My Exaggerated Life, p.5Pat Conroy
The mystique of the system is that they tear you down and then they build you back up into men. They break you down completely and then rebuild you into a Citadel man. They get you, you’re a piece of shit, and by the time they finish you, you’re a rare Carrara marble. Harsh discipline makes the man, and all that. Blatant cruelty is not only lionized; it’s like the trail to sainthood. It is the noblest thing you can do. You’re taking this poor knob and making a whole man out of him.
God forbid if you’re ugly or fat or skinny or pimply. One poor kid was nicknamed Death Warmed Over. He was so ugly, they couldn’t stand looking at his face in mess, so they made him put a bag over his head with holes cut in where his eyes and mouth and nose were, and he had to eat under the table for the entire year so he would not make the upperclassmen gag at the sight of him. That was good for him psychologically, don’t you think? They were making a whole man out of him.
I didn’t buy anything about the plebe system. It just seemed like cruelty for no reason. It was pure harassment, nothing else. I did not believe in that road to leadership. Why did the Citadel think the plebe system makes good men? Why would anybody think that anything good could come from such cruelty? I don’t remember having any moments of courage. I was as weak and cowardly as my father always thought I was. I was proving what a loser he always knew I was. I didn’t feel magnified or glorified or feel I was making a better man out of myself. I was just simply terrified and brutalized. I never felt the things other guys told me they felt, that they were on their way to becoming a whole man at the Citadel. That philosophy did not make it to me. My military philosophy is that my platoon that loves me will annihilate your platoon that hates you. An officer eats only after his men are fed; an officer sleeps only after his men are down for the night. I do not believe discipline and torture need to go together.
I think six hundred were in our freshman class; 240 graduated. They wiped us out in droves that first year. And these were good guys any school would be proud of; they just could not take the cruelty. Some of these were skinny kids or fat kids. I was a jock, and I couldn’t take it. All during that year, fathers had to come get their poor kids and take them home. It was the worst thing you’ve ever seen: boys crying, fathers crying. And I knew the kid’s story—he cracked under pressure and couldn’t take it anymore. I remember on Hell Night seeing them lined up in the dorm with their suitcases. They could not wait to get out of there.
Here’s how I account for the fact I stayed: He was about six-four, 235 pounds, with the temper of Zeus. I could not have that scene. If I quit the Citadel, I could imagine Dad beating me up all the way home as he spread out for me all the deficiencies I brought to manhood. I could just hear it: You weren’t man enough. It would have been a nightmare trip. And because of my father, I did not have a loving family to go back home to. Also, I realized the Citadel was going to be my only chance at a college education. So I had to survive the plebe system.
One of the unhappiest parts about being a cadet is that it was noticed that I didn’t participate in the system when I was an upperclassman. It shocked me that my classmates did. When I got to be a sophomore, I thought my classmates wouldn’t do the same thing to the freshmen coming in. Boy, was I wrong. I thought, Okay, you didn’t learn much. But in the groupthink of the Citadel, you got rank because the harder you were on the plebes, the greater you were proving your belief in the system. And they would tell me they believed in the system. They would say it’s making men out of us. I would go, “Fuck. You. It’s making us beasts of burden.” The fact that I could openly hate it so early got me in trouble with my classmates. It ruined me with them, because they would go, “Let’s show them. Let’s go out there and show them we’re the best class that ever came to the Citadel.” “Fuck you”—that was me. So I was never really embraced by my company guys, although the word “classmate” is a holy one for me. One of the reasons I love my classmates—some of those poor guys, I don’t know how they did it. I just don’t know how they did it. Some were skinny guys, some were fat guys, and they were humiliated beyond anybody’s capacity to believe. And yet they stayed, they showed courage, they made it, and those guys—those guys have always amazed me. The guys who went through the plebe system with you, who survived with you—these guys become untouchable.
And here is the cunning of things like the Marine Corps or the plebe system. Once you get out of that trial by fire, it makes you think you’re better than the guys who didn’t make it. They were not man enough to make it, to last through it as I was. Because I went through the plebe system, I am a whole man. And now you’re part of this group, this fellowship, this brotherhood, and there’s enormous power in this feeling. So afterward, everybody says they loved it, and that’s how propaganda works. There’s a whole male psychology and philosophy that goes along with it that you see everywhere. Since they went through it, it’s the best. Because it’s the hardest, they’re the best. Because it’s the meanest, they’re the strongest.
I used to hear that “Conroy doesn’t believe in the plebe system,” and I would go, “I certainly don’t. Torture? Degradation? Humiliation? No, gosh, count me out.” I’m sure my reaction was partly a reaction against my father. Maybe I would have taken it a lot differently had I come at it from a different family. I knew I was taking the plebe system differently from everybody else at the Citadel.
