Shaping His Pain into Novels, Pat Conroy Gets His Reputation, His Fortune—and His Revenge
If life had been kinder to the young Pat Conroy, he would never have found himself being physically abused by his father, the gung ho Marine fighter pilot, or attending one of the most brutal military academies in the South, or teaching illiterate black children in a Dickensian excuse for a school in the boondocks of South Carolina. These, however, have been the critical facts of Conroy's life, and he has written about them with a fine vengeance. Some critics are now hailing him as no less than the best hope of his generation for a place alongside Wolfe and Faulkner in the pantheon of Southern writers. Two of his novels have been made into films—most recently The Great Santini, an exploration of his relationship with his authoritarian father. His latest novel, The Lords of Discipline, is a scathing attack on schools like his alma mater, the Citadel, and on their savage system of hazing freshman cadets to the point of physical breakdowns and suicide. Lords has already fetched him a $75,000 advance, $687,000 for paperback rights and $250,000 for film rights. With that, Santini and his other big book, The Water Is Wide—the one about the school in South Carolina, which became the movie Conrack—Conroy is a millionaire at the age of 35. Life should treat us all so unkindly.
But if, having turned his anguish into art, Conroy is not suffering, his unlucky subjects are. His memory is complete and unforgiving. Growing up on Marine bases around the South, he recalls, "I went to 11 schools. The insecurity had a great effect on me, and I didn't like getting beat up by my father—the humiliations, the assaults as a kid." When he called from the Citadel in his plebe year weeping and begging to come home, he remembers his father snapping, "If you come home you'll be a pansy." He stuck it out, befriended by an assistant commandant of cadets who was later demoted—and who began to furnish Pat with the material for his first book. Conroy and the commandant, Lt. Col. Thomas Nugent Courvoisie—who is also a principal character in Lords—called their exposé of life at the Citadel The Boo and paid a vanity publisher $3,000 to print 1,000 copies in 1970. The Citadel banned it.
By then Pat had graduated and avoided the draft by taking a job teaching English near home in Beaufort, S.C. "I had paid my dues to the military with my life with Dad—18 years in the Marine Corps," Conroy notes. "He went to Vietnam twice. Any war my father supported I took a good hard look at." Then he transferred to the school on Daufuskie Island off the South Carolina coast. He lived there until he married Barbara Jones, a young widow of a Marine pilot with two children, and commuted from Beaufort thereafter. At the end of the year he was fired. "I sent the superintendent a letter telling him his school was a garbage dump," he recalls. "None of the kids knew what country they lived in." Barbara was pregnant with their daughter, Megan, at the time and Conroy—after applying unsuccessfully for "every job in South Carolina"—began writing a book about the school in desperation. He sent the finished manuscript to New York agent Julian Bach, who called with the news that Houghton Mifflin wanted to publish it: "How does $7,500 sound?" Conroy said he didn't know if he could raise it. "Pat," Bach said, "they pay you."
The money bailed out his family, but the book was not appreciated in his hometown. "We had three black kids from the island living with us. It was becoming a bit uncomfortable." When the Jon Voight film of the book came out, Pat and his family moved to Atlanta.
His next book, The Great Santini, seemed to blow the Conroys apart. "My whole family had a collective nervous breakdown," Pat recalls. "I had betrayed their secrets. Dad's side of the family did not talk to me." While he was writing it, his mother, Peg, divorced her husband, Don—a/k/a the Great Santini in real life—after 33 years and seven children. Don had just retired as a colonel from the Marine Corps, and his son's characterization of him as a sadistic, neoadolescent blowhard was almost the final blow. "When he was halfway through the book," says Pat, "he threw it across the room and disappeared for three days." Don confirms this: "Page 233, to be exact." Pat's own marriage also came apart, and he had a breakdown that took two years of psychotherapy to mend. He blames himself. "I couldn't handle success well," he says simply. "I became a jerk. Barbara was not prepared for craziness. We divorced."
Time has healed most of Conroy's self-inflicted wounds. His family has been reconciled with him. He and Barbara are on good terms and he sees the three girls regularly. Peg Conroy has remarried and still lives in Beaufort, although life has sometimes been difficult there in the aftermath of her son's books. "This is a small town, and I have learned who my real friends are," she says. Best of all, Pat is now closer to his father than he ever was. "I wrote the book to get it out of me how much I hated my father, but I wound up loving him," he says. "Now he's the Nazi Dr. Spock, going on talk shows telling people how to raise children." Says Don Conroy, "Fathers aren't supposed to be liked. I don't have a problem with the book at all. I'm not running a popularity contest."
Pat has even forgiven his old school. "Just as I learned that I loved my father after I wrote Santini, I realize I love the Citadel." (In the same breath he admits to "a streak of sentiment that weakens me as a writer but preserves me as a person.") He has a new love in his life now—Lenore Fleischer, who worked in the school Pat's daughters attend, and whom he plans to marry. He also has a new dragon to tilt at: male chauvinism. After he finishes his work in progress, a collection of South Carolina Low Country tales, he will begin another, about women in the 70s and divorce (although Barbara has forbidden him to write about their own breakup). "I grew up a white boy in the South," says Conroy. "I managed to beat back racism and the Vietnam war, and then women's liberation comes roaring around the corner. When I started reading Ms. magazine, I saw that everything they wrote about I had done and done tirelessly. Now I am a feminist." Steinem & Co. are forewarned.
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