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Pat Conroy’s new book "The Death of Santini" has been in the news lately. Like "The Great Santini," this novel is superbly written and tells a riveting story about Conroy’s own experience in a military family plagued by the pilot-father’s violent abuse.
Conroy well deserves all the acclaim his books have won him. He also gets my applause for drawing media attention to military family life—a phenomenon that’s still under-recognized in American culture.
Military children will find much that’s familiar in the Santini novels. Conroy details his experiences of his father’s violence in resonant ways and gives disturbing pictures of things that happened in his household. But I want to shout out in response to the zillion times I’ve been asked if our household was like that of Santini, NO, IT WASN’T. Some Army kids, of course, had to endure domestic violence, and many of our fathers were rigid, tough men who were often hard to talk to. Most of our fathers, thought, were not systematically violent, vicious, and destructive like Pat Conroy’s father was.
One of the reasons I write is that, while abuse is rightly the focus of Conroy’s new book, emotional trauma often comes to military kids from other sources: from events and rituals that were built into the very fabric of military life. As a fighter pilot, my father was deployed to war many times. My mother, sisters and I lived through the days and nights of his absence consistently frightened. Of course, things were far worse for Dad himself, enduring the great dangers of life in a warzone. Nevertheless, for us kids, the nightmares could start almost as soon as he left home. I remember waking up in the middle of the night, sweating and panicking at images of my father in a Vietnamese jungle, captured, getting tortured, or trying to find his way to safety—hungry, thirsty, terrified every second. The nightmares left their residues during the day, and I was frightened all the time.
The famous moving that military kids have to go through can be a source of enduring emotional difficulty too. My family moved some twenty times before my father retired. I went to fourteen different schools by the time I finished high school. This is a common experience for military kids. Moving on average every two years meant our education was repeatedly cut off. We had to scramble to figure out where students at every new school were in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Moving brought on endless social embarrassments. At times there were no base schools, and my parents often sent us to Catholic schools. You had to learn to introduce yourself to kids who didn’t want to meet you. They’d known each other since kindergarten and saw you as a stranger. You were weird and irrelevant. These experiences were, and I would venture to say still are, extremely difficult for children to endure.
I believe these kinds of trauma need to be on the table in conversations about what military kids go through, apart from what happens inside our families. Writing about my years as a military kid in "Fighter Pilot's Daughter" helped me understand much about the trauma I went through. Since it was published, many friends who’ve read the book have said they feel like they know my family. I feel somewhat less of a stranger because of it.
But the experiences of military kids and spouses still are little understood in our time. Conroy’s books are among the best for their honesty, their sharp clarity, and the pain they elicit in readers for the boy, later young man, and his siblings who suffered so much. This is a unique story about a unique family and doesn’t stand as a representative military family experience. As Conroy asserts very clearly at the beginning of The Death of Santini, he’s been writing about his OWN life for more than forty years.