Remembering 'Great Santini' Author Pat Conroy
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Pat Conroy, author of "The Great Santini," "The Prince Of Tides" and other books, died last week of pancreatic cancer. He was 70 years old. Many of Conroy's books drew upon his relationship with his domineering father, a Marine fighter pilot and instructor, and many of those books were made into successful movies. The most famous of those was 1979's "The Great Santini," in which Robert Duvall played Conroy's approximation of his own father, a tough-as-nails lieutenant colonel named Bull Meechum. Here's Duvall in "The Great Santini" addressing his new fighter pilot recruits.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GREAT SANTINI")
ROBERT DUVALL: (As Bull Meechum) Attention on deck. Seats, gentlemen. You may now have the privilege of serving under the meanest, toughest, screaming-est squadron commander in the Marine Corps - me. Now, I don't want you to consider me as just your commanding office. I want you to look on me like I was, well, God. If I say something, you pretend it's from coming from the burning bush. Now, we're members of the proudest, most elite group of fighting men in history of the world. We're Marines, Marine Corps fighter pilots. We have no other function. That is our mission, and you're either going to hack it or pack it. Do you read me? In 30 days, I'm going to lead the toughest, flying-est sons of bitches in the world. The 312 Werewolf Squadron will make history or it will die trying. Now you're flying with Bull Meechum now, and, I kid you not, this is the eye of the storm. Welcome aboard.
BIANCULLI: Robert Duvall in the role of "The Great Santini." Pat Conroy was a frequent guest on FRESH AIR. We'll start with this interview from 1987.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
PAT CONROY: Dad mistook - for some reason unbeknownst to me - he mistook his family for a platoon of Marines. I mean, he - the exact same thing he brought to the disciplining of a squadron, a battalion, a platoon, he brought to the disciplining of his children. He ran the house - he had Saturday morning inspections for us, he had white-glove inspections for us as kids.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Did he bark out orders to you?
CONROY: Of course. I mean, Dad's - you know, Dad's friendliest tone was a scream.
GROSS: Did you have to address him in a deferential way?
CONROY: Well, in fact, Dad - I did not explain this in the book at all, but my father modestly referred to himself as the Great Santini when we were growing up. And he took it - I later learned he had seen a high-wire aerialist when he was a boy, and he was up doing acrobatics in his airplane, and when he came down one time - when was a young lieutenant - he said, I was better than the Great Santini today. And some of the other pilots heard it, and the nickname stuck. So the Great Santini was how he liked being referred to by his children. He would line up his seven children, and there was this ritual we'd go through. And he would say, who's the greatest of them all? And we - the seven - would say, you are, oh, Great Santini. And he would say, who knows all, hears all and sees all? You do, oh, Great Santini. So this was the ridiculous way I was raised.
GROSS: What would happen if you violated his orders or disobeyed him?
CONROY: He would knock you around and you would not do it again. It was dangerous to cross Dad at that time.
GROSS: Did you actually have to sing the Marine "Hymn" on family outings like the family does in the novel?
CONROY: Sure, I can sing it to you right now.
GROSS: Go ahead. (Laughter).
CONROY: This is - no, Marines Corps "Hymn" is, like, the family anthem. I mean, we've - in all Marines - I mean, when I would meet kids in the Marine Corps, all of us have gone through this thing. When I find out that they also grew up in the Marines, will say to each other, Semper Fi, and we'll know. It's almost a code word, a password, between Marines and Marine kids all over the world.
GROSS: What role did he have for your mother and for your sisters since, you know, if the model of the family was the Marines, the Marines are a male group so what were they supposed to be doing?
CONROY: I don't think my father noticed that he had daughters. I think, you know, part of the damage of the childhood was, I simply don't think they were acknowledged as human beings at all. Or - you know, one of the reasons I became a cook later on in my life was, I was not allowed to cook an egg. And the girls all learned how to cook, the girls all learned how to sew. And the rules were so clear, you could not deviate from that all. And I think it especially damaged my sisters because there was nothing they could do to get my father's attention, to win his approval. They could not play sports. They could not do these other things. They could not be tough. They could not be macho. And so I think they suffered just from sheer neglect if nothing else.
GROSS: What were you expected to do when you were young to prove your masculinity?
CONROY: Dad signed me up for football, basketball and baseball every season of my life and never asked me if I wanted to play it or not.
GROSS: Did you want to play it?
