My exaggerated life, p.33
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       My Exaggerated Life, p.33

           Pat Conroy
 

  “Man, I can’t believe this. You’re putting me on, man.”

  “Well, I wish I was, but I do not know anybody here.”

  He said, “My name’s Spalding Gray.”

  I didn’t know who that was. It’s always interesting with those people. They knew who I was, but I didn’t know who they were; that’s what made them so mad. I never pretended to get it much.

  Sylvia was part of this world because she was married to a guy named Dale Chihuly, the famous glass blower. She was a gorgeous girl. Tall, brown hair; absolutely a scintillating person, charismatic. She was one that came up to me at Alice Waters’s restaurant. I didn’t know her, had never met her. I had become famous but I had no particular grip on the fact that I was that. It shocked me every time somebody came up to me knowing who I was.

  Sylvia was with Peter Coyote, his wife, a Brazilian director, and a French actor. Lenore was down at the other end of the table, and I was with Peter Coyote’s wife. In the middle of dinner, this pretty girl comes and sits herself down from me. Marilyn Coyote is talking to somebody else, and this girl looks over at me and says, “You know, everybody at this table is perfectly aware that your wife hates your guts.”

  I said, “I didn’t know that.”

  She said, “It’s perfectly clear, Pat, and if you don’t know that, you need to open your eyes and look around.”

  What an opening. I mean, it got my attention. It started with Sylvia with that sentence, which I found a very arresting sentence, a very notable sentence, and perfectly timed in the life I was in the middle of living. It was like somebody’s telling me the truth out of nowhere, and letting me know what I felt deepest inside me. I was completely stunned by that. Then, she was one of the great talkers. She knew everything about The Prince of Tides and could ask good questions. I thought she was brilliant.

  During those two months I was in bed miserable, Lenore could not have treated me worse, and Sylvia was calling me every day, “How are you doing?” She hated her husband, and almost as soon as she met me, she started the process of divorce. I was crazy over her, but probably nothing would have happened, except I got hurt and was in bed for two months.

  When the doctors finally found what was hurting me, I had a back operation. I started crying when Lenore was bringing me home. She told people I was crying because I was so happy to be coming home. I was not; I was crying because I was so unhappy. I felt like I was dying of aloneness and solitude.

  Then I had something very interesting happen to me. I had a room where I wrote; I saw the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. The longer I was there, I kept hearing that bridge—I wouldn’t say calling my name—but I was starting to be attracted to that bridge, and that scared the shit out of me. I thought, so that’s the pull. That’s how it works. That had never happened to me before, for that bridge to begin its love song, and what it offers is a complete, absolute, and extraordinarily efficient way of killing yourself. I saw how it works for the first time. I’d never understood jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge, and then suddenly, I understood it perfectly. I remember thinking: All you have to do is walk to the bridge, which is not hard. We were close to it, and it wasn’t hard to do. It becomes obsessional as a marvelous death.

  I am so ashamed of the life I’ve lived. It started off, I’m getting beaten up when I’m in diapers, and then I’m looking at the Golden Gate Bridge thinking it’ll help me out of something. I realized, okay, I have got to get out of here. Before my back had healed, I was on a plane flying to Fripp Island. I just wanted to put myself on a sea island where no one could get to me. Fripp is so isolated Salman Rushdie could hide out there. Also, it’s hard to kill yourself from a height in the lowcountry. And the West Coast has never been a comfort zone to me at all. The sun sets on the wrong side there, the ocean is to your left instead of to your right, and I’m watching football games at ten in the morning, which has never made sense to me.

  FIVE

  Fripp Island/Beaufort, South Carolina

  1992–2016

  Where can a man run or where can he hide when he looks behind him and sees that he is pursued only by himself?

  PAT CONROY, The Prince of Tides

  First of all, I insisted that he see me every day, which was a long drive for him, and that he not drink. Then I had him sign a pledge that he wouldn’t kill himself. I told him the reason he couldn’t kill himself is that he would ruin my reputation.

