As far as titles that stand out at a library goes, A List of Things That Didn’t Kill Me was the best double take on a book that I’ve had in awhile. Who could withstand picking up a book that said that? Of course I had to figure out what it was all about. The fact that someone had attributed its likeness to one of my all time favorite books (The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls) made it impossible to put back. It came home with me and so did the life of Jason Schmidt.
First of all, this is an adult book. Although it is a memoir of Schmidts early childhood into adulthood, it deals with a great many adult and taboo subjects. It’s life in all its grittiness and the reason one becomes sucked into it is the fact that it is so beyond incredible that he survived at all, but that doesn’t mean any children today need to be reading it. That being said, let’s open it up!
Jason Schmidt wasn’t surprised when he came home one day during his junior year of high school and found his father, Mark, crawling around in a giant pool of blood. Things like that had been happening a lot since Mark had been diagnosed with HIV, three years earlier.
Jason’s life with Mark was full of secrets—about drugs, crime, and sex. If the straights—people with normal lives—ever found out any of those secrets, the police would come. Jason’s home would be torn apart. So the rule, since Jason had been in preschool, was never to tell the straights anything.
A List of Things That Didn’t Kill Me is a funny, disturbing memoir full of brutal insights and unexpected wit that explores the question: How do you find your moral center in a world that doesn’t seem to have one?
The book isn’t written from A to Z. The first memory is when he is a teenager and then jumps to his earliest memories and back again. Although that may sound as if it doesn’t have any rhyme or reason, it weaves together conversationally as though he were speaking directly to you about his life. Each memory is its own story which allows you to reflect on what it meant to him and in turn, to you. Just as our memories form a large part of our self, so does each piece form a part of a larger story.
The unique thing about Jason Schmidt’s memoir is that it comes from a perspective that we don’t see very often, the lost pseudo hippies of the 1970s and onward through the backdoor of the AIDS epidemic in 1980s Pacific Northwest. He had been abandoned by his mother and raised solely by a drug dealing addict of a father and spent most of his time alone from a very young age. Raised with the idea of “the straights” and “our people”, he was taught at a young age not to trust anyone. In his world, being beaten by your parents was only discipline and cheating the welfare system was survival.
This isn’t a feel good coming-of-age novel, it is more a journey through pain and poverty towards self-actualization and what it means to be a good person. Throughout the story Jason often reflects on the difference between what it meant to be Hans Solo vs. Luke Skywalker. Despite his anger and lack of awareness of the world outside of his own, he strives to be a better person and understand what that means for someone like him who had seen and been through too much. To figure out how to survive without becoming a reflection of his father. Sad to say, there are still many children that live in the world that Jason had grown up in and although it is not a story that teaches how all things are possible, it does offer hope that one can move beyond the experiences that shaped them towards a better life. I personally did not live a life so extravagantly insane as Schmidt’s, but I did grow up in poverty in a different world and know what it means to push towards something better when you feel outcast from normal society.
I highly suggest reading this book, especially if you love memoirs. You can find it at your local library, or pick it up on Amazon.