DATE October 22, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Pat Conroy discusses his new book, "My Losing Season"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, 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 father, 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 Paul Newman.
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
Now he's written a memoir called "My Losing Season" that includes the real
version of some events he's fictionalized. It focuses on his years at The
Citadel when he played for the school's basketball team, the Bulldogs, and
played for a coach who was nearly as authoritarian as his father. Here's a
Mr. PAT CONROY (Author): `I kind of grew up a complete stranger to myself.
I did not even see the catching glimpse of a determined young man who
developed in secret during college. I did not recognize the intense stranger
who stares back at me in photographs ...(unintelligible) frayed around the
edges. 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. It is as rouged and polished and burnished as the
specialized glass of telescopes, and it kept me hidden from the appraising
eyes of the outside world long into manhood. But most of all, it kept me
hidden and safe from myself.
`No outsider I have ever met has struck me with the strangeness I encounter
when I try to discover the deepest mysteries of the boy I once was. 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
unrecaptureable 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.
Mr. CONROY: Yes.
GROSS: You write that you learned a lot from losing. What are some of the
things you learned from losing?
Mr. CONROY: Well, the thing that has always been a theory of mine--it does
not sit very well in America--is I don't think you learn anything from
winning. You know, you just jump up and down. It's wonderful. It's
fabulous. It's glorious. You're happy. Your coach is happy. Your school is
happy. 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: Now you write, `I never once approached greatness. But toward the end
of my career, I was always in the game.' That's as opposed to always being on
the bench. Was it difficult to accept not being great; you know, to really
love something and be good at it, but to know you're never going to be great?
Mr. CONROY: It seemed like reality to me. The one thing I loved about
athletics was its utter justice. I went out against the court. I tried the
best I could, but I was physically overmatched time and time again. There
were limits to my talents that I had to find out about, recognize, and then
finally accept. And the acceptance of being mediocre was difficult, but I
think it also is a great preparation for the pitfalls of life itself.
GROSS: You had a coach who worked the players really hard and could be very
negative when working you. What...
Mr. CONROY: Terry, I think you read him correctly.
GROSS: Tell us about his style.
Mr. CONROY: Coach Mel Thompson was a great rebounder and player from North
Carolina State. He was coached himself by the great Everett Case, who, with
Adolph Rupp, was one of the guys that brought basketball to the South.
Everett Case was famous for being tough on his players, and Mel Thompson was
as tough as any man I have ever met. And he was on us from the time we began
practice to the time he blew the whistle for practice to be over. He was the
kind of man that was, I think, very common, certainly in my childhood, and I
think certainly in the '50s and '60s, where he simply, I think in a Bobby
Knight sort of way, simply screaming was an art form with him, and I think
eventually the breaking of his teams' hearts was what he did. He did not
meant to be. He just simply coached the way he was coached, and I feel a lot
of people did that back then.
GROSS: What do you mean by the breaking of his teams' hearts?
Mr. CONROY: I think Coach Thompson, eventually, the boys that he broke on my
team were the boys with real talent, not boys like me. And Coach Thompson, to
me, was a much milder version of my father.
Mr. CONROY: Coach Thompson would yell at me all day long, he didn't hit me,
so I ended up loving him.
GROSS: He didn't hit you because you were used to a devil far worse in your
Mr. CONROY: Yes. Dad was the toughest man I have ever met; Mel Thompson
GROSS: What were some of the things the coach would yell at you? What were
some of the things he'd save for you?
Mr. CONROY: They don't want to hear this on National Public Radio, Terry.
GROSS: Give us the clean version.
Mr. CONROY: Let's see, the clean version is--OK, `You guys are women, women.
You guys play like women, women; the lowest thing on Earth, women.' And 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, you know, did we have no
manhood? Do we have no pride. 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.
Mr. 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 inspired terror. And until I
could listen to myself and ignore his voice, I did not come into my own as a
GROSS: How did you learn how to block out his voice with your own?
Mr. CONROY: It was in the locker room during the Loyola game during halftime.
I was not starting, and the team had a meltdown and Coach Thompson, who was a
heroic--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 I looked around the room
and I saw my team, and they all had their heads in their hands, and I realized
my team had been broken; my team had been broken not by the other team, but by
So I sort of heard a voice inside of 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. 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 brings me good
news, gives good advice, uses sound judgment.
