My Exaggerated Life, p.40Pat Conroy
So I let Bernie out. He goes in. I go find a parking place. I walk back into the rain. Now I’m soaked all over. I walk in and go up to the deputy and say, “My wife, Sandra, has come to the ICU, and I’d like to visit her.”
He said, “I’m sorry, sir, her husband has already gone in to see her.”
I said, “Do you mean that fat idiot with a beard?”
And he says, “Yes, sir, he just came in. He said his friend was parking the car and to tell you to sit down in the visitor’s center while he comforts his wife.”
So I said, “Sir, can you go in and throw him out? There’s been a mistake here.”
He says, “Well, I’ve got it written down, and you can look in there.”
There’s my name, Pat Conroy, signed in. So I waited. Bernie stayed with Sandra for an hour before he came out and says, “There’s no reason to go in, Pat. She’s exhausted. The doctor says she’s talked too much tonight so you can come back tomorrow.”
I said, “Fuck you, Bernie.”
I ended up going back there, and Bernie had totally exhausted her. But what she thought was a heart attack eventually led to them finding out that she had some kind of cancer, which turned out to be completely treatable, thank God.
When I first met Sandra, I knew she was the right one, and she was. I told myself I needed to marry a really nice girl, and I found her in Sandra. She has brought a measure of calmness that has enabled me to continue writing even as I’ve become this bent, arthritic, crab-like figure who wanders the second story of my house railing at the tides.
Beaufort, South Carolina
Pat was a very good patient. He put himself down more than he should have, but he was able to look into himself. He was as honest with me as he could be. He never responded angrily, although there’s no way to be in therapy and be comfortable. Like most of us, he is his own worst enemy, but he’s got a lot of strength. At some point he realized he had to do something about his life, and he did it.
MARION O’NEILL, Ph.D., ABPP, clinical psychologist
I needed to reconnect to something I had lost. Somewhere I had lost touch with the kind of man I had the potential of being. I needed to effect a reconciliation with that unborn man and try to coax him gently toward his maturity.
PAT CONROY, The Prince of Tides
So I am in Beaufort, South Carolina, living the slow life, and although I look like a sea cucumber that sometimes washes up on the beach—motionless, shapeless—I am perfectly happy. I know where I want to be; I know where I don’t want to be; I know whose company I want to be in. If I’m reading a book that I’m loving, I do not even need to go out of the house except to exercise my fat, cholesterol-laden body. I do not want it said that I cast a shadow over Southern literature not because of my talent but because of my hulk.
For several weeks in the summer the invasion of the children and the grandchildren comes flying in like a plague of locusts. They take turns staying at the house on Fripp. And I like it, being a grandfather, although I’ve come to believe that summers are highly overrated events. The summer becomes a time when Dad does not have a job, and we have to make up for all the lost time we have missed out on during the year, and there’s nothing I can do about it. There’s a conspiracy at work night and day to keep me from writing. My children make sure I have quality time with each of their children, in which the quality time consists of me being with a grandchild as my children stare at me to make sure I am giving enough quality from myself to their precious children, so I am under the gun. I finally have to say, “Girls, I can’t say, ‘Oh, isn’t that cute?’ one more time. And by the way, I don’t need a complete day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute description of my grandchildren, okay?”
But I now am sorry that I did not quit writing while the kids were growing up so I could just stare at them in amazement twenty-four hours a day and appreciate them in ways I did not do because I was young and stupid and didn’t know what I was doing. If we did not have our work to drive us crazy, we could live through our children, be proud of our kids, proud of the way we raised them. Unfortunately, we have these other hungers which drive us nuts. But I will always think there is something missing from anyone who does not raise children. I think it puts you into the great flow of man and mankind to be part of that. It ratifies your part in the planetary motion. And there is something about the raising of a child: it does change you. It is a different way of looking at the world, not through me but trying to look at the world to make it safe for them. If we all did that, it would humanize the whole world.
