Tonight, the writing world lost a giant, Pat Conroy. I fell in love with Conroy’s writing when I was living and teaching in the Lowcountry (South Carolina), Conroy’s home territory. I was privileged and honored to be able to interview Conroy by phone in 2005 for a seminary paper. I post that paper here tonight in gratitude for the time he took to talk with me, and in honor of one of my most favorite authors.
Although Pat Conroy is a longtime novelist and his most recent book, My Losing Season, read likes a novel, it is actually an autobiography. Tracing the life of Pat Conroy from his childhood to the present day, My Losing Season focuses on Pat’s senior year on the basketball team at The Citadel, a rigorous military school in Charleston, South Carolina. While the 1966-67 basketball season was a disappointment for most involved, Mr. Conroy calls it “the finest year of my life (Conroy, 366).” During this year, when The Citadel Bulldogs lost twice as many games as they won on the basketball court (Conroy, 395), Conroy found himself. After years of doubt and uncertainty, Pat Conroy found his voice, the confidence that would make him the Most Valuable Player on the 1966-67 Citadel basketball team and one of the finest novelists of the late 20th century.
“We are all the ages we have ever been (Kelcourse, 5).” In reading My Losing Season, it becomes clear that every day Pat carries with him the marks of his childhood, a childhood defined by an abusive military father and frequent moves that are characteristic of military life. Conroy’s childhood engrained in him a feeling of self-doubt that followed him to The Citadel and haunted him well into his adulthood. Mr. Conroy makes no effort to hide this fact in My Losing Season, but he also makes clear that – despite that feeling of doubt – there emerged in his senior year at The Citadel a sense of confidence and identity which did not exist before. “Not once since [my senior year] have I felt so fully alive, so vital and necessary (Conroy, 366).”
Pat Conroy was raised in a Catholic family. As a young boy, Pat got his education from the Catholic school in whatever town or city his family was living at the time. Only for the last few years of his high school career was he in a public school. He and his family attended church regularly, and as a senior in college, he took Mass everyday (Conroy, 275). The devotion of Mr. Conroy to his Christian faith cannot be questioned. Yet, even amid the regular practice and rhythm of his spiritual life, doubts arose. To an extent, that doubt centered on his faith in God, but for the most part the doubt that Pat Conroy kindled in his late adolescent and young adult years was a self-doubt. This self-doubt was the obvious product of living in a home with an abusive father who never showed any signs of approval or love toward his children. As Conroy worked his way through The Citadel and the harsh plebe system of that military college, his doubt manifested itself in many ways and was apparent even to his professors, one of whom said:
You are far too young to know this, but your life is precious and your time is short.You are blind to yourself, Mr. Conroy. You’re too hard on yourself. For reasons I don’t understand, you are deeply unhappy, and it pains me. Know this. I think you could be special if you only thought there was anything special about yourself. Someone has taught you to hate yourself (Conroy, 144).
Conroy’s self-doubt continued even into his senior year, and it was fueled by such things as not getting a starting position on the basketball team and being told by the coach, Mel Thompson, that he was just a mediocre ball player (Conroy, 140). Mel Thompson’s cries of mediocre were just a continuation of the haunt that began in childhood with a father who beat Pat for laziness if he played poorly and for ego if he played well. It is no wonder that doubt became such an identifying tattoo on the personality of Pat Conroy.
Yet, even as Pat wallowed in a sea of self-doubt, surrounded by an entire basketball team in no better condition, he turned to God for support.
I sent out a silent prayer above the Ashley River. I asked God to let good things happen to me this last basketball season, a season I could look back on without shame…and that I be granted a sign that I was supposed to write for a living (Conroy, 145).
Throughout his senior season as a Citadel basketball player, Conroy would throw up prayers to God, asking for a good game or thanking God after a win. But as his senior year progressed, those prayers would evolve:
All season long, I would look for signs of His imminence and concern in my daily affairs. I prayed hard and only gradually became aware that this fierce praying was a way of finding prologue and entrance into my own writing…When I thought God had abandoned me, I discovered that He had simply given me a different voice to praise the inexhaustible beauty of the made world (Conroy, 189).
