Home Authors Posts by Pat Conroy

Pat Conroy


Excerpt from ‘Death of Santini’

cover_santini_death1Excerpted from the book The Death of Santini, by Pat Conroy. Copyright © 2013 by Pat Conroy. Published by arrangement with Nan A. Talese, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.

The happiest years of my childhood were when Dad went to war to kill the enemies of America. Every time my father took off in an airplane, I prayed that the plane would crash and his body be consumed by fire. For thirty-one years, this is how I felt about him. Then I tore my whole family apart with my novel about him, The Great Santini.

Looking back, I can see that I made many mistakes in the field during my rookie season as a novelist. The writing of the book had taken an emotional toll on me that included a breakdown months before the book was in the stores. I had done almost no preparatory work on my family, no plowing the fields to ease their way into a country they did not realize was their native land. To Dad, I’d given more hints about what I was up to, and for the simple reason that he lived in Atlanta then, where Barbara and I had moved. Dad would visit the house often—too often for me, but Barbara had come to adore Dad, and our daughters rejoiced in his visits. It both moved and disturbed me to see my children scrambling around on my father’s lap like some comely litter of kittens.

I would often say things like, “Hey, Dad, why don’t you break all their facial bones? Then they’d know what it was like to be raised by you.”

“Don’t listen to him, girls,” Dad would respond. “Let me take you out for ice cream cones. This weekend I’ll take you to Six Flags.”

When Dad first came to live in Atlanta, I had just committed the most unforgivable crime against him. I had refused to attend his retirement parade that took place in the summer of 1973. I did it with all the purposefulness and cunning of a man who knew how to cut deepest and wound another man. I was a son gifted in the art of patricide. Though I had loathed my father, I fell in love with the mystique and sense of fraternity I grew up with as the son of a Marine Corps officer. The corps stood for excellence and a code of honor that burned in me for life. I was raised in the mythos of the corps, and I knew about Belleau Wood, Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Okinawa. I took great pride in my dad’s gallant fighting at the Chosin Reservoir, when he provided air support for a brutal Marine retreat through entrenched Chinese lines. Don Conroy was a proud member of “the Chosin Few,” yet his oldest son did not go to his retirement parade. It sickens me to write those words.

To make matters worse, my family and I arrived for a visit the day after his retirement party, and I walked into a house touched with nothing but malice. I could feel the hatred in that house that I had sold to my parents so that they could enjoy a peaceful and fruitful retirement. My brother Mike told me that our mother had not spoken to Dad for days, not even on the day of his retirement ceremony. To Mike, their relationship had never been this poisonous. It now had turned into
a disaster area.

I entered Mom’s kitchen and she ran up and hugged me hard.

“I can’t stand it for another day, Pat,” she said. “It repulses me to look at him. Or speak with him. You’ve got to get him to leave this house.” She was begging me now. “One of us has to go. I want it to be him.”

“I’ll do my best,” I said. “But the boy’s got a stubborn streak.”

“If he doesn’t leave, then I want you to play guard duty and stand between Don and the car when I load up the kids.”

“No, Mom. You’re not going to involve the kids. If you leave, load them in the car and tell Dad that you’re going shopping at Piggly Wiggly. Just lie to him.”

“You mean my oldest son, who witnessed everything, won’t lift a finger to help his own mother?” she cried, appalled.

“Of course I’ll help. Just let me talk to him first.”

I found Dad in the living room watching a baseball game on TV, but I could tell that he’d been shaken up by the events of the past couple of days. His eyes had the wounded look of a predator limping back to his den.

“Hey, Dad, who’s playing?” I asked.

“Cubs and the Phillies. The game sucks,” he answered, not looking up to greet me. Then he said, “Retirement is harder on women than it is on the Marine. That’s a known fact.”

I said carefully, “Dad, I think Mom’s planning to leave you.” Suddenly he looked away from the ball game and stared at me with such ferocity that I braced for a charge.

“She can’t do that,” he said. “We’re Roman Catholic. We took vows to each other.”

“Them vows don’t seem to be worrying her much,” I said. “Look, Dad, let me help you develop a plan.”

“I got a plan,” he said. “I’m staying here. This is my home. Where I belong.”

