Childhood as an existence by default

Jason Schmidt

A new memoir by Seattle-based writer Jason Schmidt utterly frays complacency – it takes a village to raise a child, and the village massively failed Jason Schmidt.

I thought about that a lot this week as I read “A List of Things That Didn’t Kill Me.” It is a remarkable testimony to human resilience that the author ever got to the point that he could write this book.

As the son of hippie parents, spawned in an era of recreational drug use and free love, Jason belonged to a generation that “existed by default.” His mother took off for good when Jason was four, leaving him under the loose supervision of his abusive, drug-addicted dad, Mark, who had recently spent some time in jail.

From then on, Jason has a peripatetic childhood up and down the I-5 corridor. He and his dad land in places from San Diego to Eugene to Seattle. His dad sells drugs, cleans houses, does landscaping, and steals stuff. They live in a series of “leftover houses” – places with infestations of vermin, moldy walls, water-stained ceilings and no central heating or electricity. They eat a lot of Top Ramen and government surplus food. Sometimes they just go hungry.

Mark Schmidt admires pragmatism and emotional detachment. Pushed around and sexually molested as a kid, he is antisocial and mistrustful of the “straight” people in the world. The system hasn’t worked for him and he isn’t about to indoctrinate his kid into the system. That means that Jason’s schooling is erratic and his opportunities for socialization are limited. He doesn’t have play dates with kids and he doesn’t learn how to make friends.

The result is that when Jason does go to school, he gets bullied. Even the teachers have little sympathy for this minimally socialized outcast. Eventually Jason, like his father, is molested by someone who is in a position of authority – it is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.

By the time Jason is an adolescent, things get even worse. His father, who not only has been shooting up drugs and but recently has taken on male lovers, is diagnosed with AIDS.

Though still subject so his father’s mood swings between apathy and violent rage, Jason becomes his dad’s primary caregiver. Given only six months to live, Mark hangs on for three years.

Ultimately, “A List of Things That Didn’t Kill Me” is about more than mere survival. It is also about how even a few scattered crumbs of kindness might help someone overcome the odds – but the trail is long and brutally hard.

The author’s recounting in this memoir of his very earliest memories seems unbelievably precocious, but overall his descriptions of the impacts of a rootless childhood and stark adolescence ring tragic and true.

This tough-as-nails book is being marketed for YA (teen) readers, but adults should read it, too. Kids today are still growing up in poverty and on the fringe – and this is not just parental neglect, it is also society’s failure.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.