As is apparent, even as Conroy turned to God in the issues that marked his day-to-day life, there existed some doubt about the role that God would play in his life and in his own faith. Conroy says of this feeling, “I immediately thought of God and how I was afraid I was losing my faith in Him and the immensity of the fear and cowardice I felt when I thought of facing the world without Him (Conroy, 275).” And despite the fear, doubt, and self-loathing that plagued Mr. Conroy, God stepped in.
The consequence of the doubt in Pat Conroy’s life, particularly during his last season as a basketball player, was the emergence of an identity. Out of his searching, Conroy found a confidence that had eluded him since childhood, an assurance of his own self-worth, and a calling to the vocation of his childhood dreams, writing. God made His appearance in Conroy’s life in the form of a voice. A voice, ironically enough, that Pat eventually recognized as that of his father (Conroy, 217). Conroy calls this voice his writer’s voice, never actually naming it the voice of God, but one can easily see God at work in the life of this beleaguered ball player searching for assurance even amid torrents of doubt. Of this voice, Conroy says, “It riveted me with its absoluteness of vision, its breathtaking assurance (Conroy, 217).” As Conroy came to heed the voice that spoke to him several times that season, his since of identity blossomed. James Fowler says that “identity is found in losing the self in the service of a transcendingly important, if finite, cause (Fowler, 21).” Pat Conroy found such a cause in basketball. At first, he was just a mediocre point guard. Then a voice came calling that told Pat he was better than mediocre, and Pat listened to that encouragement and became a “point guard who you needed to watch (Conroy, 398).” Even as Mr. Conroy was coming to identify himself as a point guard, he was also coming to identify himself as a writer. The voice that had called him out of deep self-loathing was also the voice that would speak to him as he wrote, inspiring within him the words that have touched so many in the last 30 years. He had found his identity in that voice, the voice of God, which called him not mediocre, but great – a great point guard, a great writer, a great person.
Pat Conroy’s senior year at The Citadel was a fitting capstone to his life as a child and adolescent in the military household of The Great Santini, which is what Conroy often called his father. The losing season that carried with it at every corner the negative feedback of the team’s coach, Mel Thompson, seemed like the only natural conclusion to a childhood that was filled with negativity and abuse from a father who felt his children could never do anything right. Over the years, this damaging onslaught from father and coach chiseled into Conroy a profound sense of doubt, not only in himself, but also in God and his own faith. Yet even in his doubt, Pat heard a voice. Even as his coach told him he was mediocre, this voice told him he was great. And Pat learned to listen to that voice until it became engrained in him, enabling him to recognize his own self-worth, giving him the identity that carried him through the remainder of that harrowing season and into his adult life. The voice that told Conroy he was worth something is also the voice that comes to him as he writes the novels that have now made him famous. But the writing of these novels has carried an even greater significance in the faith life of Pat Conroy, “It’s the form that praying takes in me (Conroy, 303).”
There is much to be learned about life and faith in My Losing Season, and the same can be said of all of Conroy’s novels. Each of Conroy’s novels carries with it some piece of his soul, some mark of his personality that can find no other escape. While My Losing Season is very good in its own right, revealing the struggles and small triumphs of a struggling college basketball team, it is very different from all of Conroy’s other works. If you come to My Losing Season expecting a spell-binding work of fiction, you will be disappointed. I would recommend this book because of its stark honesty, but it is not like Conroy’s other books. This autobiography is meticulous and precise, sparing no detail of that ill-fated season in Citadel basketball season. At times My Losing Season is even tedious, but tedium must also have marked that season for those twelve Bulldogs. The entire book is written so that it feels like sitting on the floor just behind the home bench; we have front row seats not only to every basketball game The Citadel played that year, but also to the life of Pat Conroy. As Conroy retraces his steps in that long ago time and place, we see most importantly that the presence of faith does not mean the absence of doubt. But even in doubt, faith grows as the believer comes to find his or her God-given identity. That still, small voice speaks to us even when it seems that God has all but abandoned us. Pat Conroy, the abused son of a Marine fighter pilot and the Most Valuable Player on a basketball team that had little to value, knows this to be true. What will it take for us to heed that voice?
Conroy, Pat. My Losing Season. New York: Bantam Books, 2003.
Fowler, James W. Stages of Faith. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1981.
Kelcourse, Felicity B. Human Development and Faith: Life-Cycle Stages of Body, Mind, and
Soul. St. Louis, MI: Chalice Press, 2004.