Psychotherapy helps turn a page

Depression: Pat Conroy found doses of revenge through his autobiographical books. But he says treatment is the main reason he's here to tell his story.

April 26, 2000|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

When all is well in the writing life of Pat Conroy, words flow to the page like a Low Country river -- rich with life, sweeping along toward something bigger and grander as the current builds strength and momentum.

Yet, the waters are treacherous, too. Conroy tends to populate his novels with just about everyone who ever made his life miserable, and they emerge on the page as violent, tyrannical dads, beautiful but duplicitous moms, all of them lording it over fractured homes where horrible things come to pass.

Reading about them can be like eavesdropping on a therapy session, albeit a lively and stylish one, an observation that wouldn't surprise either Conroy or his psychotherapist in South Carolina, Dr. Marion O'Neill.

"Depression has formed the underpinnings of my entire career as a writer," Conroy said in an interview yesterday. "... My shrink thinks that when I was getting beat up by my father as a little boy, what I would do is go into that place where I go now when I write. She said, `I see you do it in therapy. You'll be talking and I'll lose you.' "

Conroy credits the more conventional brand of psychotherapy -- the kind provided by a doctor, not his writing -- with saving his life, by helping him outrun childhood demons that have pursued him through breakdowns, recurring thoughts of suicide, two broken marriages and, somehow, the writing of six autobiographical novels.

That road of self-discovery is what brought him to Baltimore yesterday, as the day's final speaker at the 14th Annual Symposium on Mood Disorders Research and Education, held at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Conroy, 54, came by his fictional material the hard way. "The Lords of Discipline" (1980), a novel of a cadet's ordeal at a South Carolina military college, was drawn straight from the brutal hazing he endured during his plebe year at The Citadel. In writing it, he broke the school's unwritten code of silence, infuriating administrators and alumni.

But that was nothing. Four years earlier, he'd broken his family's code of silence with the publication of "The Great Santini," an emotional portrait of a boy who keeps seeking the love of his brutal and iron-willed father, who, just like Conroy's dad, was a Marine Corps test pilot.

It and the novels that followed plumbed ever deeper into the secrets of the turbulent Conroy household, a place where the children referred to their mother's miscarriages as "the lucky ones" of the brood.

None of those books might have happened were it not for a family blow-up one night in 1972, at the home of Conroy and his first wife. His mom and dad were visiting, along with some of Conroy's six younger brothers and sisters.

Conroy was a young writer with two novels already under his belt. He and his wife had gone upstairs to bed when he heard an all-too-familiar sound from below -- the slap of his father's hand on his mother's flesh. He went downstairs to find his dad drunk and beating the daylights out of whoever he could lay his hands on. All the years of his past came boiling back, and he went after his father, shoving him out of the house and across the yard.

"Thus began `The Great Santini,' " Conroy said. "Thus began my first great breakdown."

Not long afterward, after he'd begun writing the book that would seek revenge on his father with almost every paragraph, he lost control of his body while driving. He convulsed, his head slamming the steering wheel. He recovered, but there were other episodes. He lost his hearing for a month.

But, he finished the book. And in doing so, he told the crowd last night at Hopkins, "I put a cruise missile into my father's cockpit that haunted him the rest of his life."

His father was furious. The rest of his family wasn't so happy, either. He had spilled their secrets, broken the taboo. And Conroy found that he still wasn't free of his past. It only seemed to crowd him more.

He and his wife split up. He attempted suicide with a handful of pills, waking up a day and a half later. Then he sought help, winding up with Dr. O'Neill, and he began to learn a few things about himself.

"I thought I'd been writing [`The Great Santini'] 'cause I hated my father, and what stunned me when I came to the last line was that I was writing the book because I loved my father, and had spent my whole life trying to find something to love in him."

He also realized he had to come to terms with his feelings for his mother. That began in therapy, too, although soon enough it publicly expressed itself with the portrait of the beautiful but distant mother in "The Prince of Tides" (1986).

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