But I never raised my voice to a plebe. I never said anything except “Hi. How are you doing smackhead? What a great choice of college you made. Aren’t you happy? Isn’t it great to be tortured from the time you get up until the time you go to bed? Isn’t this just wonderful? It’s making a whole man out of you, I can tell.” They would be sitting there miserable, with their shaved heads. “Ah, yes, young smackhead. It’s 6:15 in the morning in February. It’s dark; it’s freezing. Isn’t it great to wake up and see the stars? Now all over America young men will be waking up just like you, only they will be waking up six hours later, they will be hung over from the night before, and they will turn over, and there will be something soft and warm and lovely beside them, and that will be called a girl. Can you imagine such a nightmare, turning over to find a girl in the same bed with you? Good God, not us Citadel men.”
One of the reasons I did not get rank at the Citadel was I did not participate in the plebe system. And Dad, “Hey son, you need to get involved in that. I’d give them a hell they’ll remember the rest of their lives.” I’d go, “Yes sir, I’ll do it. I’ll do it starting next year, sir.” Dad would have gotten through the plebe system easily and I think would have been extraordinarily mean when he got to be an upperclassman.
I enjoyed it thoroughly, Dad’s despair: a colonel’s son being a private at the Citadel, never an officer. It drove him crazy. It was one of my great victories over Dad. I was the best senior private in the class of ’66–’67 at the Citadel, an award which humiliated my father. “You’re the best of the shits? What an honor, son. You’re the best of the non-leaders. Gosh, will you charge that hill for me, son? And make sure you take your men with you.”
I hated every single part of that school, except for the teachers. My professors were good men. They didn’t have their doctorates; they had no ambition; they published nothing. They were there for the students. While I was running around campus in platoons singing “I want a life of constant danger, I want to be an airborne ranger, I want to go to Vietnam, I want to kill some Viet Cong,” I was afraid that God had not arranged for me to get a good education. But my English teachers were sweethearts to me. They knew I wanted to be a writer, and they did everything they could to encourage that.
Colonel Doyle was fabulous to me. The first week we had to write an essay, and I wrote one about a freshman who goes out in the middle of the night and takes a shit on the quadrangle to show what he thinks about that school, their ways of raising soldiers, their ways of discipline. I could have been kicked out of school, but Colonel Doyle called me to his class afterward. He said, “You’re having a very d
And Colonel Doyle got me through the program. He would choose the best teachers for me, the best teachers the college had. He was wonderful. “Mr. Conroy, I think you are going to find many subtle pleasures as we tackle modern fiction together.” I wrote poems for him, and he’d sit beside me in his little study and circle words. “Now, now, there are too many ‘poignant’ moments already in English literature, don’t you think? Let’s not add another one to it.” He’d strike the word, and we’d go on. He was as loving as he could be. Fat Jack Martin told me, “Mr. Conroy, I am absolutely positive you do not know a single fact of English history, but you write about your ignorance so beautifully.” My classmates had a different way of encouraging me: “I saw your poem, faggot.”
My only gratitude to the Citadel is that I was spotted early. An upper-classman named Clark Martin told me, “The English faculty thinks they’ve never had a writer like you in their history. They’re watching you.” I wrote for the literary magazine, the Shako, three or four short stories, innumerable dog-shit poems. I look at it now; I’m horrified. It’s no-good crap. But I looked Miltonian compared to the other cadets; I looked titanic in my powers. It looked like a literary god had been unleashed. My senior year I won the literary award, and the guy who gave it to me, Major Alexander, as he shook my hand, said, “Mr. Conroy, we’re expecting to hear from you again.” I found that thrilling, because he had never even taught me.
When I graduated from high school, I believed I was going to be a Marine Corps fighter pilot. I never told anybody. I just wanted to suddenly appear as a fighter pilot, and I wanted to take Dad up in the air and kick his ass in one-on-one combat. I wanted to beat him in a dogfight. My image of myself and my ambition for myself was to be a better fighter pilot than he was.
I was shocked when they tested my eyes at the Citadel and learned I had no chance whatsoever of being a pilot. I was color-blind and had no depth perception. They could never allow me to fly. It was one of the worst moments of my life. There wasn’t a thing about my father I admired except him being a fighter pilot, and I couldn’t follow him in that. Also, it ended my military career. Otherwise, I think I would have done the exact same thing Dad did. I didn’t know a military brat who’d ever done anything except enter the military.
When I had to think about going into the infantry and getting myself killed in Vietnam, I started studying the war. Why are we there? I couldn’t quite figure that out: we were fighting against their George Washington, Ho Chi Minh, who ran the French out. I quickly realized that nobody knows what they’re doing over there, and I’ve got no fight against those people. If the United States cannot explain to me, with my background, why we’re going to war against a nation, who can they explain it to? I thought it seemed like the worst war we could get into, supporting the worst people.
Dad was surprisingly good about it and told me “Don’t get yourself killed in a politician’s war.” All the way during the Citadel, he would say things to me like “I fought in three wars. My sons ain’t got to fight in any of them. I paid our dues.” That surprised me a great deal, that he never put any pressure on us to go into the military. And there’s not one day served in the military by a Conroy kid in my generation. It was probably Dad’s way of loving us. It certainly wasn’t something he could say. He never told me he loved me once in his life. That was a deflected conversation. So I dodged the war for what I thought were very good, legitimate reasons, although I’m sure there was some direct rebellion against my father and the Citadel too.