And it was the first time that this had ever happened. Because in my
childhood--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. And until this voice appeared, I was a very docile,
obedient cadet. I did not get in trouble. I was not a hood. I was not a
gang member. I did not smoke dope. I did not drink. I simply toed the line
of my very disciplined childhood. Until this night, I had never heard my own
voice say anything.
GROSS: My guest is Pat Conroy. His new memoir, "My Losing Season," is about
playing basketball when he was at the Citadel.
Now your team was a losing team. What holds a losing team together? I mean,
Mr. CONROY: Nothing.
Mr. CONROY: Absolutely nothing. The reason I wrote this book is I was
sitting in Books & Company in Dayton, Ohio, a city I had never been to, nor
had I ever wanted to go to. But I was sitting there at the end of a book
signing, and I looked up and I saw my ex-teammate, John DeBrosse. And I had
not seen John in 30 years, and he and I had played guard together. I looked
up and I said, `DeBrosse, you ever been in a bookstore before?' He turned to
me and said, `Once, Conroy. I was lost.'
And he finally said, `Conroy, my wife and kids don't believe I know you.
Would you come to my house and meet them? I've been telling them I've known
you for all these years and, you know, I haven't seen you in 30 years.' So we
were driving out into the suburbs of Dayton, Ohio, and John started talking.
It was like the locker room came alive, sprang alive, and I had not thought of
it for all these many years. And DeBrosse, who's very competitive said, `I
was better than you, Conroy. I was a lot better basketball player.' And I
said, `You certainly were, John, and you proved that every single day.'
And he started talking about the team and where they'd gone, and I realized
our team had scattered to the four winds. None of us had kept up with each
other, that we were all strangers to ourself. We had not invited each other
to our weddings, to our christenings. I had no idea of the names of any of my
teammates' children; they did not know the names of mine. So as we're going
out there, DeBrosse said, `Conroy, do you remember the last game of your
career?' I said, `I certainly do, John, but I would never have mentioned it
to you. It must be very painful to you.' And John had missed a layup against
the University of Richmond in the Southern Conference tournament. If he had
made that layup, we would have beaten them and gone on to play West Virginia
the next day.
But John, who never missed layups, missed this one in the most important
moment of his life as a basketball player. And Richmond went on to beat us in
overtime by two points. And John looked at me and he--we went to the next
light, he stopped, and John, not an emotional man, not a touchy-feely man like
I am, looks over at me and he says, `Conroy, I want you to know this. I did
not miss that shot on purpose.' I said, `John, anybody that knows you knows
that.' And he says, `Our coach didn't. I think Mel Thompson thinks I missed
it on purpose to get him fired.' And then John grabs me by the wrist and
tells me, `Conroy, I think missing that shot partially ruined my life.' And,
Terry, words like that get my attention.
Mr. CONROY: And I began going back, having no idea that that year had touched
anybody except me so completely, so totally and so unforgettably. So this
book is a result of that moment.
GROSS: My guest is Pat Conroy. His new memoir is called "My Losing Season."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Pat Conroy. His new memoir is called "My Losing Season."
Now you played at a military college through your career, The Citadel. How do
you think basketball at The Citadel compared with basketball at other schools
in the league that you played?
Mr. CONROY: The other schools were much better. There's a problem about
playing about a military school as an athlete. And all athletes at all
military schools, West Point, the Naval Academy included, athletes are not
liked by the other cadets, and...
GROSS: Yeah. You know, you say that in the book, and I couldn't figure out
why, because, you know, in so many schools, the athletes are the heroes, or at
least in certain circles, they're the heroes. And you say...
Mr. CONROY: Not in mili...
GROSS: ...that they're second-class citizens...
Mr. CONROY: Yes.
GROSS: ...in military schools.
Mr. CONROY: But not in military schools. We are sometimes loathed because we
get out of parades, we get out of inspection on Saturday morning, we get out
of drills. Even though we're doing there practicing three hours, the Corps
never sees that so they don't appreciate that. And, you know, one of the
things that my teammates are still bitter about is they come across alumni who
say, `Oh, you were an athlete. You didn't really go through the system.'
GROSS: Right. Now what about the kind of basketball that you played at The
Citadel? How did that compare with the kind of playing at the other schools
that you competed with?
Mr. CONROY: Well, Coach Thompson was very anal in his coaching. The offense
that I ran when I was a freshman was the exact same offense I ran the last
game I played at The Citadel. It never changed a bit. The defense I played
was exactly the same. The out-of-bounds plays was exactly the same.
