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A List of Things That Didn't Kill Me: A Memoir


A List of Things That Didn't Kill Me: A Memoir

A LIST OF THINGS THAT DIDN’T KILL ME is perfectly titled. The memoir, written by Jason Schmidt, details the author’s life growing up with a drug-addicted father in a world of rapidly changing moods, precarious living situations and wildly inconsistent emotions. Forced to live in this confusing world, Jason had to figure out how to be normal --- or as close to it as possible --- while dealing with abuse, lies and frequent exposure to law-breaking activities.

When A LIST OF THINGS THAT DIDN’T KILL ME begins, teenage Jason is returning home to find his father, Mark, mopping up blood on the floor. Quickly evaluating the situation, Jason notices his father’s wet and sticky hair and determines that he must have fallen. Immediately Jason takes control, assuming the role of the parent and takes his father to the hospital. As a twentysomething reader, I was impressed with how quickly Jason was able to assess the situation and find a solution, all while sounding rather disconnected from the traumatic scene that was playing out. Suffice it to say, I was hooked.

Jumping from this shocking opening, Jason begins to walk readers through his life, starting at the age of three,  which is where is he able to pull up his earliest memories.  He shares one particularly peaceful memory of riding his little red tricycle down a residential street, only to be called in warmly by his mother. It ends up that Jason has cycled a mile from his dad's home, without his dad even knowing he was gone.. Unfortunately, this is probably the last warm memory Jason is able to recall, and even then it is colored by an explosive fight between his parents, who we soon learn are both drug addicts, neither of whom seem particularly suited to childcare.

"Schmidt’s writing is immediate, vivid and absolutely heartbreaking...readers will find themselves wanting to reach into the pages and shake the adults charged with caretaking him."

From here Jason is whisked back to his father’s house --- which serves as more of a hippie commune and drug den than a childhood home --- since his mother believes her true calling is art, and not motherhood. Schmidt’s writing is immediate, vivid and absolutely heartbreaking, particularly when he recalls the feelings, thoughts and youthful naiveté of his childhood that were all destroyed at the hands of his caretakers. 

As Jason grows and sees his father through multiple arrests and drug binges, he is often told that no normal people, called “Straights” by his father, will ever understand or approve of their lives. Telling anyone about their home life, Jason is told, will result in their family being ripped apart by police, who are brutal enemies. This is perhaps the most heartbreaking lie of all, as it forces Jason to follow his father blindly, never questioning their bizarre living situations or acquaintances.

Though Jason attends school, his attendance is sporadic at best and he often finds himself at odds with his classmates and even his teachers. They look down on him for his wild lack of manners and strange behaviors, completely blind to the fact that he has had practically no guidance or instruction at home. Even when Jason, driven by his own moral compass, suspects that something is horrifically wrong, he lacks the understanding to fix any of it. Keep in mind that the Jason I’m referring to now is only about seven. 

When Jason reaches his teen years, his father becomes involved in a homosexual relationship. At this point, they are living in California, so his father’s orientation is not unheard of, but still a bit surprising as Jason has previously seen him involved only with women. It is not too long before there is talk of a mysterious illness killing mostly gay men. While Jason and Mark watch their acquaintances suffer and fall, there is no change in behavior in Mark, who still goes on drug binges and beats Jason regularly, though Jason is starting to match him in height and weight. Meanwhile, at school, Jason has now developed a regular group of friends. To an older reader it is clear that they do not really like him, but these brief forays into normal life serve to stabilize Jason in a way his father never has. Cognizant of the fact that he still does not quite fit in, Jason begins to mimic their behaviors, normalizing himself while learning to pick up on social cues. 

It is around this time that Jason’s father, now dating a different boyfriend, begins to feel weak and feverish most of the time. True to form, he ignores his symptoms until the deaths begin to pile up around him and he is diagnosed with HIV. For Jason, the diagnosis means very little. By now he has come to hate his father, repulsed by the way he lives and his constant threats of abuse. Jason’s only fear now is that he will have to care for his father permanently. As cold as it may sound, the reader can understand why Jason would be afraid of this, as it would mean dedicating his life to the man that practically ruined it.

In between fits of illness and moments of lucidity, Mark seems to apologize for his behaviors, filling Jason in on parts of his life that were previously unclear. At the same time, an aide steps in to help with Mark’s medical care. This person comes to be the hero of Jason’s story, as he becomes the first person to recognize Jason’s desperate situation and helps him prepare for his father’s death and his life that will follow. 

A LIST OF THINGS THAT DIDN’T KILL ME is a difficult read. Between Mark’s shocking abuse and Schmidt’s ability to write as if he is still in the moment, readers will find themselves wanting to reach into the pages and shake the adults in his world. The strength of Schmidt’s writing comes in his willingness to write about even his own mistakes, such as accidentally injuring a cat. Though we know that young Jason could not have known any better, these complicated stories highlight the extent of Mark’s abuse. At the same time, Jason’s youthful naiveté is probably what saved him from succumbing to his father’s drug-addled fate, painful as it may be to watch.

It is my belief that this book, much like A CHILD CALLED IT, will be recognized as an important book that is read by a wide audience. It can serve to educate people about the lives others may be living in secret.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on January 13, 2015

A List of Things That Didn't Kill Me: A Memoir
by Jason Schmidt

  • Publication Date: January 5, 2016
  • Genres: Nonfiction, Young Adult 14+
  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Square Fish
  • ISBN-10: 1250073723
  • ISBN-13: 9781250073723