CONROY: Eventually I got to like it, but I remember, at first, football scared me to death.
GROSS: One of the climactic scenes in the book and in the movie is when the son and the father are playing basketball together, and the son is about to win for the first time. And just as he's shooting the winning basket, the father I think punches him in the stomach like he can't stand that his son is about to beat him for the first time.
CONROY: All my brothers and sisters have stories about Dad like this. I remember, when my sister was about to beat him in checkers for the first time, he knocked the board over. I mean, Dad was one of these people who simply could not lose, you know? He could not stand it when a kid was beating him. He would go crazy when the child came to that moment, which, you know, you have to come to - I mean, Dad played Old Maids like he played football. He just simply had to win every single thing every single time.
GROSS: In a lot of families, there really is a legacy of violence. If one of the parents is prone to hitting someone in the family, that's sometimes a habit that's passed on to the kids even if they don't share that kind of violent streak.
CONROY: I was in an adolescent psychology class at Citadel when the guy said, if you had a mother who was beaten, there's a great chance you'll beat your wife. And if you were beaten as a child, there's a terrific chance you're going to be a child-beater. The line changed my life 'cause I thought of some poor woman I hadn't even met walking around the United States or the world not knowing she's going to be beaten up by me and these kids, unborn, not knowing they were going to be born into the family of a child-beater just because I was. So it really did have a great effect on me.
GROSS: Your father used to beat your mother?
CONROY: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: Did the kids try to stand up for her?
CONROY: Oh, sure. We tried - it's very hard when your father's 220 pounds, and you're 60 pounds. It's - I noticed that we did not do much good.
GROSS: Did she defend him for it?
CONROY: What she would do - and which is - "The Prince Of Tides" is a lot about my mother - what my mother would do after Dad would hit one of the kids or hit two of the kids, hit all the kids, hit her, she would usually get in the car. We'd drive out. She would say, I'm going to divorce him. I'm never going back. We'd share - there'd be this incredible solidarity of these seven children, this one woman going out. Of course, because she was a woman in the '50s and '60s, where was she going to go? What was she going to do? How was she going to feed these seven children? Naturally, she had to go back. But what she would do - we'd go back, and she'd say, that didn't happen. And she would invoke family loyalty. And she would say, what you just saw happen did not happen. And so we grew up as this family of deniers. And people who knew us for years were stunned when "The Great Santini" came out because we had this appearance of being this happy, large, smiling family. We were taught to smile, put the best face forward. And so when the book ended up - Dad swatting us around the room, no one believed me.
GROSS: You had said that your family denied that any of this abuse happened in the family, but you put some of it in "The Great Santini," in both the novel and in the movie, and it was there for the world to see. I mean, it was pretty evident that it was autobiographical. How did they deal with that? They couldn't deny it anymore.
CONROY: Well, they - we had an odd thing happen in the family chronicle as soon as this - I didn't tell anybody "The Great Santini" was being written. I was just writing this thing. And once you say this is true, you start naming the beast that hurts you - so I started doing this. Other truths come out. You know, how am I leading my own life? What am I denying? Since I brought such great powers of denial into my adult life, what am I not doing as a husband? What am I not doing as a father? The whole thing started unraveling with me that once I kept it up close to the chest, I could hold it all in, but once I started letting it out, it all started coming out. So when the book came out, my mother stunned us all by leaving my father. I think three months before the book came out, she left my father the day he retired from the Marine Corps. They had a parade and march, and she came home and left.
GROSS: Do think that was because the evidence had been clearly presented?
CONROY: I don't think so. I think it was - I don't know what it was. I mean, she should've left him the second or third day of marriage tops. I mean, she should've been gone. If she had any survival instincts, any insight, she should've been gone. But she was 18, I think, when she married, so she was a kid. I think she just had gotten tired of it, and once he got out of the Marine Corps, once he had done that, most of the kids were raised, she just said she was not doing this anymore and she took off. Then the book comes out chronicling this abuse. And my poor mother simply took the book and gave it to the presiding judge at the divorce trial and said, this is what happened. So it was my first introduction to the difference between life and art and how they sometimes interact with each other.
GROSS: How did your parents feel about being portrayed by stars?