Everything we did was exactly the same. This was a--and it drove me crazy
because the part about sports I love is making it up as you go along,
fast-breaking. And all this was alien to Coach Thompson, and it brought him
and I to--Coach Thompson did not like or enjoy the way I played the game, and
it caused me a great deal of grief over the years. But when I quit listening
to him, I did not care if he liked the way I played the game or not.
GROSS: Were there teams you played with a more street approach to playing
basketball that you were unprepared for?
Mr. CONROY: Well, this was a time in the South before integration. One thing
that still I laugh about every time I see is a picture of my team, it's all
white. And, of course, basketball now is a black game, a city game, an
in-your-face game and it's changed completely since I was down there. And
when I was there at The Citadel, it was still in the South a white boys' game.
And that has changed completely.
Now what I loved was how the game was played in the ghetto, and I grew up
following my father to Washington, DC, and I learned to play with black kids.
And I loved to drive, I loved to take it to the hoop, I loved fast, I loved
behind-the-back passes, through-the-legs dribbling. And I was early to that
GROSS: But you couldn't play that game at The Citadel?
Mr. CONROY: Well, I played it--after the New Orleans game, I started the rest
of the season and I found myself as a basketball player. My father and mother
came to see me play my first college game. We played East Carolina. And all
I remember from that game--I don't remember being at East Carolina, I don't
remember a single thing about the game. I remember that after we lost, the
manager came up to me and said, `Your dad's outside. He wants to see you.'
So still in my sweaty uniform, I walked outside, and I remember this part
exactly. My father put his hand upon my chest, pushed me against the cinder
block wall and he said--and you have to translate this--`Son, you're crap.
Your team's crap, your coach is crap and you couldn't hold a candle to me on
the best day of your life.' I said, `We didn't have a very good game, Dad.
Can I go out and see Mom?' `Negative. We've got to get back to DC.' My
surprise, Terry, was when I went back to the game and looked at the box score,
I discovered I had scored 25 points in that game, more than anybody on either
team. And I was the smallest guy on the court.
GROSS: You had a father who didn't know how to take pride in a son's
accomplishments; he only knew how to be competitive with his son.
Mr. CONROY: He simply--my father was simply overwhelming in that. I mean, I
think I could have been an All-American, I could not have satisfied him. At
the end of the year, I won two awards. I won the sportsmanship award, which I
always won. No matter what the school, I did and my father hated it. He
loathed it. And he said, `Ah, the chicken award. My boy always wins the
chicken award.' But the other award was more difficult for my father. I won
the most valuable player award of this team I wrote about.
Now me winning the most valuable player award on this team says much about the
team and our fate. When I asked the players to rate the players by their
skills as a basketball player, I ranked 11th of the 12 players. So the fact
that I won the most valuable player shows how much this team fell apart. And
it seemed almost a mockery to me that I walked the world as the MVP of a team
where we had so much better basketball players than I was.
GROSS: Now, you know, the coach gave a quote about you to the local paper:
"Pat Conroy gave another great performance. That kids gets more mileage out
of his talent than any player I have ever coached." Now on the one hand,
that's a great quote; he's saying you get more mileage out of your talent. On
the other hand, you know, I couldn't help but wonder, is he saying, `He gets
more mileage out of a small talent,' you know.
Mr. CONROY: Well, that's exactly what it was. Coach Thompson, when he gives
you a compliment, there's always, you know, another side to it.
Mr. CONROY: And what he was saying was I was no good, but I overkeened that
somehow. And, you know, I knew what he was saying, but I still took it as one
of the greatest compliments of my entire life. And I think later on in there,
I tell my children, my heirs, I said, `Put that on my tombstone. Put what Mel
Thompson said about me after my last game on my tombstone. That's what I want
GROSS: Pat Conroy. His new memoir is called "My Losing Season." He'll be
back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, more with Pat Conroy about his violent, authoritarian
father and the second-toughest man he's met, his basketball coach. His new
memoir, "My Losing Season," is about playing for the Bulldogs, the basketball
team of the military college The Citadel.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Pat Conroy. He wrote a
fictionalized account of growing up with an abusive father in his novel "The
Great Santini." His novel "The Lords of Discipline" was based on his
experiences at the military college, The Citadel. His other books include
"The Prince of Tides" and "Beach Music." Conroy's new book, "My Losing
Season," is a memoir about playing basketball at the military college, The
Citadel. He describes his coach as the second-toughest man he ever met;
second only to his father.
