For our November Readers' Review: “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” by Anne Tyler. As we prepare for holiday gatherings, join Diane and her guests to discuss this master work from the author who has made an art of exploring family love and dysfunction.
Pat Conroy says he does not remember a time when he did not hate his father. The best-selling author of “The Prince of Tides” has spent his writing life trying to exorcise the demons of his stormy childhood — one in which his military pilot father regularly beat and verbally abused him. Conroy first confronted his family’s demons in his 1976 novel, “The Great Santini.” It featured an abusive, simple-minded Marine Corps fighter pilot named Bull Meecham who terrorized his wife and children. At first, Bull’s resemblance to Don Conroy widened the rift between father and son, but eventually the two men grew closer. Diane talks with novelist Pat Conroy about his new memoir. In it, he tries to make sense of his family history one last time.
- Pat Conroy Author of nine best-selling books, including “The Great Santini” and “The Prince of Tides”
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from THE DEATH OF SANTINI: The Story of a Father and His Son by Pat Conroy Copyright © 2013 by Pat Conroy. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Pat Conroy's cruel and violent childhood has been the foundation of his best-selling novels, including "The Prince of Tides," and "The Great Santini." They were inspired by his father Don, a Marine Corp fighter pilot. As the oldest of seven children, Pat Conroy witnessed the toll of his father's abusive behavior on his siblings and his mother. In a new memoir, he tells how he finally reconciled with the father he thought he could never love.
MS. DIANE REHMThe new book is titled, "The Death of Santini." Pat Conroy joins me in this studio. You're welcome to be part of the program. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And welcome, Pat. It's good to see you again.
MR. PAT CONROYGreat to see you, Diane. How are you doing?
REHMI'm just fine. And you're looking well.
CONROYObviously, we're aging, and your eyes are the first to go, but I appreciate that.
REHMI'm so happy you're here. Pat, for those who may not be familiar with your work, your depiction of your childhood, I'm going to read just a sentence here. It's in the prologue to your new book, "The Death of Santini." You say, "I hated my father long before I knew there was a word for hate. My mother would later claim that I refused to learn the word daddy until after my first birthday. From this start, he was a menacing, hovering presence, and I never felt safe for one moment that my father loomed over me."
REHMYou write that, and yet, your childhood really does remain at the heart of your work.
CONROYIt does. No question about it. I would choose a different childhood for me, my brothers and sisters. I would choose a different life for my mother, who was a wonderful woman, than marrying this guy. I would choose all this stuff, but it is what I got. And what I remember, Diane, is hating this guy, loathing this man, when I was in diapers. And I simply didn't know what to do with the life I was leading, and I never quite have figured out what to do with it, even when I became a writer.
CONROYAnd I've written about this for 40 years, and it still is gonna follow me to my grave.
REHMIt's still there. Tell us a little about that childhood. You were the oldest of seven.
CONROYOldest of seven.
REHMYou felt a sense of responsibility caring for your younger siblings.
CONROYWell, you know, one of the jobs Mom gave me, Diane, was she would be furious with me if Dad ever hit one of my little brothers and sisters on my watch. So, when we'd move into a -- we moved into this town, Washington, D.C., you know, a half dozen times. And one of the things Mom and I used to do is walk around the house and yard to find places for the kids to hide.
REHMAs soon as you moved to a new place, cause you moved how many times?
CONROYI went to 11 schools in 12 years.
CONROYAnd we knew basically nobody. But we did know this. We had to figure out places -- and I remember just, you know, flying in today, we flew, you know, over, you know, areas -- I lived in Alexandria, I lived in Arlington, I lived in Fairfax, I lived in -- again, I've lived everywhere. Annandale. And I remember every place we had to hide in those yards, in those places. And the one that I remember, as we were flying in, was one of the worst beatings we ever, ever got.
CONROYI couldn't get the kids to their hiding places on time. You know, and to Mom, I failed in my job. But I did not see Dad's explosion coming.
REHMYou didn't see it.
