The late South Carolina writer spent much of the last two years of his life telling his own life story to Katherine Clark. Next Tuesday, those interviews will appear in book form. In it, Conroy strips himself bare, just as his fiction whittled away at the pain of his harsh upbringing. And in this excerpt, he lays out how his childhood left him with a less than realistic view of sex — and love.
Except for two years at Beaufort High School, I went to Catholic schools all my life, and the Catholics got me. They fucked up everything connected with my dick and my brain. In sex education class, the nuns taught sex like it was something Tasmanian devils did to each other. Sister Skalaska made the vagina sound like a sewer pipe leading to hell. She told us about the hideous smells, and said, “I know you young men would never even think of putting your fingers in this.” She made it sound like the most repulsive thing you could do. She made the male organ sound like a rhinoceros schlong, like some loud beast you must learn to control, but of course it’s uncontrollable when confronted with a sewer-like vagina. The nuns made the girls think there was going to be this beast waiting for them in bed. He was going to come on like a Tyrannosaurus rex. “You must give of yourself because of children, but if it’s not giving you children, you can’t do it.”
On the playgrounds at school while all these boys and girls raced around having a ball, the nuns were watching with their peregrine eyes for any sign of sexual intent or a hard-on. When the bell rang, you had to freeze wherever you were, as though you had been turned into a pillar of salt, and you’re suddenly Lot’s wife. So you freeze in mid-stride or bent over double, and remain locked in these positions until the nun clangs her bell and then you walk to get in line. They had us completely trained.
But all of a sudden, I wake up one night to find I have a dick. I am completely stunned by the power of this thing, the power of this urge, which the Catholic Church simply tries to make you a soldier against when it comes up to you. No one had told me about nocturnal emissions. I thought I was bleeding to death. This was in ninth grade. God, it feels good to bleed to death. I touched some of the blood and saw it was white. It was a complete shock to me. All of a sudden something clicked: This is what they’ve been talking about. This is it. This is the great sin. This is what the nuns are worried about, the priests are worried about. And of course it’s easy to be good when you don’t have that to worry about. It’s really easy to be a good Christian boy. But to suddenly have this Vesuvius located directly inside you which you had no idea was there, no idea would explode out of you, changes everything. I could have been a priest if not for that. Still, I was the most virginal, ridiculous teenage boy who ever lived, the most Catholic kid in America, an altar boy from fourth grade all the way through the Citadel.
They scare you to death when you’re a little kid; that’s what the Catholics do to us. I was a little second-grade kid, and these nuns had Joycean powers of description about what hell was like. And I thought, Hmmm. It ain’t worth it. You mean I got to be good or I go there? I found it difficult when I was in second grade hearing that if I fucked up at all I would burn in hellfire for all eternity. I remember burning myself on a match and I found it rather painful, and then I thought, you know, this will end. But all eternity? I thought a school day lasted a long time, and I’m thinking good God Almighty, all eternity? This is a God you do not want to piss off. It just terrified me. All I could see were these nightmare scenarios of me playing with my small Chihuahua-size dick and God spying me when he was taking a smoking break.
In the time I grew up, you could go to hell and burn in eternal fires for eating a piece of ham on Friday. If you did not eat bream, trout, mackerel or herring, which my mother solved with fish sticks, you could go to hell, and I’m thinking, that is serious. The Catholics certainly gave us a sense of sin, of borders that we shouldn’t cross, and if we did, we knew we were displeasing not just the priest, not just our parents, we’re displeasing God. And if we did that, where were we going? To HELL. They’re very clear.
I am a nonbeliever in converts to Catholicism, because if you weren’t there in the trenches with an Irish nun giving you brain damage for not turning in your homework, I’m sorry, you’re not Catholic. These converts will Aquinas you to death, St. Augustine you to death, Thomas More you to death. It drives me crazy. There is nothing I believe in less than a Catholic conversion. Robert Coles — give me a break. Walker Percy — kiss my ass. In America you cannot be a Roman Catholic unless you were beaten up by a mustachioed 300-pound nun when you were an 8-year-old boy. If you don’t have that experience, you don’t know anything about the religion. For those who do have that experience, our souls are unrecapturable after a Catholic childhood. They got their hooks in me and that’s it. First they get the dick, then they get the brain, and you don’t ever get them completely back. It is all a story in being fucked up, completely screwed up, nuns teaching me sex. I am lucky one of those priests did not fuck me. Because in my life that would have been it.
In the Catholic culture you do not go toward near occasions of sin. To go to a party to hunt for girls, that’s a near occasion of sin. So I was uptight. I didn’t drink, so I was uncomfortable with parties, and I had no experience with women, so I was uncomfortable with them. In this world of sex I just never did very well. The Catholic thing held me back; my mother held me back. The Catholic Church did a real number on me. I missed quite a bit of the American sexual experience.