Would you describe your last game at The Citadel?
Mr. CONROY: Yes. It was glorious, it was majestic, it was hard-fought;
hard-fought--I was guarding the great Johnny Moates, who led the Southern
Conference in scoring that year. He was a much, much better basketball player
than I was, and he proved it in this game. And he would come
downcourt--Lordy, that season--God, he was good--and I would hear, `Pick
right' and `Pick left,' and the whole Richmond team was trying to get him
open, and I'd have to fight over those picks. And Johnny Moates has the most
beautiful, glorious, high-arching jump shot you ever saw. He scored 39 points
off me. He ate me alive. There was nothing I could do to stop him, but I
And my team--what I loved about my team was even though we were in the middle
of the season, they were lion-hearted. They fought hard. This team never
quit. And even Coach Thompson, when I later went to visit him, said, `None of
my boys ever quit on me,' and this is the highest praise you can get from a
man like Mel Thompson.
We teamed--I was scoring well that year. I scored 25 points my last game,
also. It was my high, my career high. But all game I fought with Johnny
Moates and screamed at Johnny Moates, and every time he came down, Moates and
I went at each other. And then when I was on offense, I made Moates work.
`OK, you can't stop me, Moates, there's a good chance you can't stop Oscar
Robertson. Good chance you can't stop Jerry West if you're goin' to the
We went into overtime. Now I was going over these picks and there was one guy
on the other team named Greene, who was a long, long, wonderfully built but
skinny kid. And his knee kept going into my left thigh every time I went over
his pick. This was not dirty, it was good basketball. But over the game, it
crippled me. And in overtime, we called time out. And in time out, I went to
John DeBrosse and I said, `DeBrosse, you have got to take Johnny Moates for
me. I can't walk.' And he said, `No, no, no. Are you kidding? I'm not
taking Moates, he's your man.' I said, `Johnny, your man hasn't scored this
game. My man has scored almost 40 points. Just take him this one time, and
I'll take him in the next overtime--if we get to the next overtime, I'll get
So John DeBrosse gets on Moates who comes upcourt. Moates, exhausted,
depleted. I was breathing as hard as I could. I was not guarding my man. I
simply had my hands on my knees gasping for breath. And as he came upcourt,
John DeBrosse, fresh, stole the ball from Johnny Moates. I saw him break, and
my job was to follow DeBrosse down the court and put it back in if he missed
it. I didn't do that. I simply sat there with my hands on my knees, gasping.
DeBrosse went down. As he later told me, Terry, he said, `Conroy, the year
had stunk, and I wasn't no fancy Dan like you, Conroy. I didn't like to
please the crowd like you. I didn't go through my legs or behind my back. I
was a good, solid basketball player. Normally, I would have just laid the
ball off the back--but I wanted to stick it in Moates' eye. I wanted to stick
it in Richmond. I wanted to say goodbye to this horrible year. So I
went--instead of going and laying it off safely, I went straight in and
finger-rolled it off, and I did it beautifully and I jumped high and it all
felt right, it all felt good.' And then John DeBrosse says, `And I remember
being stunned when I saw it bounce, when I saw it bounce and I saw Moates get
it and I saw Moates dribbling back, and then the buzzer ends and we have lost,
and, Conroy, your career was over, and you wept in the locker room'
GROSS: Yeah, you did weep. You write about that. Was it embarrassing to be
weeping in the locker room?
Mr. CONROY: You know, it's surprised me. You know, The Citadel was not a
place that encouraged weeping.
Mr. CONROY: It took me by great surprise. I just was sobbing uncontrollably,
and I realized this game that I had started playing when I was nine was over
for me. It was just completely finished, and I was not ready for it to be.
And I did not realize the importance that the game was in my life, and I had
no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life.
GROSS: My guest is Pat Conroy. His new memoir is called "My Losing Season."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Pat Conroy, the author of "The Great Santini," "The Prince
of Tides" and "Beach Music." His new book, "My Losing Season," is a memoir
about playing basketball for The Citadel, the military college in Charleston,
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." 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.
Mr. CONROY: 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.
GROSS: 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?
Mr. 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 because 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
But Dad had changed when "The Great Santini" came out. There had been a sea
change in my father. He was horrified by the portrait I had painted of him.
And 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.'
But here's what Dad did. He became a good man. He became a good guy. All
six of the children who were still alive, he--we could not believe we were
weeping at his funeral.