CONROYI just -- this time, I did not see it, Diane, and he was really hurting Mom. And the kids were very young. And he started hurting the rest of us. And, you know, I'd always felt badly about that. And that house was across from Wakefield High School.
CONROYAnd I just -- every time I come to Washington, I have deep memories of Dad being stationed at the Pentagon or at Quantico.
REHMYou know, I was interested in reading this book, "The Death of Santini," that your father, when "The Great Santini" was actually published, he took such umbrage with your portrayal of him, and yet, at the same time, wanted to be celebrated by Hollywood.
CONROYIt was one of the most wonderful things about Dad. One of the things that I appreciated about Hollywood, more than anything, is my father hated my book, but he simply went crazy with love when they made a movie about him. And Dad thought, when he was dying, that he was responsible completely for Robert Duvall's career. And Dad said, he never got a role with meat on it, son. And I said, you know, Dad, he didn't do bad with "The Godfather" or "Apocalypse Now."
CONROYAnd he said, yeah, but he was, he was a minor league actor, a character actor.
REHMUntil "The Great Santini."
CONROYI was the one that proved he could carry a movie.
CONROYAnd Dad died thinking that, that Robert Duvall simply owed him his career. And Dad was not a modest man, Diane. This was something he thought was his due, his right. And I would go over to Dad's apartment and find him watching that movie constantly.
REHMReally. You know, I want to, as you talk about your inability from time to time, to actually protect your siblings, there is a scene in this book that just broke my heart. It was your sister's birthday. It was March 10, 1956 when you lived on South Culpepper Street in Arlington, Virginia. Tell me what happened on her birthday.
CONROYYou know, it was supposed to -- my sister Carol, who's led a very troubled life, but a very creative one. She's a poet in New York City. And she loved, for some reason, Carol loves birthdays. I hate them.
REHMI love birthdays.
CONROYYeah, I mean, I hate them, and because of scenes like this.
REHMYes. Of course.
CONROYAnd Carol is waiting around, and Carol, when she was a kid, she was hilarious to me. She would be sitting around saying, here's why I love birthdays. I get presents and no one else does. I get attention. No one else gets any attention.
CONROYIt all goes to me. This is why they're so better than Christmas. So better than any other holiday. It's all me, and I like days that celebrate me better than I like any other day. So we were all lining up. It was Carol's birthday, and the candles are light now. And Dad could be a little moody, and he was sitting there in his Marine fatigues, and Mom says, Don, come to the table. We're about to sing Happy Birthday, Carol. So Don is reading The Washington Post.
CONROYAnd I wanna say Maury Povich, or Bob Atters...
REHMSports writers. Yeah.
CONROYYou know, I just see these names appear to me, and I haven't thought of them in many years. And he says, you know, I'll be there when I wanna be there. And she said, we're lighting the candles right now, you know? Don, get to the table. And, all of a sudden, I heard that voice. I'll get there when I get there, you got it? And I knew, all right, it's coming. And it finally broke out where my mother was screaming at him, get to the table so to celebrate your daughter's birthday.
CONROYAnd I saw him hit my mother, slap her. So, that was my call to arms. So my role was to get in between Mom and Dad. And, you know, that would infuriate him. He would slap me out of that little circle quick. And I was a little kid then. You know, there was not much I could do. But I think my mother loved me, Diane, by the number of times I went back in, you know. So, I'd get between them. He'd slap me out. Get between them again. He'd slap me out.
CONROYAnd all this is going on. Carol goes crazy because it's all on her birthday. She wants somebody to sing Happy Birthday to her. Well, this fight is going up. Finally, they get in this skinny little kitchen that only Arlington, Virginia had then, when they rented to poor Lieutenants and their wives. And in this little kitchen, I go in, and Dad is hitting, is beating Mom badly. And I go into this kitchen, get between them again, get slapped out, run back.
CONROYAnd, suddenly, I look over my head and I see a butcher knife coming over my head. And in the weirdness and strangeness of my childhood, I didn't know whether it was Mom or Dad.