CONROY: They simply loved it. I mean, the book, they had great problems with, but they went wild when a movie crew came to my hometown and - what we then claimed as our hometown, Beaufort, S.C., where "The Great Santini" took place. And my mother got to teach Blythe Danner how to use the rosary, and my father got to walk around with Robert Duvall. And even though they were divorced at this time, they loved the fact that their lives were important enough to be portrayed by great actors and actresses. And it was odd seeing - there's a scene in "The Great Santini" the movie where I'm watching it with my father - I'm watching it being filmed - and there's somebody playing Dad and there's somebody playing me running around. Blythe Danner, playing my mother, is sitting in the stands. Directly behind Blythe Danner is my real mother. They put her in as a extra. And on the basketball court, playing with the guy playing with me is one of my brothers playing on the basketball team. We had a collage of all this when that movie was being made, but it certainly reconciled them to the book.
GROSS: Did that make it easier for you to write more autobiographical work?
CONROY: You know, the one thing is, I never ask permission. You know, if I'm going to be honest as a writer, if I'm going to have any sort of credibility as a writer, I like pulling these things out of my life that have affected me. They've given me moments of great pain or great joy, and this is part of the reason I write 'cause I want to celebrate these people. I want to celebrate them with all their warts and flaws and glorious parts.
GROSS: Why do you want to celebrate your father? You said your mother should have left him four days after they were married.
CONROY: You know, because Dad was a jerk, but he's an honest jerk. The one thing that I came to the conclusion was that amazed me in that book is that Dad, though he beat us, though he screamed at us, though he was horrible to us, he loved us. In this stupid, dimwitted way, this bovine way of his, he simply had - like many men in our country - he had no vocabulary for love, he had no emotional context for love. He had never been loved. His parents had treated him as coldly as you can treat anybody. Dad simply did not know how to do it, and he didn't know how to do it now.
GROSS: I'm under the impression that "The Prince Of Tides" is a much more - it's a much darker exploration of the kinds of emotional problems that parents can cause than "The Great Santini," as which has a certain irony and detachment...
CONROY: Charm (laughter).
GROSS: ...About it. Yeah.
CONROY: A certain charm to Dad's beating his wife. There was - I wanted - I realized when I wrote "The Great Santini," I had not told the story of my family, that I had denied and had lied as much as I'd always blamed my mother for doing. So I wanted to get into the heart of darkness of our family. And I thought if I did - it's probably true of most families. You know, a family can be a dark chronicle. You know, if you start scratching the surface, a family can be a very, very tough thing. You know, I was very surprised when I got married that I was no good at it. I just was not a good husband. And then I realized, of course you're not a good husband - look who your model was. Of course you're not a good father - look at the only father you've ever seen raise children. So to break those things, to break those bonds of the past, it's necessary for me to dive into the wreck to find out what it is and to see if I can discover what the truth of that family is. And I still haven't done it. I mean, there's still things in the family that - I mean, my brothers and sisters have been helpful to me because they said, yes, there was damage - Mom was screwed up, Dad was screwed up. Yes, it got to us all. And then I was - and why I love my family so much is when Mom died, we just came apart. I mean, my family simply came apart at the seams. And where I thought I'd be a Gary Cooper-like figure - yes, Mom's gone. It surprised me. I just - I did back-flips, you know, I leapt on Mom. I went, (laughter), under the bed, around - I slithered around like a snake in the - I just simply went crazy at the actual time she died. And it was that coming apart and then that coming together as a family whenever a death comes in that affected me a great deal. And I realized I was glad that we were an emotional family and a passionate family, and that's one thing Mom's death did, and it brought it all together. And after Mom died, I could then go back and finish this book.
BIANCULLI: Author Pat Conroy speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. We'll hear another of their conversations after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Pat Conroy, author of "The Great Santini," "The Prince Of Tides" and other novels and nonfiction books, died last week at age 70. Today, we're listening back to several of his FRESH AIR conversations with Terry Gross. She spoke to him again in 1995.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: I'm sure a lot of your readers feel like they know your father because he was the basis of "The Great Santini." Is your father still alive?
CONROY: As my brothers say, unfortunately.
CONROY: Yeah, Dad is. That's - Dad is - you know, he would listen to this and - he called, you know - he called me up yesterday. He said, did you catch me on TV (laughter)? And I said, Dad, unfortunately - he said, I was magnificent, Son. He said, any time you and I are together, America can see the two ways America have gone - the weak-kneed, liberal way that you have gone and the stuff that has made our nation great - the way I have gone.
GROSS: Now, do you both laugh when he says that?