Meanwhile, Father’s Day comes and goes, and unlike Mother’s Day, which is a fucking feast day, with calls, adoration, gifts, and worship, the girls will say Father’s Day is a manufactured Hallmark greeting card event. I do not hear the beep-beep-beep as a forklift backs up moving in with my gifts. I have a wife who only gives me gifts that she later gives to other people, so they simply come through my life for a few days, and then Sandra rewraps them and gives them to someone else she loves more. I have not been allowed to keep one gift that Sandra has ever given me, and this includes dogs.
But I am grateful that Sandra pretends to love me and my children do not throw up when they see me. I have not been flushed down the toilet like a used Kleenex or thrown out the window like a diaper on the highway. I’m sort of a house fixture, like an outdoor lamp. My grandchildren look at me like Ahab looked at Moby Dick, waiting to carve up my blubber and sell the ambergris on the black market. As for me, I seethe with happiness.
Summer is the typical sort of Conroy-esque madness, the carnival season when there’s no reason to have a carnival. It’s like we have a pep rally for everything the kids do. I’ll go along with it as much as I can. I see karaoke shows featuring my grandchildren, which is a nightmare, but I do it. I never knew my life would dip quite this low, but there I am, watching this unbelievable American ritual. Two of my grandchildren got into a fight because one of them listed a song she was going to sing and the other one got on stage and sang it first. Everybody was saying, “Oh, Katie, you know Stella wanted to do that,” and seven year-old Katie says, “I really don’t care to discuss it.” Stella says, “I’m going to hate her for the rest of my life,” which I find a very Conroy-like instinct. But then it’s over. I’ve gone to karaoke. I’ve done my duty as a grandparent. I’m not letting my girls down.
When they all leave at the end of the summer, what Sandra and I do is very inappropriate and has caused hatred all throughout the family. As soon as the last ones leave, she and I perform a ritual victory dance of joy and relief. We’re dancing together in the hall, throwing up our arms, thanking God that we survived this. Sandra looks like a Rockette, and for a moment in my old, crippled life, I am twirling in the air and leaping like a Russian. That being done, I can return to my life, when I used to be a writer. I will be left to my own devices, to solitude, to loneliness, to an oyster-like existence for the rest of my days, buried in mudflats, praying for the tide to come in and give me a little sustenance.
As I relive the hideous, unspeakable days of my life, they roll out in front of me, one suppuration after another wound, after another open sore. I keep waiting for the smiley face somewhere at the end of the line, knowing it will never come. It will end as a skull and bones sitting at a crossroads with my name beneath it. So I lie in bed, fat, incontinent, flatulent, impotent. I get out of bed arthritic, diabetic, with liver failure minutes away. Immediately I am beaten down and defeated, wallowing in my own excrement, retiring back into my fatness and addictions.
But in my view from the bottom of the toilet, I could not be more content with the way my career has gone. I was happy I was making a living as a writer, and surprised, very surprised, especially because I came of age when I found myself the most hated human being, the most loathed and despised and castaway being in human society: a white Southern male. A lost albino bison on the American plain. I feel lucky enough just to have been published. I am still tha
And I’m always going to wish I were better. That I was more talented and smarter. But there’s nothing I can do about it. I was born to a dope, and I was raised in a dope-like way so I turned into a dope, and that’s it. There’s nothing I can do about it except do the best I can once I realized that dope-dom was my fate.
I wish I’d been more prolific. I wish I’d been less emotional. I wish I’d been more intellectual in the way I attacked work. But I was who I was, and what you write is the person you are. That is your thumbprint, your fingerprint, your soul-print.
Writers like me have chosen a life of agony. Whatever it is we get out of ourselves, whatever poisons spill out of us, you’ll see the results when they’re published. You’ve always dreamed of it, desired it, worked for it; when you get it you will loathe it and scream in agony. You’ll think of George Eliot and Flaubert and Shakespeare, and you’ll realize, “My God, I have contaminated the literary tradition with my little fart into the language. I’ve done damage to the language, to the concept of the novelist, to the human spirit.” Because I have no talent; I had nothing to say; it was simply a matter of ego. I had some obsession to get my name somewhere besides on my gravestone, and there it is: The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline. I have humiliated myself before the world. They are not even booing or hissing. They are simply laughing in helpless mirth at what I have presented and what I have created.