REHMPat Conroy, talking about his new memoir. It's titled, "The Death of Santini." Short break. Right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, Pat Conroy is with me. He has been a guest on this program several times. Each time I see him, I love him more. His first book that he came to talk about, "The Death of Santini," then "The Prince of Tides." I shouldn't -- the first one was "The Great Santini." Now he's talking about his latest, "The Death of Santini." And, Pat Conroy, given the violence you experienced, given the sadness of the memories, given the power of what this man did to you and your siblings, is this journey into your childhood going to be the last?
CONROYIf it ain't, there's something wrong with me. And I wrote this book to be the last. You know, when I was telling the story of mom and dad fighting at the birthday party...
REHMAnd then this butcher knife...
CONROY...and the butcher knife goes over my head, I didn't know who was handling that butcher knife. It could've been dad stabbing mom. It could've been mom stabbing dad. But I remember my mother's phrase, Diane, over and over again. She would say at the (word?) , don't ever mess with a mountain woman. And this was one of those times I learned that because I saw the butcher knife come down over my head and I'm between them. Didn't know who was wielding it.
CONROYAnd the next thing I know, blood's in my eye and it had blinded me. And I didn't know if it was mom's blood or dad's blood. And then there was a complete chaos. It was -- mom had stabbed dad with a butcher knife and it wasn't the first time. And I remember she said, get the kids -- and they were babies then. You know, this is mostly -- you know, they were three and two. And we're grabbing them out of high chairs and everything else. And she drives us to hot shops on Shirley Highway...
REHMI remember it.
CONROY...Fairlington (sp?) shopping center. And I imagine it's not there anymore, might just have -- you know, it was too valuable property. And she took us there and said she's never going back. We shouldn't be raised in that -- and dad had beaten me up pretty good. And, you know, she was cleaning my face off. And as always, somebody came by and said, is anything wrong? And mom, the marine wife said, you know, he plays baseball. He was hit in the face during a game.
REHM...covering it up.
CONROYAnd there was the excuses made.
CONROYWe eventually went back to the house, although she swore...
REHM...she wasn't. She said, I'm never going back.
CONROY...I'm never going to go back. And she would always do that to us. I'll never go back. You don't deserve to be raised that way. And we would drive around for an hour and then she would go back.
REHM...because she knew she had nowhere else to go.
CONROYAnd it's one of these things, Diane, you grow older, you have compassion. What was a woman in the '50s going to do?
REHM...with seven kids. What was she going to do?
CONROYYeah, she couldn't do anything.
REHMBut now here is an email. It's from Amanda. She says, "I read my first Pat Conroy novel when I was 14, "Beach Music," and quickly ran away. Ran my way through all of his other works with "Lords of Discipline," remaining to this day a yearly read for me. It was never the physically abusive fathers that resonated with me. It was the mothers with their desperate selfishness and emotional manipulation. I have always felt that the more damaging antagonists were the mothers who used their love and care to torment rather than their fists." How do you feel about that?
CONROYWell, you know, whoever wrote that letter is very, very smart, very bright and very sensitive. It's hard to put yourself in the position of a '50s' mother. I do not think there were many chances. My mother never went to college. I'm not positive she graduated from high school. She was beautiful and she had...
REHMThat's why he fell in love with her.
CONROY...and he fell in love and that is the story of my life. And she always would rationalize going back, always rationalize, you know, his hitting us. And I think what surprised both of them is that all of us grew up and we were profoundly angry at both of them. You know, we shouldn't have gone through this but we did. You know, what they were proud of from their perspective is they both came from nothing and they raised kids to good jobs, had nice families. Always supported our families, we've supported each other. You know, we seem like a loving family.
CONROYAnd that was their -- they said we could ask for nothing more coming out of the depression, coming out of World War II. We got what we wanted even though it was terrible what we put you through.
REHMYou lost one brother.
CONROYYes. I mean, you know, my brother and sister and I, you know, we love -- it's Conroy love, which is weirdly expressed, but it is certainly love. And each one of us has -- as much as we may deny it from time to time.
REHMCan you talk about your brother?
