Pat Conroy’s great success as a writer has always been intimately linked with the exploration of his family history. As the oldest of seven children who were dragged from military base to military base across the South, Pat bore witness to the often cruel and violent behavior of his father, Marine Corps fighter pilot Donald Patrick Conroy. While the publication of The Great Santini brought Pat much acclaim, the rift it caused brought even more attention, fracturing an already battered family. But as Pat tenderly chronicles here, even the oldest of wounds can heal. In the final years of Don Conroy’s life, the Santini unexpectedly refocused his ire to defend his son’s honor.
The Death of Santini is a heart-wrenching act of reckoning whose ultimate conclusion is that love can soften even the meanest of men, lending significance to the oft-quoted line from Pat’s novel The Prince of Tides: “In families there are no crimes beyond forgiveness.”
Praise for The Death of Santini
“A painful, lyrical, addictive read that [Pat Conroy’s] fans won’t want to miss.”—People
“Conroy’s conviction pulls you fleetly through the book, as does the potency of his bond with his family, no matter their sins.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Vital, large-hearted and often raucously funny.”—The Washington Post
“Conroy writes athletically and beautifully, slicing through painful memories like a point guard splitting the defense.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
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About the Author
Hometown:San Francisco and South Carolina
Date of Birth:October 26, 1945
Place of Birth:Atlanta, Georgia
Education:B.A.,The Citadel, 1967
Read an Excerpt
The Death of Santini
The Story of a Father and His Son
By Pat Conroy
Random House LLCCopyright © 2013 Pat Conroy
All rights reserved.
On June 4, 1963, I walked off the graduation stage of Beaufort High School without a single clue about where I was attending college next year or if I'd be attending one at all. My parents had driven me mad over this subject and neither would discuss it with me further. I had planned to get a job at the tomato-packing shed on St. Helena Island to earn some money if my parents somehow managed to enroll me in a college. But my father received orders to Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska, for the following year. I didn't want to leave Beaufort, and I sure as hell didn't want to move to Nebraska, a place where I didn't know another human being. I wanted to go to college.
My father had the car packed and ready when I turned my graduation robe in to my teacher Dutchen Hardin, hugged my other favorite Beaufort High teachers and classmates, then fled in tears toward my life in Nebraska. Before I entered the car, I composed myself, dried my eyes, and got in the shotgun seat. The motor was running and Dad threw me a map, saying, "You're the navigator, pal. Any mistakes and I whack you." Before a single graduation party had begun, we were already crossing the Savannah River into Georgia. Our journey took us on back roads and through scores of towns that we hurtled by in their sleep. It was the age before interstate highways were common, so most of our trip would take us through the rural South and the farmlands of the Midwest. To my shock, Dad planned to make it a straight-through shot to Chicago, pausing only for pit stops and gas.
"Dad, you sure you want to do this?" I asked.
"Hey, jocko, you a detective?"
"That's a lot of driving. It might be too much for you."
"That's why you're on guard duty, pal," he said. "I start nodding off, you rap me on the shoulder to keep me awake."
During the twenty-four-hour drive, my father fell asleep three times, and I knocked his right shoulder, hard, three delicious times. Once in Indiana, he had failed to follow the curve of the highway and drove the station wagon over a cow guard and into a field heavily populated with Black Angus cattle. When I punched his shoulder, he woke suddenly, dodging fifty cows on his way back to the highway.
"You'd get a court-martial for that one, navigator," he said.
"I kept all of us alive, Dad. This is getting dangerous."
We arrived at Uncle Willie's house on Hamlin Drive, where my mother had flown to the day before with her two youngest sons. Willie lived in a Polish neighborhood that looked like an elaborate card trick to me. The houses going up and down the street from Willie's were exact duplicates of one another as far as the eye could see. Variation was forbidden, and this neighborhood stretched for miles in all directions. You could sleepwalk out of Willie's house at night and find yourself lost as you tried to find your way back through a labyrinth that seemed to run on forever. It was an ugly house, as charmless as a Rubik's cube.
The Conroy kids were sent to the basement, where Uncle Willie had put pillows on the carpet and mattresses all around so we could camp out during our two weeks there. It turned out to be a deadly long visit, with tension breaking out unintentionally between my mother and grandmother, who lived nearby. Grandma Conroy was a harsh-voiced, unstylish woman who could have played a walk-on shrew in some of Shakespeare's lesser comedies. I never saw her wear makeup or try to prettify herself, and her dresses all looked like she had bought them from castaway bins at the Salvation Army. To her Southern grandchildren, she seemed to be yelling at us all the time.