Fiction is the most agonizing because fiction is us. Nonfiction is the other. Fiction is an absolute reflection of what we have going on inside of us, or what we do not have. So I’ve never understood why the critics will give a break to the nonfiction writers and seem to love to humiliate the fiction writers.
My fans are the best in the world, but I’ve been uncomfortable with fame, really uncomfortable. It’s a killing thing, fame; it corrupts everything. It doesn’t seem like the way to live. I want to be in a natural environment where I’m not the center of attention. I don’t want to be the entertainment for the evening. I like going to a dinner or a party where I’m not the focus. It doesn’t seem like a way to think about yourself. I’m a celebrity, and you’re a fucking nothing?
I can do the talking when it’s necessary. Sometimes people come to hear me fucking talk. But I like to sit back, relax, and listen to someone else. I like not to be noticed. Somebody once asked Cliff Graubert why I do not seem to treasure fame, and Cliff said, “He did not want it to change anything about himself.” Cliff is one of only two dumb Jews America has ever produced—the other is Bernie Schein—but Cliff got that right.
Nobody knows why what they’ve written starts selling, nobody. And nobody can tell you. You can sit down and say you’re going to write a best seller; that doesn’t mean you will. It’s something uncontrollable, something invisible, and it’s sort of the whims of time. Then fame goes by faster than you think. Suddenly it’s here, and just as suddenly, it’s past. You’re wondering, “What was that all about? What just happened? What comet against the sky was that? What meteorite burned out in my system I was barely aware of?”
Writers suddenly well up and blossom, and yet they and you don’t know the blossoming is going to be brief. We don’t know when it’s going to end, but it will always end. We do not know when we will become yesterday’s porridge, but we should know that it will eventually happen. We don’t know who’s coming behind us, but we can be sure we’ve got better writers coming behind us who were just sperm cells when we were first starting out.
I tell people it’s not that hard to write a novel. It’s hard to have a literary career, to be long-winded enough to complete a career, to have the arc of a career. That’s very difficult, and it doesn’t happen I don’t think that often. My theory is that lightning strikes several times and then the weather clears.
But at least I have finally reached the point in my life when I am unradioactive enough to be the grand marshal of the Beaufort waterfront parade. I will have to look kingly, and I will not feel kingly. But I will do it. I will do my thing and be the nicest person on earth. I’ll be honored; I’ll be sunburned; I’ll get melanoma; I will die. Conroy asks for nothing, and he gets nothing in return. He simply places his head on the guillotine block and listens as it inches its way up to its highest position, waiting for it to drop.
Over the many years of dragging that oyster dredger across the sand flats of my soul, digging and grinding, hoping for some of the fruits of the sea to float to the surface, I have netted these insights. It would have all been different if I’d had a bigger dick. Not to mention, it would have been much better if I had done things differently, but I did not. So you screw up, you make mistakes, you live out a life, and then your life is flying by. It’s just flying by you. The great surprise of every human life is it goes so quickly. You don’t get much time.
If you’re reading this, then that means Conroy sent ya. You don’t look at the world from an eagle’s point of view. You look at it from a scorpion’s point of view, down there low in the earth, your back hunched, your spine ready. But that’s good. That’s good because it’s really hard to make it through a life.
Why do they not teach you that time is a fingersnap and an eyeblink, and that you should not allow a moment to pass you by without taking joyous, ecstatic note of it, not wasting a single moment of its swift, breakneck circuit?
PAT CONROY, My Losing Season
In the spring of 2015, nine months after our official interviews ended, Pat Conroy’s estranged daughter Susannah sent him an unexpected e-mail, beginning a process of reconciliation. Given this major development in Pat’s life, I recorded a few more interviews that focus on this situation.
