The first time I read The Prince of Tides, I was mesmerized. I remember blocking out the world until I finished it and thinking how could any family be that messed up? How could any writer so compellingly convey the dynamics of a dysfunctional family? The feared, all-powerful father, the mother propelled by societal rise, the sister struggling with depression and suicide, the narrator tormented and yet seemingly functional. Soon after finishing the book, I devoured Conroy’s previous novels, The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipine, and the Water is Wide, a memoir that spoke to me as I was currently trying to inspire and understand my inner-city high schoolers though I was a young, white teacher with little experience.
A few years after all of this reading–sometime in the mid 90s–I went with a friend to Fripp Island, South Carolina, and while there, visited Beaufort. I think I wanted to be as close to Conroy’s life and characters as possible. By then, I knew that much of his fiction was really a re-enactment of his own family’s journey, centering around his abusive father, and I wanted to be physically close to the epicenter. Eventually, though, I took a Pat Conroy break. I had seen all of the movies, had my fill of the emotional turmoil of his characters (aka: family), and had moved on to marriage and kids of my own. I revisited him briefly when I picked up Beach Music several years after it came out (it seemed overwrought and I never finished it) and then My Reading Life, which I skimmed. But nothing could quite match his earlier work.
Yet, I remained intrigued by Conroy’s relationship with his father–and with the rest of his family. I knew his books had unhinged them as family members easily recognized themselves in the fictional characters he created (though they were already unhinged, so I’m not sure how much further they could unravel).
I picked up The Death of Santini (albeit more than 2 years after it came out), probably because Pat Conroy had just died, and I became once again interested in the intertwining of his life and characters. I flew through the first few hundred pages as Conroy recreates scenes of his childhood and the daily violence –both physical and emotional–that occurred at the hands of his father. I suppose I was ready to read the “real thing,” after living through it with his fictional families so many times. And I was not disappointed. His use of detail and dialogue made me feel like I was in the kitchen witnessing his parents fighting: “I saw my father’s hated face getting ready to slap the living hell out of me when I saw something rising into the air above him. It was a butcher knife. I saw its flashing blade slashing into the artificial night. A jet of blood hit my eyes and blinded me” (8). And so it goes, scene after scene of what actually happened in the Conroy household and how it unraveled the family, including the author who subsequently spent the rest of his life struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts as he continued to write, trying to make sense of his past. But I actually became tired of the scenes with his father as Conroy both hated and loved him, blamed and forgave him–over and over. And often, the book strays away from the father/son relationship into a minutiae of details about grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other family members that seemed unimportant. I ended up skimming many parts of the book. In the end, my feeling is this: Conroy will always mesmerize as a writer of precise detail, though overdone at times, in bringing out the rawest of human emotion, capturing the essence of what it means to hurt and betray. But I couldn’t help but feel that I shouldn’t be privy to such private family encounters. This memoir seemed to be primarily cathartic writing, spilling every detail of his family and his marriages into the public. I kind of wish he had just written it as a personal journal.