"Don't do that. Get out of the way. Go back to the basement," she would say to us. It became a joke to my brothers and sisters that Grandpa and Grandma Conroy had no idea what our names were and little curiosity in remedying this lack of knowledge. My father and his brothers played pinochle every day, then went out to catch a Cubs or White Sox game in the evening. My mother was left behind with her seven kids. Since she was terrified of getting lost in Chicago traffic, she could not use the car. When she asked my father to take her and the kids to the art museum, he refused. A fearsome argument broke out and I could feel Mom's fury rising as each day passed. Dad's neglect of Mom and her kids and his abandonment of his family by night and day were not sitting well with our pretty mother. The claustrophobia alive in that sad household was turning into a troubled, living thing.
It was Uncle Willie who set off the fuse. I had always liked my uncle Willie, because he was a schoolteacher and had no problem being around kids. He was the smallest of his brothers by far and looked like half a Conroy man as he stood in the middle of his platoon of tall brothers. His nose had been broken so many times in street fights that it gave him the appearance of a harmless bulldog. He was a droll man with a great sense of humor and we'd become golfing buddies on his visits to Beaufort. But Willie had a deep fear of my father that I could sense whenever Dad turned prickly. In his own house, Willie ignored my presence and barely spoke to me. When I offered to go golfing with him, he shrugged his shoulders and said he'd think about it. Three days later he took Dad golfing with some high school buddies of my father's, but didn't ask me to come. I never thought the same about Uncle Willie again.
But Willie did ask the combustible question that I think helped to get me into college. I was lingering after dinner as my grandfather and uncle were arguing about Chicago politics. Carol Ann had already joined the kids watching television in what she called "Dante's Inferno" in the basement. There was much talk about Mayor Richard Daley and the efficiency of his machine. My grandfather was a block captain for Mayor Daley and told a story of a man on his block who balked about promising to vote for the mayor in the next election. "He called Mayor Daley a corrupt Irish son of a bitch," my grandfather said, laughing at the memory. Grandpa Conroy reported it to the mayor's people and the man received no garbage pickup for three straight weeks. After his neighbors complained about the stench of his garbage overflow, the poor man appeared on the doorstep to beg for my grandfather's intercession with the mayor. He even added a small contribution of twenty-five dollars for the mayor's reelection campaign. His garbage was collected the following day, compliments of Mayor Daley.
"What a great story, Grandpa," I said. "Dad used to tell us about the great Daley machine, but I never knew how it worked."
"Are you interested in politics, Pat?" my grandfather asked. I was grateful he knew my name.
"Yes, sir, I sure am. I'm interested in everything," I replied.
Uncle Willie asked the question that ignited my parents' unspoken rage at each other yet again. "Where are you going to college, Pat?"
"That's a really good question, Willie. Where is Pat going to college next year?" Mom said in a voice that was pure acid.
"Shut up, Willie," my father growled. "It's none of your beeswax."
"None of my beeswax?" Willie echoed, not interpreting the signal flares of war lighting up my father's eyes. "Hell, college starts in two months' time, Don. If he's not enrolled in college now, he's not going."
"Drop it, Willie," my father warned again, but now my mother was in the middle of it.
"Pat hasn't even applied to college because the great wise one over there hasn't allowed him to do so," she said.
"Is your kid a dope, Don?" Willie said, studying me for signs of imbecility. "You can still get him into trade school."
"Shut your yap, Willie, or I'll shut it for you," Dad said.
"Shut my yap about what, Don?" Willie yelled back. "I teach school for a living. Pat should've been applying to colleges last fall. Our parents didn't have shit, and they sent all nine of their kids to college. Don't those Southern idiots have college counselors in their shitty schools?"
"We've got college counselors, Uncle Willie," I said.
"You shut the fuck up and get downstairs with the kids where you belong, asshole," Dad said to me.
"Let me know how the college search goes, Mom," I said.
"I told you to shut up," Dad said, then slapped me as I walked by.
"I will, Pat. That's a promise," Mom said. Dad slapped her in her face as my grandfather watched in wordless silence.
That night a fight between my parents rocked through the whole house. Five of us kids were watching TV in the basement when the screaming commenced. I went over and turned the TV off, then turned the lights out and said, "If Dad comes down here, pretend you're asleep. Otherwise, he'll start hitting."
The shouting ended thirty minutes after it began; then the door opened at the top of the stairs and Dad turned on the lights and came halfway down the stairs. When he satisfied himself that we were all asleep, he shut the door noiselessly, so as not to wake us up. The next day, we left Chicago for Iowa as the end of my boyhood moved insanely on.
