This is the third “non- fiction” book I’ve read by Pat Conroy. I put that in quotation marks as the line separating his novels and his memoirs of his youth at the Citadel (My Losing Season), the influence of his mother and teachers on his maturation as a writer (My Reading Life), and now, finally, this tortured history of his entire family (The Death of Santini) completes the trilogy of his autobiographical works. His memoirs are the building blocks of his fiction. And that is not a criticism, but a fact. For some writers it may be more subliminal, but where else does a writer derive his/her deepest experiences other than those lived? That is what makes moving, meaningful literature, theatre, paintings, you name the art.
I have a profound respect for Conroy’s writing ability. It flows, whether it’s memoir or fiction. This particular work, I would think, puts his life story to bed, or one hopes so. As he movingly puts it at the onset …in the myth I’m sharing I know that I was born to be the recording angel of my parents’ dangerous love. Their damaged children are past middle age now, but the residues of their fury still torture each of us…Our parents lit us up like brandy in a skillet. They tormented us in their own flawed, wanton love of each other. This is the telling of my parents’ love story – I shall try to write the truth of it as best I can. I’d like to be rid of it forever, because it’s hunted me down like some foul-breathed hyena since childhood.
Throughout this angst-ridden work I hear the refrains of John Bradshaw. I’ve met Bradshaw. I wish Conroy had, although he has himself has gone through years and years of therapy. Bradshaw puts his case very clearly in his seminal work The Family – the family is a system which shapes our lives and survival in a dysfunctional family involves creating a false self, playing a role – getting typecast so to speak – and it is multigenerational.
It was not until Conroy wrote The Great Santini at the age of 30 that he first heard the phrase “dysfunctional family:” Because I had studied the biography of Thomas Wolfe with such meticulous attention, I thought I knew all the pitfalls of and fly traps into which I could fall by writing on such an incendiary subject as my own family. When I began to write the book, I had never heard the phrase “dysfunctional family.” Since the book came out, that phrase has traveled with me as though a wood tick has attached itself to my armpit forever…My portrait of my father was so venomous and unforgiving that I had to pull back from the outraged narrative voice and eventually decide to put the book into third person. But even then, the words flowed like molten steel instead of language.
In parts of this blog I’ve revealed some of my own family sicknesses, a rageaholic mother and a passive father, sort of the opposite of Conroy but we share some of the same burdens. And as the oldest in the family of many siblings, Conroy bears the brunt and he is trying to excise those demons in his memoirs and fiction.
It was not until after he had a physical confrontation with his father physically that the impact of multigenerational family sickness dawned on him. His father had left Conroy’s house drunk after being plummeted by his son. It suddenly dawned on Conroy that his father had no business driving a car in that condition and ran down the street to find the car – which he did with his father passed out in the driver’s seat. He studied his father’s face. I realized I would always be serving a life sentence without parole because of the unpardonable cruelty of this one man. Now on this night, my father had proffered his final gift to me – because I had kicked him across the lawn and beat him with my fists, I sat studying him at my leisure, deep in thought on the first night I ever thought of myself earning my natural birthright as a violent man. I was devastated. All during my childhood, I had sworn that I would never be a think like him, and here before me, drunken and beaten, was living proof that I was the spitting image of Don Conroy.
As Tolstoy posited “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I’ve heard of such families (the happy ones), although I’ve rarely met one without some secret lurking. I think a more benign way of putting it is that some families get along better than others, but all families have their crucibles to bear. I like Conroy’s way of putting it: I don’t believe in happy families. A family is too frail a vessel to contain the risks of all the warring impulses expressed when such a group meets on common ground. If a family gathers in harmony for a reunion, everyone in attendance will know the entryways and exits have been mined with improvised explosive devices. The crimes of a father or the carelessness of a mother can defile the taste of oyster dressing and giblet gravy on the brightest Thanksgiving Day….The pretense of being festive at these events is both crushing and debilitating to me…My parents taught me many things, but they never taught me a thing about faking joy…The happy family is one of the treasured romances of the American epic, something akin to the opening of the West. Holidays brought out the worst in my own family, hopes ridding high, with no way of scaling those walls of expectations.
Much of the book is devoted to the ironic reconciliation with his father. I say “ironic” as it was through the publication (and ultimately the making of the movie) of The Great Santini, the main character, "Bull" Meecham being based on his father, that a reconciliation becomes possible. It was not an attractive portrait, so much based on Don Conroy’s incendiary persona. Upon publication -- as in the case of Conroy’s literary hero Thomas Wolfe when his autobiographical Look Homeward Angel was published -- there was an upheaval in the family. But eventually Don Conroy became proud to be known as the “Great Santini,” talking down the unflattering parts as being due to his son’s “over imagination” and playing up the heroic parts. To Pat Conroy’s credit he accepted this part of the reconciliatory bargain and even allowed his father to participate in book signings, his father becoming sort of a “wingman” to Pat for the rest of his life on those occasions.
The deaths of his mother (who had divorced his father years earlier) and then the Great Santini himself are movingly described by Conroy. The affect the family dynamics had on the siblings and particularly his estrangement from his sister Carol Ann (“her talismanic powers over me extended into the deepest realms of self”) and the suicide of his youngest brother (“Tom was born to hurt”) are detailed. His beautiful eulogy to his father is appended at the end of the book.
Towards the end of his father’s life, we began a year of submitting to Dad’s whims as he made a final tour of the most significant places in his life. He planned visits to every person he’d ever considered a friend, paying special attention to my daughters, who had worshiped him ever since they had learned to talk…A hundred new moons would appear in my horizon whenever my daughters had a child. Because of fate, love was a million-footed thing, and so was hatred. My father was behind the wheel of his car, urging it down the peripheries of blue highways, and he carried what was killing him as an honored guest in his liver. He connected himself to Chicago, to Atlanta, and the surprising realm of Beaufort, where his children had planted their own flags of belonging and home.
Finally the end of this cathartic work, Conroy saying “I will not write about you again” to his now dead parents, He also has found peace in his marriage to Cassandra King, a novelist as well. And they have settled in the low country of Beaufort, a place he loves, a place Conroy can call home in spite of being an army brat and having moved all over God’s creation. I hope for no more non-fiction from Conroy as he promises. Yes, any future novel he may write may be steeped in the roots of his own life, but that is how it should be. The book’s dedication is lovingly made to his all his brothers and sisters, a sure sign of healing.
It’s all out there now, other than the parts which, for whatever reasons, he has chosen to keep private. He again makes reference to his estranged daughter Susannah (he dedicated My Reading Life to her), this time in the Acknowledgments, “…the door is always open and so is my heart.” But that obviously painful story essentially remains untold. He is such a powerful, lyrical writer, and now that his memoirs have been put to bed, perhaps he’ll feel freer in future fiction.
|Bob Next to Wolfe’s Shoes|
We have visited that home, ultimately a boarding house managed by Wolfe’s mother, now a museum, a few times and felt moved and privileged. I’m sure Conroy felt the same way when he has been there. And he has the right stuff to fill Wolfe’s enormous shoes, which were bronzed and are part of the sidewalk outside the “Old Kentucky Home.”
I might also note that I read the hardcover edition of The Death of Santini, beautifully produced by the Nan A. Talese imprint of Doubleday, printed on a cream shade deckle edge paper, and set in the very popular, easy to read Caslon typeface. It’s hard (for me) to imagine reading this on a Kindle. Holding the book itself when reading such a moving memoir is a more tactile, spiritual experience.