Finding David F.
After the publication in 1992 of She’s Come Undone, his first blockbuster novel, Wally Lamb opened a lot of fan mail. One letter had an unusual Hartford return address: The Institute of Living, opened in 1824 as the Connecticut Retreat for the Insane. It was from a patient who signed his name “David F.”
The letter writer invited Delores Price, the protagonist in Wally’s novel, to an imaginary dinner party of literary characters that also included Rabbit Angstrom, Holden Caulfield and Jake Barnes.
This intrigued Wally. He recently told me, “As a high school teacher [longtime faculty member at Norwich Free Academy], I’d always been drawn to the students for whom life was a struggle—the ‘walking wounded.’ What I saw in David’s deeply moving letter was poignancy, humor—and writing talent. I was moved by his [dinner party idea]. In some ways he was very much like Delores.”
But when Wally called the institute to speak to David F., he was told the patient had been discharged. The novelist, benevolent and persistent soul that he is, kept at it. In those pre-HIPPA days, the hospital divulged the patient’s last name and the town he’d come from. Then Wally discovered there were three Fitzpatricks in the Guilford directory.
When he reached the right house, he struck up a conversation that David Fitzpatrick, 46, can recall word for word today. The novelist, as he has done with so many others, encouraged him to write. At the time, David was far from finished with treatment. He was still a cutter, slashing himself with razor blades—his only way to find temporary relief from torment. In all, David would spend much of 17 years as, in his words, “a professional mental patient,” with more than 30 institutionalizations.
With Wally’s encouragement, David, a graduate of Skidmore College, began to write. He eventually found a therapist, Dr. Tom Landino, who effectively wove literature (Twain, Rabelais, Cheever) into David’s treatment. Even so, it was a long, slow process to recovery, and to finding his voice as a writer. As David recalls, “I didn’t have a shred of confidence.”
It wasn’t until 2005 that he cut himself for the last time. He says he simply decided to stop while being transported yet again in an ambulance, facing the prospect of “going to the ER to see those same troubled faces.” He had to stop wounding himself and start to heal.
It was time also to cash in on a life lesson. As he says about a key to success: “One of the most crucial things you can do is when you go to eighth-grade basketball camp, you stay friends.” And so he had, with Richard Abate, who’d gone on to become a literary agent in New York.
Abate asked David if he’d ever thought of writing his own story as a survivor of serious mental illness. “Are you ready to do the digging necessary?” David thought he was.
A year later, David’s mother, a Congregational minister, heard a radio interview with Michael C. White, director of Fairfield University’s MFA program in Creative Writing, and told him about it. In short order, he signed up.
That’s where I first met him. It was the summer of 2009, and he was part of the morning workshops I led on Enders Island, off Mystic, where Fairfield holds its writing residencies.
There were seven students in that workshop. On each of the four mornings as we went over their work, there were many comments but only a few from David, who seemed shy. Yet whenever he spoke, it was with compassion and insight.
When it came time to go over his piece, and for us to offer suggestions for it, I was stumped. Only once before as editor or teacher had I been in such a situation: When I read David’s 20-page essay about some of his worst days, I was stunned both by its power and its craft. There wasn’t a single comma I wanted to change. Believe me, that is rare.
When David graduated in January 2011, Richard Abate read all that he had written, and liked it. He told David, though, that book publishers don’t favor essays. He needed to record his struggle from beginning to end. Start with happy memories, then bring the reader into the fall, and up again. This was advice David had also heard from Fairfield professor Roya Hakakian, author of Journey From the Land of No (a memoir of life before and after the revolution in Iran). She’d emphasized the need for narrative arc.
At Abate’s instruction, he wrote a book proposal. When Abate received it, he said, “Wow.” He then helped reduce it from 88 pages to 63. Still, publisher after publisher rejected what Abate thought was one of the most powerful proposals he’d ever read. “Too dark” was a typical objection, though David was able to see humor in this. (He told me, “I tried to keep the manuscript as light as the darkness would allow.”)
That’s when Wally Lamb entered the picture again, suggesting to his editors at HarperCollins that they consider a proposal for a book that describes mental illness from the inside. This was what William Styron had done in his classic Darkness Visible, although Styron’s illness hadn’t manifested in quite such a self-destructive manner, as reflected in the first paragraph of David’s work:
“When I try to find an exact point when my life was steady, blessed, and good, I always land in the summer when I was 20 years old, on Martha’s Vineyard. This was three years before mental illness began to eviscerate me and left me for dead. . . .”
Abate and Fitzpatrick were summoned to the HarperCollins office for an interview before the editors made their decision. They wanted to know if his family would be okay with what he wrote. Sure, his parents had been supportive of him the whole time he was ill. But what they really wanted to know, David recalls, is “Was I resilient enough? Would I crumble in the middle of it?”
When they asked him if he could stand in front of a hundred people and speak about his experience, David thought, “Probably not,” but knowing the stakes involved, he said, “Yes.”
He went home to his condo in Middletown, where he lives with his wife, Amy (they were married last year), and their cat Beardsley, named after the place they met, Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport. The next day, Richard Abate called. He said, “Cynical, black-hearted agents aren’t supposed to cry. Congratulations. You got it.” The HarperCollins subsidiary William Morrow said it would publish the book in August 2012.
There was no one handy for David to hug. Amy was in Hartford where she works as a research analyst for the bank RBS. His parents were on Cape Cod. Beardsley the cat seemed unimpressed. So David settled for “about 700 Tiger Woods fist pumps.”
In June, Publishers Weekly reviewed the memoir, titled Sharp, calling it “mesmeric.” It also said, “. . . the author was finally able to ‘recapture his mind’ with the help of targeted drugs, therapy, family support, and, perhaps most key, a mission (thanks to Wally Lamb’s encouragement) to write his dark, affecting human story for ‘the mentally ill voices who don’t ever get to speak, to shout and be heard.’”
For details of David Fitzpatrick’s upcoming readings, see larybloom.net.