Pat Conroy: "General Mark Clark decided he was going to have the Citadel with the toughest plebe system in the world."
My Losing Season
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2002; 402 pages; $27.95
FROM THE DUST JACKET: In 1954, in Orlando, Florida, nine-year-old Pat Conroy discovered the game of basketball. Orlando was another new hometown for a military kid who had spent his life transferring from one home to another, he was yet again among strangers, still looking for his first Florida friends, but when the “new kid” got his hands on the ball near the foul line of that unfamiliar court, the course of his life changed dramatically. From that moment until he was 21, the future author defined himself through the game of basketball.
In My Losing Season, Conroy takes the reader through his last year playing basketball, as point guard and captain of the Citadel Bulldogs, flashing back constantly to the drama of his coming of age, presenting all the conflict and love that have been at the core of his novels. He vividly re-creates his senior year at that now-famous military college in Charleston, South Carolina, but also tells the story of his heartbreaking childhood and of the wonderful series of events that conspired to rescue his spirit.
In the 1966-’67 season, the Citadel basketball team enjoyed a few victories and suffered a string of defeats, but their true triumphs came when the team pulled together and, no matter what the scoreboard said, played the kind of joyous basketball that exceeded the sum of the players’ individual talents. And their true humiliations came not at the hands of their opponents but at the hands of their stern, disciplinarian coach — Mel Thompson, who counted on the fear and cowering obedience he inspired in his young players to carry the day on the court. In young Conroy, the coach’s intimidation also inspired an odd, crouching form of love that echoed his relationship with his own fearsome father.
And so, without the safeguard of fiction, Pat Conroy turns to the story of his own boyhood. With poignance and humor the author reveals the inspirations behind his characters, pinpoints the emotions that shaped his own character as a young boy, and recaptures his passage from athlete to writer.
Conroy begins My Losing Season with this:
"I was born to be a point guard, but not a very good one.
“There was a time in my life when I walked through the world known to myself and others as an athlete. It was part of my own definition of who I was and certainly the part I most respected. When I was a young man, I was well-built and agile and ready for the rough and tumble of games, and athletics provided the single outlet for a repressed and preternaturally shy boy to express himself in public. Games allowed me to introduce myself to people who had never heard me speak out loud, to earn their praise without uttering a single word. I lost myself in the beauty of sport and made my family proud while passing through the silent eye of the storm that was my childhood.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Donald Patrick Conroy was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on October 26, 1945. Pat, as he came to be known, was the eldest son of a career Marine officer from Chicago and a Southern beauty from Alabama. The family, which eventually would number seven children, moved 23 times before young Pat entered the Citadel in 1963. Conroy, an English major, graduated from the military college in 1967. For several years after graduation, Conroy taught school.
In 1972, Mr. Conroy’s first book. The Water Is Wide, an account of his time as a teacher, was published. In 1976, The Great Santini, whose characters were based on members of Mr. Conroy’s family, rose onto the bestseller lists and was made into a film starring Robert Duvall. The Great Santini exposed Mr. Conroy’s father’s violence. When Mr. Conroy’s mother divorced his father, she gave a copy of The Great Santini to the judge as evidence in the divorce proceedings. Mr. Conroy’s The Lords of Discipline (9S0), The Prince of Tides (1986), and Beach Music (1995) followed The Great Santini into bestsellerdom; The Water Is Wide (retitled Conrack), The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, and The Prince of Tides all moved on to movie screens.
Mr. Conroy, married three times and twice divorced, lives in South Carolina with his wife, the novelist Cassandra King.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: On the morning that we talked, Mr. Conroy was in his room in a Chicago hotel. He was three weeks into what will be a four-month-long nationwide tour of bookshops and auditoriums where he will read from My Losing Season, answer questions, and sign copies of his handsomely published new book.
In My Losing Season, Mr. Conroy reconstructs many of the Citadel Bulldogs’ practices and games that took place during his senior year there. I said to him, when we began our conversation, that even though I knew nothing about basketball and had not seen a basketball game since I was in sixth grade, that I found myself following his accounts of games with an avidity that surprised me. 1 added, “I thought when I started the book, 'Well, maybe I’ll be skipping this basketball stuff.’ But I didn’t, just because the detail was so good.” I asked how he reconstructed the games.
