Love, Hate, and Forgiveness: A Conroy Christmas
“I don’t believe in happy families. A family is too frail a vessel to contain the risks of all the warring impulses expressed when such a group meets on common ground. If a family gathers in harmony for a reunion, everyone in attendance will know the entry-ways and exits have been mined with improvised explosive devices.” So says the novelist Pat Conroy. As the holidays are upon us, with dysfunctional family get-togethers gathering like storm clouds on our tinsel-taut, Nutcracker-bedecked horizons, there is no better time to review Conroy’s wrenching and starkly humorous family memoir, The Death of Santini.
Conroy first burst onto bestseller lists in 1976 with The Great Santini, a blazing, thinly veiled roman à clef about his father, a highly-decorated Marine fighter pilot who ruled and abused the Conroy family while deploying to fight in three wars during his military career. Conroy exorcised his childhood demons in vivid detail, revealing the physical abuse and emotional neglect exercised by his father under the guise of depicting turmoil in a fictional family named the Meechams. When the tightly held Conroy family secret was published for the world’s scrutiny, his father disappeared for three days, in denial about his abuse and bewildered after looking in the mirror his son had held up to him.
As a novel, The Great Santini has one or two less believable plot points, but these are minor difficulties. The dialogue rings true and the story moves along at a rapid, engrossing pace. In its anger it lobs itself like a hand grenade, but it reveals truth and worth over time. In addition, this early work is an excellent precursor to reading a number of Conroy’s other books, including The Death of Santini.
Among these is Conroy’s well-received memoir My Reading Life, published in 2010. It brings to life the people, teachers, and authors who brought novels and poetry alive to him, along with the books he considers most important in transforming the reader with the power of their humanity and gorgeous language. Those interested in book suggestions and the reasons why books become dearly beloved friends would do well to peruse this book. It also interweaves tales of his family and their influence on his love affair with words and literature.
In The Death of Santini, Conroy looks again at his life from a non-fictional point of view, writing once more about his mother and father and their tortuous love-hate relationship, along with the collateral damage imposed on their family of seven children, one of whom committed suicide and another who became mostly estranged from the family through her anger, mental illness and genius.
Conroy pours his memory into the images and conversations between his siblings that took place during their childhood ordeals, after the publication of The Great Santini, and in their adulthood, as the different views they held of their parents crystallized. While Pat Conroy idealized and worshipped his steely, beautiful mother, many of his younger siblings did not. Here he first shows her own flaws and deep-seated insecurities as a voracious reader and autodidact who pretended she had been a wealthy Southern belle who had graduated from college instead of a poverty-stricken mountain girl from Alabama.
In his famous novel The Prince of Tides, Conroy wrote, “In families, there are no crimes that cannot be forgiven.” He has certainly adopted this attitude towards his family in The Death of Santini. In it he describes the first time he was able to defend his mother and younger siblings as an adult when his father was drunk and hitting them. He kicked his father out of the house and onto the lawn, finally telling him the twisted truth that he loved him. That scene was written into his 1976 book, and it may have been the beginning of his real relationship with Col. Don Conroy.
After his mother left his father the day after he retired from the Marine Corps, his father was bereft and cried for the first time in front of his son. He also came around from his first reaction and began to enjoy his status as The Great Santini, coming with Pat to all his book signings and enjoying the filming of the movie version of the novel. Slowly they developed a relationship, and Pat found a way to understand his father as a man of action who had buried his love of family and had almost no way to express it. In the retired Col. Conroy’s second act, his son was surprised to find that he had a great sense of humor that he had kept under cover. His father was beloved by grandchildren and other family members, and very slowly found a way to become a better father and grandfather. His children, who had always wanted to love him, tried hard to accept his changing self despite their memories of childhood neglect and abuse.
The Death of Santini’s strength is that while sometimes humorous, it does not soft-soap the completely dysfunctional, sometimes crazy, and terribly difficult relationships that continued to limp along within a long-traumatized family during adulthood and after their parents’ divorce. Many of the Conroy children suffered strong suicidal impulses, with their schizophrenic youngest brother jumping off a building to his death.
Conroy writes about his mother, the re-married Peg Conroy Egan, and how his family handled her death from leukemia years before the funeral that took place after The Great Santini developed terminal colon cancer. Some of Conroy’s sadness comes from his relationship with his sister, Carol Ann, a brilliant, highly unbalanced poet who developed a hatred for him stemming from a childhood where she was always undervalued by their parents while Pat got attention for playing basketball and eventually writing popular novels. Yet he accepts her with both love and exasperation, even during her lunatic shenanigans at their parents’ funerals.
Despite the awful memories and the tangled emotions of this family, the Conroy kids pulled together to take care of their parents and each other during illness and difficulty. They share a great sense of black humor that erupts often, and particularly when speaking of their bizarre relatives from Chicago and Alabama. Comic relief punctuates their darkness and difficulties.
Conroy calls his family’s coming together the Irish loyalty inherited from his Chicago father’s side, but it is the loyalty that can be shown by anyone who has at least some ability to forgive, if not forget. There are few acts more difficult and long in coming than true forgiveness. The veins of forgiveness that pulse through this memoir are revelatory and helpful for those looking to come to terms with great hurt, whether inflicted by a parent, a sibling, a spouse, or a dear friend. One hopes that this memoir is redemptive for Conroy. There is no greater present than forgiveness and the beginning of acceptance for people’s limitations. Perhaps forgiveness is the best gift that anyone could give to another at this time of year, because it can be a priceless present for the recipient and an unexpectedly wonderful one for the giver.
~ Written by: Miriam R. Kramer