CONROYYeah, you know, I can. It's been funny letting the kids read the book. And I say the kids, they're my younger brothers and sisters. You know, some are in their 60's now. But, you know, letting them read the book, my brother Mike, my oldest brother, came down. And my wife Cassandra King -- there's a new novel out, she says to my brother-in-law, did you read Pat's book? He said, yeah, I read it. And that was it. That was the last it was discussed.
CONROYMy brother Jim was the one evidently most afraid of the novel, what I was going to say about the brothers and sisters. He read him. I called him and said, Jim, what'd you think? And Jim said something like this -- and the Conroy's don't praise well -- he said, I think you've written an adequate book. So I got that. My sister Kathy, she didn't really like it. You know, she says she thinks my best book. But it was my brother Tim who's given me the best reading.
CONROYHe -- I called Tim and he says, Pat, reading your book was like beating myself with a lead pipe for 350 pages. It was agony. I hated you for writing it. You made me relive our stupid childhood. I didn't like it. It's painful. You know, I'm psychologically screwed up again because of you and because of this stupid book. He said, I may tell you what I really think about the book in about 30 years when I can take it all in. But of course, you'll be dead so you won't get the knowledge that I have living.
CONROYSo it's been, you know, I think for the kids, a lot like living through their family, Diane.
REHMIt's interesting that I've asked you now twice about the brother you lost. And you've talked about the brothers you still have. What happened to the brother you lost?
CONROYThis is brother Tom, the great tragedy of the Conroy family. And my brother Tom was a paranoid schizophrenic which surprised none of us coming out of that household. But he's our youngest brother, Tommy. And he was a sweetheart. The best looking kid you ever saw and did not have a chance. He just didn't. I ended up putting him in a mental hospital the first time when he had a psychiatric break -- or psychotic break in Atlanta.
REHMHow old was he?
CONROYI think he must've been 28 at that time. He first started having trouble when he was about 18. And, you know, I felt guilty the rest of my life. And for the rest of his life he called me his kidnapper, the one who took him and put him, against his will, into this mental hospital. And it was agony for everybody involved.
REHMWere your parents still alive at the time?
CONROYMy mother was dead, which was the first time I was glad mom was dead. Dad suffered with Tom grievously. And dad was a great and loving father with Tom. And, you know, we got to where he had jumped off a 14-story building in Columbia. And I remember first getting dad on the phone and my father weeping uncontrollably, rare for him. And, Diane, he said, I lost my baby boy. He didn't have a chance. He always got the short end of the stick. And we buried Tom. It was, you know, one of the saddest days of our family life but I think Tom is the one to let all of us know how bad it really was.
REHMBy virtue of his death. When the kids were put into hiding to shield them from your father, was Tom ever to escape the beatings?
CONROYTom was the youngest so he probably escaped more -- and Tom was so cute it was hard for dad to even -- and dad -- and Tom was young and dad was at the end of this thing. And I think dad felt something about Tom that he did not feel about the rest of us. But it didn't do Tom much good. You know, he still would hit Tom and Tom would be, you know, devastated by this. And dad went for the face. He was one of those guys.
CONROYAnd by this time I was an adult and I was, you know, threatening dad, don't ever do that to my brother again. Don't ever do this again And I was playing out my role of oldest brother. But, you know, there was something broken in Tom at birth and something that could not be healed.
REHMPat Conroy. His new memoir is titled "The Death of Santini" and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Pat, after all these years and looking back at your dad, you just said that Tommy was broken. What do you think it was in your dad that was so broken that he tried to break all of you?
CONROYWell, you know, there was the Irish childhood in Chicago that I've never understood. My grandmother and grandfather in Chicago, south side Irish. It's a classic tale. I don't know anything about it. You know, dad never took us to Ireland, never told us one thing about being Irish. You know, we were raised Catholic, that's all I knew. And being raised Catholic was the weirdest thing you could be in the South at that time. Until the Hare Krishnas appeared in the Atlanta airport, which thrilled me because suddenly being a Catholic was not the strangest thing in the South.
