“The reason I write is to explain my life to myself. I’ve also discovered that when I do, I’m explaining other people’s lives to them.” – Pat Conroy
At some hazy point in college, between freshman and sophomore year I found myself in Professor Bates Comp II class. Up to this point I had taken more than a few English courses. I was, after all, an English Major. While I loved to read, I had suffered through a number of overly worded classics and obscurely worded contemporary classics. When we’d finish the book, I’d wait the professor to tell us what it meant. Take my notes, pass the class.
Professor Bates was a different sort though. The books on our list for the semester remain with me all these years later. He had a conspiratorial way of speaking to us, like he was letting us in on the secrets of the world. And with books like “Bartleby the Scrivener”, “Beloved”, and The Prince of Tides, I suppose he was.
Of all I learned in that early required English course, the lessons from Prince of Tides resonated with me the most. The story was so raw. So painful and beautiful. It was the first book that made me cry. It still does, when I come back to it every so many years, ready to re-embrace the tragic Wingo family.
Conroy had his own tragic childhood, one which he laid bare to the world in “The Great Santini” and “The Lords of Discipline”, alienating himself further from his family and former classmates (however, later his father claimed the movie version of The Great Santini gave actor Robert Duvall his career).
The Prince of Tides” drew from his childhood in South Carolina, the story of Tom Wingo, a man blowing in the wind as a result of his tragic and eccentric family. His parents are equal parts demons and heroes, as Conroy masterfully captures the extremes of humanity in a way everyone can relate to. As Tom works with his sister psychiatrist to save her from the weight of their shared past, their story, of the hardships of family, of the pains and joys of growing up, and the tragedies unique to their family, unfolds with devastating clarity. A brutal father, a mother who plays the roles of both goddess and destroyer. The older brother of unflinching ideology and strength. And at last, Tom is forced to make a decision, to take hold of his own destiny and choose to give up his happiness to steer the shrimping boat of his family toward something that resembles peace.
Conroy laid his soul out for the world to see. He took the beatings that came with it and gave us more. His characters walk in the hearts of his readers and so, Pat Conroy does as well.
“But it is the secret life that sustains me now, and as I reach the top of the bridge I say it in a whisper, I say it as a prayer, as regret, and as praise. I can’t tell you why I do it or what it means, but each night when I drive toward my southern home and my southern life, I whisper these words: “Lowenstein, Lowenstein.” “