My Exaggerated Life, p.34Pat Conroy
Marion thought my love of food was silly, and she didn’t understand this love of cooking. She is not a sensualist in that way. But it was getting me out among people. Next was Gene Norris, and with Gene, I’d go into his office at the school. Sometimes, when I first started going there, I’d just cry in his office all day. Gene would come in and pretend he was doing something else, and then he’d finally say something like, “You know, sometimes it’s better just to cry and get it out. Don’t try to keep it in. This is a good place to do it. I come back here to think and pray.”
And that’s when Mary and Gregg Smith came into my life. Marion said, “Pick some people at Fripp.” Mary owned the T. T. Bones little general store, which was always friendly when I went in there. I liked her. Her husband was working the cash register one day, and I see a Citadel ring. I said, “Are you a Citadel guy?” He was there as a freshman when I was a senior. So I started going over there. And Marion said, “Okay, you’re going over to their house every night.” I said, “I don’t know these people well enough.” But I would show up, they would seem glad to have me. So they became two of my best friends. Then when I got home, Gene was calling every night. He felt it was very important that I check in with him every night. Then I had to get up and see Marion the next day. That was my life. And if that was what survival looked like, then give me something else.
After about I think six months with Marion, I started feeling something lifting. She slowly built me back up, and it helped that the book was coming. That always is a help for me, when a book starts rolling along. And so I’m in that interior life, and then she takes me to another interior life when I go in to see her. I had the feeling that block by block, Marion was building me back up again. Also, I have this other part of me which is the survivor. I think it’s extraordinarily strong in me, and that comes roaring up. There’s the soldier in me, the warrior in me who comes out fighting.
One thing Marion did convince me of is, “Your sadness and depression are well earned. But you’ve become aware of it, learned how to handle it; you’ll be fine. Just understand that the sadness is always going to be there. But what you can do that other people can’t do is you can write it out. You can get it out. You can get those poisons out of you by writing it on paper.” And she said, “What you don’t know you do, Pat, when you write it, you talk for a zillion people who are feeling the same thing but are helpless to get it out. They don’t know these things, and you help them see these things. Unfortunately, you have to suffer to be aware of these things.”
I said ah, yes, yes, that’s the great part. But it’s true I have become the patron saint of people in agony. Everybody has suffered. Nobody gets away from it. When people tell me they haven’t suffered, it takes just a couple of questions to get to the truth. “Ma’am, how far do we have to go to get to the first crazy on your family tree?” The tragedy is that because all of us know how to write, everybody thinks they can write a book. If you have a bad experience and you know how to write an English sentence, you think you can write a book about it. This is usually not true. And that’s what makes me saddest of all, for someone to have this suffering and have nowhere to go with it.
Also about this time, a friend of mine, Dickie Jones was his name, mayor of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, a former point guard on the Citadel basketball team who was there when I was recruited to the Citadel, committed suicide. Dickie was a sunshiny guy, always up, always the-leader-of-a-pep-rally kind of guy, and he committed suicide on a park bench in Mount Pleasant; horrified everybody that knew him. Nobody had any idea he had gotten himself into deep financial holes. And when I called up about that, I heard his children screaming in the background and could hear the adults trying to console them. I burst into tears. The guy on the phone said, “Pat, a lot of people loved Dickie.”
I said, “I didn’t know Dickie well enough to love him; it’s something else.”
He said, “He affected people that way.”
And what I was thinking of is I did not want to affect my children that way, and it was a great, great example for me of what I did not want to happen in my kids’ lives. So I think Dickie Jones helped save me too.
When I first saw Marion, I was on an antidepressant. It was called a dry martini. Or five. She took me off that. One thing Marion told me when I walked in her office in Hilton Head: “I’m not going to see you if you’re drinking. Quit drinking.” She said, “I don’t deal with alcoholics.” I was not a full-fledged alcoholic when I saw her the first time in Atlanta. I was the second time. I was drowning in dry martinis with olives floating at the top.
I didn’t drink when I was at the Citadel, and did not drink when I got out. Guys at the Citadel tell me they can’t remember me at one party ever. If you drank at the Citadel, you were kicked out of school; if you had liquor in the barracks, you’re gone. I think I had two or three beers the whole time I was at the Citadel, and that’s it.
Here’s where Bernie Schein comes into my life. Bernie now says, “Yes, it was me who turned Pat into an alcoholic.” Not only that, he introduced me to Lenore Fleischer. But that first month we were all teaching, Mike and George and Bernie came over to my apartment and said, “Why didn’t you come to the party?” I was going to a prayer group with Gene Norris and not drinking at that time. I started drinking when I became friends with them and began going to their parties, where I was standing there like a eunuch with no brain power watching the harem. I learned that if I had a drink with Bernie and the guys, they would start talking, and I would start talking. When I drank alcohol for the first time, I noticed a loosening up, being able to have fun, to dance.