Right before he died, and a couple days before he died--he still was the same
guy. I mean, there was a basic core of Santini that never changed. My
sister, the poet in New York, Carol, came down from New York, and we had
shifts as Dad was dying at my sister Kathy's house. And I went over there one
day and I heard screaming from the outside--I'm half-deaf now, Terry, so
I--you know, I don't hear screaming very often. So I heard screaming, and I
went in. And as I got closer and closer, it was Carol screaming at my father,
`Dad, you've got to tell me you love me, Dad! You 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 me he loved me. He's never told me he's proud of me.' I said,
`He's never told me that, either, Carol. But he sends you money every month,
Carol. That's how he says I love you. He brags about you to me and your
poetry.' He always used to love this, Terry. He would brag--he would always
tell me--he says, `You know your sister's a much better writer than you, son.'
I said, `Thanks, Dad. I appreciate it.' `And poetry is a much higher art
form, son, than prose. Did you know that?' I said, `Well, thank you very
much, Dad.' And, `I prefer your sister's poetry to your writing. She says in
five words what you say in 5,000.' And I said, `Thank you very much, Dad.'
And I said, `Now, Dad, will you do me a favor? Would you name me one poem
that Carol has ever written?' And Dad just roared with laughter.
But on this day, I was trying to tell Carol that Dad had different ways of
saying he loved us. He couldn't tell us that directly. Anyway, I give this
to you. I 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 calls himself the family
redneck, and 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. But that
was the Santini's old humor and old malice at work to the very end.
GROSS: Were you with him when he died?
Mr. CONROY: My brother Mike and my brother Tim were with him when he died.
And we were taking--we were doing shifts on that, too. And it was--I ended up
writing a eulogy for Dad and Carol read a poem at his funeral. And his
funeral was something, and people came from everywhere.
Mr. CONROY: And seeing it announced on the evening news, which I loved.
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 etc., etc., etc.? Did he ever
realize--I mean, really get how successful you were?
Mr. CONROY: You know, I don't know, Terry. You know, Dad--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 and my career was after "The
Great Santini," a book he hated, but he loved the movie--and my father thinks
he made Robert Duvall's career, thinks he is fully responsible for Robert
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 and 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.' He underlined `fiction,' you know, 10 times.
And he then signed it `Old Loveable Likeable, 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 I
think it's the only time in American history that a father and a son sat and
signed books together.
And, you know, what I loved about it is he would be signing--Dad was slower
than I was. He was much more elaborate. And he was charming. His 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 look over. And he would look
over at me and he says, `My line's longer, son.'
GROSS: 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 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've beaten my wife--well, she deserved it and she'll come
around, too.' Did you think your father was really delusional during those
Mr. 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.
(Singing) Don, don, don, don, don, don, don--there's Dad leaving the Corps;
Mom leaves him the next day. I talk to 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
milieu. I said, `Just come up to Atlanta and 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 Emmanuel'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 Emmanuel came over
and said, `What's wrong? What's wrong?' I said, `Dad--he hates your beer,
Emmanuel. He just doesn't like it.' And then, `I'll give him another one.'
`Nah, nah, he just doesn't like your beer. It's bad.' Dad's sobbing and
everybody in the restaurant's, you know, looking at us.
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. I didn't crack down hard enough. I was
too easy on your mother and my children.' And 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 regiment of
therapy and introspective writing.
Mr. 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 never 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, wants to be
a writer, he's a cadet, he's on the honor court, he takes everything
seriously, the tries to be a good member of The Citadel community,' and I
started admiring the kid. I just started admiring him. I thought, 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 a book a memoir instead of fiction because your father's dead?
Mr. CONROY: Well, it's--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 call 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 a shrimp in a Long
John Silver's. Give me a break.'
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
When I wrote this thing--an introduction for Mary Wertsch's book, it shocked
me because I wrote the words, `In my youth, I thought Don Conroy wanted to
kill me,' and my father went berserk when I used his name. And he did not
mind me using Bull Meechum or Great Santini 'cause he could say that it was
fiction. But when I used the word `Don Conroy,' I was using his name and I
was talking about him, and there was no place for him to run and hide when I,
you know, just said who it was.
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: 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" 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. So I think I forced my father to
become a good man and a good father.
GROSS: Pat Conroy, thank you so much.
Mr. CONROY: Thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: Pat Conroy's new memoir is called "My Losing Season."