“If it doesn’t work out, come to Atlanta to stay with me, Barbara, and the kids. Mom looks bewildered, terrified, and even a little crazy. Your being away would give both of you some time to think things over.”

“There’s nothing to think over.”

“The offer is there,” I said.

“Thanks for nothing,” he answered.

“It was my pleasure. How does it feel, Dad? We just had our first conversation.”

“It sucks. It’s lousy. It’s shitty. Let’s never have another one again,” he said, red faced and angry.

When we packed up the car to head back to Atlanta, I made one final attempt to get my father to consider a visit.

“Negative,” he said. “This is where I belong. I’m the head of this household.”

“You could just visit for a couple of weeks,” I said. “To give you and Mom a cooling-off period.”

“Negative. Do I have to draw you a picture?”

“You might even enjoy it,” I suggested.

“Negative. If you need me, you can find me in my quarters,” he said.

After Barbara and I unloaded the car back in Atlanta, she gave the girls their baths upstairs, and I heard a knock on the front door. I went to the door and opened it to find my very distraught father standing there. I couldn’t have been more surprised to find the
Archbishop of Canterbury.

“Can I buy you a beer, son?”

When we entered Manuel’s Tavern, a legendary bar on Highland Avenue, I waved to Larry Woods and Paul Hemphill, two writers I had recently met. My father had not spoken in the short ride to the tavern. To me he seemed ready to launch off a carrier, but I’d respect his silence and talk when he needed to talk. Dad had never bought me a beer. As far as I could remember, he had never bought me a present, ridden me around any town he’d been stationed in, nor taught me any of the social skills necessary for a boy to make his way into an unforgiving world. I found myself strangely excited by this distinctive moment that I had read about in novels and seen depicted in movies—a father and son getting to know each other. The owner, Manuel Maloof, brought the two draft beers I’d ordered on the way in.

“Talk about it, Dad,” I said.

A look of bitterness engulfed his face. He was in an agony that was as authentic as it was vitriolic. In his newly minted despair, Colonel Conroy did the most terrifying thing: He laid his head on his powerful arms and burst into tears. The most pitiless of men had imploded on himself and felt the soft tissues of his emotions for what must have been the first time in his life. His cries began with stifled weeping, but soon turned to explosive sobs, attracting the curious attention of every patron in the bar.

Manuel Maloof came rushing over to see what was wrong.

“He all right?” Manny asked. “Should

I call an ambulance?” By now Dad was howling and blubbering and creating a scene that became increasingly alarming.

“He’ll be okay, Manny,” I said. “He just hates your fucking beer.”

“Buy him another one, Pat,” Manny said, staring at my distraught father. “Hell, it’s on the house.”

“Naw, I just had to tell him his mother died,” I said. “He was very close to his mother.”

Dad bawled and wailed for several minutes before he calmed himself and raised his sheepish face to survey the room. He said, “These people must think I am a fucking lunatic.”

“Yeah, most of them do,” I said.

“My mother ain’t dead, thank you very much,” he growled.

“I was just practicing,” I said.

“Practicing for what, sports fan?”

“For the day she does die,” I said. “You want to talk about Mom? ” At the mere mention of Peg, my father began weeping again, but his recovery was much faster this time.

“Sorry. Sorry, son,” he said, whimpering.

“I kind of love watching you cry, Colonel,” I said. “It reminds me of a boy who once lived in your house.”

During my parents’ separation, my father made the most baffling decision of his world-traveling life—he became a citizen of Atlanta, Georgia, a city he had always held in contempt. He rented a two-bedroom furnished apartment in the Darlington—which had a sign in front of it tallying the population of Atlanta each day. Even though the place looked faded, if not shoddy, he lived in that apartment until his death twenty-five years later.

During those months, Dad got into the habit of coming over for a cup of coffee before I started writing for the day. That morning ceremony solidified when I separated from Barbara after four years in Atlanta and moved into a small but well-placed apartment in the ethereal curves and gardens of Ansley Park. Each morning, Dad would knock on the door and I would rise to let him in, then plug in the coffeemaker. Mostly we made small talk about sports. But, unknown to my father, I was writing a fictional rendering of my life with him in the room next to the one we were sitting in, and it was taking an outrageous toll on my emotional life. I found it hard to write all day about the bastard who raised me, then drink coffee with him the next morning.

