One Big Happy


I don’t believe in happy families.–Pat Conroy

On Saturday mornings I sit in a community room at a local mental health facility. I’m at a training for folks who have mentally ill family members. I am a facilitator at this event, but I am also a participant; the learning and the sharing help me too.

We talk about medication and treatment and how mental illness is physical illness, a question, often, of chemicals.  A question of synapses that fire when they shouldn’t–or don’t fire when they should. We talk about the emotional and social and personality changes that often take place in a sunny and beloved child or sibling growing into maturity. We talk about how it’s easy to forget the underlying physical cause and react to the in-your-face, outrageous demand or behavior.

We explore what to do, how to respond, stimuli and causes, who can help. We remember that our loved one is a person with amazing strengths who gives us joy as well as challenge. We think about the changes any chronic, serious, illness brings, and we talk about stages of acceptance. We forgive ourselves in advance for the times we’ll fail to respond perfectly, and we seek to build support systems along with our growing understanding.

People share their stories on Saturday mornings; they share their stories and their laughter and their tears and their cold hard fear of the future.

The curriculum gives us all a reassuring sense. This is hard, we agree, hard, but worthwhile. Becky tells us about her daughter; the young woman, 28, has found the right medication, the right therapist, the right situation. She has gotten herself a job and an apartment and a group of friends. Although it is not the same life envisioned twelve years ago when her illness began to make itself felt, she has dignity and independence and support. She has a future. There is joy and hope in a life where once crisis reigned.

As a group, we can see futures shining up over horizons.

With these Saturday mornings as background, I read Pat Conroy’s The Death of Santini.

It’s a hard book to read, Conroy’s memoir. It was published in 2013, three years before he died, very quickly, of pancreatic cancer that must have raced through his system. His book centers around the deaths of his parents and the loss of his brother, Tim; it talks about the instability of Conroy’s sister, Carol.

Conroy’s mother, Frances “Peg” Conroy, was the first to pass, on November 17, 1984.

My mother had never been affectionate with her children; she was the kind of woman you had to learn to love through interpretation, osmosis, or guesswork.

Conroy writes about his mother’s childhood–how her mother, Stanny, took off one bleak day during the Depression, hitched a ride to Atlanta, got a job in a fancy department store, never looked back. She did, after remarrying and getting herself established, bring her children out of their barebones, hillbilly existence, and relocate them in the city.

Stanny had been married off when she was eleven, and, while she didn’t hide her marriage from her next husband, she did gloss over some of the details. When she brought her children down to live with her several years after she left, only Peg, the youngest, could admit to being her daughter. The rest had to pose as Stanny’s siblings.

After their mother left them, the children’s father heard the call of God, wandering the hills to share the Word. He left his children to care for themselves, and they were dependent on charity. When the children reunited with their mother, resentments smoldered but were never addressed.

Peg grew into a blazingly beautiful young woman who met Don Conroy on the streets of Atlanta, married the dashing young Marine, and began a family.

Conroy says Peg dressed herself beautifully and meticulously, but clad her children in odd and mismatched cast-off clothing. She failed to protect them from their father’s brutality; she didn’t leave him even when things got very bad. She undermined her daughters, particularly. She withheld her affection and exploded into outrageous, prolonged emotional reactions when snubbed or slighted. She read to her children; she imbued her children with a love or words.

She divorced Don after most of the children had left the home; she married a kind, reserved military doctor; she died too young.

Was she mentally ill?


I never got to know my brother Tom.

Conroy was 15 when Tom was born; he was involved in sports and school and getting away from his dysfunctional family. By the time Pat was an adult, married for the second time, and accessible again to his brother, Tom’s illness had spiraled out of control.

Tom spent a week covered with leaves, resting in a woods. He reported lying so still that deer would come and lick the sweat from his forehead. When he returned to his mother’s house, emaciated, dehydrated, filthy and covered with tick bites, they cleaned him up and dithered about what to do.  Tom was hearing voices, voices that  told him to be one with nature, to escape the conflict of everyday life. Pat tried to take Tom home with him, but Tom bolted into a crowd and ran away.

Hospitalizations, treatments, the assignments of siblings as caretakers…and then a leap from a ten story building ended Tom Conroy’s tortured life.


“Hey, Carol,” I said, “shut the fuck up.”

And there was Carol Ann, Conroy tells us, who’d escaped from the family to live in New York City, who wrote gorgeous poetry, who created her own story of the Conroy clan. When a family member died, Carol claimed that person–suddenly she had been the one who was closest, the only one who understood.

