Jason Schmidt was only three years old when he witnessed a drug bust in his living room. He was four when his mother left for good, and 13 when he learned that his abusive father, Mark, was HIV positive. When he was 16, he found Mark trying to sop up a pool of his own blood with a dishrag. He was just a few months past 17 when his father died, leaving him feeling as though his “whole universe was closing up shop.”
Many coming-of-age memoirs — especially those aimed at teens — read like drawn-out, high-school graduation speeches or rely too much on shock value to make them compelling. But Schmidt’s book about his childhood in the Pacific Northwest, “A List of Things That Didn’t Kill Me,” avoids these pitfalls. Yes, it takes a while to gain momentum. And it does contain sex, drugs, and more F-bombs than an arena full of irate hockey fans, but this rawness feels authentic and necessary, not sensational. Schmidt asks readers to press their imaginations against the sharp edges of his memories to try to understand what it was like growing up in a house made of shattered glass.
Schmidt was born in 1972, and as a kid he divided society into “our people” (pseudo hippies who did lots of drugs and scraped together a living) and “straights” (everyone else). Among “our people,” kids looked after their parents; lies were necessary; clean clothes were a luxury; cheating the welfare system was considered a form of civil disobedience; and getting beaten up by your dad wasn’t physical abuse, it was discipline. Such an existence taught him early on not to expect much from life. “Look, [with what] we’ve been through, there’s something wrong with both of us, and there probably always will be,” Schmidt’s friend Calliope tells him. “We’re never gonna be happy people. We’re never gonna be like everyone else.”
The format, a loose chronology, allows Schmidt to relay his history in a way that mimics the tangential nature of memory. For example, a short chapter about his dad’s upbringing follows the one about the time Mark was arrested for drugs. The narrative pulses with Schmidt’s anger at the father who tormented him, and the system that failed him and anyone else who had been affected by AIDS. “I was sick of everyone watching TV while my family got trampled by elephants,” he says.
Schmidt’s willingness to explore the dark recesses of his own flawed soul creates points of affinity. Like most teenagers, his journey toward self-actualization was marked by awkwardness and uncertainty. But unlike his “straight” peers, his life was also shaped by poverty and pain. Schmidt could be violent and mean. He was a bully, antisocial, and often friendless. He had an IQ that placed him in the 99th percentile, but he couldn’t figure out how to connect with other human beings. “I didn’t have a name for it, but I could feel it: a kind of static that filled my head whenever I was around groups of kids my own age,” he says. “Or groups of people generally.”
Schmidt recounts how he learned about sex, his first experience with death, and his reaction to the news that his ex-girlfriend had shot herself. But he also makes room for episodes that, in comparison, seem far less pivotal, such as the time he ran around Seattle until dawn with his friend Eddie, a pot-smoking sixth grader, and Barb and Bobby, siblings he would never see again. With only $50 between the four of them, the preteens played arcade games, stole beer, and saw the sun come up over Seattle Center. Nothing life-changing happened that night. Schmidt includes the anecdote because of its normalcy. They were kids kicked out into the dark because no one cared enough to keep them inside. Even his innocuous memories are tinged with sadness.
At more than 400 pages, “A List of Things That Didn’t Kill Me” has some moments that distract like scratches on a record. Would a 10 year old really say, “She’s got more money than God. Surely she could have just stopped at Fred Meyer and bought something new”? Schmidt was precocious, but “more money than God” strikes me as geriatric rather than advanced. Also, what kind of police officer would give a child who has been hit by a car a ticket for jaywalking? I’m being fussbudgety. Such puzzlements are merely hiccups in a fascinating story.
“A List of Things That Didn’t Kill Me” concludes without offering a tidy takeaway — no message to “carpe diem” or “believe anything is possible.” As for a happy ending, Schmidt can’t even fathom what one is. “I didn’t know what a happy ending looked like,” he says. “I’d never seen a happy ending.” However, Schmidt’s book isn’t without hope. As a young adult, he realizes that his life will never be easy. He’ll never be one of the “straights,” and he’ll always have to work for happiness. But he’s out of the war zone. He’s a survivor. Now all he needs to do is survive.Chelsey Philpot is the author of “Even in Paradise.” Connect with her on Twitter @chelseyphilpot.