This is FRESH AIR.
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Commentary: Evolution and use of the word regime
TERRY GROSS, host:
For months, the White House has been talking about regime change in Iraq and
how to achieve it. Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, has been listening.
There's nothing so powerful as a slogan whose time has come. In 2001, there
were a total of nine mentions of the phrase `regime change' in major
newspapers; since January of this year, there have been more than 600. Yet
there's nothing new about the notion of regime change itself. I found the
phrase in political science articles from as far back as 1968, and the word
`regime' has suggested impermanence ever since it first entered the English
political lexicon just after the French Revolution. That was the mother of
all regime changes, and it gave us the phrase `ancien regime' or `old regime'
as a name for the form of government that was about to come to a decisive end.
Regime has been used ever since then to refer to a country's form of
government. In that use, it needn't be disparaging. People talk about
democratic or parliamentary regimes as easily about totalitarian regimes. But
when we call a government a regime, there's usually a sense that its hold on
power is insecure or unsteady, as if you could hear the tumbrels rolling in
the distance. We talk about the democratic regimes of Latin America, but not
about the democratic regimes of North America or Western Europe. Those we
just call democracies. As best I can tell, the difference between a
democratic regime and a democracy is that with the latter you figure you don't
have to keep checking in to see who's in charge.
But regime has another, more recent use, where it refers to the particular
people in power in a country rather than to its form of government. That's
the sense that regime has when it's paired with the name of a ruler or a
political party, like the Castro regime or the Sandinista regime. Or people
sometimes talk about the Havana regime or the Beijing regime with the
implication that the rulers just happen to be squatting in the seat of
government. In those cases, regime always implies that the government is
illegitimate or undemocratic. We don't talk about the Blair regime or the
Ottawa regime or the Washington regime. And the only people who talk about
the London regime are Irish nationalists referring to the Unionist government
in Belfast, which sort of proves the point.
You can get a sense of just how high a government ranks on the current public
enemies list by seeing how likely the press is to describe it as a regime.
When I did those counts on the names of current rulers, Saddam Hussein came in
first, and second place was a tie between Castro and the Assads of Syria.
Then came Gadhafi, the North Koreas and the Iranians, with the Chinese and the
Saudis trailing well behind. There's a clear tendency here for the press to
use regime more for governments that the US has particularly antagonistic
relations with. The Castro government is more than twice as likely to be
called a regime as the Beijing government is, and the Syrians are six times as
likely to get the label as the Saudis or Musharraf is.
Still, I can see the journalistic logic to this. The label `regime' implies
impermanence, after all, and historically speaking, governments that have
gotten on the wrong side of the US haven't generally proved very stable. In
the past, in fact, the press has used regime most frequently of leaders that
the US was actively trying to topple, like the Sandinistas, Noriega, Milosevic
and the Taliban. The only difference between then and now is that the phrase
`regime change' seems to make that principle a matter of official policy.
What makes regime change such an inspired slogan is the way it plays on the
ambiguity of regime itself. Of course, everybody knows what the
administration supporters have uppermost in their minds when they talk about
regime change. Ari Fleischer made that quite clear when he said that regime
change in Iraq could be accomplished for the cost of a single bullet. But in
the language of diplomacy, regime change plays a lot better than a slogan
like, `Let's take out this bozo.' It suggests that what the US is ultimately
interested in is replacing the current Iraqi system with something more
benign. Regime change; you have the picture of a country gleaming with all
the impertinences of a modern democracy, a League of Women Voters, Sunday
morning with Tim Russert, attack ads and hanging chads.
Well, stranger things have happened in the last few decades, but regime change
can be an unpredictable business, as liberals like Condorcet and Lafayette
discovered at the time of that ore regime change of 1789. In the first flush
of revolutionary hope, they coined the phrase `le nouveau regime' to describe
the new democratic order that they were building. But the phrase never caught
on the way ancien regime did probably because it was quickly overtaken by
Over the following decades, the French went through a series of dictatorships,
despotisms, monarchies, communes and short-lived republics throwing the whole
region into a turmoil that it took 150 years to recover from. It wasn't until
80 years after the fall of the Bastille that the French finally stopped
lurching from one regime to the next and settled into a more or less stable
democratic system that nobody was tempted to describe as a regime in the first
place. It turns out to be easier to get rid of regimes than to create a world
where the word is unnecessary.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, and the
author of the book "The Way We Talk Now."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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