She jumped out of moving vehicles; she tried to shove pills down the throats of dear ones so sick they could not swallow. She stalked front yards, talking to unseen companions. She was hostile and aggressive, and she angered Pat, who fought with with her.

There is little doubt that Tom and Carol Ann suffered from mental illness.


In his last weeks my father told me, “I was always your best subject, son. Your career took a nosedive after The Great Santini came out.”

And his father.  Logically, one would think a person would shut the door on a parent so abusive.  When Conroy moved to Atlanta, though, after his parents’ divorce, he had coffee with the Great Santini every morning. I think about the relentless pull all parents–even abusive ones–have on their children. I think about abused spouses who never leave.

Don Conroy was the product of a grim family himself, and the odd survivors pepper the book–Don’s boring, violent, priestly brother, his profane sister who was also a nun. The grandparents, the other siblings,–all of whom were furious at Pat’s depiction of his father in Santini.

Don Conroy verbally abused his children after they were too old for physical abuse; he didn’t tell them they were loved; and he demanded attention and attendance. And they, for the most part, gave it. When Don died, the surviving children were devastated, and the church was packed. The man who inspired fear and hatred also inspired great love and admiration.
How much, I wonder, of Pat Conroy’s story is the story of untreated, or ineffectively treated, mental illness?

Pat himself suffered from regular breakdowns; he slides the fact that he was often suicidal into the book. He praises his therapist and he talks about her redemptive abilities.

His siblings do that dark-humored Irish Catholic thing: they laugh inappropriately at funerals, they mock the serious heartaches.

That’s a tendency I’ve lived with. That’s also denial.  And maybe a symptom, too.


What if, what if, what if? 

I know an amazing woman who works with families that are throttled by violence yet bound with love. Keeping everyone safe, getting everyone the counseling, medication, on-going care they need, this dedicated professional and her staff work with families that want to try. They find ways for them, often, to stay intact, to be places of healing and support rather than danger and degradation.

What if Conroy’s family had been privy to that kind of caring intervention?

What if each of his parents had had therapy to learn to reconcile the pain of their upbringings? What if there had been careful observation and diagnosis to address the possibility of mental illness?

What if all the family members had had help and intervention? What if there’d been better understanding, at the time, of schizophrenia and bipolar disease? What if they’d found the right help, had the right supports? What if someone had helped them find the tools to help each other?

What if, what if, what if?

I look up Conroy’s webpage; he died early this year. This month, Charleston will host a literary festival in his honor, a spin-off of his 70th birthday celebration, a party that become a three-day festival of words. (  Journalist Adam Parker writes about its origin in an article in the Charleston Post and Courier; he says event organizer Jonathan Haupt approached Conroy after the 70th birthday bash.

Parker writes that Haupt said to the author, “So what if we do something like this every year?”

Haupt says that Conroy retorted, “Oh, yeah? Over my dead body.”

And so, in that time-honored, dark-humored fashion,  they took him at his word.


I once read a book by an author on writing; I cannot remember the title or the author’s name, but I remember a point she made, early on. Every writer, she says, has a ‘child hole,’–an unbearably empty space from the childhood years. Writing is a way–or an attempt, at least–to fill that hole.

Certainly that was true of Pat Conroy, whose work is beloved.

Certainly that is true of many great writers and artists and performers.

But what does that mean? Illness and adversity do seem to trigger creativity, but are they necessary? Does the illness have to be untreated for the creativity to flare into a steady burn?

There is a fine line, we are told, between genius and insanity. But I have got to believe that, the insanity addressed, the genius will remain.

We are moving, I think,–slowly, but steadily,–into a time of greater understanding. I envision people gathering in rooms to talk about mental illnesses and then taking their understanding into a society that listens to them and supports them. This can become, I think, a time of change and beauty.

And with that healing, the genius and the creativity don’t have to be stilled. But maybe they’ll be changed.  Maybe the next Pat Conroy will write a novel of a man who found redemption before his oldest son–before all of his children–were irreversibly scarred. Maybe the rest of the stories that writer has to share will have different endings, too.

We grow too old wise, my mother used to say, but as I settle into the challenge and comfort and support of those Saturday morning sessions,–settle in with the sadness of Conroy’s last memoir present in my thinking,–I thank whatever powers that be that we still, whenever, can grow.


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