraught. He felt there was no way out. And when somebody feels that way, that’s when they become suicidal. But he didn’t really want to kill himself. He wanted to live.

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

  When we moved back to Atlanta, I got involved in too much when I should have gotten involved in nothing. That’s when the Atlanta paper hired Bill Kovach of the New York Times to come make the Atlanta newspaper world class, and then forced him out. I got embroiled with all that—more chaos to my life. I’ve been in a million fights with the Atlanta paper. I wrote a bunch of outraged letters to the editor. One is so long it embarrasses me. Then there was a march for Kovach; there was all that bullshit. I’ve often thought I should have just stayed in Rome.

  In Atlanta, Lenore got rid of every friend I ever had. She got rid of Bernie. She got rid of Cliff. She attacked friend after friend. I had to go grovel and get them back after I left her. I had to go on a penitential tour and crawl back apologizing to my friends Lenore had insulted to the degree they would spit over their shoulder when they heard my name. All this I have to say is my fault. I allowed it to happen. Cliff she humiliated socially when he came over to get some books. She had some socialites at the house, and she told him not to come through the front door. Cliff was horrified. He had enough of that Jewish contempt for himself, and of course, so does Lenore, and she was playing into that.

  When we came back from Rome, Annie gave a Southern luncheon to welcome Lenore home. She invited Cliff’s wife and some of the other wives, different people like that. Lenore announced at the lunch that she had no one in Atlanta she liked at all; she was completely friendless. So, all the guests are thinking: What are we, horsemeat? Annie told me later that Lenore made it very, very uncomfortable for everybody.

  Now, I’ve loved Annie Rivers Siddons since the moment I met her. We were always great friends. Women have been a great source of joy to me, and friendship. They open up as friends much more easily than men do; women enjoy talking more. Annie has been fun to talk to my whole life, but there was never anything sexual between us. Yet this flirtation would go on. Annie’s got a Southern-woman way of flirtation. We used to tell each other things like, “I want to put a hickey on your throat.” We’ll laugh our asses off. And, “I want to kiss your belly button while you’re getting dressed,” and shit like that. Okay, Lenore sees this and does not like any of it at all. Also, Annie was a great beauty—a humdinger—and Lenore did not like that at all. She could not cut me off completely from Annie, but she made it very difficult.

  Then, one of my best friends in Atlanta was a lawyer I’d hired about five or six years earlier to explain the particulars of every contract I signed. One day Lenore bushwhacks me and says, “I have proof that he’s been stealing from you for many years. I’m going to take out a warrant for his arrest and alert the newspapers.” I said, no, you’re not. She said, “I’ve been with the accountants, and we can prove this.” I called him right then, said, “I’m firing you as my lawyer. Thanks for all the help you’ve been.” Click. This was a great, great loss in my life. I didn’t get to tell him that story until five years after I left her.
  He said, “Can you tell me why you did it?”

  I said, “I had to think quick because Lenore was acting, and I was afraid it would have been front page news in Atlanta and your career would have been over.”

  Bernie made the mistake of teaching Emily. That was his job, but he did not know and I did not know she was going to get rid of Bernie from our life. This was after the story of Emily’s abuse had come out, so Bernie’s working with her. In middle school, Bernie got students to write like you’ve never seen. Bernie would pull it out and pull it out, something that was bothering them, how they reacted to their grandfather’s death; one of them realized he was gay. He finally was getting stuff out of Emily. She was writing about her sexual abuse, and when she finished, she read it aloud to the class. The class gave her a standing ovation. Emily broke down; the class broke down.

  Bernie was also counseling Lenore all through this and saying “You’re going to have to change the way you treat this poor kid. Try taking a walk around the park with Emily after school, talk to her, get to know her, do things with her.” So he would call up, and “Did you walk around the park?” Lenore would say, “I sprained my ankle today, Bernie.” So they clashed bitterly and horribly. I just said, “I cannot deal.” And we were moving anyway, so when I moved out to San Francisco, I didn’t have a friend in my life.

  When her son Gregory was going to college in California, Lenore brings me the news that we need to go out and help Tim Belk, who had moved from Beaufort to San Francisco and was dying of AIDS. Tim Belk was a strong argument with me, because I knew he was dying. He went down to eighty pounds before they found that drug cocktail, and he was just dying in front of me. He didn’t have any family, and I’d been worrying about Tim dying of AIDS alone. “I want to be near Gregory; you want to be near Tim; let’s go to San Francisco.” So that’s why we moved to San Francisco, where it all fell apart. Anyway, I left for San Francisco when Lenore said she had the room for me to write in ready in the new house on 115 Presidio Avenue. Of course, she didn’t because my wives never have rooms for me to write in. This is always an ongoing theme.

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