CONROY: Dad is very funny. When we - we were being photographed together for Vanity Fair. I didn't want to wear these hats. They made us wear these white hats. Because I'm a Southerner, they put me in this white hat, OK? I said, Dad, I don't want to wear this hat. We're wearing them, Son. I said, why? He said, they're going to give me the hat, Son. They dressed us in these suspenders that came from some designer store. I said, Dad, we're not wearing these. He said, we're wearing them all, Son. They're giving me all the suspenders, Son - 10 pair - a thousand bucks. So my father got into it. And when we were getting the pictures taken, Terry, he - you know, we had this pose. And so we're face to face and I said, Dad, let me as you a question. What was it like to beat me up when I was a baby? He said without hesitation, I enjoyed it, Son. It was great exercise - aerobics. And we're sitting there facing the camera. But my father is fast, he is quick. And he has made a shtick out of this. Dad goes on radio programs like this...
CONROY: ...Down South giving advice on child-rearing.
GROSS: You're kidding (laughter).
CONROY: And he's become this Nazi Dr. Spock. And what he says is America needs more discipline and, yeah.
CONROY: I have to appreciate this because what I have to do is, you know - since I wrote about Dad, exposed Dad, I have to let him come back. And he does it very well.
GROSS: So do you see your role as being the forgiving son at some point?
CONROY: Yeah, I, you know, I have - I told Dad. I said, Dad, I cannot be mad at you any longer for things you did to me 45 years ago. There has to be some forgiveness now. And he said, I never touched you, Son. So I said, that's when I get irritated.
GROSS: When he completely denies it?
CONROY: Yeah, when he just denies it. I think he just denies it now just to irritate me and get me - you know, make me mad.
GROSS: So does he have a completely different version of your childhood...
>>GROSS ...And his fatherhood than you do?
CONROY: Here is his version. It was - there was an article in Atlanta Magazine several years ago, and it says the great Santini talks back. In this, I sounded like a member of the von Trapp family...
CONROY: ...That we - what we did - we sang in choirs and we collected money for lepers. And...
CONROY: ...Dad was this, I mean, benevolent Mother Teresa figure who just - a wonderful, fabulous man who simply adored his children and knitted booties for us when we were infants. And, you know, I read this. I called Dad and I said, Dad, and you call me a fiction writer? What is this nonsense? I didn't even recognize the guy. But Dad said, all's fair in love and war, Son. He said, didn't I look great in the picture? And my father's become enamored with his own image in the media. And he's now putting his own spin on it.
GROSS: In your novel, the father says to the main character, you know, you're just like me. (Laughter) And the main character thinks, I am not. How much do you think you resemble your father?
CONROY: It is perfectly hideous. My brothers and I talk about this all the time. When my mother was dying, we were all around her bed. And my brother Jim said something. And he said, that sounded like Dad, didn't it? And we all said, it certainly did. And my brother Tim said to Jim, you're the most like Dad, the most of any of us. And he said, is that true, Pat? And I said, it certainly is, Jim. And he said, would one of you shoot me through the brain and put me out of my misery if this is true? Yet all of us know that we're very much like Dad. It drives my brothers just simply crazy that we're so much like Dad. As we age, we look more like Dad, we walk like Dad, we talk like Dad.
GROSS: But you never hit your family like your father.
CONROY: Pardon me? No, I don't. But, you know, what I realize even with that that we realized later on is that we may not hit, you know, our wives and children but we're violent. You know, we're violent men. We were raised in violence. And I couldn't figure out when I was very early in my first marriage when a kid would knock over a glass of milk why I'd want to hit him. And then what it was was that's - any kid that knocked over a glass of milk with Dad got hit. And so that's why the oldest kids - we as the oldest kids had to sit at the - by Dad so the young kids could be down the table where they would be out of his reach. And so what you don't know is you carry these things in you from your childhood without even knowing. This is baggage you bring along the way. And this was a terrifying thought to all of us, but Dad lives deeply inside of us. And there's nothing we can do about it except try to control it.