CONROYBut, you know, whatever this was, I did not understand where dad came from or the dynamics and social forces that formed him. I tried to get my uncle Ed, Aunt Marge, Father Jim to tell me, you know, about their father, about their mother. And there was an Irish omerta, the silence that, you know, came down. They didn't tell me much at all. And so that left me with just what I saw, which was very little. I think I saw Chicago twice in my childhood. And both times I was, you know, five years old, seven years -- you know, that's not enough time to absorb a city.
REHMYou did meet your grandmother on your father's side.
CONROYAnd I was not sure they knew who I was, Grandpa Conroy, Grandma Conroy. You know, they showed no signs of recognition with me at all. Where the southern group, uneducated rednecks flooded me with love. And these were the two dynamics I was raised with. And I -- you know, when I was writing that dad -- I was helpless. Was he beaten up as a kid? I don't know. I imagine so. You know, I -- it's impossible for me to believe this came from nowhere. But, you know, he knocked us around and knocked mom around.
REHMAnd what do you suppose the dynamic was between your mother and father after that early romance that kept her wanting to sleep with him, wanting to have more children with him, perhaps no birth control allowed in that household?
CONROYOh, please, please, please.
CONROYMy mother was a Southern -- a primitive Baptist. And she converted to Catholicism. And my poor mother thought, in her little Alabama mountain mind, that becoming a Roman Catholic was a step up socially. I mean, she knew nothing. And she bought the whole -- no birth control. She had six miscarriages, Diane. I thought women were always pregnant. And my sister Carol, the poet, used to call the miscarriages the lucky ones. And she thought they would hear what was going on outside between mom and dad and just said, no way, man. We're not signing up to join that.
CONROYBut she was pregnant all the time. I once asked dad right before he was dying, I said, dad, you and mom, you know, you must've liked each other. Your sex life must've been pretty good. And dad, who was a modest man that way, strange, said, we had more fun than the law allowed, son.
REHMPat Conroy. His new memoir is titled "The Death of Santini." Short break. Right back.
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, Pat Conroy is my guest. You know many of his books, "Beach Music," "The Prince of Tides," "The Great Santini." His latest and he says is going to be the last where he digs into his own childhood, his painful childhood, it's titled "The Death of Santini." Your father in the end called himself Santini.
CONROYHe was called Santini his whole life, Diane. He got the nickname when he was a young Marine pilot. He had watched high wire aerialists when he was five years old in Chicago. And the guy impressed him so much that when he came out of there, from then on in his life when he accomplished something bold and brave, he'd say, I was better than the Great Santini today. And the Marines picked it up, and Santini was his nickname. He had a license plate that his son-in-law made for him. And he drove around Atlanta for the last 20 years of his life with the Great Santini on his license plate.
REHMPat, lots of people want to know, didn't anybody else outside the household know what was happening? Didn't schools know? Didn't neighbors know?
CONROYThey did not. Here's one of the mask we used. When I first went to Beaufort High School in South Carolina, Dad, you know, made one of these open mistake, he got mad at me and hurled an iced tea glass at me at the dinner table that shattered and broke across my eyebrow and, you know, opened up a cut that had to be stitched. So I remember my mother driving me into the Naval hospital, and she made up a story for me. Okay, here's the story. We were out playing touch football at the time with the Kennedy's. And she said, we had a spirited touch football game. And my mother could always use athletics, and you got hurt during this football game. You slid into a water faucet that was, you know, and she had the whole thing set up.
CONROYAnd she said, if you do not go along with this lie, you do not go to college. None of your brothers and sisters go to college. It is over. He'll be kicked out of the Marine Corp. There'll be no retirement, anything. So I get there and I've become a natural liar by this time. If there was ever a bruise on my face, got it in a basketball game, a guy elbowed me, got that in a football game, you know, my face went somewhere it shouldn't have gone. So, you know, I always had an answer, always had an excuse. But I remember this one time, is my mother being terrified that all the stories would break down if, you know, we did not make up a great story for this doctor and the doctor ask, I mean, the doctor was curious.
REHMAnd the doctors must have been curious.
