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Memoir as Activism Series: David Pruitt

Hello all. This is the first of what will be a long-term series of interviews with memoir authors who turned their stories into activism.

As you might know, I co-authored a book, Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism, with my friend Dr. Terri Lyon. Activism is important to me. Many of the memoir authors I have coached or edited have aspirations to make social change happen through their memoirs. David Pruitt is one such author. He and I talked recently for the first of this new series, Memoir as Activism. Here's what he had to say.

Cover of the memoir Relative Distance

Trish: Hi, David. First, let me congratulate you on your brilliant memoir Relative Distance. It was my great pleasure to serve as your copyeditor. The book is a journey story I will never forget. I’d like to talk with you about Relative Distance. I know it was published in October 2022. When did you start writing it?

David: Thanks, Trish. As always, I appreciate your support for Relative Distance!

I began writing in earnest in the spring of 2018. My retirement and finding my older brother who’d vanished for twenty-seven years (much of it traveling across America as a homeless person), were the triggering events that got me started. I took my time. It was important to me to tell the story well.

Trish: Does the book tell the story you originally set out to tell? Did the memoir change shape and direction as you wrote? If so, were you surprised by that change?

David: The purpose of the book evolved. As a youth, I was told I would never amount to anything. The three of us were brutally beaten. My mentally ill mother abandoned us. I watched my siblings struggle as teens and adults. I had struggles of my own, but somehow my life worked out. I became a first-generation college graduate, a CPA, a CFO, and a CEO in Corporate America. I’ve been married to my best friend for thirty-four years now. My kids have done well, one’s doing his residency in cardiology and the other works successfully in Artificial Intelligence – more importantly they’re good human beings. I retired relatively young and financially secure. I say all this not to tout my good fortune but to describe my state of mind at the beginning of the writing process. I felt deep gratitude - and slightly bewildered at the positive direction my life took after such a difficult beginning. Instinctively I knew I was an exception to some sort of rule. The question became why had my life gone the way it had while my siblings struggled? I’m certainly no better than them, and we endured the same trials in our youth. After a time, as I wrote, it became clear to me the “trials” we endured were the larger issue.

Through additional research, I learned there are approximately thirty million adults in America who endured some form of dysfunctional upbringing. And children are still suffering today – there are four million reports made to child protective services annually. At some point, my purpose switched from answering my personal existential question to telling two very different stories (my older sibling and mine) of successfully moving beyond a dysfunctional upbringing.

Trish: We learn that your father was a violent, physically abusive man. What emotions did you experience as you relived your childhood?

David: First and foremost, I didn’t hate my father. I loved him. He passed on his strong work ethic and sense of responsibility. I made sure he was properly cared for until his death. But the hard things he did to us never left me. At times, my severe anxieties and wavering self-doubt, the fears that were borne into me as a child, were my biggest obstacles to success. It’s a struggle to this day. Sometimes as I wrote or read a particular passage to my patient wife, the tears came. But I don’t hate and I don’t resent. I do, however, feel a sense of loss. My brothers and I missed out on the unconditional parental love that is critically important to the development of a child purposefully raised to meet their full potential.

Trish: We also learned your mother had a mental illness that prevented her from protecting and comforting you and your brothers. When did you first recognize that your mother did not behave as a healthy, supportive mother should? What do you think of her today?

David: The truth is my mother never took a meaningful, active role in raising me or my brothers. When she went to the hospital for electroshock therapy - and then locked herself away in her bedroom for days at a time, I figured it out - I was on my own. I think my brothers already knew. I was eight years old at the time. As you know from the book, we had a pivotal, final encounter when I was in college, and, as a result, I unequivocally cut her out of my life.

As an adult with a better understanding of mental illness, in her case schizophrenia, and the associated symptoms, I regret what I did. It was an act of self-protection and festering resentment. In retrospect, I would’ve been more of a help to her in later life. But, when I see how wonderful a mother my wife is to our two sons, I do miss the idea of what a loving, engaged mother might’ve felt like. Sadly, we never formed a meaningful mother-son bond.

Trish: Your two older brothers suffered a fate as a result of your dysfunctional upbringing far harsher than your own. What conclusion have you come to about why your childhoods so adversely affected them? What is it about your personality or choices that saved you from a similar fate?

David: First, I’m very proud of both of my brothers today. They are financially independent and good men. I’m particularly proud of my brother who spent over twenty years traveling the backroads of America as a homeless person. He somehow survived and came out the other side as a decent human being carrying a profound faith that today is a cornerstone of his life.

To answer your question, I think I benefited as the youngest of three siblings. I saw their struggles brought on by the verbal and physical abuse we absorbed in our adolescence. I saw options narrowing, doors closing and their challenging early lives living homeless on the streets of Greensboro, North

Carolina – our hometown. It scared me and motivated me to set aside my fear and expectation of failure. I decided to reach for something better. It made me try. It drove me to persist.

In the end, life choices matter, the mix of genes matter (two parents, multiple children), individual wants and desires matter, and circle of friends matter but the gift of youth and a watchful observant eye made a meaningful difference in my life.

Trish: After working on Relative Distance as your editor, I got a sense that you were doing two things: first, paying loving tribute to your brothers and their struggles throughout life. And also, trying to come to grips with how differently—you say blessed—your life turned out. Since memoir is the story of a life transformation, a transcendence, what is the takeaway your readers will receive at the end of Relative Distance? What is the gift you are giving your readers with this memoir?

David: A victim of child abuse will find a viable, achievable path to their most productive life. An interested reader will learn more about the lifelong implications of early child abuse and a better understanding of the homeless plight. A lover of books who reads to be educated and emotionally moved by well-considered words will find both in Relative Distance.

Trish: Writing about abuse can be cathartic if someone is ready to tackle the issue. Would you encourage those who have experienced abuse or neglect to write about these experiences as part of a healing process?

David: It can be cathartic but I’m sure it could also be painful for some. To each his own. My thought is to, early on, proceed slowly and mindfully. See how you feel.

I’m not sure it profoundly changed me. Once I got ahold of where I was going, I wrote with a mission in mind. It became less internal, less self-oriented, and much more an attempt to make some small positive difference in the world. It remains that. All proceeds from the book go to the Center For Child and Family Health in Durham, NC. I’m building a relationship with them that I hope will allow me to help abused kids and dysfunctional families even more in the future.

Trish: Thank you, David.

You can buy Relative Distance at Amazon and all major bookstores and online booksellers. Let me know what you think of David's story.

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