In a stunningly vivid and honest memoir, David Fitzpatrick, who grew up in Guilford, details two decades of his life lost to mental illness and self-harm, emerging not only whole but an inspiration to anyone who's battled internal demons.
“Sharp: A Memoir” tackles a difficult subject, the taboo of cutting one’s self — an act of such horror to even those with the toughest constitution, but it does so in a way that offers hope to those similarly afflicted.
In the tradition of Susanna Kaysen's “Girl Interrupted” and Wally Lamb’s “She’s Come Undone,” and “I Know This Much is True,” Middletown resident Fitzpatrick, 46, details his breakdown in college and subsequent bipolar disorder diagnosis and longtime self-mutilation.
Twenty years ago, Fitzpatrick wrote a fan letter to Lamb, a Norwich native who is known to fans of his writing as a University of Connecticut and Norwich Free Academy professor, and, perhaps more importantly for his longtime work at York Correctional Institute working with incarcerated women.
Fitzpatrick, who grew up in Guilford and summered on the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard, says he was so taken by the passage in “Undone” when the principal character, Dolores, who is grossly overweight, tries to drown herself at sea, that he wrote a letter to Lamb. A 20-year pen pal relationship resulted and Lamb even put in a good word for Fitzpatrick to publisher William Morrow when he submitted his manuscript.
The result is an absolutely compelling read.
Now happily married to Middletown High School graduate Amy Holmes, Fitzpatrick says the years he spent at the Institute of Living in Hartford were difficult but necessary.
Acknowledging that self-harm, or cutting, is predominately thought of as afflicting females, Fitzpatrick, who was born in Dearborn, Mich., and graduated from Skidmore College in New York, says he was often the only male in many a counseling group. It's a difficult subject to broach with strangers, but as Fitzpatrick moved from book signing to book signing, he's received very well.
In fact, as his book tour wraps up, Fitzpatrick says he’s humbled and surprised when he travels around introducing his work to fans.
“The first reading where people had already read the book was at York Correctional Institute in Niantic,” the author says. “The feedback was like a literal wave of affirmation and sorrow. One woman said, ‘I have a daughter who cuts. What should I do?’ Suddenly, I was Dr. Oz. I didn’t know how to answer,” Fitzpatrick recalls.
A week later, it was Fairfield University, where Fitzpatrick earned his masters in fine art degree. Thirty people attended.
Turns out one of the York women had urged her mother to read “Sharp.”
“One prisoner’s mother came to have her book signed,” Fitzpatrick said. “So there’s an interesting connection there. People just want to tell you their story.”
It’s not surprising that Fitzpatrick’s memoir stirs such emotions in his readers.
Like Lamb, his writing is fluid, and most of the time it’s difficult to say portions are definitively written by a man, or woman for that matter.
Which is to say Fitzpatrick not only recounted what he has gone through but elevated his retelling a notch, making the details of his darkness and subsequent health relevant to a broad readership.
"Emily was a Mount Holyoke girl, and I immediately noticed her slender, fluid neck, the sad eyes with spectacles, and the smiling, slightly rounded face as she stood with a drink in her hand. ... She was thin but that was just her disguise. To a passerby she even looked vaguely asexual but when she spok, when her narrow lips opened, she sounded a little throaty and self-deprecating ... oh, man."
Fitzpatrick is able to recount conversations and details with such precision because he had access to his own journals kept by a doctor and the memory of his willing family members.
His psychiatrist at the Institue of Living had kept three or four of my his old journals. “12-year-old journals? That was like manna from heaven,” Fitzpatrick says.
“I got really lucky,” Fitzpatrick says. “I bothered my family a lot, my sisters and my mother. I said, ‘can you remember what it was like? Tell me about it. What was it like?’ A lot of time, it was anger coming back — My sister saying, ‘we were enraged at you.’”
Surely the scene that’s the most compelling — and difficult to read — is when Fitzpatrick first injures himself.
“That one scene, the first time I cut myself and I had first had my breakdown. I had marks on my arms. My sister, she was 9, I said I just cut them cutting tomatoes,” Fitzpatrick says.
Speaking with his sister jarred his memory.
“Then I remembered. I went back and the whole night came back like it was yesterday.”
When he asked his parents for permission to write about them, they had a singular response. “‘You do what you have to do. This is very important to you. Do it.”
Still, “there was some very uncomfortable scenes.”
Fitzpatrick’s older brother, "Andy" in the book, who tormented him for years before he went away to college, gave his permission to use his likeness in the book, with one caveat.
“He was swayed by my sister saying this might help people. He suggested, ‘would you just change my name?’”
"Older brother Andy was a first-class goon to me growing up, a consistently angry, dogged, and harsh soul who struck and mocked with impunity. He was just a badgering, punching machine. ... I was known to him by typical nicknames — one day it was 'pathetic-weakest-baby-scab fag' ... then 'vile and malodorous excrement' became a favorite ..."
“He’s a totally different person now,” says Fitzpatrick. “He works in Tanzania with two adopted sons and his wife and they’re always doing third-world help, so I want to try and get across he’s not been a dolt his entire life.”
Reading his journals from those dark years was quite a challenge for Fitzpatrick. “If you read the whole thing in one sitting,” Fitzpatrick says. “I made sure to only read maybe only one notebook one week the next the next. I tried to not get so tied up in emotions.”
It was a delicate balance.
“How close to the bone can I get without being sucked under?” Fitzpatrick remembered thinking, “even though I know that wasn’t going to happen again because I was better and steadier.”
Next up, Fitzpatrick is trying his hand at fiction. It’s a book about, “friends at the Cape, something I know well from summers. It’s about an iconic photo taken of three teenagers that comes back to haunt protagonist when he’s 48 and has a family.”
He’s got 100 pages written, “but I still have a long way to before it makes sense,” he says. “The first stories I wrote were fiction. I’ve always thought that I was just better at writing non-fiction, so I had to convince myself, with the help of some teachers from Fairfield, if you do it right, it can be as moving as your life story. So I’m giving that some thought,” Fitzpatrick says.
We'll be along for the ride.
You can meet the author at his next book signing: Oct. 4, 3 p.m., New England Bookseller Association Trade Show, Providence Convention Center, 1 Sabin Street, Providence, R.I., (401) 458-6000.