his 1976 novel, "The Great Santini," Pat
Conroy spilled all the beans that a good son is never
supposed to spill: He wrote about his brutal father, his
cowed mother, his frightened and abused siblings, and
his own defiant and terrorized young self — all thinly
disguised, of course, as fiction.
Bull Meecham in the novel, Donald Conroy really was a
Marine fighter pilot, really did beat and terrorize his
wife and kids, really did drink to excess, really did
swagger around and call himself "The Great Santini."
The book was a bestseller, and it was later made into a
blockbuster movie starring Robert Duvall as the volatile
this caused enormous turmoil in the extended Conroy
family. "Nice going, Pat," Conroy’s mother
reportedly said. "You stabbed your own family right
through the heart."
grandparents, aunts and uncles were horrified at the
airing of family secrets, and they picketed his book
events, urging people to stay away. His siblings were
divided; they agreed the depiction was accurate, but
they didn’t agree on whether it should have been
what of his father? What was the reaction of the brutal
and sneering Great Santini?
well, guess what: He loved it.
68, lives in Beaufort, S.C., with his third wife,
novelist Cassandra King. He’s the author of 11 books
— novels, memoirs and a cookbook — most of which are
about that brutal upbringing. His new memoir is
"The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and
His Son," and Conroy recently took a break from
signing books — 8,000 of them! — at the Random House
warehouse in Maryland to talk.
what I was trying to do," he said. "I
certainly had eaten Dad alive in the novel. But in this
book, this memoir, I wanted to write about Dad’s
change after the novel came out."
publication of "The Great Santini" — perhaps
because of "The Great Santini" — Conroy
said, his father mellowed. He started dropping by Conroy’s
apartment every morning to read the newspaper and chat.
He turned into the world’s most attentive grandfather.
"My daughters simply adored him," Conroy said.
"I said, ‘Dad, why don’t you break one of their
jaws so they can see what you’re really like?’ and
he said, ‘Don’t listen to him, girls, that boy
father still had a mouth on him, but, "I think he’s
the first person I’ve ever heard of who changed his
entire life based on his son’s novel," Conroy
said. "The book gave Dad a road map to not be like
he was when we were growing up."
metamorphosis didn’t happen immediately, of course,
nor did Donald Conroy love "The Great Santini"
right off the bat. When he first read it, he was
furious. Then he wept. Then he disappeared for a few
days, and his family feared that he had gone off to
commit suicide. Such drama!
he came back, wrote an open letter endorsing the book,
slapped GREAT SANTINI license plates onto his car, and
began showing up, pen in hand, at his son’s book
events, where they signed books side by side.
signed longer inscriptions than I would," Conroy
said. "He’d write, ‘I hope you enjoy my son’s
work of fiction,’ and he’d underline ‘fiction’
five or six times, and sign it, ‘Ol’ lovable,
likable Donald Conroy.’"
LEGACY OF VIOLENCE
up in a volatile home had a profound effect on all seven
Conroy children. While most of the violence came from
their father, their mother wasn’t above fighting back,
and Conroy has said that his earliest memory is of his
mother brandishing a butcher knife, and his father
knocking her to the floor and laughing.
hard for me to forgive the beatings of my mother,"
he said. "For the oldest boy, that was by far the
hardest thing for me to take. I’d try to defend Mom,
but I couldn’t, I was just too little." For much
of his life, Conroy said, he has battled depression,
anxiety attacks and thoughts of suicide.
siblings have also been deeply affected. His sister
Carol, a distinguished poet, has battled mental illness
and disassociated herself from the family. The youngest
brother, Tom, "the prettiest child our parents
produced," suffered numerous breakdowns and finally
leapt to his death from a Columbia, S.C., building on a
summer night in 1994.
drinking, the fighting, the public genteelness and the
private hell ("My father had kept his abuse secret
by mostly confining it to the fortresses of family
routine," Conroy wrote) — it all feels rather
Southern Gothic, doesn’t it?
peculiar how geography shaped me," Conroy said.
"Certainly violence shaped me — being in a house
where you never knew when you were going to be hit, or
why you were going to be hit. These things have worked
their way into my books. With me, it all went right to
met many, many writers who say they would never write
about their family, never write about people they did
not totally make up. But that is not the composition of
my character. I’m fascinated by the people I grew up
with, and the mistakes I made — and God, I have
screwed up. I like writing about where it all went off
course. How do you get it back on course? How do you
live a good life? How do you live a life of quality?
These things interest me a lot."
CONTRADICTIONS OF LIFE
Death of Santini" is filled with contradictions:
Conroy hates his father, he loves his father; his father
is a brute, his father is a pussycat; Conroy himself is
tough, but he frequently breaks down and sobs — the
whole book is both macho and sentimental.
dichotomy makes perfect sense to Conroy. "I have
found human nature a bit contradictory in my living of
it," he said. "Human life is incredibly
writes by hand on yellow paper, leaving chapters on the
stairs for his wife to find and comment on. (She leaves
him her rough drafts on his pillow.) With memoir, he
consults his siblings on their memories. "Sometimes
I get very different answers, and different dialogue,
and the point of view is different every time. But as
the writer, I’ve got to figure out which point of view
seems the most true."
true, of course, is open to dispute. "Here’s what
my brothers and sisters and my father said: I write a
lot about my family, and they are despicable, horrible,
nose-picking, unbearable people," Conroy said.
"But the main character is always sort of cute,
witty, all-knowing, philosophical, always has the last
word, is always a fabulous human being. And it is their
claim that it is always me." He chuckled.
find that particularly good literary criticism, to tell
you the truth. There’s always a version of me who is
the narrator. And I make myself look better than other