In the book The Prince of Tides, Pat Conroy illustrates how three siblings have reacted to something terrible that has happened to them. None of the children are dealing with their pain in a healthy way, and none of them are fully facing what has hurt them. Rather, all three of them have assumed a false persona–a facade that defines them. This facade has become associated with the roles that they play in the dynamics of their family.

Tom’s Role in the Family’s Dysfunction [Tom Is the Character Associated with Pat Conroy]

“My designation in the family was normality. I was the balanced child drafted into the ranks for leadership, for coolness under fire, stability. ‘Solid as a rock,’ my mother would describe me to her friends, and I thought the description was perfect. I was courteous, bright, popular, and religious. I was the neutral country, the family Switzerland. I had been married for almost six years, had established my career as teacher and coach, and was living out my life as a mediocre man.” Conroy, Pat. The Prince of Tides, pgs. 43-44.

“But it was good to feel the tears try to break through. It was proof I was still alive inside, down deep, where the hurt lay bound and degraded n the cheap, bitter shell of my manhood. My manhood. How I loathed being a man, with its fierce responsibilities, its tally of ceaseless strength, its passionate and stupid bravado. How I hated strength and duty and steadfastness. … Strength was my gift, it was also my act, and I’m sure it’s what will end up killing me.” Conroy, Pat. The Prince of Tides, p. 46

Luke’s Role in the Family’s Dysfunction

” Luke had been offered the role of [p. 43] strength and simplicity. He had suffered under the terrible burden of being the least intellectual child. He had made a fetish out of his single-minded sense of justice and constancy. …he was the recipient of my father’s sudden furies, the hurt shepherd who drove the flock to safety before he turned to face the storm of my father’s wrath alone. … He had the soul of a fortress…

Savannah’s Role in the Family’s Dysfunction

“From earliest childhood, Savannah had been chosen to bear the weight of the family’s accumulated psychotic energy. Her luminous sensitivity left her open to the violence and disaffection of our household and we used her to store the bitterness of our mordant chronicle. …. Craziness attacks the softest eyes and gentlest flanks.

. . .

Luke chose to react the way that his mother had reacted and to totally deny that the tragedy had occurred. He pretended or he convinced himself that he had forgotten the incident entirely, but Tom remembers:

[Luke]”‘Mom told us it never happened.’

[Tom]”‘Mom also told us that Dad never beat us. She told us we’re descendants of southern aristocracy. She told us a million things that weren’t true, Luke.’

[Luke]”‘I don’t remember much about that day.’

“I grabbed my brother’s shoulder and pulled him toward me. I whispered brutally in his ear,  ‘I remember everything, Luke. I remember every single detail of that day and every single detail of our whole childhood.’

“‘You swore you would never mention that. We all did. It’s best to forget some things. It’s best to forget that.’

. . .

“‘We’ve pretended too much in our family, Luke, and hidden far too much. I think we’re all going to pay a high price for our inability to face the truth.’ ” Conroy, Pat. The Prince of Tides, pgs. 42-43;

A failure to face the truth is not a solution to a problem. It damages people in a number of ways:

  1. Ignoring the Truth Can Result in Numbness
  2. Ignoring the Truth Can Result in Cynicism
  3. Ignoring the Truth Can Result in Bitterness

As the book Prince of Tides begins, Savannah has tried to commit suicide, and at first, it appears that a mutually shared wound has affected her more than it did her brothers who preferred not to deal with the issue. But upon further reading, we realize that Savannah is trying to cope through her writing.

[Tom] “‘I just think the truth is leaking out all over her.’ Conroy, Pat. The Prince of Tides, p. 42

[Luke] “‘She’s crazy because she writes.

[Tom] “‘She’s crazy because of what she has to write about.

. . .

[Luke] “‘She should write about what won’t hurt her, what won’t draw out the dogs.’

Tom] “‘She has to write about them, That’s where the poetry comes from. Without them, there’s no poetry.'” p. 43

From  Savannah’s Poems

[This passage describes writing and how words are working within Suzanne]

My navies advance through the language,
destroyers ablaze in high seas.
I soften the island for landings.
With words, I enlist a dark army.
My poems are my war with the world.

I blaze with a deep southern magic.
The bombardiers taxi at noon.
There is screaming and grief in the mansions
and the moon is a heron on fire. Conroy, Pat. The Prince of Tides, p. 47

Dr. Roberta Temes is a psychologist who has written about the power of writing to heal:

“Translating your feelings into words brings you amazing results. All you need to do is write about important life events. Write with feeling. Write with truth. Write about significant experiences, good and bad, and then write about your emotional responses to those experiences. You will benefit both physically and emotionally; it’s been proven that constructing your story is an exercise in healing.”