Dad drove his family to the blue-collar town of Clinton, Iowa, where another of his brothers, Fr. Jim Conroy, served as chaplain in the local Catholic hospital. Uncle Jim was a gregarious pink-faced man who grew temperamental when he was tired and was rumored to pick fights with every bishop he served under during his embattled career as a priest. He became famous for saying the fastest mass in the Midwest, and Catholics flocked to his services when he took over Holy Family parish in Davenport at the end of his career. In my lifetime of listening to lusterless sermons by Catholic priests, I knew Uncle Jim was famous for being the worst public speaker in the Iowa diocese. I never trusted him after he'd slapped me around for a nightmarish six weeks when I went on a fishing trip with him to Minnesota, and I made sure that none of my brothers went anywhere near him.
But I rode with Uncle Jim from his hospital to his home on the Mississippi River that would be the Conroy family home until our quarters were ready for us to move into at Offutt Air Force Base. Uncle Jim confessed to me that his brother Willie had called and begged him to get those seven kids out of his house.
"You guys really got on Grandpa and Grandma Conroy's nerves," Father Jim said. "They were driving Willie crazy complaining about the mess you were making."
Uncle Jim drove across the Mississippi and turned north on a country road that paralleled the river, carrying us through beautiful Illinois farm country. We rode for twenty miles before he turned off to a dirt road, passed several farms, then pulled into the driveway of an insubstantial shack that looked both isolated and forlorn. The house sat on a hill above a tributary of the great river completely clogged with lily pads. You could fish all day and not get your hook wet.
When my mother toured the house, she erupted into another argument with Dad. "This is just great, Don. You're going to leave your wife and seven kids in this run-down dump with three beds, one toilet, no air-conditioning, no car, no stove, in the middle of goddamn nowhere. Real good thinking, Don. Great planning," she said, unhinged and wrathful. "There is no TV set, no radio, not a toy for the little kids to play with, not a bottle of milk or a loaf of bread or a jar of peanut butter. Jim, what were you thinking, having us here?"
"Not much, Peggy," Uncle Jim said. "I've never had a family. I just didn't think it through."
Dad said, "Okay, kids. Attention to orders. Start getting this place polished up. There'll be a formal inspection at fifteen hundred hours."
Of all the disconsolate summers the Conroy family spent following our Marine from base to base, everyone agrees that our summer on the Mississippi River was the most soul-killing of all. We sweltered in a summer heat that was brutal, and the house was so small and inadequate for our tribe that we stumbled over one another and got in each other's way from morning till night. In the mornings, we woke with nothing to do, and went to sleep because there was nothing to do at night, either.
Uncle Jim was solicitous and as helpful as he could be and provided our only lifeline to civilization and to groceries. Several times a week he would take us all for a swim at a public lake in a nearby town. It was the summer I thought my mother's mental health began to deteriorate, and I think my sister Carol Ann suffered a mental breakdown caused by that ceaseless drumbeat of days. Carol Ann would turn her face to the wall and weep piteously all day long. Mom appeared sick and exhausted and slept long periods during the day, ignoring the many needs of my younger siblings. The days were interminable and Mom grew more weakened and distressed than I had ever seen her. I asked what was wrong and how I could help.
"Everything!" she would scream. "Everything. Take your pick. Make my kids disappear. Make Don vanish into thin air. Leave me alone."
In July I got a brief respite when I took a Trailways bus on a two-day trip to Columbia, South Carolina, to play in the North-South all-star game. I'd not touched a basketball since February, was out of shape, and played a lackluster game when I needed to have a superlative one. After the game, Coach Hank Witt, an assistant football coach at The Citadel, the military college of South Carolina, came up to tell me that I had just become part of The Citadel family, and he wished to welcome me. Coach Witt handed me a Citadel sweatshirt and I delivered him a full, sweaty body hug that he extricated himself from with some difficulty. In my enthusiasm, I was practically jumping out of my socks. By then, I'd given up hope of going to any college that fall and had thought about entering the Marine Corps as a recruit at Parris Island because all other avenues had been closed off to me. My father never told me nor my mother that he had filled out an application for me to attend The Citadel. I danced my way back into the locker room below the university field house and practically did a soft-shoe as I soaped myself down in the shower. In my mind I'd struggled over the final obstacles, and there were scores of books and hundreds of papers written into my future. Because I'd been accepted at The Citadel, I could feel the launching of all the books inside me like artillery placements I'd camouflaged in the hills. The possibilities seemed limitless as I dressed in the afterglow of that message. In my imagination, getting a college degree was as lucky as a miner stumbling across the Comstock Lode, except that it could never be taken away from me or given to someone else. I could walk down the streets for the rest of my life, hearing people say, "That boy went to college." And then it dawned on me that the military college of South Carolina did not preen about being a crucible for novelists or poets. Hell, I thought in both bravado and innocence, I'll make it safe for both.