Mr. Conroy speaks in a deep and resonant voice. His speech shows the effect of the years he’s lived below the Mason-Dixon line. He said, about reconstructing the Bulldogs’ games, “I went back to every teammate I had. I interviewed them for days. What I found out was that we had a collective memory of just about everything. I had a hotel guy. He remembered every hotel we stayed in, including the ones whose beds have Magic Fingers. I had a food guy who remembered every meal, every morsel we took in, the entire thing — every restaurant. I had a traffic guy who remembered how we got to every single game. Plane, bus, renting cars. And when I went around to the team, I found out, by going to all of them, I could almost put the season back together. I felt like all the king’s men with Humpty Dumpty. And it became fascinating to me to see what the collective memory was.”
“What," I asked Mr. Conroy, “did you tend to remember most clearly?”
“I remembered a lot. The one thing I carry with me as a novelist is a grand memory and especially for detail. And here’s what happened is that these guys would spark off memories in me. Something they would say would bring back a smell, a sensation, an emotion. And these guys were great memory bells for me.”
Mr. Conroy had not seen his teammates for 30 years. About this, he said, “I had walked out of their lives completely and then walked back into their lives, in intimate ways, 30 years later. Their children were grown. Some of them had grandchildren. I had grandchildren. And it was astonishing to me how personal and intimate we became in a very short time. 1 think because we were young men, and we were jocks, we were inarticulate in our youth. And we were a military culture, and we knew very little about each other. But now that we were middle aged, we wanted to tell each other everything about ourselves. We never would have told a single thing to each other when we were young.”
“How did your former teammates respond to the book?”
“I found out that they were terrified of this book. They were scared to death of its coming out. And when we began getting together, one of the guys said, 'He’s writing about us; look what he did to his old man.’ And the other one said, 'Look what he did to our college.’ So they were scared to death. I sent the book out to them with great trepidation. But I got a great gift of my middle age; they all love the book. And their wives love the book. Most of them had their wives read it first.”
“Do you follow basketball now?”
“I don’t follow it as much as I should. I’ll watch some of it, but playing the game ain’t the same as watching it. And it’s changed an awful lot. It’s now above the rim. The thing that I’ve hated most in basketball, that has happened in my lifetime, is letting the pros play in the Olympics. They used to let those college kids go with those teams. I used to love those games more than anything.”
I asked about Mr. Conroy’s editor, Nan Talese.
“She is an utterly charming, sophisticated New York woman, and how she and I got together is one of the great mysteries of the earth. But she’s also one of the great editors of our time."
“How do the two of you work?”
“What I do is 1 ask Nan to let me write everything down, everything. And then for her to then tell me what the book is. This means she has had to wade through 2000 pages of Beach Music. I think this book was about 1000 pages. I think The Prince of Tides was 1300 pages. But she allows me to do this. And she finds the book in there.”
“And what happens after she ‘finds the book’ and gives your manuscript back to you?”
“She often tells me what it is I’m doing and what I should concentrate on. And then I work on it more, work relentlessly.”
Mel Thompson, the Bulldogs’ coach, was an ill-tempered and cruel man. I asked Mr. Conroy what he thought was wrong with Mel.
“1 think Mel was a child of his time. I imagine Mel’s father was an extraordinarily abusive man. I imagine Mel’s college coach, Everett Case, was also abusive to him. But Mel blossomed under Everett Case. And I think he mimicked Everett Case, and that was the coach we had. One of the questions I asked the guys on the team when I first started interviewing, I said, 'Where did Mel Thompson live?’ None of us knew.
“And I asked, ‘Was he married?’ None of us knew. ‘Did he have children?’ None of us knew. Then one of the guys got mad. He said, ‘Why are you asking us this?’ And I said, ‘It’s my theory that most teams when they play for a college coach, they go over to his house and they meet the wife, they meet the kids, they know them. They go to their house for cookouts. We never saw the guy after he left the gym. We were shut off from our coach.’"