When I was in high school, there was a girl I liked, Terry Leite, who came out to the graduation hop my freshman year at the Citadel. I was smitten with her, and she seemed smitten with me. Mom sends me her usual five bucks for the date. Here is what saved me: I win the journalism award from The Brigadier for the best article, and I’m given $50, the most money I’ve ever seen in my life. So I take her to dinner. I don’t have to order water and a bean sprout. I’m so relieved.
We went to the hop. It was great. She stayed in the Charleston Inn, which I could walk to from the Citadel. We walked everywhere. We walked South of Broad. It was just beautiful, wonderful. We enjoyed each other. We liked kissing each other, and holding hands with each other. So anyway, I walk her back to the Charleston Inn after the hop. I said, “I’ll see you tomorrow morning for breakfast.”
I walk back to the Citadel and go to open the barracks gate. It is locked. There’s not a light on anywhere. I walk down to the gym trying to figure out how to get in. The gym’s locked, no lights, so I can’t get in the gym. I think I tried the visiting team room, couldn’t get in there. The whole campus was locked down. I try to figure out what to say to Terry because she’s this little virginal Catholic girl.
I go back to the Charleston Inn. I knock on her door. She’s got curlers in her hair.
She says, “Pat, what are you doing here? You’re not here for what I think you are?”
I said, “No, no.” I explained what had happened.
She was in her PJs, so she goes and puts Bermuda shorts on and this jacket she zipped up tight to her neck. Then she put her socks and tennis shoes on. She slept in her tennis shoes. So there was no point of entry, no point of sight that could arouse anything at all. A perfect Catholic girl.
I am horrified. She thinks I’m a rapist. She thinks I arranged this: “Aha, now I have you where I want you. I’ve fooled you, stupid little thing. Come into my trap.” Well, I’m dying. I’m utterly dying. I slept either on the floor or the couch, I cannot remember which one.
I took her to a nice breakfast; I think we went to the Francis Marion Hotel. It’s Sunday; we went to the cathedral and we again walked around the city, making plans to live there someday. We pass by the house that she and her second husband would live in one day.
Then she had to go back to Atlanta. She said, “Where are you going for the summer, Pat?”
I said, “I don't know. I hadn’t thought of it yet. My parents are in Omaha, Nebraska but they haven’t sent me a way home.”
She said, “Why don’t you come home with me?”
I said, “Would your parents mind?”
“Oh, they’d love it.”
So one of the great sexual nights of my life was that train ride through the night to Atlanta. We were Catholic: Our hands did not wander. She’s a good Catholic girl, I’m a good Catholic boy, and it’s a murderous combination. So we just kissed. But it seemed like heaven to me.
We get to the next day. Her boyfriend in Atlanta is waiting to take us home. It was the most uncomfortable ride I think I’ve ever had in my life. She forgot to tell me about the boyfriend. Terry called me a couple years ago to tell me he had died. I said, “Finally, my guilt is resolved.” So he takes us to her home in Atlanta, at 1988 Timothy Drive, and I stayed there about two or three days until Mom and Dad finally sent me a ticket by train to Omaha.
I wrote her all summer, every day from Omaha. They are the most hilarious, obnoxious, boy-in-love, boy-trying-to-be-a-writer letters you’ve ever seen in your life. Overwritten does not even begin to describe it. They were awful, awful, awful, but I now look at them as a treasure trove of a young man trying to become a writer and impress a girl with his writing ability, of which I had none. All I had was sperm-filled emotions and fantasies of making it out of this uptight Catholic-riddled body. I did not have proof that she was even alive during that time because she never wrote back once. But she saved all the letters, because she thought I was going to be a writer, and she still has them.
Every time I came through the Atlanta airport on the Christmas road trip for the basketball team, I’d call Terry. That was basically the entire sexual history of my life at the Citadel, those Christmas phone calls. I never dated anyone seriously.
My one serious relationship in college was Mary Alice, who I went out with one time in high school. I’ve dated every girl in the world once. She was wonderful, but Dad controlled that one. I didn’t have a driver’s license, so I had to double date; if I couldn’t double date I couldn’t date. And of course, I had no money. It costs money to go to the movies.
“Why don’t you go on base? It’s only a dime.”
“Mom, I can’t go on base. I’m doubling with the guys. They’re going downtown.”
“Well, I think it’s a waste of money.”
So Mary Alice, I just dated her one time.
Well, I’m a sophomore at the Citadel, not a very happy one, but I was playing pretty good basketball my sophomore year. And I get this letter from Gene Norris: “Pat, Mary Alice got pregnant,” by a redneck, our class redneck. “And we don’t know where she is. We think she’s in West Virginia because that’s where her family is from. You’re going to play the University of West Virginia next week. Could you look up these names in the telephone book and call?”
So when I got up there, I looked it up, called, found out from one of them that Mary Alice was living on Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina, which is outside Charleston. So when I got back, I wrote her a note. “Dear Mary Alice, we were in Miss Baumgartner’s geometry class together. We even dated once, and I thought you might need some help, thought you might need some company.” At that time, getting pregnant was the ultimate humiliation and nightmare for a girl.