“Research tells us that the health benefits of writing about your life may include:

1, Improving Your Immune System.Studies have shown that your grades could improve if you are a student; and your number of sick days could be reduced if you are a worker; asthma sufferers have fewer attacks and AIDS patients have higher T-cell counts. These advantages occur as a result of investigating your past and then putting your thoughts into words. Your immune system becomes stronger when unresolved, previously unexplored incidents are revealed.
2. Reducing Your Anxiety Levels. When you write, you expose the truth. Telling the truth extinguishes the emotional burden of secrecy; keeping a secret uses up valuable energy. When you put your emotional distress into words it is no longer wandering through your mind causing worry, tension, insomnia, and other disturbances.
3. Eliminating Your Obsessions. Obsessions may be caused by unanswered questions. When your mind is busy asking ‘why,’ your focus becomes restricted to that one subject. Structuring past events into a coherent story permits you to manage your feelings about those events and eventually store them away — obsessions will diminish and then disappear. If there are traumas in your past please know that the emotional fallout from trauma is distress and distress can be alleviated by writing about the trauma and about your response to it. When you write, you safely summarize, organize and then explain your past. Forming that narrative calms your complicated sensitive memories.
It takes a few weeks after writing your story to get the full beneficial effect. Your mind needs time to absorb it all and reconfigure.”

I am currently reading The Prince of Tides and preparing for a book club, and as I have glanced at the WordPress Daily Prompts for the past three days, I have thought about how each of the prompts relates to what I am reading and thinking about what I am reading. Yesterday, the prompt was “Exposed,” and I thought about the fact that many of the Wingo family problems stem from the fact that the members of the family will not expose themselves. Most of the family members want to hide their problems from the world, but worst than that, they want to hide their problems from themselves.

Exposed

Today’s prompt is “Bitter,” and as I pointed out before, bitterness is often a result of our failures to deal with our problems.

Bitter

Three days ago, the writing prompt was “Better,” and by the end of Chapter 3 of Prince of Tides, Tom Wingo had begun to acknowledge some of the truths of his life. He had begun to expose himself and his family and he had dared to risk so that he might achieve what could only be achieved by that exposure–so that he could get better.

Better

Most people realize that Pat Conroy is Tom Wingo in the book Prince of Tides, but like the book character Savannah, the real Pat Conroy is also a person who strives to heal his own personal and family problems through his writing. The Prince of Tides is a highly autobiographical work for Pat Conroy. it is a chronicle of his family’s pain, and Prince of Tides is only one book through which Pat Conroy expresses his pain and his family’s dysfunction.

When Tom Wingo first met his sister’s psychiatrist, he was immediately cynical:

Dr. Lowenstein: ‘Has she ever attempted suicide before?’

Tom: ‘Yes. On two other bright and happy occasions.

Dr. Lowenstein: ‘Why do you say “bright and happy?”

Tom: ‘I was being cynical. I’m sorry. It’s a family habit I’ve fallen prey to.’ Conroy, Pat. The Prince of Tides, p. 48

Anger followed Tom’s cynicism:

Dr. Lowenstein: “‘There are some background questions I need to ask if we’re going to help Savannah. And I’m sure we want to help Savannah, don’t we?’

“‘Not if you continue to talk to me in that unbearably supercilious tone, Doctor, as though I were some gaudy chimp your’e trying to teach to type. And not until you tell me where my goddamn sister is,’ I said, sitting on my hands to stop their visible trembling. The coffee and the headache intermingled and the faraway music [on the intercom] scratched along my eardrum like a nail.” Conroy, Pat. The Prince of Tides, p. 48

As part of society, we have been trained to believe that anger is a bad thing–a thing to be avoided, but in her book the Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron explains that in some instances, anger can be beneficial [if we listen to what our anger is suggesting that we do]:

“Anger is fuel. We feel and and we want to do something. Hit someone, break something, throw a fit, smash a fist into the wall, tell those bastards. But we are nice people, and what we do with our anger is stuff it, deny it, bury it, block it, hide it. like about it, medicate it, muffle it, ignore it. We do everything but listen to it.

“Anger is meant to be listened to. Anger is a voice, a shout, a plea, a demand. Anger is meant to be respected. Why? Because anger is a map. Anger shows us what our boundaries are. Anger shows us where we want to go. It lets us see where we’ve been and lets us know when we haven’t liked it. Anger points the way….” Cameron, Julia. the Artist’s Way, p. 62.

. . .

“Anger is the firestorm that signals the death of our old life . Anger is the fuel that propels us into our new one. Anger is a tool, not a master. Anger is meant to be tapped into and drawn upon. Used properly anger is use-full.

“Sloth, apathy, and despair are the enemy. Anger is not. Anger is our friend. Not a nice friend. Not a gentle friend. …It will always tell us when we have been betrayed. It will always tell us that it is time to act in our own best interests.

“Anger is not the action itself. It is the action’s invitation.” Cameron, Julia. the Artist’s Way, pgs. 62-63.

In the book The Prince of Tides, generations of Wingos had not listened to their inner warnings. For one reason or another, they had stuffed and suppressed their feelings, and the entire family was ill. Too often, families never move from their frozenness, their numbness, their cynicism, and their bitterness, and they refuse to listen to the reasons why they are angry and they do not allow the anger to move them to another, healing level. But by the end of chapter 3, Tom Wingo dared to take the next step:

“And then the pain summoned me. It came like a pillar of fire behind my eyes. It struck suddenly and hard

“In the perfect stillness, I shut my eyes and lay in the darkness and ade a vow to change my life.” Conroy, Pat. The Prince of Tides, p. 63.

©Jacki Kellum May 8, 2017