Knopf Doubleday/ Nan A. Talese; 10/29/2013
Hardcover, 352 pages
In this powerful and intimate memoir, the beloved bestselling author of The Prince of Tides and his father, the inspiration for The Great Santini, find some common ground at long last.
Pat Conroy’s father, Donald Patrick Conroy, was a towering figure in his son’s life. The Marine Corps fighter pilot was often brutal, cruel, and violent; as Pat says, “I hated my father long before I knew there was an English word for ‘hate.’” As the oldest of seven children who were dragged from military base to military base across the South, Pat bore witness to the toll his father’s behavior took on his siblings, and especially on his mother, Peg. She was Pat’s lifeline to a better world—that of books and culture. But eventually, despite repeated confrontations with his father, Pat managed to claw his way toward a life he could have only imagined as a child.
Pat’s great success as a writer has always been intimately linked with the exploration of his family history. While the publication of The Great Santini brought Pat much acclaim, the rift it caused with his father brought even more attention. Their long-simmering conflict burst into the open, fracturing an already battered family. But as Pat tenderly chronicles here, even the oldest of wounds can heal. In the final years of Don Conroy’s life, he and his son reached a rapprochement of sorts. Quite unexpectedly, the Santini who had freely doled out physical abuse to his wife and children refocused his ire on those who had turned on Pat over the years. He defended his son’s honor.
The Death of Santini is at once a heart-wrenching account of personal and family struggle and a poignant lesson in how the ties of blood can both strangle and offer succor. It is an act of reckoning, an exorcism of demons, but one whose ultimate conclusion is that love can soften even the meanest of men, lending significance to one of the most-often quoted lines from Pat’s bestselling novel The Prince of Tides: “In families there are no crimes beyond forgiveness.”
The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son is a powerful, emotional memoir by Pat Conroy. Most people know that Conroy has found cathartic inspiration for his writing from his childhood. Looming large among those childhood demons was his father, Colonel Donald Conroy, the inspiration for Bull Meecham in Conroy's The Great Santini. Don Conroy beat his wife and children and seemed incapable of showing affection. Conroy notes in the opening "I’ve been writing the story of my own life for over forty years. My own stormy autobiography has been my theme, my dilemma, my obsession, and the fly-by-night dread I bring to the art of fiction.... Only rarely have I drifted far from the bed where I was conceived. It is both the wound and foundation of my work."
Conroy was the oldest of seven children and seemed to have endured the brunt of his father's abuse. Five of the siblings would try to kill themselves before the age of forty; one succeeded. Conroy notes that his father "could have written a manual on the art of waging war against his wife and children. I can’t remember a house I lived in as a child 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. As the oldest child, my mother raised me to be the protector of her other kids, to rush them into secret hiding places we had scouted whenever we moved into a new house."
"When I was thirty years old, my novel The Great Santini was published, and there were many things in that book I was afraid to write or feared that no one would believe. But this year I turned sixty-five, the official starting date of old age and the beginning count down to my inevitable death. I've come to realize that I still carry the bruised freight of that childhood every day. I can't run away, hide, or pretend it never happened. I wear it on my back like the carapace of a tortoise, except my shell burdens and does not protect. It weighs me down and fills me with dread.
"The Conroy children were all casualties of war, conscripts in a battle we didn't sign up for on the bloodied envelope of our birth certificates. I grew up to become the family evangelist; Michael, the vessel of anxiety; Kathy, who missed her childhood by going to sleep at six every night; Jim, who is called the dark one; Tim, the sweetest one – and can barely stand to be around any of us; and Tom, our lost and never-to-be found brother. My personal tragedy lies with my sister, Carol Ann, the poet I grew up with and adored...
"I've got to try and make sense of it one last time, a final circling of the block, a reckoning, another dive into the caves of the coral reef where the morays wait in ambush, one more night flight into the immortal darkness to study that house of pain one final time. Then I'll be finished with you, Mom and Dad. I'll leave you in peace and not bother you again. And I'll pray that your stormy spirits find peace in the house of the Lord. But I must examine the wreckage one last time."
And that is what Conroy is attempting to do in The Death of Santini, examine the wreckage of his childhood one last time. He also explores other experiences the also influenced his writing, like his time spent at the Citadel (The Lords of Discipline); teaching on Daufuskie Island, S.C. (The Water is Wide); more on his dysfunctional family and his relationship with his sister (Prince of Tides); leaving Rome to care for his terminally ill mother (Beach Music).
The Death of Santini is a more honest account of his family's dynamics than what is depicted in The Great Santini, and Conroy readily admits this. In real life, his father was actually even more brutal and abusive and his mother was less saintly. Conroy was actually asked to give Bull Meecham some positive emotional scenes for the book which were not true to life. All the brutal scenes, however, were based on real events.
This is a must read for fans of Conroy's work who want to know more about the personal connections between his life and his writing. The book includes 16 pages of photos.
Disclosure: My Kindle advanced reading edition was courtesy of Nan A. Talese via Edelweiss for review purposes.