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  • Writer's pictureJanna Zonder

Pat Conroy Broke My Heart -- In the best possible way

I had not read Pat Conroy's novel, The Great Santini, when I walked into a movie theatre in 1982. I knew only that the film based on that book starred my favorite actor, Robert Duvall, in the title role, and the reviews from friends had been glowing.

Two hours later, long after the credits had rolled and the ushers were cleaning the room, I sat sobbing, unable to control the flood of grief I felt. A scene in the movie had catapulted me back to an event in my childhood. My sweet, young husband sat with me, held my hand, and listened. He had heard the story before, but neither of us had witnessed the depth of my sorrow and shame. I had minimized my childhood event, repressed my emotions, and moved on. Or, so I thought.

The Great Santini centers around a military family. The father, Bull Meecham, terrorizes his children and his wife. To outsiders, Meecham can be charming, funny, and even heroic, but in his own home, no one is safe from his toxic anger. His son, Ben, makes the mistake of beating his father in a game of basketball in their driveway. No one is watching except family members, but Bull Meecham cannot bear the humiliation. He threatens and harasses his son while bouncing a basketball off Ben's head.

When I was around nine, my mother suffered a devastating mental health crisis, and my stepfather and grandmother both began a descent into a long, losing battle with cancer in our home. When it became clear that my mother could no longer care for us, her sister and brother-in-law took us all in. My aunt had always wanted children so my two sisters and I fulfilled a need for her. My uncle did not want children -- especially girls, especially us -- but he succumbed to her persuasion that it was the right thing to do. I am grateful to both of them. I don't know how my family would have survived if they hadn't stepped in.

My uncle was a harsh, demanding man, not unlike Bull Meecham. His idea of raising children was to control their every movement and to narrow their thinking to his world view, while exhausting them with labor. So, we weren't allowed to participate in any extra-curricular school activities. But, when I was in the eighth grade, somehow I was allowed to play basketball on the junior varsity. Much to everyone's surprise, including my own, I was something of a prodigy. The clear leader of our team, I scored an average of 20 to 30 points per game. My coach's strategy was "feed Janna the ball."

Basketball was so much more than a game to me. It was a lifeline. While playing, I could soar above the crushing sorrow caused by the loss of my mother and grandmother. I could soar above the daily toil and exhaustion of farm life, and best of all, I could soar above the constant terror that I would do or say something to bring on my uncle's wrath. For the length of a game, I was free and powerful.

In the final game of the season to determine the county championship, our team lost by two points. I had played well, as had my teammates, but the game just wasn't ours to have. Our county had a tradition that the winning and losing teams would join together in a circle at the end of games and do a "solidarity" stomp. When the opposing team gathered in center court, I joined them. I didn't realize I was the only player from my team until I was already in the circle. I could have walked away in that moment, and perhaps I would have had I known more about tribalism, but I had grown up with the idea that an important part of being an athlete was to be a good sport. Instead of walking away, I did the stomp. As leader of the team, I believed I should make a statement about what was most important in the game and about who I was -- not just a player, but a person with values.

On the ride home, my uncle screamed at me. Hours into the night at home, he yelled, slammed doors, pounded the table, while holding me captive to it all. His anger went on for weeks, and could surface at any time. He said it looked like I had deliberately thrown the game and didn't care about my teammates. In his opinion, I was a person without merit.

My timid older sister dared to say, "She was just trying to be a good sport."

To which my uncle replied, "The world doesn't give a damn about good sports! The world cares about winners. The world cares about loyalty to your own people."

He let me finish out the season by playing in the county all-star game since I had been selected, and he didn't want to embarrass himself. I passed the ball off in that game every time I touched it and scored two points.

Then, he never let me play again.

I lost a key element of my self esteem during my uncle's tirade and didn't begin to recover it until I was an adult. My compassion for Ben, and my identification with him, in The Great Santini helped me see how deeply I had been damaged by my basketball experience. While I had already done a lot of work on undoing childhood traumas, Pat Conroy's willingness to expose his own raw sorrow helped me break through the wall around my heart. I began to chip away at the deepest strata holding that wall in place.

After the movie, of course, I became a huge fan of Conroy's writing and have since read all of his novels. Some more than once. Pat Conroy died a few years ago, and although I had never met him, I felt I had lost a friend. A few months ago, I was given the great honor of being selected as writer-in-residence at the Pat Conroy Center in Beaufort, SC. A friend told me that it was tradition to leave an object on Pat's headstone. Of course, my basketball memory and Pat's role in helping me heal came to mind immediately. I thought of leaving a miniature basketball, but couldn't find one.

Then, another memory came to mind. When I was in the ninth grade, I won a medal for

mathematics. I had the highest average in algebra for the entire high school. The next year, my uncle took me out of college prep and made me take secretarial courses. He wasn't going to spend "one more red cent" on me past high school. So, after algebra, I took bookkeeping, typing, and shorthand. The first year into my new high school program, I won a medal for shorthand.

I decided to leave my two medals at Pat's gravesite. As you can see, the mathematics one is bigger, with bold script and building blocks, set against a background of upward shooting rays, crowned by the lamp of knowledge. The mathematics medal shouts power and authority. The smaller shorthand medal whispers with delicacy and tact. It assures you that the winner has been properly trained to demurely sit across the desk from a man; to write his pearls of wisdom down at 80 per minute, transcribe them, and return them to him perfectly typed onto crisp, white paper.

The medals represent what happened to me in a way I've been trying to properly define for myself all these years. In athletics and scholarship, I was on a powerful, authentic path, only to be slammed off course by a frightened man who couldn't bear the thought of those qualities thriving in a girl.

I have always regretted that I didn't find a way to contact Pat Conroy and let him know what his writing has meant to me. So, this will have to do. This is my love letter to you, Pat. Thank you for cracking open your own heart, using the chisel of your brilliant words, your boundless compassion, and your fragile vulnerability. Your courage helped me to find mine.

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