My Exaggerated Life

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Katherine Clark’s oral biography of Pat Conroy made me want to re-read all of his books–-and wish that I’d been lucky enough to have met the man.

MY EXAGGERATED LIFE is the product of Clark’s extended interviews with Conroy in 2014, two years before the death of the best-selling author of such novels as “The Great Santini,” “The Lords of Discipline” and “The Prince of Tides.” My job, Clark explains, “was to select and structure the text on the page, but what’s on the page is Conroy speaking. Here Conroy is the narrator of his life, not the scholar of it. It was not my job to be the scholar of his life either; that enterprise is for a different book. My role was simply to be an editor who enabled Conroy to be Conroy.”

That’s saying a lot, because Conroy was quite a guy, not only a memoirist and novelist, but a raconteur who, as Clark said, entertained audiences as well as friends and family with his storytelling. He was also complex and volatile, a southerner who talked about himself in an honest way, dealing bluntly with his weaknesses and mistakes, calling himself a nobody and a failure, even though he became successful at thirty when the book he wrote about teaching black students on a South Carolina island was turned into a Hollywood movie.

Conroy’s humility and self-deprecation were matched by his ribald humor and larger-than-life personality; his warmth, charm and fierce intelligence. All of these qualities, and more, can be found in MY EXAGGERATED LIFE, a book in which Conroy bares aspects of his soul for some 330 pages, always with a quip, a colorful story, a cutting remark.

Here is the author on his sadistic father, a Marine fighter pilot who unmercifully beat his wife and children, especially Pat: “Dad eventually broke all our spirits. Carol is mentally ill and Tom had a violent suicide. Carol was the smartest girl in the world until Dad broke her spirit. When Dad came home, Carol would give out the warning: ‘Godzilla is home!’ We’d all go hide. I was like a sheepherder, moving. I could get the kids running. We had hiding places everywhere we went. Carol told me, ‘Our parents are crazy, and we’ve got to be careful.’”

The Great Santini (Conroy’s nickname for his father) then sent him to The Citadel, an infamous South Carolina military academy. “The Citadel also beat the shit out of me with its avid cruelty and amazing capacity for sadism,” Conroy recalls. “So I was ready for was a great way to go out into the world...terrified of everything, suspicious of everything, doubting everything...knowing that life was going to beat the shit out of me. I was expecting it. I expected every bloom to fall.”

How Conroy transmuted all that sadness and cruelty into literature is explored in depth in MY EXAGGERATED LIFE. “The writing of ‘The Great Santini’”–-(his family story)–“split me open, spilled me out on the floor, and threw me into Dr. Marion O’Neill’s office...She was straight with me. I had to have straight answers...Don’t sit there like a shrink fruitcake and just stare at me. I got to know how I’m doing,” he said.

When he announced that he thought he might be crazy, O’Neill replied, “Yes, I think you are. But I can help you.”

And help she did. Conroy managed to contain his madness and continue writing, with unrivaled power and courage. As he explains, “My writing life would be worthless if I did not write about the things I wasn’t supposed to. Telling the truth trumps every single thing. Politicians can talk for hours and not say one thing. This is also true of most people–-there’s this giant conspiracy of silence to protect your own nest, which is always under attack. So it’s the writer’s job to say something, to tell the truth. And I am a writer. That’s the only thing I’ve ever been or ever could do well, and I try to tell the truth in my writing.”

(The University of South Carolina Press,