It also loosened me up to think in ways I had not allowed myself to think. It opened for me a world I was forbidden to enter on my own, and I’ve always been grateful to alcohol for that. I’m not sure I could have gotten there without it. It was only by drinking I could cut through that very uptight, puritanical Southern boy that I was. Alcohol is the only thing that helped me escape that Roman Catholic military brat and altar boy, the Citadel-trained do-gooder. Rarely has there been a do-gooder kid like me. When I drank, my free thinking came loose, and I realized, “I don’t have to think like this; I don’t have to be like this. What is all this bullshit about?” Alcohol became part of that freeing up of what was hidden in me by my upbringing.
I really started on a steady diet of drinking when I married Barbara. She and Wes, her first husband, had a ritual of having a drink at five o’clock when he got home from work. I thought it seemed very grown up, but of course then I took this modest habit and used it to drink a Bering Sea’s worth of liquor over my next forty years. I poured liquor down my throat in Nile-like proportions.
I was the type to drink and not show it much. Cliff Graubart claims he’s only seen me drunk once in my life, and Cliff has seen me a lot in my life. The great drunkards I’ve known are horrifying and monstrous, and they change when they drink; they become these outrageous figures of brutality, crushing things in front of them and beating their wives and children. I never became like that; I never became violent. I was not a stumbling drunk or a guy who got picked up for drunk driving. I did not stagger; I did not drive crazy. I didn’t slur or stumble. I wasn’t destructive. I didn’t beat people up; I didn’t get into fights. I didn’t stick my hand down the front of women’s dresses. I was never that guy. I was a functioning alcoholic. I made it to planes; I made it to speeches. I could always still get work done, and at that time that was the most important thing. Aftereffects were never bad for me, unlike with Bernie; if he had too much to drink, he’d be moaning and groaning the next day like someone who’d just survived a plane crash barely.
The main thing alcohol did for me that I’ve always appreciated a great deal: I could think things I was denied the right to think when I was a child, when I was going to the Citadel. I could enter a world I was not supposed to ever go to, and it loosed something in my writing I could not have found without it, just like therapy. Drinking gave me a way i
So drinking helped me enter those realms. Later, so did Marion O’Neill, but for a tightly wound Catholic boy with Southern trappings, the first entry came through drinking. There were a lot of trap doors I had to get through before I could get to what was bothering me greatly. Drinking freed me to go there, to that region where I was forbidden access my whole childhood. This may seem like the alcoholic’s excuse or lament, but alcohol took me into my imagination.
And alcohol could calm my brain down after a day of writing. The stomach always seemed to be in some kind of pain after I wrote, like a lining of pain. When I took that first drink, I could feel the alcohol going down the throat, entering the stomach, and removing that lining of pain as it went around the stomach. Drinking was the only thing I knew of that could ever cut into that. Whatever pain I was feeling, eventually I would not feel it, and it seemed like the greatest medicine God ever invented.
And after I got fired up with writing, my problem was always slowing my brain down afterward. When you go into that state you go into to write, you disappear from yourself, and when you come back out, the writing keeps going, especially if you’ve written well and written long. Whatever was stirred up in the brain would keep going and going and going until I had that first drink. Alcohol was something that could turn off my brain when it was still racing absolutely out of control. I think so many writers have been drunks because they have to stop that process, and there are very few ways to do it. You have to sometime come out and deal with your family. Eventually you have to walk out into the naked light of day. Oh, my God, I have children. I forgot that. And oh, I married somebody; what’s her name? The drink in the evening can settle that down and even make you glad you’ve gotten away from the writing table. It provides a perfect bridge. What is nicer after a day’s work than a glass of wine? Tell me that’s not divine and pleasurable. My problem was my inability to get away from the bottle. After I finished writing for the day, I used it like an I.V. pouring gallons of bourbon or gin into me for the rest of the night until I was forklifted to the bedroom. This made Lenore possible for me. And I still had these children to raise; I still had these books to write. Thank God for alcohol.
When I went back to Marion for the first time and she was on the phone, Lenore was telling her I was a complete and hopeless alcoholic. Lenore never threw that in my face much, but after I left San Francisco, it became the reason she lost me. That became her great crutch. Of course, Hammersmith O’Neill made me go off liquor immediately because she did not want it to interfere with my talk therapy. She told me, “If you’re an alcoholic, Pat, I can’t treat you until you do something about that.” So I said okay.
She made me go from her office to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and when I came back the next day, I said if I have to go to that, I’m going to drink myself to death with great pleasure and joy. I have never heard such boring stories, and you could see every drink they’d ever taken written in graffiti on their faces and their trembling hands. Those guys will depress me for the rest of my life. I ain’t doing that. I wanted no part of that strange world of abstinence that has such piety connected to it.
But I had to quit drinking, so I did. She had told me she wasn’t going to see me if I didn’t quit, but what she did not tell me is she thought it would take a month or two. She did not mean for me to quit in one night. I didn’t tell her I was going to do it, and I went through hideous nightmares which she thinks may have been delirium tremens. I had several bad nights. She was pissed that I didn’t go off slowly.