One morning I finally asked him, “Do I have to spend the rest of my life having coffee with your sorry ass?”

“Affirmative,” Dad said. “Those are the orders of the day.”

“I’d rather stick a wet finger in a wall socket,” I said, then, “Don’t you remember our first night in Atlanta? What I told you? Let’s refresh. I hate you. I loathe you. I want to vomit when I hear you knock on my door each morning. That do the trick for you?”

“I told the kids you were trying to make me out to be some kind of ogre,” he said, pronouncing the word as “o-gree.” “Did you see where Hank Aaron hit two homers last night?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I got it, Dad. I got it all.”

Yet the manuscript for The Great Santini was growing day by day. I suffered writing it as I tried to explain to myself the bottomless terror I felt as a boy. Because we moved on an almost yearly basis, my childhood loneliness would stay with me until I got to Beaufort High School. Though I did not perceive it at that time, the book was taking me at a rapid speed toward another great breakdown of my life. The question that troubled me most was what my father got out of putting my mom and their children on the floor of every house we entered.

In full Technicolor, I remember every beating that my father administered and I could take you to the exact spot where it happened in each of those small houses of his early Marine Corps career. I would grow heartsick when he walked in the den every afternoon after happy hour. I was afraid of him and it showed in my eyes. He had supreme contempt for my cowardice and sometimes he would backhand me because I dared to show fear.

Driving in his car, me riding shotgun, was the most dangerous place in the universe for me. After a Little League game, a backhand if I’d made an error; after a football game, a slap to the face for missing a tackle; after a basketball game, a bloody nose for playing on the losing team. A boy played a game at his own peril when the Marine was in the stands. We all played scared when the colonel was in the field house. Dad had an odd, unsettling habit of yelling out to the opposing team to put Conroy on the deck, or “Cut Conroy’s legs out from under him!” When Mom would protest, Dad would say he was just trying to toughen me up. He wanted a street fighter and not the mama’s boy he had on his hands.

But the story kept rolling, and I could not stop or impede its toll. I thought I was telling a story that had never been told in the history of American literature. There had been innumerable novels about soldiers and their wives and wartime, but I had never heard a word about their children. I was a proud member of an invisible tribe called “military brats,” voiceless and unpraised as both children and adults. Because I grew up encountering the restlessness of warriors during peacetime training, I had watched my father’s visible disappointment when the Russian ships turned back during the Cuban Missile Crisis. My sister Carol Ann said,

“Can you believe Dad’s pissed off because we didn’t have a nuclear war?” My father laughed when he heard that our high school had a fallout drill and said, “Skip those drills. Because of Parris Island and the air station, Beaufort is ground zero. Drill all you want. You sports fans are going to be dust in five seconds.”

The writing of The Great Santini began to feel like a case of battle fatigue. In my head, I was falling apart as I excavated one buried memory at a time. Since no one in my family knew what I was up to—and I include myself in that calculation—I issued no storm warnings or small-craft advisories. I was going at it alone, entering into strange and dangerous waters every time I wrote a page. Still, I wrote and wrote, fighting through those times when I found myself assaulted by the unforgivable crime of full disclosure. Guilt. Every time I found myself censoring the writer in me, I would write it anyway. Finally, it became a credo for my entire writing life—if I feared putting something on paper, it was a voice screaming from the interior for me to start writing it down, to leave out nothing.

In the single most creative burst of my career, I completed that last chapter by writing almost nonstop for twenty-four hours. Every word seemed summoned and anointed with a limitless power over which I had no control. It delighted me, the ease with which the words appeared, with me as some involuntary instrument taking dictation from the stars. In that chapter, I put the Great Santini into his warplane, where he flew from Key West back to his home base in South Carolina. In the middle of the flight, his fire warning lights flickered on, and Bull Meecham fought to get his plane safely back in its hangar. He aborted his first landing when he saw the lights of family homes beneath him. He changed direction and his A-6 disappeared from the radar screen forever. They found the remains the next day. No one has ever loved writing his father’s funeral scene more than I did. I relished every word of it.