CONROYAnd they, you know, it's -- and at that time in the early '60s, you know, I don't think anything would've happened to dad. Now he would, you know, I don't think he'd stay a Marine.
REHMWhat was he like as a Marine?
CONROYTough. His men hated him. And the reason I know that is I would go play basketball in the afternoon, and eventually get around, that's the Major's kid, or that's the Captain's kids. And it roughed me up. And so, you know, I had to solve two things. I didn't tell, I didn't complain to dad and eventually they accepted me. But I'd hear them talk about dad, and he was not a well liked man. And I would hear this in his squadrons. I've heard it since I wrote the book "The Great Santini," and so I developed my own leadership theories against dad's. And I told him, I said, Dad, and The Citadel taught me this too, you know, my company that loves me will destroy your company that hates you. And that's all the leadership I ever want to know about.
REHMHow did you feel about going to The Citadel?
CONROYWell, I was not asked. It was -- I did not know I had applied to The Citadel, and my father informed me in the summer a month before I was going to The Citadel that that was going to be my college education. You know, I was not -- and I was shocked, and I shouldn't have been, Diane. But, you know, dad had found a place worse than he was. And The Citadel police system was agonizing for me I think mostly because of dad and my going through that. And it seemed like an extension of dad.
CONROYIt was tough, Diane. That police system of The Citadel, they said it was the toughest police system in the world and they made a real believer out of me.
REHMGive me an example.
CONROYThey -- even now if somebody asks me if I'd rather get a horrible, dreadful review from The New York Times or go to see my first sergeant at The Citadel after evening mess, which I would choose, and I would chose the bad review every single time. That guy was tough.
REHMBut, I mean, what would he do?
CONROYYou know, just this, it's -- when Shannon Faulkner was going to The Citadel, I support women going there, there was this young TV reporter, and you've seen him a million times, cute, great shape, ambitious. And when Shannon dropped out, she said, you know, she let all women down. And I said, she didn't let any women down. Yes, she did, you know, she should've been in shape. I'm in shape. And I said, you think you'd last the police system? She said, yeah, I know I could. I said, good. And you're in good shape? She said, yeah. Want me to prove it to you? Want me to do pushups?
CONROYI said, yeah, let me -- but you're not controlling this. I'm the cadre. I'm the upperclassman. I'm controlling you. So she got down in a pushup position, and I said, that's very good. You know, good pushup. Now go halfway down. And she goes halfway down in a pushup and, Diane, it takes about 15 seconds before your body...
CONROYAnd I don't care how good of shape you are.
CONROYAnd I said -- she said, this isn't fair. And I said, oh, you want the police system to be fair. I can break any muscle in your body. And by the way, you have not done one pushup yet according to The Citadel law, and you're complaining to me about it not being fair. It's fair enough. Everybody gets treated the same way. But it was a fascinating thing that dad shows the school that I think mirrored him more than any other school possibly could.
REHMAll right. Let's open the phones, 800-433-8850. Let's go first to -- let's see, I can't find him. He's gone. Let's go to Ken in Tulsa -- no, in St. Louis, Mo. Hi there, Ken.
KENHi, good morning, Pat. Hi, good morning, Diane.
KENYou know, I'm sure a lot of people read your books for, you know, therapy, not to, you know, to gain therapy, but just to gain knowledge on how other people deal with abuse. So in this situation, listening to this this morning, I could've written this book. Not for the literary content, but for what was written. So how do you -- how do you reconcile with family members who obviously knew, if other community members didn't know, because he didn't want to get kicked out of the Marine Corp., things like that? How do you reconcile with your family? 'Cause I'm dealing with the same thing with abuse younger in my life. How do you forgive or forget? How do you, you know, reconcile with family members who knew this was going on?
CONROYYou know, it's been -- you know, with us, we've talked about it so much, Ken. You know, this was never quiet with us. It was never a secret. It was more of a secret with me 'cause I was the oldest. But I've talked to every one of my brothers and sisters about it, and the way they reacted to dad's violence and, you know, was -- each one was different. Each one was strange. My sister became kind of crazy over it. I became kind of nuts about it. And it's not like we solved anything.
