Pat Conroy has written the quintessential classic book about domestic violence, child abuse, and dysfunctional family dynamics: The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son. It is your story and my story. Only the details, names, and places are different. Abuse corrodes our souls like the cancer that killed both of Mr. Conroy’s parents:
Violence became a whorl in my DNA. I was the oldest of seven children; five of us would try to kill ourselves before the age of forty. My [youngest] brother Tom would succeed in a most spectacular fashion [he jumped off the roof of a 14-story building]. Love came to us veiled in disturbance ~ we had to learn it the hard way, cutting away the spoilage like bruises on a pear. . .
I can’t remember a house I lived in as a child [about 20 as the family moved from base to base] where he did not beat my mother or me or my brothers; nor do I believe that he would’ve noticed if both his daughters had run away from home. My mother raised me, the oldest child, to be the protector of her other kids. . .We learned to hide our shame in the madness of our day-to-day lives so that the nuns and priests who ran our parishes. . .considered us an exemplary Catholic family.
I’ve been writing the story of my own life for over forty years.
- Pat Conroy, The Death of Santini
Beach Music was Mr. Conroy’s celebration of the life of his late mother, Frances “Peggy” Peck Conroy Egan. It is one of my favorite books. The Death of Santini is a gut-wrenching farewell to his father, the late Col. Donald Patrick Conroy, the abusive asshole at the center of The Great Santini. It was a nickname the Marine Corps fighter pilot gave himself. It is likely the last survivor story I will ever buy. Mr. Conroy is one of my favorite authors, but I understand now why it eats him alive to write his books. The book helped me appreciate that we never, ever heal from abuse. We simply soldier on:
I’ve got to try to make sense of it one last time. . .house of pain. . .Then I’ll be finished with you. . .I must examine the wreckage one last time.
Doris Buffett’s survivor story was the first to make the link for me between child abuse, domestic violence, and mental illness. Mr. Conroy drove this point home. Since I will be turning 65 next month, I was blown away that he started writing The Death of Santini at this age. I needed a few stiff drinks to read the book and write this post because he so intensely, powerfully, and poetically expressed many of my own experiences, thoughts, and epiphanies:
I did not have a family. . .
I’ve wished I’d never been born. I’ve felt like I was born in a prison yard and would never be eligible for furlough or offered safe passage into a cease-fire zone. . .my portion of hell. . .my time on the cross. . .
There was one thing that would set Dad off and he’d belt us every time. He would always hit us when he spotted us having a really good time. . .
My whole family is a bunch of narcissists. . .
Divide your children. Set up wedges between us. . .
I’m famous for always being able to spot thunderclouds lurking on the brightest spring day. I distrust happiness, joy, or self-satisfaction because I’ve suffered the reprisals of wallowing in those enchanting emotions.
The Conroys were great storytellers. Mrs. Conroy fabricated her past, and Col. Conroy told charming whoppers to disguise the truth. Pat became a best-selling novelist, and his sister Carol Ann published poetry:
I know that I was born to be the recording angel of my parents’ dangerous love. Their damaged children. . .residues of their fury still torture each of us. . .Our parents lit us up like brandy in a skillet. . .my parents’ love story. . .I’d like to be rid of it forever, because it hunted me down like some foul-breathed hyena since childhood.
My childhood taught me everything I needed to know about the dangers of love. . .When love announced itself, I learned to duck to avoid the telegraphed backhand or the blown kiss from my mother’s fragrant hand. . .
What made Dad’s temper dangerous was its volatility and unpredictable nature. Anything could set it off and no weatherman in the world could track its storm warnings.
The shock of The Death of Santini was that Mrs. Conroy could be equally abusive. On Carol Ann’s eighth birthday in 1956, she stabbed Col. Conroy with a butcher knife during a domestic violence brawl:
My sister Carol Ann sustained the most ruthless collateral damage in that blood feud between our parents. . .
Carol Ann had spent her days tormented by voices and visions and hallucinations. She was the clear winner of the Conroy siblings’ sweepstakes for human lunacy until our youngest brother, Tom. . .leaped to his death. . .
Peg Conroy had a careless gift for making her two daughters feel unattractive. . .
Every time my sister spoke her mind, she generated a savage reaction in my mother. . .there was something about Carol Ann that both my parents hated. With odd skills of articulation, she spoke truths her parents were not interested in hearing.
But the enmity between my mother and sister was growing malignant. . .in Alexandria, Virginia. . .no-holds-barred mother-daughter catfight. . .Prisoners were never taken and wounds were never cauterized. The words flashed like razors.
Mrs. Conroy used a broom as her weapon of choice in these battles.
Mr. Conroy created a permanent, acrimonious rift with Carol Ann when he wrote about her struggles with mental illness in The Prince of Tides:
She has spent much of her adult life hating me with a poisonous rage she can’t control. . .I endured her wrath with a stoic forbearance because I was an eyewitness to her forlorn life. . .I watched Mom and Dad coax her to madness and I grew up applauding her wizardry with the English language. She was the original truth teller. . .Her perspicacious voice formed the anthem of my own liberation. Don and Peg. . .smothered her like a firefly in a closed-up bottle.
Carol Ann felt that it was her story to tell. Her brother made millions when The Prince of Tides hit the best-seller lists and was made into a movie staring Barbra Streisand. Yet, he was parsimonious when she needed money.
Mr. Conroy has written two books about his Citadel years: The Boo and The Lords of Discipline. He wrote The Water Is Wide about his experiences teaching impoverished black children on Daufuskie Island. He got fired from his job for being a hothead, but it is likely this was pretext for racists sentiments by school officials who believed in segregation and inequality of education. The movie Conrack staring Jon Voight was based on The Water Is Wide.