Then, in the last two hours of this epiphanic night, I began an almost hallucinatory scene involving the God that eighteen-year-old Ben would pray to about his guilt-ridden relief over the death of his own father.

I began creating that God from the spirits of different characters I had made up during the course of writing the novel. This part surprised me, because I’d not planned for this. I had wanted the novel to end with a trip, the way military families always rotate through bases. I needed the Meechams to set off on the highway toward Atlanta—the son now driving the family away from the town, just as the father drove the family into town at the beginning of the book. What in the hell was God doing there? But it felt right, so I went with it. Then I felt the surge, the rush of adrenaline, when I’m coming onto something larger than myself. I had Ben Meecham pray to this God he had just created out of his own imagination:

And can one boy who has said 10,000 times in secret monologues, “I hate you. I hate you,” as his father passed him, can this boy approach this singing God and can he look into the eye of God and confess this sin and have that God say to him in the thunder of perfect truth that the boy has not come to him to talk about his hatred of his father, but has come to talk about mysteries that only gods can translate. Can there be a translation by this God all strong and embarrassed, all awkward and kind? Can he smile as he says it? How wonderful the smile of God as he talks to a boy, and the translation of a boy screaming, “I hate you. I hate you,” to his father who can’t hear him would be simple for such a God. Simple, direct, and transferable to all men, all women, all people of all nations of the earth.

But Ben already knew the translation and he let God off with a smile, let him go back to his song, and back to his flowers on River Street. In the secret eye behind his eyes, in Ben’s true empire, he heard and saw and knew.

And for the flight-jacketed boy on the road to Atlanta, he filled up for the first time, he filled up even though he knew the hatred would return, but for now, he filled up as if he would burst. Ben Meecham filled up on the road to Atlanta with the love of his father, with the love of Santini.

When I finished this last line, I fell apart and wept for a long time. For several months, I believe that Barbara—acting on behalf of our children—could have had me committed to a mental institution, because I had traveled too far into the great wound that is my family. Instead of granting me a portion of strength and satisfaction, the novel felt like a bloodletting, an auto-da-fé, or a crown of thorns. Inchoately, I could feel it killing me from the inside out, making me desperate, suicidal, emptied out. Though I thought I had written a good book, I had pulled the pin of a hand grenade, then thrown my entire body over it, knowing it would kill me without harming anyone else. For six months I walked around Atlanta, bedbug crazy and tortured by anxiety and nightmares. At the end of the six months, I found a therapist, Dr. Marion O’Neill, who came in to save me. By this time, the book was in full production and would come out in the spring of 1976. Still, I had warned no one about its content or subject matter. The days passed slowly, but inexorably, like a firing squad assembling at dawn. I could not bear to think that I wrote a 500-page novel just because I needed to love my father. It never occurred to me that I was born with a need to love my dad. It seemed like a madman’s fantasy that my father could ever bring himself to love me. Then the book was published, and my problems really began.

Excerpted from the book The Death of Santini, by Pat Conroy. Copyright © 2013 by Pat Conroy. Published by arrangement with Nan A. Talese, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.

This excerpt originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of the magazine.

Anatomy of a Divorce


Divorce has many witnesses, many victims. It is a lurid duet that entices observers to the dance; the pas de deux expands, flowers into a monstrous choreography and draws in friends, children and relatives. Each divorce is the death of a small civilization. Two people declare war on each other, and their screams and tears and days of withdrawal infect their entire world with the bacilli of their pain. There are no clean divorces. Divorces should be conducted in abattoirs, surgical wards, blood banks or funeral homes. The greatest fury comes from the wound where love once issued forth.

Illustration by Jaff Seijas

I have studied the divorces of my friends and learned some things. I have studied my own divorce and learned much more. I find it hard to believe how many people are getting divorced in Atlanta, Georgia. I find it hard to believe that this number of people voluntarily or involuntarily submit to such extraordinary pain.