BIANCULLI: Author Pat Conroy speaking to Terry Gross in 1995. The author of "The Great Santini" and "The Prince Of Tides" died last week at age 70. After a short break, we'll hear about Pat Conroy's relationship with his father at the end of his dad's life. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. We're remembering author Pat Conroy, who died of pancreatic cancer last week at age 70. After a childhood spent with an abusive military father who inspired "The Great Santini," Pat Conroy attended the military college the Citadel, where he played basketball for a coach nearly as domineering as his own father. That was the basis of his memoir, "My Losing Season," an unvarnished account of the events Conroy fictionalized in the book "The Lords Of Discipline." Terry interviewed Pat Conroy again in 2002. They started with a short reading from "My Losing Season," presented here in slightly edited form.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
CONROY: (Reading) My coaches throughout my youth all approved of me because my attitude was upbeat and fiery, my enthusiasm contagious, and I gave everything I had. I liked that part of me also, but had no idea where it came from. As a boy, I had constructed a shell for myself so impenetrable that I have been trying to write my way out of it for over 30 years, and even now I fear I have barely cracked its veneer. Several times in my life, I've gone crazy and I could not even begin to tell you why. The sadness collapses me from the inside out and I have to follow the thing through until it finishes with me. It never happened to me when I was playing basketball because basketball was the only thing that granted me a complete and sublime congruence and oneness with the world. I found a joy unrecapturable beyond the realm of speech or language, and I lost myself in the pure dazzling majesty of my sweet, swift game.
GROSS: Pat Conroy, reading from his new memoir, "My Losing Season."
At the Citadel, you played for a losing team.
GROSS: You write that you learned a lot from losing. What are some of the things you learned from losing?
CONROY: The thing that has always been a theory of mine that does not sit very well in America is, I don't think you learn anything from winning. You just jump up and down, it's wonderful, it's fabulous, it's glorious. But losing - there's a deeper music in loss. There really is something about losing that you have to figure out what you did wrong, you have to change the way you played, you have to look at yourself in a different sort of way. Losing seemed to prepare me for life - bad reviews, my mother dying. There was nothing about my mother's death that reminded me anything about winning, but it did remind me of how I felt whenever we lost.
GROSS: You had a coach who worked the players really hard and could be very negative (laughter) when working you...
CONROY: Terry, I think you read him correctly.
GROSS: (Laughter). What were some of the things the coach would yell at you? What were some of the things he'd say for you?
CONROY: They don't want to hear this on National Public Radio, Terry.
GROSS: (Laughter). Give us the clean version.
CONROY: So the clean version is, you guys are women - women...
CONROY: ...You guys play like women. The lowest thing on earth - women. And, you know, it was variations on that theme. You know, we were weaklings, we were cowards, we didn't want it enough. We couldn't do it. Did we have no manhood, did we have no pride (laughter)? Did we have - and there was a variation of that theme that began in October and ended in February.
GROSS: You write in your book that you learned to substitute your voice for his voice so that your voice would be in your head instead of his voice.
CONROY: I was afraid of Coach Thompson and I was intimidated by Coach Thompson. So what I had to do - and I had to learn it, and this was valuable for later on, in my writing life - I had to listen to my voice. I had to find confidence by listening to me because I could not find it listening to him. Coach Thompson did not inspire confidence. He was - he inspired terror. And until I could listen to myself and ignore his voice, I did not come into my own as a basketball player.
GROSS: How did you learn how to block out his voice with your own?
CONROY: It was in the locker room during the Loyola game during halftime, and the team had a meltdown. And, Coach Thompson, who was - how should I put this? He could take you apart verbally at halftime of a basketball game better than anyone I've ever seen. On this night, it was mythic. He simply came apart. He was flinging chairs all over the locker room. He was screaming that our team was nothing, we didn't care, we had no pride, played like women, magnificent profanity. And looked around the room and I saw my team, and they all had their head in their hands. And I realized my team had been broken, not by the other team, but by their coach. So I sort of heard a voice inside me saying, you can't listen to this guy, he's not good for you, pal. And the voice shocked me at first because my family produces schizophrenia like some families produce freckles.
CONROY: But I mean, it was a voice. It was clear and it was solid. And I worried about schizophrenia except for this. The voice was giving me good advice. This was a voice I could trust. It startled me because it sounded like my father's voice, and I did not recognize it at first as my own voice and what I later called my writer's voice - the one I listen to, the one that gives me good news, gives good advice, uses sound judgment. And look at this boyhood I lived, Terry. The Great Santini, the Catholic Church, the American South, the Citadel plebe system and Mel Thompson. No one had a male-dominated childhood like I did that ever lived upon this planet.
CONROY: And until this voice appeared, I had never heard my own voice say anything.
