Long before Augusten Burroughs was running with scissors, a big-hearted Southern whirlwind of a writer named Pat Conroy served as America’s unofficial poster boy for family dysfunction.
The eldest of seven siblings raised under the violent iron fist of a celebrated Marine Corps fighter pilot, Conroy sought refuge and revenge by channeling his nightmarish upbringing and its aftereffects into such gut-wrenching, cinema-ready novels as The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline and The Prince of Tides. The success of his prose on page and screen didn’t prevent the real-life marriage meltdowns and numerous personal breakdowns that come with having the devil himself as your muse.
More than a decade in the writing, his new memoir The Death of Santini marks Conroy’s coming to terms with his “Chicago Irish” father, Don (nicknamed the Great Santini, after the trapeze artist, for his aerial prowess); his indefatigable Southern belle mother, Peg; his unsinkable grandmother, Stanny; sister Carol, the prickly family poet; and brother Tom, whose suicide plunge at 34 from a 14-story building came to manifest the malignant memories that haunt his siblings.
Conroy was inspired to undertake his memoir in 1998 after writing the eulogy for his father, which he uses to close this book, both literally and figuratively.
“I needed some kind of summing-up, a wrap-up for the direction that my career has taken me,” Conroy says. “I’ve been so family-obsessed that I wanted to try to figure out what it all means and come to some conclusions.”
Despite the book’s dark subject matter, readers may be surprised to find The Death of Santini uplifting, and at times downright funny, as the author casts off punch lines and personal demons with every page. Conroy approves but takes no credit for this reader-friendly chiaroscuro.
"I've been so family-obsessed that I wanted to try to figure out what it all means."
“When you say it goes from light to darkness, that sounds like it should be, but I’m never very good at that,” he admits. “I had good editing, good people reading the book from the very beginning and arranging it.”
One of those clever souls was Conroy’s wife, the novelist Cassandra King (Moonrise), who helped steel the author through his father’s final days. The couple married a week after Don Conroy’s death.
“My father adored her,” Conroy says. “Dad used to say, ‘What does Sandra see in you, son?’ And now, poor Cassandra has been marinated in the Conroy family madness.”
Fiction provided a means for Conroy to process the constant belittling, badgering and physical and mental abuse the family suffered at the hands of his larger-and-scarier-than-life father. But when the budding author dared to expose the family secrets in the guise of the Bull Meecham brood in his 1976 debut novel, The Great Santini, the family was horrified.
“One of the things my brothers and sisters have had to ask ourselves is, did this all happen? What was the result of it happening to us? How do we relate it to our children or our wives or husbands?” Conroy says. “We’re all screwed up, coming through Mom and Dad. That was a difficult country to travel in, but we traveled it, we made it through, and somehow we survived it.”
That fragile illusion would be destroyed years later when Tom, who’d had a minor role in the film version of The Great Santini, ended his life in Columbia, South Carolina.
“But Tom did not survive it,” Conroy continues, choking up. “Tom can bring us to our knees. We all feel we failed him, left him behind. We were not watchful or vigilant enough with Tom to help him survive.”
Conroy’s mother, who tirelessly encouraged him to pursue a writing career, was in her glory when the film premiered in her hometown of Beaufort, South Carolina, where it was filmed. She would later submit the novel into evidence in her divorce from Don.
As for Don, the best-selling novel and the film that followed sparked a love affair that knew no bounds.
“With my father, it wasn’t a flirtation with Hollywood, it was a marriage,” Conroy recalls. “When he finally realized that I had killed him in the movie, he was furious for a couple of weeks. I couldn’t figure out why until he said, ‘You f__ked up the sequel!’ He did take that role utterly seriously. There were license plates of the Great Santini, hats of the Great Santini. Going to Dad’s apartment was like going to the county fair, only the county fair was based entirely on him and all the rides were Santini rides and all the clowns were Santini clowns. He could not get enough of it.”
The family uproar over The Great Santini and his subsequent novels continues to this day. When his siblings got wind that big brother had a memoir in the works, Conroy couldn’t help having a little fun at their expense.
“They always said, ‘You won’t be able to write this, Pat, because no one will believe it.’ My brothers and sisters are terrified of this book,” he says. “Of course, I was telling my brothers that I was giving them sex-change operations and my sisters that I was going to have them marry monsters and their children were going to be the devil’s spawn. But now that it’s coming out, I’m worried about their judgment.”
Having exorcised his demons, Conroy is working on a new novel and his first young adult book, neither of which involves family ghosts.
“I’m going to try to leave the family in peace,” he vows. “There are other things to write about. Of course, I’m ashamed that I didn’t think of this until I was 90 years old!” (Conroy is slightly inflating his age: He turns 68 just before his memoir’s October 29 publication.)
But his dark journey did lead him to a surprising conclusion about the family that fueled much of his career.
“Being born into this family was the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” he says. “It just took me a long time to realize it and 40 years to write about it.”