I think it would have been easier if Barbara had died. I would have been gallant at her funeral, worn dark glasses, shed real tears and taken the children aside to tell them myself. It would have been far easier to have a mate die than to stare at each other across a table, telling each other that it was over, that it did not work. It was a killing thing to look at the mother of my children and know that we would not be together for the rest of our lives. We would not grow old with each other as we once had thought. It was strange to think of her growing old with another man. It was terrifying to cast off, to pull up the secure anchorage of our marriage and say goodbye to all of that. It is hard to reject a part of your own history.

When I moved out of our house into my apartment, I told myself one thing: I did not want to die alone. When I meet men or women who are separated or divorced, I ask them how they are dealing with solitude. They never ask what I mean. By then they are veterans of loneliness, and they have learned to deal with it. Or, they have not. I have not learned to enjoy my solitude. It is but one of the failures of my divorce.

Each divorce has its own special grotesqueries, its own labyrinthine excesses and its own bizarre denouements. It often is a communicable disease, and married couples feel threatened around their divorced friends. Cancer patients have felt the same rejection from their friends whose cells are healthy, whose cells are not under the obscene assault.

There is an unanswerable mystery in all divorces. How does it happen that two people who once loved each other, who promised to live out their lives together, who were not happy when deprived of the other’s presence, who felt incomplete and unfinished in the absence of that person — by what dark conjuring of circumstances, by what sordid legerdemain and by whose dispirited auspices are they brought to that moment of grisly illumination when they decide it has gone irretrievably wrong? How can love change its garments and come disguised as indifference, anger, even loathing? These are some of the questions that thunder obsessively through the minds of men and women who voluntarily or involuntarily enter that injured league of the divorced. The league is an alliance of the damaged.

Divorce should be declared a form of insanity. I have seen no one walk out of a divorce unmarked. It is one of the few acts you can go through that changes you completely, that by definition will make you a different person than you were before the process began. And that is precisely why divorce is so insidious and harmful and also why it is often so good for you. You can enter the sinister cocoon as a butterfly and stagger out later as a caterpillar doomed to walk under the eye of the spider. Or you can reverse the process.

There are no laws of nature which apply, only laws of suffering which are different for every single person who enters that sad, sad country. When I went through my divorce, I saw it as a literal country, and it was treeless, airless and had no transit system to take me out; in that country there were no furloughs, no flags and no holidays. I entered it as an initiate to the league, and I entered without passport, without directions or maps, and I entered it absolutely alone, and I had to make my own roads as I walked and to choose my own landmarks and memorize the shimmering, hostile geography of that terrain. Insanity or hopelessness was a natural product of that land, and it grew in vast orchards like malignant fruit. As the marriage broke up, everything broke up. The mind was set on fire with startling images of decay and loss. I did not know the precise day that I arrived in that country, nor was I ever certain about the precise day I left. I am not even certain that you can ever renounce your citizenship there completely.

One thing is certain: a divorce does not begin when one person looks at another and says, “I want to put an end to this.” The divorce has begun long before those words are uttered. Nor does the divorce end when the papers are signed. Its life span is unpredictable and open-ended. It begins when the hurt begins, when you come to the astonishing realization that you are lonely even though you are married, that you feel ineffably alone even though you are with the person that you vowed to be with all of your life. Divorce is the process of institutionalizing that loneliness, of building a grotesque cathedral out of nightmare and anger and guilt to pay loathsome homage to that loneliness. I studied the architecture of that cathedral and tried to learn some things. It is one of the surprising byproducts of divorce that you learn more from it than anything you have ever done before. All veterans of the dark country agreed with that. All of them.

When I drive around the city of Atlanta, I am acutely aware of the number of people who are enduring their own personal seasons of loneliness as marriages come apart and the histories of couples stagger toward their completion. Not enough people seem aware that divorce is a time of mental illness, a process of psychological deterioration so severe that the city itself becomes an enemy landscape, the city receives the embittered investiture of blame for all that has taken place. For no esthetic reason whatsoever, I still hate the silhouette of the Peachtree Plaza hotel simply because it was being built as I was falling apart, that it was rising inexorably skyward as I was plunging into the depths, that it was a symbol of growth and renewal at the very moment that I had slipped into the ice of a long and brutal psychic Winter.