GROSS: In your new book, part of your story is about your father, who you've written about in other books as well, fictionalized, particularly in "The Great Santini." Now, your father died in 1998 of colon cancer. What was it like for you watching the Great Santini - watching this really strong-willed, violent man who abused his family - watching him get really weak?
CONROY: Well, it was heartbreaking. It was in the last months of his life, I was trying to think of a way to make it better for Dad, to make it easier for him as he was dying. So what I did was I interviewed Dad over his whole life, and I said I was writing a book called "The Death Of The Great Santini." And Dad said, great title, Son, you know how to make someone feel really good. But Dad had changed when "The Great Santini" came out. There'd been a sea change in my father. He was horrified by the portrait I had painted of him. When he and I talked about it, I said, Dad, I'm sorry I hurt your feelings, but there's nothing you can do to make up for my ruined childhood. Here's what Dad did. He became a good man, he became a good guy. All six of his children who were still alive, we could not believe were weeping at his funeral. Right before he died, and a couple days before he died, he still was the same guy. You know, there was that basic core of Santini that never changed. My sister's a poet in New York, Carol - came down from New York. We had shifts as Dad was dying at my sister, Kathy's, house, and I went over there one day and I heard screaming. There was Carol, screaming at my father, Dad, you've got to tell me you love me, Dad. You've got to tell me you're proud of me before you die. You just have to, Dad.
So I motioned to Carol to come into the next room, and I said, Carol, that is Don Conroy dying in there, it is not Bill Cosby. And Carol said, he's never told he loves me, he's never told me he's proud of me. I said, he's never told me that, either, but he sends you money every month, Carol. That's Dad, that's how he says I love you. He brags about you to me and your poetry. Dad had different ways of saying he loved us. He couldn't tell us that directly.
Anyway, I give this - calm Carol down. We go back in - and Dad would be dead in two days - and as we go back in, my brother-in-law, Bobby Joe Harvey, who calls himself the family redneck - and for good reason, he lives up to the name - Bobby Joe's coming in to cut Dad's hair, cut his fingernails, doing something. And as Bobby Joe comes in, Carol and I are sitting in chairs around the room. And my father opens his eyes, sees Bobby Joe, and says - and, I quote, Terry - "I love you, Bobby Joe. I'm proud of you, Bobby Joe." And Carol went off like a Roman candle.
CONROY: But that was the Santini's old humor and old malice at work till the very end.
BIANCULLI: Author Pat Conroy speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2002 interview with author Pat Conroy, who died last week at age 70.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Did he ever, like, really get the fact that you were wildly more successful than he ever was? You know, after all the years of him putting you down and telling you that your basketball game could never be as good as his and that you could never be a man like him and et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Did he ever realize - I mean, really get - how successful you were?
CONROY: You know, I don't know. Here's what dad never became - Son, I'd like to have a talk with you heart to heart. You know, he never did anything like that with me. And I would have to interpret Dad. The thing that I treasure most about Dad in my career was after "The Great Santini," a book he hated - but he loves the movie - and my father thinks he made Robert Duvall's career. He thinks he is fully responsible for Robert Duvall's career. But when "The Great Santini" came out, Dad - I remember coming to Rich's department store in Atlanta. And he was still - his feelings were still hurt. He was still brittle. He was still - his mother - my grandmother never spoke to me again. And his family had gone nuts when the book came out.
So I'm sitting there signing, and the next thing I knew, somebody had come up to my father and asked him to sign the book. So my father signed it I hope you enjoy my son's work of fiction. And he underlined fiction, you know, 10 times and he said - and he then signed it Ol' Lovable Likable, The Great Santini. And it started something that became habitual in my father's life whenever I had an autographing. He would sit beside me, and he would autograph the book. And he was charming. His - the second half of his life his charm came out, which I never saw once in the first half of his life. And he would sit schmoozing and talking and laughing and enjoying himself. And then he would look up and he'd look over and he'd look over at me and he says, my line's longer, Son.
GROSS: (Laughter) You know, my theory is about people who are cruel and don't really comprehend the pain that they're delivering is that they have to be very, very delusional. I mean, often those people think, you know, I'm tough and that's a good thing and I'm toughening my son and some day he's going to be real grateful. And I'm beating my wife - well, she deserved it and she'll come around, too. Do you think your father was really delusional during those years?