We heard that Susannah had changed jobs and moved out of Lenore’s house, but nobody knew where. When I was in Atlanta, my daughter Megan called to say she’d found an address for Susannah on the Internet, so before I left on Sunday, I went by this little apartment. It was amazing, where it was, on Briarcliff Road, in the dead center of where my family has been in Atlanta since the 1930s. It’s within throwing distance of Stanny’s house, where I was brought back when I was born—two blocks from where I used to catch the bus to go to kindergarten. Bernie and Martha lived on the same street. Lenore and her lovely first husband, Alan, lived just blocks away. It was like she had entered the territory of her birth and all our lives in Atlanta.
I left a letter at her apartment, not even knowing if it really was her apartment. The note was my usual pathetic, whining self: “I just want to see you, check on you, love to get back in touch.” I gave her all my information, although my e-mail address has been the same since I last saw her. I never changed it in all those years. In case she wanted to reach me, I wanted her to be able to find me.
When I left her this letter, I was expecting nothing, I have to tell you. I’ve tried so many things—calling up where she works, leaving a voice mail, going by Lenore’s house, knocking on the door, ringing the doorbell, looking in the window, leaving letters on the windshield of her car. It has never worked. It’s been such a black hole in my life. Then I get this e-mail from her: “Wanna have lunch?” I was completely stunned by it. I’m trying to put on my Citadel game face and retain my manly composure, but I burst into tears.
I had been needing to hear from her even more than I knew, and I didn’t realize until I burst into tears how I had repressed that with my military brat reflex. When you leave someone in the military, you never see them again. Whatever friend you had is no longer a part of your life. Whatever friends you made—you’ll never be able to recapture that relationship. All you can do is get used to it, and that’s what I tried to do with Susannah.
I found I was too emotional to write her back the first day. I just sat at the computer, wishing I knew how to type. I wrote her the next day and tried to
Then this book will come out, and Susannah will never speak to me as long as I live. But, our first allegiance always is to the art. Whatever art we bring to the table is sacrosanct. And I mean that. If Susannah doesn’t like the book—too bad—because I don’t think I’ve lied in it much.
Still I hope it’s the beginning of something positive. There is at least communication, which we have not had in fifteen years, and I’m relieved at how well she writes, how well she thinks. I’m as pleased as Conroy gets. The part of me that is the darkest part—I keep beating that back into me as it tries to surface, and I’m going to let this flow freely and hope for the best.
In October 2015 Susannah was there with her sisters Jessica, Melissa, and Megan in Beaufort, South Carolina, for the “Conroy at 70” celebration. Masterminded by Jonathan Haupt of the University of South Carolina Press, this festival spanned four days and featured an extraordinary group of individuals from all walks of Pat Conroy’s life. Editors Jonathan Galassi and Nan Talese came from New York, along with Marly Rusoff, who took over as the author’s agent after the retirement of Julian Bach. Michael O’Keefe, an actor in The Great Santini, was one of the panelists, as was David Keith, who appeared in both The Great Santini and The Lords of Discipline. Other attendees included Sallie Ann Robinson and her cousin Jackie and two of the black “kids” Pat taught on Daufuskie Island; also a former student of Pat’s from Beaufort High School, Valerie Sayers, now a writer and professor at Notre Dame. Brothers Mike, Tim, and Jim Conroy were in attendance, as well as their sister Kathy Harvey, along with a half dozen of Pat’s grandchildren, and an assortment of nieces, nephews, and in-laws. The irrepressible Bernie Schein was irrepressible as usual. Cliff and Cynthia Graubert were there from Atlanta, as was Terry Leite, to whom the adolescent Pat wrote a series of letters full of yearning and “sperm-filled emotions.” Also present were a dozen of the authors recently published by Pat Conroy’s new fiction imprint Story River Books of the University of South Carolina Press.
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