For an entire year I did little but talk about my divorce, and I searched out people who had shared the experience, who had made the promenade through the volcano. People who have gone through divorce compose an obsessed and articulate tribe, minstrels of hurt who can sing of those days with insight and defeat and wonderment. We find each other at parties, we become friends with each other, we date each other, and we compare scars and stories. The nights of Atlanta are filled up with our voices repeating over and over again the tales of our wounded folklore as we greet each other honorably and tenderly, as brothers, as sisters, as survivors of the worst times of our lives.

I have listened to stories of extraordinary destructiveness and anger, and I have recorded them in a journal I keep on divorces. One woman took her wedding pictures and cut them into small fragments. At a party celebrating his divorce, a man played — for his friends’ edification — the tapes of his wife and her lover talking on the telephone. A neighbor of mine had her face beaten in by her drunken husband who threatened to shoot her with a riot gun if she left him. A man was run down in the street by his wife after he told her firmly in the office of their marriage counselor that their marriage was over and that he was having an affair with a woman he loved more than her. She broke his pelvis, and he urinated out of tubes for six months. His affair was platonic for the same period of time.

Each divorce has its own natural metaphors that organically grow out of the special circumstances of the dying marriage. The metaphors assume many shapes, some unthreatening, some ludicrous, some hilarious and some phantasmagoric, all final. They come to represent the end of the thing, the last acting out of the ceremony of amputation.

One man and woman separated in a tearful angry scene, and both of them removed their wedding rings simultaneously as a symbolic and official gesture that it was over. They had a brief reconciliation and put their rings back on when he returned to the house. The husband’s ring finger broke out in a terrible, swollen rash, and he removed his ring again. He left for good a week later.

Another man was inordinately proud of his salt-water aquarium that he filled with exotic eels, brilliant fish and graceful plants that flourished in that fake, diminutive ocean five hours from the sea. He left his wife two weeks after witnessing the birth of his first son. What visitors noticed when they went to check on her and the children was that she was not taking care of the aquarium. The fish began dying of negligence, of starvation and of unconcern. An eel escaped the tank, and she did not find it until it began decomposing. The aquarium was the pride of the husband who abandoned her — his hobby, not hers; his identity, not hers. The death of the marriage and the death of the aquarium became irretrievably linked in my mind. There came a day when there was not a single thing left alive in the tank, but it continued to sit in the same place, with the light on, with the oxygen bubbling, supporting nothing except the memory of life.

For a long time I could not discover my own metaphor of loss. Often the people involved find the metaphor invisible, and it is sometimes only visible to those who are watching the disintegration from a distance. It was months after the event that I realized the death of our dog, Beau, was the irrefutable message that Barbara and I were finished.

Beau was a feisty, crotchety dachshund Barbara had owned when we married. Dachshunds had never seemed like real dogs to me, and it took a year of pained toleration for us to form our alliance. But Beau had one of those brilliantly illuminating inner lives that only lovers of dogs can ever understand. To be licked by Beau when you awoke in the morning was a fine thing. Beau had a specific and unrepentable genius for companionship and for making himself completely comfortable. He had perfected the arts of sloth and cowardice except when I was with him on walks through the streets and parks of Atlanta. On those walks he would transfigure himself and his fat, ludicrous frame into a creature from the pages of The Call of the Wild. Without the slightest provocation he would attack all dogs who weighed over a hundred pounds, were closely akin to German police dogs and Dobermans and who had not gotten their rabies shots. These big dogs, amused and randy killers, would be ready to swallow Beau like he was a vitamin E tablet when I would be forced to enter the fray to remove the fangs of the Doberman or the mastiff from Beau’s throat. I was bitten three times the first year Beau and I got together. We noticed that Beau never picked a fight when I was not inches from his side, and I just hoped we would not one day surprise a lion together.

On one of the first days of our separation, when I went to the house to get some clothes, my youngest daughter, Megan, ran out to tell me that Beau was hit by a car but that he would be all right since a man had taken him to Briarcliff Animal Clinic. I drove to the clinic, ran past the receptionist and found Doctor Ruth Tyree, who had been Beau’s veterinarian since we had come to Atlanta. She carried Beau in to see me and laid him on the examining table. I had not cried during the terrible process of breaking away from Barbara. I told her that I was angry at my inability to cry, that the imprint of the American male weighed heavily upon me, and I hoped that I could weep with ease some day.

