In Story Land


I’m reading Pat Conroy’s My Losing Season, and I’m asking myself this question, “Is Conroy a reliable narrator?”

It’s a question I’ve pondered a thousand times, I bet, from Mr. Durkin’s satire class in my senior year at Dunkirk High School to discussions with Dr. Bob Deming, almost twenty years later, as I pieced together my master’s thesis, to my own reading, forever tinted, and maybe tainted, by English classes.  We were analyzing [some would say over-analyzing; I had a class once that developed an exciting theory about the back story in a book.  Since the author was still alive, we sent off the theory and begged her for a comment.  Her comment was: “You English teachers always over-analyze everything.”] the story and asking ourselves, “Can we trust this narrator?”

Conroy uses his senior year at the Citadel as the framework for this memoir, which is the story of how important basketball has been in his life.  He was a scrappy, smart point guard, but one of the things he tells us in the book is that he was never more than a mediocre player.  Conroy might believe that; his strongest male influences, his father and his coach, were both odd, abusive men who seemed to have absolutely no interest in developing the young people in their charges. They certainly never told him to think highly of himself.  In fact, the mantra Conroy remembers Coach Thompson yelling at him, over and over, every game he played, was, “Don’t shoot, Conroy!”

So one of the tenets of this story is that Pat Conroy loved basketball, ate it, drank it, and slept with it all through college, but that, as a player, he never rose above the ranks of just so-so.

I don’t buy it.  The stories Conroy tells about the games he played, the quotes he includes from sports writers, the fact that his coach, that strange and turbulent man, once reamed out the team but excused the author from the rant–i.e., “You’re all losers and scum–except Pat Conroy,” suggest a very different story.

I believe Pat Conroy was a helluva basketball player.  But I believe, too, that he is convinced otherwise, that he would argue with anyone who suggested his excellence.  “I was a mediocre basketball player,” is one of the key beliefs his book is built upon.

I bet we all have things like that.  So much of our lives is built upon the stories we tell ourselves and others. We are a people of story.

There are stories we believe about ourselves, and a lot of time our first teachers are the ones who impart these tales.  Those can be positive or negative, delivered harshly or lovingly.  So a child whose mother says, “I love that picture!” will begin to believe herself talented, artistically.  The same child, when her mother, surveying her cluttered bedroom,  ruffles her hair and says fondly, “You’re such a little messypants!” starts to think, “I’m kind of a slob.” One telling won’t usually be enough to implant a belief so strong it defines the story, but, told over and over again, we begin to believe and internalize what we hear.

The telling can have enormous–and tragic–consequences.  I think back to when we lived in Ada, and I was going to a library book club.  We read a memoir by a man who had gone from abject poverty to being the Dean of a prestigious law school.  At the same time, a young man was pleading for his life in sentencing hearings at the court where my husband interned.  This young man had lined up seven people and shot them, gangland style; included among the people he shot were a two year old and a young teenaged girl, who both died.  The miracle, I guess, was that the others lived and told the tale.

That young man, too, grew up in abject poverty; in fact, as I read the book and read the testimonies of people who knew the defendant growing up, I was struck, over and over, by how similar they were.  It was eerie.  What was different in the way the men turned out?

In his memoir, the law school dean noted that his father was one of his main tormentors, neglecters, abusers–an addicted, seldom rational man.  But, every day his father told him:  You’re smart.  You can get out of here.  You’re going to college.

Did the other young man have a voice like that in his life?  I doubt it.  In fact, one of the people who testified about the cruelty and despair of his childhood said something like this, “We knew he was gonna turn out no good.”

Simplistic, yes, but still–Those were the childhood stories those men heard; those were the adult stories they lived out.

At my godchild Shayne’s house in Florida, I saw a picture of Shayne’s lovely niece, a beautiful young girl of Nicaraguan lineage, with a tiara on her head, a lovely gown–and my grand-niece Madelyn, with a tiny tiara of her own, happily ensconced on her cousin’s lap.  Shayne explained that the photo was taken at her niece’s quinceanera, a tradition in cultures with Hispanic roots.

I had never heard of the quinceanera, so when I returned home and found a copy of Julia Alvarez’s Once Upon a Quinceanera at a library book sale, I bought it and took it home to read. Alvarez, who grew up in the turbulent sixties and seventies, and never had or considered a quinceanera, became fascinated by the custom as an adult, and so she traveled around the country researching it.  She visited families of great wealth, who had celebrities and over the top celebrations– and families of great poverty, who provided parties that were just as lavish and financially disastrous by their standards.  There is a quinceanera industry, Alvarez reports, sellers of dresses and tiaras, party planners and caterers, who make their livings on quinceanera customers.  It’s a big deal.

Alvarez explores the roots of the custom and its meaning, and she tells us it’s all tied up with the stories we’re telling our daughters. What does this particular quinceanera say to the young woman–is it, “You are now a beautiful sexual being, ready for marriage and motherhood”?  Is it, “Look at you: beautiful, powerful, vibrant! You can do anything you put your mind to”?  Or is there another story behind the glitz and ruffles?

Alvarez writes, “…there are stories in our head about who we must be and what we can do, and these stories drive our lives.”

Do the stories doom us?  I have to think otherwise.  I have to think that there are moments in our lives when the stories we have accepted rise to the surface of our consciousness and we are forced to choose.  Do we accept the belief that we will never amount to anything? Or–do we start the course that will prove those storytellers wrong?  And what can we do to realize what stories are driving us, what beliefs we have internalized that define our choices?

Pat Conroy’s belief is an appealing, humble one, “I was not a very good basketball player…” Conroy obviously has gone on to a dynamic and successful career; he’s a well-known writer.  Heck, he’s a person who worked out his private story on a very public stage.  Would he have been a different person if his belief had been, “I was an outstanding leader on the basketball court?”

I don’t know, but isn’t it interesting to ponder?  And isn’t it fascinating to ask ourselves what stories we play out every day?  How do we bring those stories to awareness, to where we can accept them or reject them mindfully?

That, I think, is the climax of our rising narratives—the point and the path that will determine how our own individual plots play out.  I hope my narrator’s been reliable.


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