“My Exaggerated Life”
Author: Pat Conroy, As Told to Katherine Clark
Publisher: The University of South Carolina Press
Price: $29.99 (Hardcover)
On March 4, 2016, author Pat Conroy died in Beaufort, South Carolina, and the literary world lost a generous, talented writer and raconteur. Fortunately for all of us, his voice is still available to us in his books and, vividly, in this extraordinary oral memoir.
Katherine Clark had done a wonderful oral autobiography of Mobile writer Eugene Walter, “Milking the Moon,” which Conroy had admired.
For this project, Clark spoke with Conroy by phone, recording 200 hours of Conroy speaking. She had the tapes transcribed, then edited and arranged the material to produce this moving, intimate book.
It is not a complete or scholarly biography. Catherine Selzer is writing that.
Readers very familiar with Pat Conroy’s life will know chunks of his story are missing. These were subjects he was not interested in talking about or felt he had covered in nonfiction such as “My Reading Life.”
But what Conroy did choose to talk about will move readers to laughter and tears.
The portrait, a self-portrait, is of a talented and tormented man.
He never had a chance.
His father, Colonel Don Conroy, USMC, was more brutal than even Santini or the dad in “The Prince of Tides.” Conroy explains: “What was unusual about Dad, he always went for the face. …Do you know how much it hurts to get hit in the face?”
He grew up with a deep inferiority complex, felt undeserving of any admiration and guilty of being unable to protect his mother from his father's beatings. Conroy: “My sense of self was damaged beyond repair.”
Conroy is also expansive on the effect of Roman Catholicism and especially the teaching nuns. He grew up with a fear of sex and sin that makes James Joyce's Irish upbringing look like a childhood spent in a hippie commune and remained a virgin deep into his twenties. “In sex education class, the nuns taught sex like it was something two Tasmanian devils did to each other.… the most repulsive thing you could do.”
Conroy relates, in detail, the cruelty, sadistic in nature, that he underwent at the Citadel in which upperclassmen torture first-year cadets until they break and often leave. “What Santini did not teach me, the Citadel, with its avid cruelty and amazing capacity for sadism, taught me the rest of it.” “It was institutionalized brutality, a complete anarchy of abuse."
The effects on Conroy, finally understood by him after years of psychotherapy, would be disastrous.
Even when he had magnificent successes, Conroy was unable to feel pleasure: "I have no trust of the good times," he says. Even when “The Prince of Tides” sold 5 million copies, he feared everything would all be snatched away from him, and felt he didn't deserve it in the first place. "I think Dad killed my capacity for joy. I never know when I’m having a good time."
As a single young man, bright, healthy, gifted, he made dreadful choices with women. His therapist, Dr. Marion O'Neill, is quoted with Conroy's permission. She explains: Conroy chose women who were needy, damaged, in at least one case deranged, cruel, exploitative because he was "rescuing them," attempting to save them when he had not been able to save his mother. Conroy acted the role of the hero, not the lover. There were vicious divorces and estrangement from beloved children.
Conroy's life had a lot of pain, true, and he attempted suicide twice, but the book also reveals him as a smart, wonderfully funny man.
Conroy was a generous friend. He says, always self-deprecatingly, that moving from base to base as a kid he never had any friends so responds to anyone who is even slightly kind to him, but of course there's more than that. He had a big, warm heart. It is not in this book, but many have experienced his generosity first-hand. At literary conferences, Conroy happily chatted with any fan who approached him and, in a gesture nearly saintly, would buy all the books of all the other participants. Greater love hath no man than to buy the book of a young writer.
But he didn't love everybody. And he especially didn't love the rich or snobs, most college professors, book reviewers, or big-shot writers, especially William Styron. He found Styron rude, unfriendly: “he looked at me like I was gum on the bottom of his shoe.” At a dinner Conroy was hosting in an expensive Italian restaurant, “William Styron ordered a fifth of Scotch, not to be served to anyone else, but for him alone. A bottle of Scotch costs more in an Italian restaurant than you can imagine. …I felt like I owned part interest in the restaurant when I left that night. It was some billion-dollar Scotch.”
As a young writer, even though he had just finished writing “The Water is Wide,” Conroy was set on a career as a poet, “The highest form language could take.” He commuted to Columbia, SC to take a workshop with James Dickey. Dickey was a literary hero to Conroy, a prince of the language, but had been distorted by fame, especially after the publication and subsequent filming of “Deliverance.” Dickey had become a braggart, a show-off, needing more and more attention. Conroy believed Dickey was “one of the first victims of our celebrity culture.” Everything about fame seemed to Conroy “dangerous” and “soul-damaging.”
Taken to dinner by Gay and Nan Talese, at Elaine's in New York, Conroy watched as Woody Allen and Mia Farrow entered, eyes down: "God forbid they would see another human being they had to say hello to."
Towards the end of his life, it seemed Conroy had broken through, with a happy marriage and some reconciliation with his children, but for too short a time.
We will not see his like again, but in this book, listening to his torrents of stories, we still have Pat Conroy with us.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.