Mel Thompson, I said, reminded me of Mr. Conroy’s cruel father.
Mr. Conroy did not disagree. He went on to say, “I think what happened on this team is that the team broke down in the middle of that year. I think it became a dysfunctional family. And of course, you know, that is my briar patch. That’s where I was born. And I found myself because of that breakdown. It felt perfectly natural to me.”
Why it felt perfectly natural to young Pat Conroy to be mistreated by his college coach is, of course, because his own father was even more unpleasant a person than his coach. Mr. Conroy writes about a game that the Citadel played against East Carolina University. This was the first game to which the Conroys had come to see Pat play. I said, about that scene, that it was one of the most shocking in the book.
“Yes,” Mr. Conroy said, “and writing that, the big shock to me in the whole book was that all 1 remembered about that particular game was after the game when my father pushed me up against the wall and he said, ‘You were shit, your team was shit, your coach is shit, and you couldn’t hold my jock on the best day of your life.’ That’s all I remember. I don’t remember being in North Carolina. I don’t remember playing in that game. I don’t remember any player, any cheerleader. I remember nothing except that moment. And to find out that I had scored 25 points in that game, that really shocked me. And that was my father’s response. What could I have done to make this guy proud of me?” “Nothing,” I said, “nothing.”
“I don’t think a thing,” Mr. Conroy said. “I don’t think I could have done a thing.”
The telling of that particular story, I said, seemed a particularly revelatory section in the book.
“Yes, something lit up when I wrote that. 1 had been thinking, about my father, ‘Okay, I have to do it without this guy. I’ve got to get through life, get through trying to get over this guy.’ I’ll be 57 this week, and I know that now. I know I’m going to go through life as a beaten child. I will never have a good self-image. That was taken away from me. I can take no joy in any accomplishment I ever do. And I know that. But I’ve come to live with it; I’ve come to accept it.
“I told somebody today or yesterday that I would never, ever be able to feel I could write a good line. And they didn’t believe me. And I said, ‘No, I’m telling you. It’s something denied me.’ I’ve learned to work through that. I write anyway. But I’ll never learn to feel good about my own writing because of my father.” I read to Mr. Conroy from a passage toward the end of his book. What I read to him was this: “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.”
“Well,” Mr. Conroy said, “what I wrote there, it is true. That boy rides with me.”
Mr. Conroy’s father died of colon cancer in 1998 at age 77. I asked about Mr. Conroy’s relationship with his father during his father’s last years.
“My dad had to confront my writing. One of the interesting parts of my life is that my father knew exactly what I thought about his child rearing. He would come over every day to my apartment in Atlanta for coffee, and I would tell him things that I did not write. This went on for about five years. I got to tell him everything I felt about how he raised his kids. He kept coming. He would deny it all. He died denying it. But he came, he heard me out. And my gratitude toward Dad is that after The Great Santini he tried to prove me a liar. And he spent the rest of his life trying to prove that he was not the man I wrote about. Even though, you know, it came too late to save that little boy, I appreciated the attempt because he had never showed anything to us except brutality and cruelty when we were growing up.
“I molded and shaped that son-of-a-bitch until he became a reasonable father. I fought, and I did not let him deny anything with me. And he denied it to the end. But I said, ‘Well, that’s too bad. This is what happened. Dad, this is what you did. You were awful. You were the worst. And that we even speak to you, that we don’t spit in your face when you walk into our door, is a credit to us, not to you.’
“These days the kids and I will sit around and we’ll say, ‘Okay, now, are we fucking up? Was Dad ever nice to us, did he ever screw up and be nice to us? Did he ever do one nice thing to any of us during our childhood?’ And we’ll sit around and we’ll think, and then finally one of my brothers will say, ‘No way, not once, not a chance.’ ”
I asked if Mr. Conroy ever wondered, given how brutal his father was and that his mother permitted the brutality, that his parents had seven children.