I went out after a game. There are these two women staying in a shack on Sullivan’s Island with nothing, no money. Mary Alice and her mother. I loved her mother, but she was a nutcase. Mary Alice was obviously very unhappy. So I started going out there each weekend, and I was a goner. I had never been in love with anybody, never dated. Of course, I’m not dating her, because she’s pregnant. But I just thought, my God, this is it. She would drive me back to the barracks sometimes, and on one of these trips she leaned over and kissed me. That was as far as it went. I was such a good little Catholic boy, I cannot tell you. It never even occurred to me that anything else should go on. My friends can’t believe I did not make love with her, but I didn’t because I thought she’d be hurt by that. She didn’t need that. She didn’t need me in that particular way.
But we made plans that I was going to quit the Citadel, we were going to get married. I had some other schools interested in me for basketball at that time. So I was going to write them and see if I could transfer. I was going to work in the summer, work at night, and I thought we could do it.
We were playing Furman when she was getting ready to have that baby. Away at Furman, I get an emergency phone call from her mother that she’d just taken Mary Alice to the hospital. The baby was born dead with the cord wrapped around her throat. At least, that’s what they told me. Now, I must have known 25 kids born in Charleston around that time who have come to see if they were Mary Alice’s child. One was not long ago, in fact.
“I used to dream you were my father.”
And I said, “Well, if you were Mary Alice’s child, I would not have been your father. But I would have raised you.”
I have no idea if the baby died or made it into Catholic Services.
When I returned to the Citadel, I couldn’t go until that weekend to see Mary Alice. As soon as I walked in the door, it was different. Boom. She wouldn’t look at me, wouldn’t talk to me, wouldn’t talk to me on the phone, wouldn’t answer my letters. A couple weeks later, I get a letter from her. It said, “Dear Pat, you were so sweet to me during this. But the two people who remind me of the worst time in my life are my mother and you. You were here and you saw me at my worst, my lowest. I’m very sorry about this, I regret this.”
Oh, Christ, Jesus. It completely shattered me. It had never occurred to me they could fall out of love with you. I thought once you fell in love, that was it, and I was going to love Mary Alice for the rest of my life; she was going to love me for the rest of her life. We were going to spend our life together, it was going to be great and that was it. It never occurred to me that the girl or boy could say no. I didn’t know that. It had never occurred to me you could love somebody that much and then have it flung back in your face, not because you’re an asshole, but because you weren’t. I could not get it. And, I was like, my gosh, she needs to like me. What it was, I now realize: I took advantage of this girl’s complete, abominable loneliness.
I also think my mother probably got to Mary Alice in some way, although I do not know that. This could be just my ego: My male ego was so badly hurt that it still hasn’t recovered. But I do know Mom had caught wind of it and was not pleased.
“I hear you’re dating a pregnant woman. I will never accept her.” You know, “We’ve put all our dreams and hopes on you.”
I said, “Mom, I’m so sorry. I fell in love with this girl.”
And she said, “This will never ever be something that we can approve of. We’ll never speak to you or your wife or her child.”
Gene told me this much later. He said, “Your mother called me a lot during that time, Pat, and she was highly disapproving.” But Gene would always take Mom’s side. “She wanted better for you. She didn’t want you to marry a used car.”
Notice: I married used cars all the way down the line. I only married used cars. I never married an unused car. For one thing, I was not interested in sleeping with a virgin, ever. I did not want that on my plate at all.
Mary Alice was the great Nagasaki at the beginning of my life. My junior year is a lost year; I just remember being in pain the whole year. I didn’t date after her, didn’t meet girls when I was at the Citadel. Except for Mary Alice, I’d never dated anybody seriously, and you can’t say I dated Mary Alice seriously since I took care of her during the last five months of her pregnancy. But that was my one serious relationship in college.
Then, the first woman I asked to marry me turned me down. I met her when I went to get a summer job after I graduated from the Citadel. She was also getting a job. In the summers, migrant workers came to work at the farms on the islands, and in Charleston there was a school for their kids. I was the athletic director in charge of sports.
Marnie was a beautiful, golden-haired Charleston girl with an impeccable name: Huger. But they had moved out of South of Broad, because when you run out of money, you’re run out of the house South of Broad. Aristocrats can forgive anything except when you run out of money. Still, her name could not have been more glorious. We were together all summer; I met her family and they sort of took me in.
Then I went to teach in Beaufort and she went back to a tiny little Protestant college in North Carolina. In one of the first letters I wrote her, I said, “Dear Marnie, It’s obvious I love you, and I think we ought to plan to get married.” I go on in my florid, overheated style, offering myself, my life, my love.
She writes back a very nice letter rejecting the proposal, and giving me some advice. “Pat, with the next girl you want to marry, I would suggest you might want to hold hands with her, or even kiss her before you make the proposal.”
So Conroy’s sex life sailed on, a battleship fully armed and loaded, ready for action, entering the South China Sea.
This excerpt is adapted from “My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy as Told to Katherine Clark,” forthcoming March 13, 2018, and is printed with permission from the University of South Carolina Press.