Saturday night, I sat in my car and cried as I listened to NPR. Pat Conroy, the beloved author of The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline and The Prince of Tides, has died. Conroy — who announced last month that he had pancreatic cancer — died Friday night at his home among his family in Beaufort, S.C. He was 70 years old. Conroy was a wonderful storyteller. It’s not because of his writing ability that I was so sad about his death, but because one of my best memories of my mother is associated with Conroy.
Back when I was still an undergraduate, he came and spoke at my college. I took my mother to see him, since he was one of the great southern writers of the time. Back then, before I came out, my mother and I had a great relationship. I’m still her cultured child, and we enjoyed events like this. But it isn’t just going to the event with my mother, but the fact that the main thing he talked about was how much he loved his mother.
I remember how proud I was that I was there with my mother. It’s one of my fondest memories of her. As a child, she would sing to my sister and me. When a song came on the radio or on TV we would often dance. It was through her that I learned to dance. I love my mama, even if we don’t agree about my sexuality. No matter what my mother and I have as differences today, that night with Pat Conroy was one of the most special of my life.
Pat Conroy was a master storyteller, blending the raw material of his difficult family life with the landscape of coastal South Carolina. In 1986, Conroy said that the reason he wrote was to explain his own life to himself. “Writing has been not therapeutic for me, but it has been essential,” he said in an interview for NPR’s Morning Edition. “I have written about my mother, my father, my family … and if I get it on paper, I have named the demon.”
Pat Conroy was born in 1945 in Atlanta. He was a self-described “military brat.” His family moved every year until they settled in Beaufort when he was 12. In his 1976 book The Great Santini, Conroy wrote about his relationship with his abusive father, a Marine aviator. After high school, Pat Conroy’s father sent his oldest son to The Citadel, Charleston’s storied military academy, where Pat began to write fiction. Conroy said his natural storytelling ability was never affected by literary theory. “I missed all the classes in the art of fiction,” Conroy said in 1986. “We didn’t have any. I’m great on military science. But I missed all the classes on ‘Is this a great technique for fiction?’ I never learned any of that stuff.”
His education as a writer came elsewhere. “I came from a family of great storytellers,” he said. “That is something about the South I think has been preserved. The yarn, the story, and the ability to tell one well, is a beloved trait in several of my uncles and aunts. And a great story changes the world for you — changes the way you look at life.”
Pat Conroy said he looked for stories that told something about the world that he didn’t know before. And he said he faced challenges along the way. “The one thing I’ve had is a very painful life filled with utter moments of great joy. Things happen to me for reasons I cannot figure out. And things have continued to happen to me all my life, and happen to my family all my life, and now happen to my friends. … What I hope is that I don’t die before I can tell all the stories I still haven’t told.”
Conroy was telling those stories until the end. Before he died he finished a short novel called Aquarius, set in the Vietnam era, and dedicated to his “friends who become teachers.” I will always remember him for that night when he spoke about his mother so fondly, as I sat next to my own mother.