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

  I really screwed up my life with my second marriage—I blew my own life out of the water—and I will always be recovering from that. I felt a little bit like the suburbs of Nagasaki after the bomb went off. Of course, it all occurs in our tragic middle age. It seemed like life had caught up with me and caught me in the open fields, and I was paying back for a life poorly lived and certainly poorly planned. I’d completely made a total mess out of my life, as only I could do. God, what a squirrely way I’ve had of destroying my own life in every way possible. Marrying Lenore was the stupidest thing I did in my life, and I knew it going in. Some things I had no choice about; the Citadel I had no choice about. I was face-to-face with my fate. But there was choice in Lenore, and I knew at the time it was not the right choice. Even when I first married Lenore, I knew I had destroyed something in myself. First of all, I had taken away a freedom that I had worked so hard to get. I knew I was an idiot, but I did it. And once I do something, say I’ll do it, all right, you know, I asked for this, I walked into it, I made my vows, and I’ll try to do my best with it. And I did my best for as long as I could. And then I said, fuck this, this is no way to live. By then she had driven me absolutely nuts.

  My answer was always to return to South Carolina, return to the beach, so I ran to Fripp Island. I ran. What I wanted to do was get into salt water every day and let that salt water heal my back. That scar became symbolic to me of my marriage.

  Sylvia came out and stayed for a couple of weeks. I was in love with her and knew it but thought it was the wrong time to be in love. Sylvia wanted to get married, and I knew that divorcing Lenore would be the greatest hell I’d ever known. Also, my constant fear was if I divorced Lenore, I would never see Susannah again.

  I’m in the middle of writing Beach Music, and Lenore was on me every night, calling every night, hammering me. Emily was still suicidal and in heavy therapy. Lenore had the big artillery guns out there, because she had started going to a shrink, and that shrink was saying, “You don’t have a marriage; you don’t have a husband. You let him go to Fripp. What’s he doing in Fripp? Why isn’t he writing in your house?”

  I said, “Lenore, you know that I have to go off to write. This has happened since we’ve been married; it’s happened my whole career.” I would try to defend myself. “Lenore, did you tell her how much your house costs to live in? Did you tell her that you’re playing the stock market? There is a husband, and he is at work, because all your kids are going to the most expensive schools in the world, and how are they doing that?”

  All I remember is a nightmarish time trying to write this book and trying to afford Lenore, who lived in a very expensive house and dressed like a queen. So I’m making this pathetic defense, and I’m still hurting because of my back. But each night she just kept drilling and drilling and drilling. Lenore calling and blasting me every day did not push me up the ladder of mental health. It was a dreadful time at a time of only dreadful times.

  It all started weighing down on me. I had to finish this book; I was running out of money. And I’m writing about not happy subjects. I’m writing about the Holocaust, about Mom’s death. I’m writing about all these things that are going to normally depress one in the normal course of events.

  Also, I was seeing nobody. I didn’t even tell Gene Norris that I was back, I was so depressed. I thought I’d upset Gene. I had not told my brothers and sisters I’d gone back to Fripp. I had not told my father. At that time, I think my mind and body had had it, and I had truly retreated
from the world into my books and my reading as I never had before. I now look back and can’t imagine being that much of a loner, but I was. My body was telling me to rest the old machine for a while. Every afternoon about six o’clock I watched The Waltons, to try to heal myself just to get back what human kindness looked like. It was tonic for my soul. That seems so hokey, but that’s what I needed right then—hokeyness—some blessed way of living. I was still writing the book somehow, I was drinking too much, and I would await these phone calls from Lenore with dread, just absolute dread.

  Then this breakdown started, where I had days just crying and nothing else. It all added up until I couldn’t write and didn’t seem able to think, and eventually that led me to something like despair. I started storing up pills. I had everything set up, the pills and the alcohol. Then, finally one night, took them. It was after a phone call from Lenore when she just nailed me. “What a lousy husband, what a lousy father,” and when Lenore got really mad, I also became a lousy writer.

