I’ve only been to Charleston, SC once, and I found it disappointing. Fort Sumter was beautiful under some August thunderheads, but the museum there was unexceptional. I was in the city for a whole day and have no memory of what I ate or what I saw when I walked around. I do remember the way the Citadel emerged abruptly from a residential neighborhood. One moment you were watching Sallie Jean Alton of the Richmond, Virginia Altons watering her begonias, and the next minute you were staring down the mouth of a Civil War-era cannon.
With its stark-white buildings and the black and white checkered tile on its central quad, the Citadel looks like a place where characters from Norse mythology would go to play chess using bound-and-gagged human beings as the pieces. Many of the buildings are actually turreted like medieval castles, and everywhere we went I had the impression that somewhere up above a sniper held me in his cross-hairs.
I don’t remember much about the displays we saw in the Citadel Museum, but I remember that the family member I was traveling came up beside me and whispered, “There is a guy over there who’s whistling ‘Dixie.’ I’m going to go wait in the car.”
I discovered The Lords of Discipline during The Year of Weight Loss and Movies, which is my own private nickname for 1991. I finished my freshman year of high school that year, a year that was characterized by a strange, stubborn inner refusal to adapt to my new surroundings. My high school required all freshmen to participate in at least one extracurricular activities from an approved list: either a sport, drama, the orchestra, or one of an approved list of other clubs and activities. I boycotted this requirement. I said, “Homie don’t play that,” which is what one said back in the early’90’s when one was boycotting a requirement, and I was secretly worried for the remainder of high school that I would be denied a diploma because of this early act of defiance (even though I participated in tons of activities later on). I got good grades. I memorized the silly definition of poetry that was at the heart of the 9th grade honors English curriculum. I read To Kill a Mockingbird (again) and Romeo and Juliet (again) and Of Mice and Men (again) and wondered when we would finally start covering some books I hadn’t already read. I felt superior to many of my teachers. I spent lunch periods reading in the library, usually for pleasure rather than for homework: John Irving novels, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and then, at some point close to the end of the year, The Lords of Discipline. When my mom picked me up at the end of the day, we went through the Burger King drive-thru, and I ate a hamburger and fries. I also ate more than my share of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and peanut butter M&M’s, a new creation that year that my school’s dining hall kept well stocked.
But then something happened to shock me out of my complacency. Are you ready for what it was? The Gulf War! Yes, I’m serious. I loved the Gulf War. It broke out on my fifteenth birthday, and I convinced my mom that I was sick that day so I could spend the whole day watching CNN. I started waking up early to watch CNN and do calisthenics in my bedroom. At some point I gave up on the fast food lunches and started eating salads from the salad bar at Safeway. Every morning for breakfast I ate a bran muffin and a grapefruit. Most nights for dinner I ate a plain chicken breast that my mom cooked in water. I stopped eating chocolate and drinking Coke, although I did continue to eat candy that was fat free – namely red licorice and Skittles. When summer came, I started sprint-walking to the video store (remember video stores?) almost every day to check out a movie, then sprint-walking to Safeway for my daily salad, then sprint-walking home to eat my salad and watch my movie, which, on one august occasion, was The Lords of Discipline.
I was so madly in love with the movie, and – once I figured out that it was adapted from a novel – with the novel too. Having watched it a couple of months ago for the first time in years, I can tell you with confidence that the movie is tripe. It’s awful. Everything that matters about the book has been edited out. And the book has its flaws, too, but it is still plenty good.
Will McLean is the novel’s protagonist (and stand-in for Conroy), yet, strangly, we know very little about him. I noticed how opaque his character is for the first time when I reread the book last fall. Opacity and anonymity are the primary themes of this book – even more so than honor, loyalty, and brotherhood, which seem on the surface to be the important themes. While I’ve never thought about the theme of anonymity in this novel on a conscious level, I know that it reached me when I read the book as a teenager, because one of the passages from this book that I have carried with me ever since I read it for the first time is “When the system was impersonal and inclusive, I could bear it; but as soon as they specified me, I came apart at the seams. I would rather be called knob or dumbhead or shitface than McLean. I do not want my enemies ever to know my name again. That knowledge is in itself a violation of your sovereignty. When they call for you by name, then the system has changed and the vendetta has begun” (174 – italics are mine). This idea resonates so powerfully with me. When the students I tutor ask if they should call me “Bethany” or “Ms. Edstrom,” I have to fight the urge to tell then, “Neither one.” When the baristas at Starbucks insist on writing my name on my cup, I have to fight the urge to bite their heads off. In spite of this, I also want to be known. I want to publish books and talk about them on Oprah. I monitor the stats page on this website the way a diabetic monitors her blood sugar, and I’m secretly waiting for the day when I’ll tell someone about this blog and they’ll say, “Wait, that’s you? You write Postcards from Purgatory? I love that blog! You’re my hero!”
Will McLean has a love-hate relationship with his military college, but when he loves it, it’s for two reasons: first, for the fierce bonds of loyalty that he shares with his roommates, and second, for the opportunity to live anonymously. He cares little about military discipline for its own sake, but he finds it comforting to live within a uniform system where no one is expected to stand out. At the beginning of the year, when the Commandant of Cadets assigns him to help the college’s first African American cadet endure and survive his first year, Will is forced not to stand out himself – not exactly – but to help a person who can’t help but stand out.
