Pat Conroy, 1945 - 2016...

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I thought I wrote The Great Santini because I hated my father, and I realized later that I wrote it because I needed to love him. I needed a father to love.  - Pat Conroy

Yesterday, 70-year-old South Carolina novelist, Pat Conroy, died. Conroy's most famous work was his autobiographical novel, The Great Santini, in which he sustains the spewing of venom against his monstrous father from first page to last. My response to the portrayal of the father by his son was visceral. It was like watching a Praying Mantis mate. There was absolutely no love lost and I don't think I finished the book.

If you haven't read The Great Santini, do yourself a favor. Don't. Just imagine hundreds of pages of abuse of his wife and children by the most wicked Marine Corps officer you could imagine as recorded by a son who has sworn vengeance against his father from the day of his birth. Son Conroy carries his vengeance out with a vitriol you can't imagine even Truman Capote pulling off. You have the picture...

As the years passed, Son Conroy made something of a peace with his father, God be praised. He talks about it here in a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross...

back in 2003:

Writer Pat Conroy made his father famous, but not for the traits a father would want to be famous for. In the novel The Great Santini, Conroy presented a fictionalized version of his dad, a Marine Corps pilot who disciplined his wife and children with verbal abuse and violence. In the film adaptation of The Great Santini, the father was played by Robert Duvall. Conroy went to military college at The Citadel and wrote a fictionalized account of the harsh discipline he encountered there in his novel The Lords of Discipline. (His most recent book is My Losing Season.)

GROSS: Part of your story is about your father, who you've written about in other books as well, fictionalized particularly in "The Great Santini." And you write `In my life as a writer, each day I bring the ruined, terrorized boy I was as a child and set him trembling on my desk so I can study the wreckage of myself at leisure.' Why, as a writer, do you want to keep returning to that terrorized boy that you were?

Mr. CONROY: Because I cannot get that terrorized boy to leave me alone. He haunts me. In this book, I tell about my father as he was. I tell the story of my life with Dad. It always shocks me. The story always gets to me.

Several years ago, Penn had a special thing at—what is it?—Folger Library in Washington, and they asked writers to come up with their first memories. And I remember Eudora Welty. Her first memory was sunshine on her face, and Reynolds Price, a goat ate his diaper off him. And I remember all these wonderful, fabulous first memories. Then I get up and give mine. I'm sitting there in a high chair in El Toro, California, and my mother is trying to stab my father with a butcher knife.… And my father is laughing, and is beating her to the floor, as I'm sitting there in my diapers watching this scene. And that was the first thing I remember, and that was `Welcome to the world, Pat,' and that was the world I inhabited until I was 21 years old.

But my father said something that I felt was great literary criticism. He said, "Son, you'll never be able to write the word 'father' without my image coming up. And the father will 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.

Mr. CONROY: I thought I wrote The Great Santini because 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.

What a contrast with your own dear father, elders, and pastors, dear Christian, who have been sent to you by our Heavenly Father and have loved and care for you with His tenderness just as the Apostle Paul cared for the Thessalonians:

But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us. For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.

You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory. (1 Thessalonians 2:7-12; emphases added)

The world is filled with father-hatred. This is the principal opening for the Gospel in our age—leading sons and daughters embittered against fatherhood to know and trust the Father from Whom all fatherhood gets its name.

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!