  Again, suicide seemed great to me. There was no fear involved with it. It just seemed like the best thing I could do for everybody. It would solve everybody’s problems. My not being around would solve everything. And it would especially solve it for me. I remember when I took all these drugs, I felt happy doing it, like I wouldn’t have to feel this thing in my stomach, I wouldn’t have to be bent over with anxiety and sleeplessness. So I took the pills and woke up two days later. I think that’s the time I threw up. I believe that’s what saved me that time. When I look back, I think I kind of semiplanned it, keeping drugs around, hoping I had enough to do the job, feeling very rational when I was doing that. Of course I now feel lucky that I didn’t do it, that I never took enough. I threw up twice, not knowing my body would have a response, saying fuck you, I want to stay around. My favorite days are the ones when I realize I’ve just survived my latest suicide attempt.

  I knew I was in serious, serious trouble. My doctor then was Dr. Keyserling, who had been my doctor when I was a kid in Beaufort and delivered two of my children. But anytime I would go to him and say, “Doc, I’m feeling bad,” he’d say, “I know why you’re feeling bad. You’re too fucking fat, and you’re gaining too much fucking weight.”

  “Doc, I tried to kill myself.”

  “Well, you ought to go ahead and do it, get it over with.”

  That was his style, and I didn’t quite need that at that moment, I didn’t think.

  I was thinking about going to Atlanta to see Marion O’Neill, and then it occurred to me: several years ago she’d moved to Hilton Head. So I called her immediately. I said, “Marion, I am in deep fucking trouble. It’s bad. I am suicidal.” My voice was doing that fucked-up thing she recognized. It’s so pathetic and weak and beaten down, not that strong Churchillian voice rallying people against the Germans. Marion knew that voice and said, “Get over here right now. And be prepared to stay for a while.”

  It was a two-hour trip to Marion O’Neill’s office on Hilton Head. When I first got over there that day, I walked in still really, really shaky, and I hear screaming. I recognize the screaming. Marion is on the phone with Lenore. I still don’t know how Lenore got word that I was going to see Marion, and Marion didn’t have any idea. That has always been a mystery. But when I walked into Marion’s office and found Lenore on the fucking phone, that was the low point of my life. She was abusive to Marion; I could hear her cussing in her pissed-offed-ness.

  Her demand was, “You put him on a plane right now. I demand as his wife you put him on a plane. He’s not your patient. I’ve hired a doctor out here who is his doctor now.”

  Lenore wanted me back in San Francisco so she could put me in a mental hospital. I thought I was a dead man at that moment. I thought, That’s it. I’ll never come back from that.

  When Marion saw me she waved me into her office, pointed and said, “Get in my room.” When I went, I heard Marion get that cold voice of steel. “I’m very sorry, Lenore. But Pat is now officially my patient under my care. I will decide what is best for my patient, not you or the doctor you’ve hired in San Francisco. He will not be flying back tonight; that I can assure you. Thank you very much for calling.”

  She comes in, and I’m having my typical manly breakdown, crying and bawling uncontrollably. She shuts the door, sits down, sees me bawling. She lets me bawl for a long time. Then she said, “Could you explain to me why you married that fucking asshole?”

  I cried most of the session. There was no manliness connected with this particular breakdown at all. I had simply come apart, come loose. Whenever I have a breakdown, my manhood goes into the toilet; my head goes into the oven.

  Marion said, “Now Pat, you’ve got to promise me, if I become your doctor, you are not going to kill yourself under my care.” She said, “You’ll ruin my practice. No one will ever come to the doctor where the author of The Prince of Tides committed suicide under her care. So you’ve got to promise me, and you’ve got to sign it.”

  She puts this paper out, and I sign it with the blood of my dick.

  I think I was with Marion the rest of the time it took me to finish Beach Music—I want to say two years. I went every day, five days a week, for five months. I’d still go swimming twice a day in the ocean, and I would often think I could just swim, keep swimming, keep swimming, and then cut my artery somewhere when I got out deep enough. I had all these fantasies of how I could make it look like an accident. But Marion saved me. I think that pledge I signed was a powerful thing. She made me take it seriously, and I saw her point. She knew how to get to me. She was asking me not to kill myself because of her. I may not have been able to do it for myself. So she got me, hooked me on that first day. Marion was a smart girl. And there’s no question if not for her I’d be dead by now.

