The book would be overwhelmingly depressing were it not for the vast amount of good humor Conroy injects into this memoir. His gift of glib dialogue makes the reader smile, when often the reader would really be more inclined to gasp. Near the end of the book, Conroy writes that his parents taught their children how to die, with dignity, but perhaps, after reading it, the reader will surmise that they didn’t teach their children how to live…five of the seven tried to end their own lives; only one was ultimately successful. Blatant sibling rivalry was encouraged by Don and Peg Conroy. Favoritism was conspicuous. It is hard to understand the respect ultimately bestowed on two such flawed parents by very flawed children, yet defying common sense, Pat Conroy writes of a family that is truly loyal and, in the end, cares deeply for each other and each other’s well being. Pat Conroy carried his emotional and mentally scarred baggage throughout his life, as did his siblings, and yet, coupled with the dysfunction that the family dynamic encouraged, there was a devotion to each other, albeit infused with what seemed like hate at times, that almost, defies description.
Pat’s devotion to his mother sometimes seemed unnatural, over the top, in ways that seemed to lead him to his many mental breakdowns. His dislike for his father’s character, which he often saw in himself, had to also contribute enormously to his fragile state of mind. All of the siblings were damaged in some way or other. Tom committed suicide after suffering the demons in his mind until almost half way through his third decade of life. Carol Anne tortured her family with her narcissistic character in which she believed she suffered the most, was able to love more completely and could hate with ferocious intensity. Peg Conroy was a narcissist who demanded total fealty from her son Pat, expecting him to be her savior in all things. Don Conroy expected total obedience from his children and ruled the house with a military discipline. The background of both Pat and Don, led to their extreme expectations of all sorts of behavior.
Peg was a poor child from the south, surrounded by evangelicals, abandoned by her mother, as were all her siblings. She made up stories about her background, and Pat Conroy was complicit in helping her to create a false past. Her mother was like Auntie Mame to all who knew her. Don’s background was from poor Irish folk who turned a blind eye to the abuse his family suffered at his hand. They had their own peculiar idiosyncrasies as well. Don Conroy was decorated with many medals, as a marine, he was a war hero, but his children did not know about his medals for much of their lives. With all of the oddities of the families, it is not surprising that there were many challenges for the Conroy children to face. What is surprising is that they all grew up committed to each other and their parents and that any survived the traumas of their childhood.
The book is repetitive and tedious, at times, with far too many details repeated in chapter after chapter, as odd events are related from the points of view of different characters, and Pat’s emotional experiences with his siblings are retold again and again. He was held responsible for the well-being of his family by both mother and father; he could really forge no life of his own, and indeed, until the death of both parents, when he married again, he did not find peace. Conroy’s book opens a cracked and scarred window onto his childhood and the imperfect family that peopled his world and his worldview. They were self-absorbed above all else. Conroy’s humorous and expressive way of telling the story makes it easier to take than if he would have chosen to express it in a maudlin manner. It makes the intolerable tolerable, if that can ever be so. It makes the incomprehensible, comprehensible. He exposes the southern prejudices and bias dressed in a posture of arrogance and false strength. In the south, that posturing and stretching of the truth was an acceptable way of life. No two family members told the exact same story in the exact same way. Usually the details changed to favor the speaker rather than the truth.
The beginning of the book is more engaging than the second half. Once it becomes embroiled in family member’s histories, it becomes repetitive of necessity, as some stories intertwine with others, but there are simply too many words. The story becomes disjointed at times as Conroy retells facts again and again from different points of view in and out of the timeline. However, the book sure does lend truth to the saying that the sins of the father are revisited upon the sons, and it could also be said of daughters when it comes to the Conroy family.