Excerpted from The Death of Santini by Pat Conroy. Copyright © 2013 Pat Conroy. Excerpted by permission of Random House LLC, a division of Random House, Inc.
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Reading Group Guide
My dear friends and fellow lovers of Santini,
You have written so many letters of condolence since my father died that I’ve been overwhelmed at the task of answering them. But know this: All of them meant something, all of them moved me deeply, all were appreciated, and all were read. Don Conroy was larger than life and there was never a room he entered that he left without making his mark. At some point in his life, he passed from being merely memorable to being legendary.
In the thirty-three years he was in the Marine Corps, Colonel Conroy concentrated on the task of defending his country, and he did so exceedingly well. In the next twenty-four years left to him, he put all his efforts into the art of being a terrific father, a loving uncle, a brother of great substance, a beloved grandfather, and a friend to thousands. Out of uniform, the Colonel let his genius for humor flourish. Always in motion he made his rounds in Atlanta each day and no one besides himself knew how many stops he put in during a given day. He was like a bee going from flower to flower, pollinating his world with his generous gift for friendship.
Don Conroy was a man’s man, a soldier’s soldier, a Marine’s Marine. There was nothing soft or teddy-bearish about him. His simplicity was extraordinary. He died without ever owning a credit card, never took out a loan in his life, and almost all the furniture in his apartment was rented. I think he loved his family with his body and soul, yet no one ever lived who was less articulate in expressing that love. On the day the doctor told him that there was nothing more to be done for him, my father told me, “Don’t worry about it. I’ve had a great life. No one’s had a life like me. Everyone should be so lucky.”
Don Conroy died with exemplary courage, as one would expect.
He never complained about pain or whimpered or cried out. His death was stoical and quiet. He never quit fighting, never surrendered, and never gave up. He died like a king. He died like The Great Santini.
I thank you with all my heart.
1. Certain members of the Conroy clan viewed Pat’s writings as a betrayal of the family, exposing their dirty laundry to the public and tarnishing their reputation. Do you agree? How would you react if someone close to you novelized your life?
2. How do you think the real-life Conroys compare to their fictional counterparts in the Meecham family?
3. Conroy describes the lessons about love that he learned from his parents’ marriage in startlingly vivid terms, writing: “[Love] was a country bristling with fishhooks hung at eye level, man-traps, and poisoned baits. It could hurl toward you at breakneck speed or let you dangle over a web spun by a brown recluse spider” (pages 2–3). How do you evaluate this assessment of love and marriage? Do you think Conroy’s attitude shifts at all throughout the book? How did the example of his parents’ relationship influence his own marriages?
4. Conroy writes of his “high contempt” for literary critics, claiming that “no writer has suffered over morning coffee because of the savagery of my review of his or her latest book, and no one ever will” (page 46). How do you reconcile this attitude toward literary critics with the suffering his writing caused the members of his family? Do the two positions contradict each other, or are they compatible? Why?
5. In the Introduction to this book, Conroy claims that other writers often consider autobiographical fiction to be a low form of literature. What do you think of this claim?
6. Conroy writes “I don’t believe in happy families,” going on to explain that “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” (page 144). Do you agree with this claim? Is there such a thing as a happy family?
7. Conroy describes his mother as playing the part of Scarlett O’Hara throughout her life. What part does Conroy play? Do we all play a role different from who we really are? If so, what part do you play?
8. Conroy sometimes describes his parents and childhood in mythic terms, comparing his father to Thor and to Ares, the Greek god of war. Is it human nature to make myths of our childhoods and deify our parents? What myths exist in your family lore?
9. The Death of Santini explores the impact of Conroy’s Southern and Irish heritage on his upbringing. Discuss the importance of family heritage and ancestry in Conroy’s life and in your own.
10. Conroy eloquently writes that “Your birthplace is your destiny” (page 100). What do you think of this statement?
11. The Conroy children sometimes have very divergent perspectives on their shared childhood memories. What do you think of this phenomenon? Can you think of similar instances in your own life? Is it possible to avoid editorializing memories?
12. In a much-discussed scene from The Great Santini, Bull Meecham’s son chases his father around the Beauford green yelling “I love you!” Why do you think Bull/Dan runs away from this onslaught of affection?
13. Peg stuck with her marriage to Dan through some terrible times, yet the marriage could not survive the publication of The Great Santini. Why do you think that is?
14. In what ways did the filming of The Great Santini change Pat’s relationship with his father?
15. Conroy experiences the rare pleasure of watching his novel come to life on the silver screen. Who would play you in the movie of your life?