I did not cry when I saw Beau; I came completely apart. It was not weeping; it was screaming. It was not sadness; it was despair. The wheel of the car had crushed Beau’s spine, almost severing it in half. Heavily drugged, Beau looked up at me while Doctor Tyree handed me a piece of paper, saying that she needed my signature before they could put Beau to sleep. She also handed me an X-ray showing the massive, irreparable damage done to Beau’s spine.

I could not write my name because I could not see the paper and because I could not hold the pen. I leaned against the far end of the examining table and cried as I had never cried in my life, crying not just for Beau but for Barbara, the children, myself, for the death of marriage, for inconsolable loss and for the agony, the agony, the unspeakable agony of those days. Doctor Tyree touched me gently on the shoulder and I heard her crying above me. And Beau in the last grand gesture of his life dragged himself the length of the table on his two good legs and began licking the tears as they ran down my face.

I do not remember signing the necessary papers or thanking the veterinarian for her help or stumbling out into the bright afternoon and into my car. I remember the vet telling me that there was nothing anyone could do, that it was over. And I remember looking into Beau’s eyes arid telling him that I loved him, that I needed him, and that I would miss him. It was over and there was nothing anyone could do. I had lost my dog and found my metaphor. In the X-ray of my dog’s crushed spine, I was looking at a portrait of my broken marriage. But there are no metaphors powerful enough to describe the moment when you tell the children about the divorce. Divorces without children are minor-league divorces. To look into the eyes of your children and to tell them that you are mutilating their family, that you are changing the structure of their world by a process of radical surgery that will make all their tomorrows different is an act of desperate courage that I never want to repeat in my life.

When I talk to people about their divorces, the children are the subject that produces the heaviest sorrow. It is their parents’ last act of solidarity together, and it is the absolute sign that the marriage is over. No parents lightly skip into a room to inform their children that their life as a family is finished. How did it feel? How did you do it? Friends asked me after the fact. It felt as though I had poured gasoline over myself, called my children into the room and struck a match. Or, more precisely, that I had doused my entire family with gasoline, and we sat in our house on Briarcliff Road and burned together, our screams a pained, exquisite symphony of our collective grief.

When the three girls entered the room for the conversation that would bring them into the furious center of the divorce itself — when they no longer would be merely silent, involuntary victims of the dance macabre of those harsh days — they held their eyes to the floor and would not look at me or Barbara. A majestic fragility shimmered about the room. The natural inclination of every parent is to spare his or her children from as much pain as humanly possible. Barbara and I had not told them a single thing about our problems, but their faces on this day told me that they knew. Their faces were all dark wrings and grief of human hurt. As I studied the profiles of these young sweet girls, I felt like Judas Iscariot studying the beads of Caesar as he fingered his 30 pieces of silver. My betrayal of them filled the room as I told the children while Barbara wept. My betrayal of them trailed behind them as they left the room and went upstairs to talk the divorce over with each other and Barbara went to the kitchen to make us very strong drinks. My betrayal of them shouted at me when they returned to the room and still refused to look at me.

But they had written me notes of farewell since it was me who was moving out of the house. When I read the notes, I did not see how I could ever survive such excruciating pain, such colossal guilt and such relentless melodrama. The notes, scrawled in childish hands, said, “I love you, Daddy. I will visit you.” The notes had that existential smell of the moment, of gasoline and phosphorous, and matches held by small and fragile hands. At that moment the seeds of nightmare rooted deep into the outback of my subconscious, and for months I would dream of visiting my three daughters locked in the same lightless room of a mental hospital. The fear of damaged children was my most crippling obsession in those first months alone.

For a year I walked around feeling like I had undergone a lobotomy. My voice was edged with desperation, and I sometimes did not recognize my own voice as I spoke. Anxiety became a longterm tenant in my stomach, and it was my first experience with completely losing my sense of humor. I felt like a piece of Gothic architecture set loose to roam on Peachtree Street.

