When all is well in the writing life of Pat Conroy, words flow to the page like a Low Country river -- rich with life, sweeping along toward something bigger and grander as the current builds strength and momentum.
Yet, the waters are treacherous, too. Conroy tends to populate his novels with just about everyone who ever made his life miserable, and they emerge on the page as violent, tyrannical dads, beautiful but duplicitous moms, all of them lording it over fractured homes where horrible things come to pass.
Reading about them can be like eavesdropping on a therapy session, albeit a lively and stylish one, an observation that wouldn't surprise either Conroy or his psychotherapist in South Carolina, Dr. Marion O'Neill.
"Depression has formed the underpinnings of my entire career as a writer," Conroy said in an interview yesterday. "... My shrink thinks that when I was getting beat up by my father as a little boy, what I would do is go into that place where I go now when I write. She said, 'I see you do it in therapy. You'll be talking and I'll lose you.' "
Conroy credits the more conventional brand of psychotherapy -- the kind provided by a doctor, not his writing -- with saving his life, by helping him outrun childhood demons that have pursued him through breakdowns, recurring thoughts of suicide, two broken marriages and, somehow, the writing of six autobiographical novels.
That road of self-discovery is what brought him to Baltimore yesterday, as the day's final speaker at the 14th Annual Symposium on Mood Disorders Research and Education, held at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Conroy, 54, came by his fictional material the hard way. "The Lords of Discipline" (1980), a novel of a cadet's ordeal at a South Carolina military college, was drawn straight from the brutal hazing he endured during his plebe year at The Citadel. In writing it, he broke the school's unwritten code of silence, infuriating administrators and alumni.
But that was nothing. Four years earlier, he'd broken his family's code of silence with the publication of "The Great Santini," an emotional portrait of a boy who keeps seeking the love of his brutal and iron-willed father, who, just like Conroy's dad, was a Marine Corps test pilot.
It and the novels that followed plumbed ever deeper into the secrets of the turbulent Conroy household, a place where the children referred to their mother's miscarriages as "the lucky ones" of the brood.
None of those books might have happened were it not for a family blow-up one night in 1972, at the home of Conroy and his first wife. His mom and dad were visiting, along with some of Conroy's six younger brothers and sisters.
Conroy was a young writer with two novels already under his belt. He and his wife had gone upstairs to bed when he heard an all-too-familiar sound from below -- the slap of his father's hand on his mother's flesh. He went downstairs to find his dad drunk and beating the daylights out of whoever he could lay his hands on. All the years of his past came boiling back, and he went after his father, shoving him out of the house and across the yard.
"Thus began 'The Great Santini,' " Conroy said. "Thus began my first great breakdown."
Not long afterward, after he'd begun writing the book that would seek revenge on his father with almost every paragraph, he lost control of his body while driving. He convulsed, his head slamming the steering wheel. He recovered, but there were other episodes. He lost his hearing for a month.
But, he finished the book. And in doing so, he told the crowd last night at Hopkins, "I put a cruise missile into my father's cockpit that haunted him the rest of his life."
His father was furious. The rest of his family wasn't so happy, either. He had spilled their secrets, broken the taboo. And Conroy found that he still wasn't free of his past. It only seemed to crowd him more.
He and his wife split up. He attempted suicide with a handful of pills, waking up a day and a half later. Then he sought help, winding up with Dr. O'Neill, and he began to learn a few things about himself.
"I thought I'd been writing ['The Great Santini'] 'cause I hated my father, and what stunned me when I came to the last line was that I was writing the book because I loved my father, and had spent my whole life trying to find something to love in him."
He also realized he had to come to terms with his feelings for his mother. That began in therapy, too, although soon enough it publicly expressed itself with the portrait of the beautiful but distant mother in "The Prince of Tides" (1986).
"That was where psychotherapy particularly helped me, because I adored my mother," he said. "It took me much longer to look at her darker side. My mother was a complicated woman. I still have this worship of her. I survived my childhood only because of her. And she was lovely and she was wonderful. But there's no question that she had this other side. She was duplicitous, deceitful, and cheap beyond imagination."
Nonetheless, Conroy didn't improve overnight. He moved West, and while writing in San Francisco he felt sometimes like the Golden Gate Bridge was calling to him to come jump to his death. That's when he wrote the opening of "Beach Music" (1995), in which the wife jumps to her death from a bridge. That's when he knew his second marriage was finished.
He went back East. He bought a gun, thinking he might make an appropriate target.
But he persevered, in both his therapy and in his writing. He even began to reconcile with those who'd felt betrayed by their fictional portrayals.
"My father spent the rest of his life trying to prove that my portrait of him was false," Conroy said. "He became a good guy." And on his deathbed, he reveled in the thought that perhaps his son would someday write his life story -- the real one -- and sell the movie rights to Hollywood.
Even some of The Citadel people kissed and made up, in their way.
His mother didn't live long enough to see herself portrayed in "Tides," which was probably just as well.
As for Conroy, he feels he has outlasted the most dangerous moments. His latest writing project is a nonfiction account of his college basketball team at The Citadel, a labor of joy. His next work of fiction is somewhere just beyond the horizon, perhaps an Atlanta novel. And now he can talk of his past freely in public, one reason he made the trip to Hopkins.
"I've come to the point where I've said, 'OK, I can handle this pretty well now. I've married a wonderful woman, and she's got it [depression], too. And she says, 'I'm sorry I'm crazy, baby.' And I say, 'I'm sorry I'm crazy, too.' It's something that I know about now, a beast I can control."
He partly credits writing for getting him through, but he more vigorously credits psychotherapy. Still, he may owe the deepest debt to his youngest brother, a diagnosed schizophrenic who killed himself in 1994. The shock of it, and the shock of witnessing his family's grief -- his Marine Corps father in tears -- awakened him to an aspect of suicide he'd never considered.
"I got to see what it did to a family. And I got to see what it felt like to sit in a church of completely wounded people. It was at that moment that I said, I cannot do this. This would not be fair."