CONROYIt's not like, you know, we go together and you mistake us for the Brady Bunch if you saw us together. You know, this family has suffered. We acknowledge that suffering. We don't like it. And we have, you know, all of us have denounced dad for -- and we denounced dad while he was alive. We told him what we thought about that childhood. Mom died early when she was 59. And I don't think we confronted her as much, and she still is a much more controversial figure in my family, even than my father is.
CONROYYou know, it's because she let it happen, because we had to deny it, because, you know, we had to, you know, say no, because we could not talk about it, because we could not bring it up, because it would destroy the family if it was known. And, you know, so we were raised to be liars. We were raised to be theater people. We were raised to be actors. Or as I tell them now, we were raised to be novelists. You know, I could, you know, write books. And my father did not care when I wrote about the Great Santini and called him Bull Meechum. He hated it when I started calling him Don Conroy. I mean, he just loathed it.
REHMPat Conroy and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." How did you and your father ultimately reconcile, if you can call it that?
CONROYI can actually call it that, Diane. Dad would come over when I lived in Atlanta.
REHMHe used to come over every morning for a cup of coffee.
CONROYEvery morning of my life. And he...
REHMHow long did that go on?
CONROYIt was about two years. And he'd come over every morning, and I'd have the coffee ready. And he would sit down, he'd read the paper. And during this time, Diane, I would tell him everything I thought of as a father, you were the worst father I've ever seen, I've ever heard about, I don't know how you live with yourself, I don't know how you get up in the morning. And when, you know, mom first left him, you know, dad was bereft and alone in the world. And I said, all seven of your kids loathe the ground you walk on.
REHMHow many years of their marriage did she endure before she finally walked out?
REHMOkay. She walks out, your father is bereft. Where does she go?
CONROYShe goes and lives -- she buys my house and my wife Barbara's house in Beaufort, S.C. That's...
CONROYShe remarries a very nice guy named Dr. John Egan (sp?), and who is gentle and sweet and a doll baby, and all of mom's children ended up loving John.
REHMAnd your father is totally alone.
CONROYAnd Don dated a lot, but called himself -- you know, when mom died, he would drive us crazy. He called himself the grieving widower, which drove us nuts, but there's nothing we could do about it. But he -- you know, whatever it was, in these talks in those two years, and I'd say, horrible, you were a jerk, I got all of my stuff out about him. And I told him every single thing I thought, everything I remembered.
REHMHow did he react?
CONROYYou know, Don, my father was a blunt instrument, Diane. He was a one cell animal. And he said, my God, son, you have a vivid imagination. And so with dad, he would simply deny it.
CONROYAnd he denied the fiction, he denied the nonfiction. And, you know, what -- and he would always -- he would even sign books and said, I hope you enjoy my son's work of fiction. He'd underline fiction 10 times.
REHMWere you with him when he died?
CONROYI was with him when he died. I was with him the day before he did. And the kids and I were taking turns being with him. My brothers, Mike and Tim, were with him when dad died. And, you know, and always with our family it's a scene. You know, the Conroy's can do nothing like I imagine Gary Cooper's family could do it, or a (word?) family could do it. We always have scenes, and there's always explosions of grief and, you know, leaping on bodies and stuff like this, but I missed the actual passing of dad, but I did end up writing his eulogy.
REHMAnd someone has written about that. I'll read this very quickly. It's from Steve in Beaver Dam, Ariz. He says, "When Colonel Conroy died, Pat's eulogy circulated on the internet. It had been my intention to excerpt parts of it to read at my own father's funeral. Then one day my father fell from a stepladder, suffered from head trauma, which led to Alzheimer's. By the time of his death, he had so mellowed, become a soft shell, so disconnected from the tormenter of my childhood that Pat's eulogy lost the urgency it once possessed." And there you are.
CONROYThat is sweet as it could be.
REHMIndeed. Pat Conroy, I've loved seeing you. I hope you...
CONROYI enjoyed being here, Diane, as I always do.
REHMThank you. I hope you keep on writing and your glory keeps shining. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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