I said, “You told me to get off or you wouldn’t see me.”
She said, “I didn’t mean that night. You didn’t tell me you were going to do that.”
I said, “I didn’t know I was going to do it.”
But I could always put myself back in a situation where I didn’t drink and try to pretend that’s where I am now. I always pretend like I’m a freshman at the Citadel; I can’t drink. I pretend I’m a basketball player, and I didn’t drink when I was an athlete.
For three or four years, I didn’t drink anything, and I should have stayed with it. But then I realized I wasn’t going to see Susannah the rest of my life, and that became an agony I could not take. Susannah is the great unhealed wound in me. She was about eleven when the separation started; she was just coming into her own powers of beauty and smartness and wit. It was wonderful to see.
After the divorce, I saw her for just a few weeks over the next ten years. She was a little girl the last time I saw her, then she was a teenager when I got a phone call from her unexpectedly one summer, saying she wanted to come to Fripp for two weeks. I pick her up from the airport. She appears to me brittle, unforthcoming, but pretty and nice and certainly well behaved and respectful. I try to talk to her. I don’t get as far as I’d like. She does not want me to talk about her mother, which I don’t do and I wouldn’t do. I wouldn’t say bad things about Lenore in front of her. We were hunting for things to say, and I was trying desperately not to say anything that would piss her off. I took her to Charleston and Savannah. We went to the movies a couple of times. I took her to dinner a couple of times. Not much came out of any of that. I’ve always gotten along well with most people, but I could not make a single breakthrough with her.
When she was getting ready to leave, I said, “Why don’t you come back for Christmas? I’d love to have you.”
And she said to me in sort of a snappish way, “Oh come on, Dad, you know it’s a family tradition that we go to Hawaii every Christmas.”
I said, “Let me let you know how long this family tradition has been going on. I’ve never been to Hawaii, Susannah.”
But she started going when she was still young with Lenore. She thought it was the family tradition.
Then she came to Megan’s wedding in 1999, and that was the last time I saw her. I think Susannah was about seventeen at the time. She came with her brother Gregory, who was pulling guard duty. She didn’t speak to me, didn’t speak to her sisters, didn’t speak to anybody, left without speaking, and I have not seen or heard from her since then. It’s been a long time. I wouldn’t recognize her if she walked through the front door.
I lost my daughter, and I think that may be the worst thing that ever happened to me. I’d go back to Dad in a minute: beat me up. I’d go back to the Citadel: do whatever you want to me. The greatest blow of my life has been Susannah. I didn’t get to raise her; I didn’t get to mold her; I didn’t get to love her enough. When I see fathers with their daughters in a store, I get weak at the knees. I can never get over the fact that she’s half me, and that somewhere in there, somewhere there is me trying to get out of her, trying to speak to her, trying to guide her, and it is useless to her.
I knew Lenore was not going to let me see Susannah after the divorce, but it never occurred to me Susannah would not make contact when she turned eighteen. I thought there was hope that when she was eighteen, she would knock at my door. And of course there wasn’t. It remains one of the great shocks of my life. I can come up with no scenario why Susannah’s doing this to me and everyone else, except that she’s been baptized in the church of Lenore. She’s cut herself off completely from my family, my brothers, sisters, her sisters, her nieces. She doesn’t even know them. It’s a complete cutoff of everybody who knew me, and I don’t know how to break through that.
Knowing Lenore, I
I mean, my God, I have no idea if she’s ever dated, if she graduated from college. I don’t know what she’s doing with her life. I don’t know if she’s ever read a word I’ve written. I keep hoping she’ll read my books or something will change. When I put Susannah into Beach Music to let her know what our relationship was at the exact year we split, I had done the best I could to tell her there was something worthy of preservation, but if she could not get that bottle tossed into the waves and retrieve that message somehow, there was not much else I could do.
Right after the divorce, there was a time when I wrote her letters or postcards every day, but I’m not sure she got one of them. I sent her gifts all the time but never got thank you for this, thank you for that. When they moved back to Atlanta, I went by to see her a couple of times, but when she saw I was out there, she wouldn’t open the door. Once I saw her get out of the car when I was across the street. I said, “Susannah, can I talk to you?” and she ran into the house like I was going to beat her up. Whenever I’m in Atlanta I’ll knock on the door; I’ll feel people looking at me, won’t get an answer, leave a letter on her windshield. I’ll write her periodically and send flowers on her birthday, but I get nothing, absolutely nothing. I have no phone number for her, no e-mail address. I don’t know what to do about it; I’m paralyzed. I could take a pup tent and camp out on Lenore’s front lawn, but that is not what I want. I don’t want that for Susannah; I don’t want that for myself. I don’t want the cops; I don’t want to be on national news the next morning. And something in me says that Susannah has a perfect right not to see me if she doesn’t want to. I could argue with her about the reason, except I wouldn’t know her if she crossed the street in front of me.
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