  We’d been there before, and we went back in. She goes into this thing about me and women, which she always thought was ridiculous. Said, “Pat, can you ever fall in love with a woman you’re not rescuing? Why do you have to fall in love with a woman without hope?” She went as deeply as she could into this. Mary Alice was certainly one she’d bring up a lot. “Pat, what do you think that was? That was pure rescue. She was abandoned, pregnant, living with an abusive mother. You find out about it, and bingo. What happier moment in any girl’s life than your sorry ass coming along?” And she was right. Mary Alice’s life was a total, complete mess. And I saw that. Why didn’t I say, “Oh, what a total mess?” Marion felt as sorry for the women I fell in love with, the victims of my rescue, as she did for me. I think she thought I was exalting myself by putting myself in the position of rescuing a woman who needed help. So I’m there for the wrong reasons, not to love a woman, but to help a woman. One day Marion said, “Let’s do a hypothetical, Pat. Another underdog comes along. Do you have to help the underdog every time?” And she said, “Yes, you do.” There is still that thing in me: the woman in trouble has a great appeal to me.

  Marion was so afraid I was going to kill myself, she made me stop off in places on my way back to Fripp. It was a long road trip, two hours there, two hours back. She’d make me stop at these different people’s houses so they could report—I didn’t know this—that I was still alive. I had not driven off into a creek and drowned myself or run into an abutment.

  One was a woman I ended up doing the cookbook with, Suzanne Pollak. That was my first stop. I didn’t know it, but she’d call Marion O’Neill: “He got here.” The second place was Gene Norris at the junior high school in Beaufort. Gene would step out: “He got here.” Third place, I had to make friends on Fripp Island. I had no friends, didn’t see anybody. Marion said, “Make some friends.” I went to Gregg and Mary Smith. I said, “Hi, how are you doing?” And sat down and became best friends with them, and they would end up calling her: “He made it home.”

  I had to get up early to get to Marion, and she thought as long as I was seeing people afterward, I would be okay, because, she said, “You always act like you’re normal. You like to put on an act,
Pat. You act happy.” She said I never liked to disappoint people socially. When I go out into the world, I present myself cheerfully whether I’m suicidal or not. I always have the outward appearance of not being depressed. That’s just Southern courtesy, and my courtesies are strong because of Mom. And generally, I’m always happy to see people. If I go out in public that thing switches on: I have a need to be nice. I’ve been in ambulances a couple of times in my life, and I have a need to be nice to the guy lifting me in the ambulance.

  “Thank you very much, sir. I appreciate it. Where are you from?”

  “Sir, we just want to get you stabilized here.”

  “You can still tell me where you’re from.”

  But when I am in my morose, suicidal mood, what I usually do is retreat heavily. At that time I was avoiding people, didn’t want to see anyone, and with me, I go into the great read. I can use my sadness to read, just read; I can read forever, and it can be a danger sign for me when I do that. Marion said, “Pat, you’ve turned yourself into a hermit. You don’t see anybody; you don’t talk to anybody. This is dangerous for you.” That’s another reason why Marion O’Neill made me start going out to see people after I left her office, because I think she knew if she could get me back to dealing with people, something would jumpstart in me that could get me interested in life again. She was right.

  After the first day Marion said, “Okay, Pat, you like cooking. I know that. I have a friend who likes cooking. Her name’s Suzanne Pollak. I want you to stop by and cook a meal, take it home and eat it at night. I want to make sure you’re eating.” So I started going to Suzanne’s house, and we cooked something for lunch every day. She was a good cook and taught me great stuff, like how to make fresh pasta. I’d go over there after meeting with Marion, and there’d be eggs and flour, and I’d just start making the dough for the pasta, rolling it out. It was delicious. We made wonderful meals, and that’s how we got the idea of doing a cookbook, which still sells for the oddest reason. Old ladies love buying it. There’s no suicide in the book; there’s no horror; nobody goes screaming naked down the street with their peckers dragging in the dust. Nobody slits their wrist, slits their throat; nobody throws hydrochloric acid at each other’s faces. Just people calmly gathering materials and fixing good food and me telling winsome stories. So that book has done something for my reputation among those who cannot open another one of my books because they are so appalled by what they find inside, my suicided-filled literature, my death-infused prose. A common question I’m still getting now: “When are you going to write another cookbook?”

 
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