Mr. Conroy answered by saying, “Let me tell you the story that drove me most nuts about my mother. When Pope Paul did his encyclical against birth control, my mother wrote him a letter of congratulations. And he wrote her back. And she felt it a godly honor to be written to by a Pope. And I said, ‘Mom, you were the only person on earth who agreed with him.’ And I said, ‘Mom, 1 cannot believe you feel this way.’ Mom had six miscarriages. My sister always called them the lucky ones. Her theory was that these little embryonic Conroys heard what was going on outside and said, ‘No way.’
“But I think it was Dad more than Mom who wanted to have so many children. He told me once he wanted to have a baker’s dozen. Thirteen. Drove me nuts. I’d say to hin ‘You know. I’m just curious why there had to be so many. And then I would get this Catholicism from him that drives me nuts, ‘It is God’s will.’ So I would stop that conversation very rapidly."
“Why do you think your father went into the military?"
“I think it was a way out of the sort of Irish slum he was in. It put him into the officer corps. Put him into a professional class. He loved to fly.”
About his relationship with his own children and stepchildren, Mr. Conroy said he was not sure that he had been a great parent. “I tell the kids, I say, ‘Look, man. I’m screwing you up somehow; and if I knew what I was doing I would stop, but I’m a parent, so I just know I am. So, do the best you can, get through it the best way you can, and just know I love you.’ ”
I said that as awful as life at the Citadel could be, Mr. Conroy, during his four years there, seemed to feel that the military school was better than home.
He agreed. “No question about it And I grew to love the Citadel because it was the only place I’d ever been four years in a row. The only place. And when Dad was dying, and he told me I’d lived in 23 homes before I went to the Citadel, it stunned — it shocked me. But, yes, the Citadel was wonderful for me. I was resplendent in my Citadel uniform. And I had a uniform for everything. And I appreciated the school for that. It also fed me.”
The Citadel’s Plebe Week, during Mr. Conroy’s time there, was one of the toughest ordeals any student at any military school went through. I asked about this.
“It’s a very powerful thing the Citadel has. The plebe system was so horrible and so out of control when I went through it. And they should have sent guys to prison. But if you survived it, you simply fell in love with the kids who made it through with you. Because that school gave me everything I could handle. I mean, that was a test like none I had ever been through.”
General Mark Clark was the Citadel’s president during Mr. Conroy’s years there. General Clark (1896-1984) was the Allied commander in North Africa and Italy in World War II and supreme commander of United Nations forces in Korea in 1952 and 1953, replacing the ousted General Douglas MacArthur. General Clark approved the tough plebe system at the Citadel. I asked Mr. Conroy about why the general encouraged such brutality.
“Well, Mark Clark decided he was going to have the school with the toughest plebe system in the world. We weren’t as smart as the West Point guys or the Naval Academy guys. But he could make us tougher than those guys. He was like a god when I came onto the Citadel campus. I mean, he was tall, he had this great hawk nose, he looked like a general. And he was a great public speaker."
As a child, Mr. Conroy was an enthusiastic reader. “As soon as I learned to read, I fell in love with reading. And also there was a trick to it. When Dad saw me reading, he thought I was studying. And he would not hit me.”
Mr. Conroy writes that one of the reasons he was as happy as he was at the Citadel is that it was where he began to find himself as a writer. 1 asked about his beginnings as a writer.
“My mother had raised me to be a Southern writer, always with the emphasis on ‘Southern.’ Now, where she got this I don’t know. She didn’t go to college. But my mother read to us every night of my childhood. I’m sure my becoming a writer in part was because of that. You should have seen how my mother would become rapturous when she read a book she loved. But my father, of course, when I started writing, thought that writing was open admission that I was gay. He would mock me for it, tease me for it. But at the Citadel I had more teachers encourage me to be a writer than you could possibly know. English teacher after English teacher, history teacher after history teacher. The encouragement was simply everywhere.
“When I wrote the short story The Legend’ that senior year, my coach screamed at me, went nuts, he just screamed and went crazy. That was the first time in my life a fictional character was recognized by somebody who saw themselves in it and went crazy. But it also was the great liberation out of myself; I knew that writing was going to free me from that family, free me from that college. That writing was going to take me places I did not know. And I felt that first stirring there in that senior year. The year I first started calling myself a writer.”