Even familiar objects acquired an emotional significance, a psychological content they never had before. There were records I could not listen to because of their association with Barbara, poems I could not read from books I could not pick up, pictures that wounded; and I found it difficult to ride by the house where Barbara and I had lived the final years of our marriage. The house itself was a villain in my consciousness as though the design of the wallpaper or the shape of its rooms affected the structure of the marriage itself. There is a restaurant I will never return to in my life because it was the scene of an angry argument between us. I returned to none of the stores where we used to shop, and I visited none of the neighbors. It was a year when memory was an acid.

I began to develop the odd habits of the very lonely. I turned the stereo on as soon as I entered my apartment. I needed to hear another human voice and the companionship of noise, and I dreaded all moments of silence. I turned on every light in the apartment as I feared nighttime irrationally. I called my friends long distance, then would sometimes call them again. I invented excuses to call my friends in Atlanta. I would drink to the point of not caring that I was alone and lonely and desperate. Then I would call other friends in Atlanta. I cooked elaborate meals for myself, then would not be able to eat them.

My brain swam with images, with fantasies I could not control nor slow down. I worried about the men that Barbara would date. I knew I had no right to worry and I worried even more. I was afraid that she would date men who would be cruel to her, who would abuse her, who would be unworthy of her, who would take advantage of her loneliness and vulnerability, who would ignore the kids.

I wondered what movies they would see, where they would eat dinner, whether or not they would hold hands or make love, whether they would make love at Barbara’s house and if the children would know or hear. I had left Barbara, and I still had a primitive need to possess her. I wanted her to have a wonderful time with men, and at the same time I wanted her to have a terrible time. I wanted her to forget me; I wanted her to miss me.

I had entered into the dark country of divorce, and for a year I was one of its ruined citizens. I suffered. I suffered. I survived. For an entire year I studied myself on the edge, and I learned things that I could not have learned except through total submergence in grief and anxiety and guilt. I introduced myself to the stranger that lived within. It was at once the most painful and valuable year I have ever spent. That is the one gift of the dark country.

I want to write a novel one day and tell about the lives of American men and women in the Seventies and how they related to each other and, more significantly, how they failed to relate to each other. I will write about my divorce from Barbara, about my friends and how they reacted during the divorce, and about the kind men and women who helped pull me through it. If people did not understand what I was experiencing, there was at least a sublime heroism in their attempts to understand.

I want to tell about what I learned during my year of grief. I want to say in the book that in the Seventies I found myself locked in the dilemma of the American male. In that season of inestimable sadness, American women were beginning to find out exactly what was wrong with men, and they began writing and talking about it with extraordinary clarity and the gifts that came from centuries of studying the subject firsthand.

I will try to tell honestly what it was like for a woman to have a relationship with me and what I was thinking and how I was feeling toward her and how it seemed like a very bad thing to love me. Because I was raised an American male, I will tell that I did not learn to give or receive affection, that I did not learn to weep when I was hurting, that I did not learn to love women in ways that made them feel secure and desirable and needed. I will tell of the day I told the great Atlanta therapist, Marion O’Neill, that whenever I uttered the words “I love you” to a woman, they had the hollow dispossessed sound of someone ordering a meal for the first time in a foreign language. I will tell that I felt inexhaustible but inexpressible reserves of love within me, and I searched for women who were able to translate my silences, interpreters who understood about the inarticulate lover screaming from within.

I looked for women who would make me more like women. And it was unfair and cruel to all of them and far too much to ask. I will tell about listening to feminists and reading Ms. Magazine and feeling as if every one of the women had studied me personally for a very long time. I will tell about being an American male in the Seventies and how I became a feminist because I thought it right and because I knew it was my only hope and the only hope for other men like me.

Barbara and I have had one success in our divorce, and it is an extraordinarily rare one. We have remained friends, and when the residue of anger and hurt subsides with time, we have an outside chance of becoming best friends again. We meet each other for drinks or lunch occasionally, and I have become friends with her boyfriend, Tom Pearce. When she was graduated from Emory Law School, I gave her a party to celebrate. When I left the party, I looked back and saw Barbara and Tom holding hands. They looked very happy together, and it was painful to recognize it. I wanted to go back and say something to Tom, but I mostly wanted to say it to Barbara. I wanted to say that I admired his taste in women.

Follow Us