THE DEATH OF SANTINI: The Story of a Father and His Son by Pat Conroy

The Death of Santini is Pat Conroy’s memoir about his love-hate relationship with his father. For those who have read the book or seen the film The Great Santini, it may also feel like a sequel—picking up where the autobiographical novel leaves off to show us what happened to the family members who were raised under the iron will of an extreme Marine. Within the first few lines I discovered The Death of Santini is a memoir, a sequel, and more importantly, a reference for how writers are born and shaped out of personal trauma.

I’ve been writing the story of my own life for over forty years. My own story has been my theme[…]It is both the wound and foundation of my work. 

Many writers, such as Jodi Picoult, have written superbly about writing about what you don’t know. Stretching one’s knowledge and imagination is a vital part of becoming a writer. But I believe, especially when a writer is starting out, the best gift you can give yourself is the emotional support to write honestly about what you do know without censoring. Unless we can embrace truth on a personal level, we will never be able to do so on an imaginary plane. For what is a writer, if not an overstuffed container of emotions and questions that must be channeled through a story in the hope of finding closure or enlightenment.

If I was going to be a truthful writer, I had to let the hate out into the sunshine. 

Truth—the essential ingredient for any written form that is destined to last. Find your truth and the readers will come. But Conroy learned, like the Greeks before him, that truth needs an imagination as much as tragedy needs comedy, to ensure life is portrayed in believable proportion.

My portrait of my father was so venomous and unforgiving that I had to pull back from that outraged narrative voice, and eventually decided to put the book in third person. But even then, the words flowed like molten steal instead of language[…]to make my father human, I had to lie. 

Of course, many writers have the opposite problem. By shying away from flaws they create overly sympathetic characters and the result is whining boredom. After reading The Death of Santini, it’s clear that one of Conroy’s strengths is his power of observation and ability to recognize personal flaws.

You sock me in the face and I’ll beat, the living shit out of you and toss your body in the casket with Tom, I said[…]sorry that the words had flown out of my mouth. 

His personal experience reminds him to allow his characters to say the most horrible things when they are under stress, for this is human behavior. Conroy’s portrayal of the human condition in all his stories is one of the reasons his books resonate with so many readers.

At one point Conroy says his mother always made him feel as if he was living inside a badly lit, moss-draped Southern movie. The facts within this memoir show he may very well have done so.

I was the oldest of seven children; five of us would try to kill ourselves before the age of forty. My brother Tom would succeed in a most spectacular fashion. 

I don’t know if I’ve seen a more powerful hook in the beginning of a memoir. The information sets the mood and peaks our curiosity. Conroy reinforces this hook, with particular attention to himself at least nine times. Each reference to his personal instability deepened my concern for him as a person and a writer. And I looked forward to learning how he was able to move through these dark moments of his life while he continued to write.

But I was misled. Conroy is forthcoming about his dysfunctional family. He shares how his ability to tell tales stems from his mother’s natural ability to lie. He has no reservation in pinpointing his sibling’s craziness or their incapacity to support each other emotionally with specific scenes from his past that illustrate his father’s inability to express love to his family. But Conroy never once shines a specific light on his personal struggle and triumph over his own demons. He sets us up, but never pays us off.

Or maybe his evasion is the biggest hook of all. I’m sure Conroy’s computer is filled with stories and I plan to stay tuned, and you can catch up with The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son.