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The Death of the Son of Santini - Pat Conroy RIP

Amidst all the political Sturm und Drang, I completely missed the fact that author Pat Conroy had died.  Conroy was only 70 and pancreatic cancer did him in.  His father Don (immortalized as The Great Santini) also died of cancer, as did his mother.

I haven’t read all of his books, in fact I’ve read only three:  The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline and The Death of Santini – the latter being a reminiscence of his father’s later years and death.  I also read The Boo, which was a minor work about one of his professors at the Citadel.

One of his great strengths as a writer was his ability to create full-realized characters.  In honor of him, I’m going to delve into his character as I interpret it.

Conroy was unquestionably a tortured artist who found solace (though not necessarily healing) through his writing.  In fact, just about everything he wrote was semi-autobiographical – something that undoubtedly contributed to his alienation from his family, who (understandably) resented their conversations being used as fodder for his next book.

Conroy had a flair for turning a phrase but he also tended to get carried away with the melodrama.  I haven’t read The Lords of Discipline in 20 years, but I recall it being comparatively lean and focused.  Reading the plots of his other books, I find them amazingly convoluted.  Even The Great Santini had considerable digressions.

I deeply enjoyed The Death of Santini and it was interesting not only for what it said, but what it didn’t say.  Pat Conroy laid a lot of blame on his parents for what he considered a rough upbringing and certainly The Great Santini has plenty of moments to induce deep sympathy.  In The Death of Santini Conroy notes that he actually toned down actual incidents because his publisher felt including them would strain the book’s believability.  At the same time, he added some positive elements to his father’s character to make him more human – even though they never happened.

The interesting element to me is that Conroy’s father displays none of these vile traits once Pat leaves the house and his younger siblings stridently disagreed with his portrayal of his father.

To put it another way, Conroy was famous for using unreliable narrators and I think that was because he recognized that he himself was unreliable.

Reading The Death of Santini last year, I found myself thinking of my grandfathers and my own father, none of whom were (or are) particularly demonstrative.  Raised in a society where showing too much affection to children was viewed as a sign of weakness, they instead tried to affect a manly reserve.

Like the elder Conroy, my grandfathers felt that the rules for grandchildren were different.  Where they had been cool to their own children, they were doting to their grandkids.  It’s a generational thing.

Conroy seems to me to be like so many other Boomers – privileged beyond any generation but not fully aware of it.  His father was a warrior by trade and unlikely to be a cuddly candidate for Father of the Year. 

His mother (whom Pat idolized) also comes across quite differently in a non-fiction environment.  Where she is a saintly “steel magnolia” (to coin a phrase) in the book and movie, another side of her unintentionally emerges in The Death of Santini.  Her glamour and charm are viewed by younger siblings as vanity and distance.  Why should she have nice dresses and jewelry while they wear thread-bare hand-me-downs?

Her decision to divorce her husband after he retires is likewise somewhat suspect.  Yes, she could have reached a breaking point, or maybe she missed the power and prestige of being a squadron commander’s wife.  Pat observed that his father never talked about his many medals nor did they know much about his day-to-day tasks.  It isn't a stretch to assume that they also knew nothing about the social environment in which his parents functions.

To put it another way, it seems doubtful to me that a woman who patterned herself on Scarlett O'Hara and by Pat's own description exemplified Southern aristocratic charm wouldn't have enjoyed being the center of social attention on base.

In any event, Conroy records with amazement how his stoic father breaks down in tears when he gets the news.  This leads me to suspect that the cruelty of their relationship was not entirely on one side.

All of this left a mark on Pat, who had difficulty sustaining a relationship – a failing that may have made him a better writer but a lesser person.

One thing that intrigues me is that he had a funeral mass said for him (because of course the Conroys were Catholics) and yet he married multiple times.  His father may have been a mean character, but he at least stayed true to that aspect of his faith – refusing to accept the validity of civil divorce, he never remarried.

In a sense, Don Conroy is a more tragic figure than his son, and I think Pat realized this as he pondered his father’s death.  Don was a warrior, called upon again and again to fight in terrible conditions and facing near certain death.  The odds of him living as long as he did were quite slim.   It was probably beyond him to be both a peerless fighter pilot and a gentle, loving father.  Later in life, he tried to make up for it, and one cannot read his son’s story of their relationship without sympathy for the man.

Pat Conroy never seemed fully at peace and I wonder if it also flowed from his decision not to do the thing that should have come naturally to him:  join the military.  Given the time, it made sense – lots of people tried to avoid service during Vietnam. 

But those weren’t the people Conroy knew at the Citadel.  When he not only declined to sign up but then penned The Lords of Discipline, I’m sure that caused further alienation.

That’s not always a bad thing.  Sometimes a clean break is for the best.  The question is whether one can accept it and move on, and I don’t think Conroy ever could.  His return to the Citadel two decades later demonstrated that he never really wanted to cause that much pain, least of all to himself.

It’s fashionable to talk of forgiveness, but that’s actually a pretty tough thing to do – especially to forgive yourself.  In fact, until you can forgive yourself, you can’t forgive anyone else.  I figured that out in my 20s and it has been a tremendous help ever since.

A big part of forgiveness is admitting when you are at fault.  As a young man, Conroy’s anger at his father caused him to blame him for effectively ruining his life and destroying his ability to relate to others.  The unfortunate effect of this was to create a sense that whenever a relationship came apart, it was Santini’s fault.

I don’t think it’s talking out of school for me to say that my own parents divorced when I was young and that I too had to struggle with how to sustain a healthy relationship.  The thing is, it is possible to rise above one’s circumstances.

In some ways, Pat Conroy did just that, becoming a popular and beloved author who left an unmistakable imprint on society.  Yet I get a sense that there was a part of him that wanted another life – one where he was the Great Santini as he should have been – both a successful military officer and a good family man.

Some can say I may be reading too much into this, but Conroy had an incredible ability to articulate the warrior ethos in his writing.  There was a part of him that felt the same call to service that had animated his father, but because of his resentment, he turned as far from it as he could.   The fact that he wrote about the Citadel so unflatteringly a decade after graduating shows some of that disquiet.

And yet, as I said above, he never really wanted to put that world behind him.

I may check out Beach Music since it was his last work and see how he progressed.  I suppose that could be arrogant of me – to sit in judgement of a man 30 years my senior.  I will likely never see his literary success, but on the other hand, I’m at peace with myself and my family life is unquestionably better.

I’d like to have met him and had a chat, and perhaps I will in another time and place (along with our co-religionist Evelyn Waugh).  Hopefully he found in death the peace he never knew in life.



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