CONROY: Let me tell you how delusional he was, Terry. My mother left my father the day after he retired from the Marine Corps. We were all there - (humming "The Halls of Montezuma") - there's Dad, leaving the Corps. Mom leaves him the next day. I tell him - I say, Dad, why don't you come up to Atlanta? And, you know, I hated him at this time. I hated him. He was hated by all seven of his kids - hatred pure and simple. But I felt sorry for him because he didn't know what to do without a uniform, without his meilleur (ph). So I say, just come up to Atlanta. You can stay with us a couple days. He said, no, Son, I belong here. Your mother will realize the error of her ways and she will come back. I get to Atlanta. Two hours later, Dad knocks on my door and says, Son, could I take you out for a beer? Dad had never taken me out for a beer or anything else. So we went to Manuel's Tavern in Atlanta and we order a beer. And I said, Dad, what's wrong? And my father shocked me by putting his head down on the table and sobbing, just sobbing. So Manuel came over and asked, what's wrong, what's wrong? I said, Dad, he hates your beer, Manuel. He just doesn't like it. I'll get him another one. No, no, he just doesn't like your beer. It's bad. Dad's sobbing and everybody in the restaurant's, you know, looking at him. So I finally, you know, said, Dad, do you understand what you did wrong? And Dad said, yes. And I said, what is it, Dad? What did you do wrong? And my father said, I was too good.
CONROY: I didn't crack down hard enough. I was too easy on your mother and my children. I was astonished with disbelief. And I said, Dad, Caligula couldn't have cracked down any harder. Nero couldn't have cracked down - what are you talking about? He completely did not see it.
GROSS: In the very beginning of your memoir, "My Losing Season," you write I grew up a complete stranger to myself. Once you became an adult, you - I think you've lived a life of very complete introspection both through therapy and through writing because so much of your writing has been autobiographical fiction. And I guess I'm wondering about going from that one extreme of being a complete stranger to yourself to the other extreme of this regimen of therapy and introspective writing.
CONROY: You know, I don't know how that is going to end up. I was surprised when I went back into this childhood again. You know, it took me by surprise. But I realized I never told the whole truth about it. My father was extraordinarily hard on me and extraordinarily hard on his family. In turn, I have been extraordinarily harsh with myself. In this book, I think I was after a task. The one thing I've ever done for myself is like myself very much. And I think I went back to this book because I needed to fall in love with the boy I once was. But as I was writing this book, I was going what a boy. This kid's something. Here this kid is coming out of this ridiculous family. He wants to be a writer. He's a cadet. He's on the honor court. He takes everything seriously. He tries to be a good member of the Citadel community, and I started admiring the kid. You know, this kid's doing the best he can under arduous circumstances. And I think that was my task in this book. I needed to like myself for the first time.
GROSS: Is this book a memoir instead of fiction because your father's dead?
CONROY: Well, I think it is. It's - I do not think I could have written it when Dad was - I found out this. I found this out by accident when I wrote an introduction for a book called "Military Brats" by Mary Wertsch. My father did not mind it as much when I called him Bull Meechum or, as he said, when I made him a shrimper in "The Prince Of Tides" or I made him a drunk judge in "Beach Music." I said, Dad, you couldn't catch any shrimp in a long John Silver's. Give me a break. And - but my father said something that I thought was great literary criticism. He said, Son, you will never be able to write the word father without my image coming up. And the father will be never be an easy word for you because my face will loom up. And my father's right. You know, father is a damaged word with me.
GROSS: I think it's really lucky probably that you feel your father changed as he got older and that you had a much more decent relationship. You had a good relationship with your children so that you have another way of thinking of him and you're not continuing your life after his death with nothing but hatred in your heart for him.
CONROY: Yes, I was lucky. I adored Dad when he died, and my father knew it. And I think I was writing - I think I wrote "The Great Santini" - I think I've lived my life for this. I thought I wrote "The Great Santini" 'cause I hated my father. And I realized later that I wrote it because I needed to love him. I needed a father to love. And I think it's a human need and a human wish and I had it as strong as anybody. So I think I forced my father to become a good man and a good father.
GROSS: Pat Conroy, thank you so much.
CONROY: Thank you so much, Terry.
BIANCULLI: Pat Conroy, author of "The Great Santini," "The Prince Of Tides" and other books, speaking to Terry Gross in 2002. He died last week at age 70. Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward looks at Billy Ward and his Dominoes. And if his name isn't familiar, some of the artists he recorded probably will be. This is FRESH AIR.
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