On October 10, 1969, he married Barbara Jones, who was a Vietnam War widow. Her late husband had been a Marine Corps fighter pilot. He confessed that he treated her badly:
It had never occurred to me that when I started writing books it would make me more attractive to smart and pretty women, or that they would want to sleep with me. That I would cheerfully agree. . .I thought I’d be a much finer man than I turned out to be. . .I tried discretion and restraint. . .I was an asshole. I hurt a fine woman and cast an intricate web of grief over the lives of my three daughters.
The Death of Santini is in many respects the sequel to Mr. Conroy’s best-selling novel, The Great Santini. I vividly recall the movie The Great Santini. At the time, I was working for an abusive asshole who confided that he was the Great Santini behind the closed doors of his own home. After his wife dumped him, he sexually harassed me. I hated him with the same rage Mr. Conroy felt for his father:
The happiest years of my childhood were when Dad went to war. . .Every time my father took off in an airplane, I prayed that the plane would crash and his body be consumed by fire. . .
I refused to attend his retirement [from the U.S. Marine Corps] parade. . .I did it with all the purposefulness and cunning of a man who knew how to cut deepest and wound another man.
I was ignorant of the dynamic of domestic violence and steadfastly asserted that I had an idyllic childhood. I didn’t want to admit that my parents hated me and wished I’d never been born. I was unable to see the obvious link between the string of bosses who sexually harassed me and my desperate and futile quest to win my parents’ love and approval.
The Conroy’s marriage imploded. My marriage imploded. Blythe Danner played Lillian, and Robert Duvall played Lt. Col. “Bull” Meechum in the movie version of The Great Santini. Mrs. Conroy and her son Tom had cameo roles in the movie. Mr. Conroy’s mother married Capt./Dr. John Egan, a Navy physician. Col. Conroy moved to Atlanta and inserted himself into his son’s writing life. Mr. Conroy gave the movie high praise:
It was art. . .dazzling. . .
It was so powerful in its purity and its sheer honesty that it shook me, terrified me. But it changed me. . .The magnificent cast caught with rare perfection how quickly the Conroy family dynamic could explode, grow in anarchy and acuity, until all of us were lost in our own lunatic roles of trying to defuse the chaos that had swallowed us up in an abyss we couldn’t avoid.
Mr. Conroy’s marriage to Barbara imploded. He married Lenore Fleischer and moved to Rome, Italy to finish writing The Prince of Tides. He was called home when Mrs. Egan was diagnosed with leukemia. Before she passed away on November 17, 1984, she made her son promise to write her story and to have Meryl Streep play her in the movie version.
Ten year later, her youngest son Tom hurled himself off the roof of the Cornell Arms Apartments, a 14-story building in Columbia, SC:
. . .we discovered ourselves raised in a family where no one showed us how to love. For us, love was a circle and a labyrinth. . .guarded by monsters. . .We had lost Tom. . .from a failure of our family’s capacity to rally anyone into a safe harbor where one could rest a disabled self. . .I had not done a thing for the kid my whole life.
Mr. Conroy’s marriage to Lenore imploded, and he has been estranged from their daughter Susannah.
I was stunned to read that Mr. Conroy delivered the eulogy at poet James Dickey’s funeral. Christopher Dickey, who wrote the Summer of Deliverance about his own abusive childhood, had asked him to speak as a fellow wounded warrior and a fan of Mr. Dickey’s work:
He was more like my father than any man I’ve ever met.
Mr. Conroy also mentioned his San Francisco connection with Michael McCourt whose late brother Frank wrote the best-selling Angela’s Ashes about the abuse in their Irish home.
The barometer within me felt the pressure in the room changing, and
I watched my father’s eyes turn predatory.
- Pat Conroy, The Death of Santini
In 1996, Col. Conroy was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and colon cancer. Father and son took a series of road trips:
. . .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. . .annual trek to Chicago and Iowa. . .
On April 4, 1997. . .last birthday party. . .more than fifty guests. . .Dad’s birthday present. . .red Ford. . .he’d never owned a new car.
Col. Conroy passed away on May 9, 1998.
Cassandra King, a writer, came into Mr. Conroy’s life:
Cassandra King and I were married the week following my father’s death. It was my first step of a long repair job on the shape and architecture of a troubled soul. But I needed sweetness in my life. . .Cassandra and I had become inseparable. . .I had fallen in love with a woman who’d fallen in love with the Great Santini. . .Cassandra has brought me a portion of love I never thought I’d find on this earth.
Now, fifteen years later. . .Cassandra and I bought a house on Battery Creek. . .I’ve tried to make Beaufort, South Carolina, my own.
They write together in their home. Ms. King’s latest book is Moonrise.
Pat Conroy: “The Death of Santini”, Diane Rehm Show interview on NPR, 10/23/13
Pat Conroy’s ‘The Death of Santini’ Examines the Death of His Father, Good Morning America interview, 10/29/13
‘Prince of Tides’ Novelist Pat Conroy Describes His South Carolina Home: The Author Writes by Hand on Yellow Legal Pad From a Desk That Looks out on the Marshes, Wall Street Journal, 1031/13 [includes photos of his home and lovely wife, the novelist Cassandra King]
Surviving Santini: Conroy Looks Back, Book Page, 11/13
Pat Conroy’s ‘Death of Santini’, by Frank Bruni, New York Times, 11/15/13 [book review]