A brief aside: The Citadel is white. I don’t just mean that its student body is Caucasian; I mean that the place is physically, alarmingly white: its buildings, the gleaming white tiles that line its quadrangles. It reminds me of photographs I’ve seen of Mecca. Its whiteness is difficult to look at, with the sun reflecting off it in all directions, and its whiteness makes the occasional use of black (one of its quads is tiled in alternating black and white squares, like a checkerboard) seem jarring and upsetting. Its whiteness is part of its creepiness. As far as I can remember, Conroy never directly describes this whiteness, but it had to be on his mind (on a subconscious level, maybe) when he was telling the story of Will McLean and Tom Pearce, the black cadet he is ordered to care for.
Also at the heart of this novel is a secret organization known as the Ten. No one knows – at first anyway – whether the Ten really exists. According to rumors and legends, the Ten is made up of ten hand-selected members of each senior class, and its two primary tasks are 1) to weed out via hazing, harassment, and torture any members of the Corps of Cadets who are deemed inferior from a physical or military standpoint, and 2) to make sure a black cadet never graduates from Carolina Military Institute (the fictional alter ego of the Citadel in the novel).
The Ten’s power lies in its anonymity. A known terror organization can be dealt with. Employees found to be associated with it can be disciplined or fired; students can be suspended or expelled. Names can be published in newspapers and books. Locks can be changed on headquarters. An unknown or semi-legendary organization has almost free reign to attack with impunity, as long as it can retain its anonymity. The Lords of Discipline is essentially the story of Will McLean’s choice (under extreme pressure) to sacrifice his own anonymity, which to him represents comfort and safety, to expose the faces of the men who are torturing Tom Pearce and are part of an organization that tortured Will and many of his classmates in the past.
Once I picked up on the theme of anonymity in this novel, I started seeing it everywhere. Images of intense darkness are juxtaposed with images of intense light. In a significant subplot, Will meets and falls in love with a young woman from a wealthy old Charleston family who is in hiding in her family’s beach house because she is pregnant. Her mother has told everyone in town that she has gone to college in California, and the two women sit in the dark in their beach house, brooding in misery and boredom. In this case, their anonymity exists to protect their standing in society, and when this subplot becomes annoying to the reader (as it does!), it is because this kind of anonymity seems insignificant beside the cruelty inherent in the Ten’s anonymity and Will’s very real struggles to show his face when uniformity feels so much safer and comforting to him.
There’s so much more I could be saying here, of course. I haven’t even really properly summarized the novel for you, and I haven’t delved into the novel’s language for you as I intended. I am more aware of the flaws of this book than I was at fifteen, but I still love it. I think it’s a great book for high school students to read and discuss, although I’ve never seen it formally placed on a syllabus (I’ve seen it as a summer reading assignment and on lists of recommended reading; its length of almost 500 pages is what keeps it off syllabi, I think). Conroy’s tendency toward linguistic excess is present, though he controls his prose in this novel much more successfully than he does in Beach Music and South of Broad. And then there’s the fact that Will McLean seems to have a quasi-sexual relationship with everything and anything he comes into contact with: his car, his fellow cadets, his roommates, his roommate’s mother, and the city of Charleston, to name just a few. But instead of exploring these ideas in more detail, I want to tell you one more story from my freshman year of high school.
I got an award that year – an award for religion. My school gave this award every year to one student in each grade. My school was large as private schools go, and I had beaten out approximately 350 other freshmen. I was fairly alarmed to hear my name called, since I was – well – since I was pretty much an atheist. It was the only award I have ever received that embarrassed me. Here I was, this weird little antisocial quasi-militaristic loner with my pantyhose in a knot about having to read so many books over again. I didn’t do any community service that year, though I did later. I never went to weekly church services, which at my school were optional. I did get good grades in religion class, but that class was easy. I was sitting in the back of an auditorium when my name was called, and I had to walk past twelve hundred other kids to get to the stage. I have never felt so grossly misunderstood, never felt the compulsion toward anonymity so powerfully. Jill and I became friends a few months later – in the fall of our sophomore year – and she sometimes used to tease me about being “the most religious freshman.” I am very, very grateful that she has stopped doing that.
Maybe a decade or so later, it occurred to me that my teachers may have given me that award in order to “encourage” me – to compel me, in other words, to stop reading in the library at lunch, stop boycotting extracurricular activities, and make some human connections. It’s true that teachers sometimes do things like that. However, TWO decades later, I thought of another explanation. I think it was my obsession with the Gulf war that put me over the edge – and I find this hilarious. In my school’s religion curriculum, students studied the Bible for one semester and then took a one-semester course about how to look at world events from a Catholic perspective – the just war theory, the preferential option for the poor, that sort of thing. This second class started in January of 1991, just before the Gulf War began, and when the war started, my teacher took a vow of silence in protest. We did a lot of in-class writing, since discussions among fifteen year-olds deteriorate really quickly without vocal adult leadership. I don’t remember much about what I wrote, but I know that I was passionate about everything pertaining to the Gulf war, and I was certainly well informed, thanks to my morning sessions of push-ups, leglifts, and Wolf Blitzer.
I don’t know what the moral of this story is – maybe that adolescents are weird? Maybe that rereading this book in my late thirties helped me to see my adolescence in a new way, that – once again – the book served more as a mirror than as a lamp? I still struggle with the conflicting feelings of wanting recognition and wanting anonymity, and I still feel deeply embarrassed when I am misunderstood. Unlike Will McLean’s story, mine doesn’t add up to much, although I think I could probably write the story of my own life – the teenaged and college years, at least – with this same tension at its heart.