Right before I graduated, they awarded me the first Citadel Development Foundation scholarship, and what they were going to do was send me to get my master’s degree in English and then require me for two years to come back and teach at the Citadel. I was accepted to Virginia, Emory, Vanderbilt, and one other. The Citadel was going to pay tuition and books. I thought I’d go live with Stanny in her apartment, which is near Emory. I would have loved two years after the Citadel to write and talk about books, where the girls were pretty, the boys were handsome, and we all partied. It sounded great to me and sounded even better two years later after getting fired from Daufuskie Island. But I did not have the money to cover my monthly expenses. What I had never heard of was an assistantship. No one told me about it; no one told me I was eligible to apply for it; nobody told me it was a way to get through graduate school. I was in despair because I did not have the money to go.
Then Mr. Randel said, “Boy, what are you going to do next year?” Mr. Randel was the deputy superintendent of schools in Beaufort. His son had died right in front of me on the baseball field, and I became friends with the Randels for the rest of my life. “I thought I was going to graduate school, Mr. Randel, but that just didn’t work out for me.” He said, “You don’t want to go in the service.” I said, “No, I really don’t.” He said, “I got two jobs opening at Beaufort High School. One’s teaching and the other’s coaching football, basketball, and baseball.” I said, “No kiddin’?” He said, “You get paid $4,700 a year. You get a little more, $200 for each sport you coach, and you won’t get a better deal in South Carolina.” So I shook hands on it, and suddenly, my fate was launched.
Because I came from nothing, it looked like I would live a pretty normal life and not do much. I thought I would teach at Beaufort High School forever and write poetry on the side. That was my dream of life, and I thought it was a good one. It did not work out very well, but that was my original plan. I did not plan on getting fired. The guy who fired me, on the school board, is still alive, and now he says, “I gave Pat his career. I started him out.”
Because my writing career was a total accident of fate. With my background, with my inferior childhood and my inferior education coming from a military college, the chances of me becoming a writer seemed about none. It just did not seem possible, and I knew that. But luck and fortune played a part. I would not be able to get published today. If I had not been able to get my books published back then, I don’t know what I would have done with my life. And it never occurred to me that someone would make movies out of my books. That was a world I never had any ambition to enter; it’s been one of the great surprises of my career. The movies took me by complete surprise. That was not part of any plan I’d had in my life. Whatever fantasies I had, they did not include what happened to me.
And whatever success I’ve had, I’ve had trouble processing. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed any of the good things that happened. The first of my books were controversial, and I was always embroiled in warfare. The Citadel banned The Boo. The state of South Carolina went berserk with The Water Is Wide. The Great Santini—my family explodes. The Lords of Discipline—the Citadel went out of their minds. I always seem to irritate somebody every time I write a book. With each one, I had no time to think what a pleasant achievement this was. There was too much going on, and my life was always coming apart. It wasn’t a time of enjoyment or satisfaction. So the first part of my career I was in this defense mode of trying to keep people away and fight people off. That was one reason I could not quite enjoy what was happening, and it didn’t feel all that successful to me.
Also, Dad made it where I could not enjoy anything I accomplished at all, ever. He ruined something for me by denigrating any success I had as a kid and made it impossible for me to enjoy any success I ever had as an adult. There will never be any feeling of achievement for me, because that’s not part of my makeup. I can enjoy other people, and enjoy giving joy to other people, but joy over something that happens to me directly is beyond me.
I am cautious about happiness. I have no trust of the good times, no trust of the happy times. I never trust success. When it comes, Conroy looks around and behind and over his shoulder to see what kind of bestial, inhuman thing is
I think Dad killed my capacity for joy. I never know when I’m having a good time; that is part of the malady I bring to my life. I wish I could actually know that I’m enjoying something while it happens. I wish I had a part of me that was not so damaged I could enjoy my success. But I have never been able to feel good or take pleasure in anything that happens to me that is good. What I have been able to do is to accept as my due, as my lot and my fate, things that were bad. The only thing I have total trust in is utter failure, debacle, disgrace. Then I think I’m living what God wanted me to live. I forget everything good that happens to me. I only remember the things that leave wounds, extract organs, and create a trail of blood that follows me from room to room. Something good happens, and I will feel good for a day. Then I’ll wake up the next morning and all the other things that feast upon the liver, that nibble at the edges of the soul, will be there as they always are when we wake up.
My deepest living is in the imagination of others, when I take that magic carpet ride of being a reader. When I enter into a world that is not mine, I find such happiness, such completion, such totality. I love it when a book does that for me. The happiness that reading gives me has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life. I read with joy, I take great pleasure in it, and I think it has saved my life. I have to get a certain amount of reading in each day; I’ve got to have those words coming at me. God, I love what it does. When I’m into a book that I love, it is a form of perfect happiness on earth for me. I don’t need any more.
My Exaggerated Life by Pat Conroy / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes