I have a mighty conflict, as Pat Conroy would write it. It’s about how to interpret the past; it’s about how memory is a lie but truth will keep you believing; it’s about how a child sees the streets where they grew up in a different light than the adults of her youth; it’s about how damn long it takes to claim who you are when you aren’t sure who you were, or what it all meant; it’s about how the long looks back from adulthood to the sweltering summers of my parents’ Mississippi, shimmering in the southern sun, are both a mirage and a homecoming.
Who owns your past?
Pat Conroy could not keep his pen quiet, or his mouth shut. He was a good southern boy who loved his momma, but he needed to tell what he remembered more than he needed to be sure she’d embrace him in her perfumed bosom. Speaking in private wasn’t good enough for this force of nature, he had to go tell it from the mountain, and he did so in the writing and publication of The Great Santini in 1976– a book of memoir so thinly wrapped as fiction that the props fell apart, the crowd gasped, and Conroy’s father, The Great Santini himself, exploded into rage. Conroy’s father had been a sadistic abuser, and Conroy’s mother had allowed the abuse to endure all over the south as the children were dragged from home to home in the wake of their father’s military career. Pat Conroy had told the-story-that-shall-not-be-told, and he had told it the only way he could, which is to say, the way he remembered it. His father begged to differ. “My son,” his father insisted, “…was always a little goofy. He obviously did not take to discipline well at all.” Pat Conroy remembered it a little differently: beatings so brutal that he wasn’t sure he’d survive.
Mr. Conroy’s family agreed with The Great Santini, as Mr. Conroy tells it in The Death of The Great Santini, his memoir of his relationship with his father after the publication of The Great Santini: “I was a liar who had invented a series of lies to wound this good and tender man–some perversity inside me made me invent tales of wife beating and tantrums that never happened except in the imagination of a most ungrateful son. I’d made it all up and sold out my father for the price of a book.”
Pat Conroy died this March of pancreatic cancer, just weeks after reflecting on his Facebook account: “I’ve spent my whole writing life trying to find out who I am and I don’t believe I’ve even come close. It was in Beaufort in sight of a river’s sinuous turn, and the movements of its dolphin-proud tides that I began to discover myself and where my life began at fifteen.”
I read The Great Santini and The Prince Of Tides (Conroy’s most known work) the year I turned seventeen. I was still at the edge of the tide of my childhood, still daily emeshed in that powerful draw, straining to keep my face out of the water, failing. Conroy’s fascination and enthrall with his wicked father was the first time I had been exposed to that particular complication; one the one hand, the man was a rat bastard, who deserved prison. One the other, Mr. Conroy loved him. Mr. Conroy wrote a very specific history, a southern history, one that, despite the fact that I was moved to San Diego before kindgergarten and only spent summers in Mississippi afterward (outside of one year, my fourth grade year, where we moved back to Jackson) I felt in my moss-knit bones and guts. The south may not have been half of the physical presence of my childhood, but it was half of the emotional: the sound of my Nana’s beautiful drawl, ‘Magg-ayy Mayyy,’ the deep woods of my Grandparent Gardner’s backyard, the year I spent in fourth grade being one of only two white kids in my school, where my skin color didn’t matter but my discussions on the possibility that God might not exist almost got me creamed, the shiny, delicious- smelling oiled knots of my girlfriend’s hair as I braided and yanked them tight, the roar of cicadas at dusk, the musk in the air, the black grandpas on the porches playing guitar and smoking cigars, my great-grandpa’s red Chevy truck, the backyard mud-pits turned into swimming pools; the summer I spent in Baton Rouge, Lousiana, with my mother and sister, in a sweltering heat so humid that it hit me like a wet cloth every time I slapped through the front door.
I already understood well Mr. Conroy’s idea of writing to find out who you were: I had been doing so since five years old. My poetry and diaries and short stories and one impossibly melodramatic novel about a truck stop all spun round and around the same giant sinkhole: my childhood. My father.
My own father was southern born and bred and one of the most intelligent, gregarious, gorgeous, charming and talented men I’ve ever known. He wasn’t The Great Santini, no; I did not grow up being beaten within an inch of my life. And my mother, though smart as a whip and beautiful, was nothing like the mother who starred in this novel. And yet.
Both my parents were born in the deep south. I myself would be born years later in Jackson, Mississippi, the same state where in my grandfather Ethridge, my father’s father, was the Supreme Court Justice. My grandfather is a mysterious figure to me; he died of complications from polio before I was born, so all I’ve known of him has come from the few stories I’ve been told (that he was a loving, strong family man) as well as the record of his life and service to our country. My grandfather had lost the use of legs due to polio, and served justice from a wheelchair. My grandmother was a lady lawyer, as they’d say in the south, alongside mothering a large brood of children, my father of course included. Both my grandparents were highly active in the Civil Rights Movement; in the deep south this was something unheard of for white folks, much less white folks in positions of power.
As a little girl, I often poured over images of my father as a child and young man. I wanted to understand him, but found no clues in these black and white photos. My father was often mischevious looking in these images, a ridiculously handsome fellow with dark, thick hair and strong brows over a broad smile. He looked exactly as if a perfect life was waiting just beyond the rim of the photo. He’d be standing with his siblings, a strikingly good-looking group, his mother next to them with white gloves, a small hat pinned to her neck-length hair that had been curled at the ends, lipstick and a smart skirt and blouse, then his father, dressed permanently it seemed in a crisp suit, hair combed back over his dignified head, a slightly removed expression that could come from anything: perhaps he didn’t like his photo taken after the wheelchair came into the picture; perhaps he simply didn’t care for his photo to be taken at all; perhaps he was in pain; perhaps that how he thought a gentleman should look in a picture.
I don’t know. The men in my family were very similar in these ways: they were intelligent, absorbed in books, math, music and history, men who took their southern history and morning routines equally seriously, and who kept every last detail of their emotional lives sealed in a vault buried so deeply you’d have to unearth it with dynamite– as a daughter, I learned to use that dynamite. I exploded the salt cellar of my father’s temper as carefully as I could; by the time I was in elementary school, he was chronically angry, and at over 6 feet, a practitioner of Judo with a strong, muscular build and broad shoulders, with a deep voice that turned to honey when he sang and played guitar, he began to terrify the living shit out of me. By the time I was a teenager, and he had shattered car dashboards, broken pottery and spent entire nights barking himself hoarse too many times, I decided to fight fire with fire. I was going to poke the bear.
“For a long time, I thought I was born into a mythology instead of a family,” Pat Conroy says in the prolog to The Death of The Great Santini, and this is how it was for me as well. For a freckled, pudgy-faced, blue-eyed little girl with white hair and perpetually scabbed lips that I picked in nervous strips, my father was larger than life. He was so good looking that women flirted with him everywhere we went, so brave that he single-handedly stopped a woman and her children from being car-jacked by breaking the would-be-criminal’s arm in the car door, so smart that he (according to himself) tested off the army’s IQ test, so talented that his band travelled round the South as he sang and played harmonica and guitar, so gentle that he spent an hour talking softly to a young girl lying ill and alone in the hospital hallway while we waited for my mom’s ankle Xrays, so multi-faceted that he could befriend a CEO or the hobos in the alleys, so charming that he terrorized his family with his temper and size and strength for years and not a single soul outside our home would believe it was true.
So I poked. The older I was, the more neurotic and anxiety-ridden and sad and furious I was, the more unpredictable my own temper became. It’s hard to overstate how traumatized my nervous system was at this point. I lived in a constant state of hypervigilance, which got so severe that in middle school, I used to hide my ticking clock downstairs behind the overstuffed chair, worried it might be a bomb; I would slap myself in the bathroom stall at school to stop myself from crying hysterically for no reason; I had repetitive, grueling nightmares that left me sweat-soaked and sleep deprived every morning, my grades tanked, and I developed an eating disorder. I felt abject terror on such a regular basis that even the soft, unexpected touch of a friendly hand could send me into a crying fit– my friends thought it was hysterically funny. I was growing insane with rage. Feeling this kind of anger, I had a glimmer of insight into my father, and I also had the first inkling as to how much like him I truly was.
I began to taunt him during fights. He’d grab my arm and thunder at me, and I’d swallow my vomit-smelling fear and stare cooly at his almond-shaped brown eyes. He’d be beside himself, trying to get a reaction out of me, and I’d laugh: is anything in this world more infuriating than the mocking laugh of a teenage girl? He’d loom over me and I’d yell at him “Just hit me! You want to hit me don’t you!” He would stop, and stare at me, wild-eyed and at a loss. And that was it. That was the moment that I learned the power of saying out loud what was actually happening. A lesson I’d never unlearn; it would be like unlearning how to survive.
By seventeen, the year I first read Pat Conroy’s own southern gothic, I was just beginning to understand the damage that my father had imparted to me, and nowhere near understanding my continued insistance to be close to him, to watch his face while he talked, his body language; I read every book he owned; I’d read his poetry, rifle through his office. My boyfriend that year had his own great family saga, not southern, and even more miserable. His mother would be dead within a year, obese and pinned to an oxygen tank, she smoked two packs a day. His father announced his arrival home every day by slamming the front door and then, within sixty seconds (as we braced) he’d inevitably shout “MOTHERFUCKER!” It was the overturned trash can, or my boyfriend’s guitar left on the stairs, or the moon in his eye like a big pizza pie– whatever it was, it didn’t matter, it was just a portal for rage, for all the things he felt and would never say. I understood this kind of male: in fact, this was the only kind of male I did understand.
Jack and I watched The Prince of Tides together; it was 1991, and we saw it in the theatre. I bawled and honked my nose loudly into a tissue, while my boyfriend sat, pale and nauseated, grim-mouthed. Afterward he would only grunt in reply to my overtures to talk about all the feelings. He would not have feelings, he let me know; he would only admit to loving me, and that was hard enough. I read The Prince of Tides immediately afterward, and my world broke open. Between The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides, Pat Conroy had done what the therapist and AA meetings had failed to do: he had allowed me to see myself within the context of my family. Before this, I had only seen myself as part of the family, a shameful extension: my self-loathing was incredible, and only matched, perhaps, by my fathers.
The Prince of Tides is a novel about a southern family, shattered by long-standing struggles with their patriarch, and then completely demolished by one horrific incidence of rape and violence. Years later, Tom– one of the children– is visiting his sister in New York. She has just tried to kill herself, and is institutionalized; Tom befriends his sister’s therapist, who he accidentally-on-purpose begins to unravel the secret of his childhood with, and whom with he falls deeply in love. Ah. He falls in love with the woman who gives voice to his secrets.
What was so incredible to me–besides both Mr. Conroy’s genius ability to tell a story that you cannot, cannot stop reading, and his breathtakingly beautiful prose– was the precice way Mr. Conroy illuminated how each person in the family had been affected by what had occurred, and how deeply sick their silence, perhaps more than what had even occurred, had made them. Mr. Conroy’s passion for breaking open the secrets of his own family life cost him his relationship with one sister, and the respect of many family members– but what if it gave the man back to himself? What if the way he could truly heal was never going to be in a therapist office, but in the telling of a story. His story. And what if it’s all right that he claimed his own life to tell.
From the time I can remember, my family has said to me, “I know you’re going to be a writer. Just please don’t write a memoir about your childhood.” As a writer, I have the ability to empathize with people and points of view vastly different than my own, and although I’ve long had a tell-all streak the strength of a donkey’s bray, I also understood perfectly how a person could feel differently. The questions were obvious to me: who would I hurt telling my own truth? If it hurt anyone, was justifiable? Why must I write about what happened to me? Why couldn’t I just do xyz instead? Didn’t other people’s feelings matter, too? Of course, the difficult part for children who grow up traumatized is that they never experience their feelings mattering–not in the sense that their feelings ever changed anything that needed changing– and so to grow up and be told that you must not talk publically about your own life story is like pressing refresh on trauma; a vastly different feeling than being told not to talk about how Uncle Tom was a drunk. That’s not my story. Unless Uncle Tom hit me; then whose story is it?
What I didn’t– don’t– understand is what the answer is. I’ve certainly never met the bodacious level of Mr. Conroy as he published The Great Santini. Mr. Conroy had strong feelings about art, as I do, and they were not sentimental despite some critism that his work was purpled, but instead they are about sanity, the depth of which it is possible to love, and heal– and survival. Every sentence I’ve ever written about my past has been like pulling one barbed needle out of a voodoo doll with my likeness.
Here’s a conversation between Mr. Conroy and his father recounted in The Death Of The Great Santini, that took place just after the publication of The Great Santini:
“Dad, I’m sorry I hurt your feelings with the book,” I said…“I really am. But I want you to know that nothing I write can ever make up for my ruined childhood.”
“You exaggerated everything,” he said.
I answered, “I exaggerated nothing.”
And so it goes.