I've forgotten how I met the author of Stick Man on Facebook. But, I've been "friends" of Richard Rossi for a few months now. So, when he said he had a novel out, I decided to take a look at it. It's described as a "coming of age" novel. Not normally my cup of tea. But, I am so glad I picked it up. Once I picked it up, I could hardly put it down because I saw so much of myself in the main character of Jeremiah, so much.
The thing that's really weird about me seeing myself in Jeremiah, the young boy who, over the course of the book, becomes a man, is that there is very little about the details of our lives that overlap at all. He was raised in Pittsburgh by an artistic family with a devout Catholic mother and a mentally ill father. Jeremiah endures physical hardships I never had to endure. And there is the issue of just who is Stick Man, a character that haunts Jeremiah's dreams. And, we're not really sure at first, maybe Stick Man is in his waking life as well. I spent the first part of the book wondering whether Stick Man was a personification of the guilt and shame haunting Jeremiah and just a projection or whether I was reading a Stephen King type novel where Stick Man, a figure made of the sticks of the cross of Christ, with nails for fingernails is an actual physical entity. The answer? Well, you'll have to read the book to find out.
I was grabbed by the book right up front when Jeremiah's mother takes him to church as a young child and he looks up and beholds the crucifix. Being raised Protestant, we weren't gruesome enough to put Jesus on the cross in our churches. But, Jeremiah's description of his first encounter with a crucifix in church was something that I could understand completely:
Mom licked her fingertips and brushed my eyebrows again, slicking them down. I wasn’t fond of spit on my eyebrows, but there was no stopping her. We walked the aisle in the center of the sanctuary. The church looked gargantuan. She found a seat, genuflected, and made the sign of the cross again. I gazed at the man on the sticks with nails stuck into his flesh. My eyes were riveted to the blood...
[the priest said] One day, God will purge our sins out of us in the stinking, scalding flames. You will burn in the light and heat of God’s purging fire. Some sins are venial, and melted away easily. But other sins, such as adultery, are mortal. Mortal sins will damn your soul forever.”...
“Satan has a stopwatch in his hand, and he sees his time coming to an end.” McCormick pointed right to the section where Mom and I sat. “Therefore, he’s chasing you harder and faster and more energetically than ever. He sees his time is running out and he wants you. His tactic is to tempt you with sin.” I squirmed. “I don’t like this, Mom. I’m scared.” “Be quiet.” “The devil goes after the young,” McCormick said. “Those who cannot fend for themselves.” I didn’t understand it all. But what I did understand made me cry. “Sit still,” Mom said. I wailed and wouldn’t stop until we left. She had me by the hair while I kicked and screamed. When we exited the sanctuary, I looked up and saw the cross, high above the votive lights. The beams seemed to reach for me. For a moment, I was transfixed. I imagined my own body on the sticks....
That’s when my nightmares started.
In church, where we're supposed to go to be comforted, to be reassured, to be loved- that's where little Jeremiah was given the deepest fear he would ever know. That's where his nightmares started. That's where my panic attacks started. I knew as soon as I read this passage this book would be something I could relate to.
When I'm reading novels, I don't normally highlight passages. But, I ended up highlighting 61 passages from Stick Man (on my Kindle). It's interesting that Jeremiah was first raised Catholic, then fell in among Pentecostals because so much of the guilt that was pumped into little Jeremiah was almost exactly the same stuff pumped into me, including some the language.
Rawlings face lit up. “Right! Yes, praise God, you got it. The key to joy, Jeremiah, is found in the letters J, O, Y. Jesus first, then others, then yourself last. (I, Brian, was taught this exact phrase)
“If you make a chair, you have the right to sit on it or burn it for firewood. We’re His. He made us, and not we ourselves. We’re just change in His pocket to spend any way He wants, as it were.”
“Maybe that’s why you believe what Reverend Rawlings teaches,” she said. “He makes God out to be a heavenly father who is like your earthly father.” “How so?” “The old man in the sky is angry. You never know when He’ll attack.”
"If God were small enough for us to understand, He wouldn't be big enough for us to trust,"
The book follows the life of young Jeremiah from the time he is a young child until he reaches the age of 21. We see the wounds inflicted upon him by the church, his parents and trusted adults. And, we see how he wrestles with the demons haunting him because of the lessons he's taught about how he's never good enough. Then, we watch Jeremiah as he learns to trust himself and to deal with all the pain of his past and as he comes to a new understanding of just who or what God is.
I don't know how well people who don't have a fundamentalist past will be able to relate to this book. It's just such a bizarre, nonsensical mindset that many people who haven't been steeped in it simply cannot understand why we didn't just reject it and not let it wound us so deeply. Even my brothers and sisters weren't impacted the way I was. But, like Jeremiah, my parents called me the "sensitive one". As a child, I accepted everything my parents, preachers and Sunday school teachers said. They knew better, they had a direct line to God and God had put them in charge of teaching me how to avoid the hell that seemed to await me at every turn. I wanted nothing more than to escape Stick Man and I was willing to listen to anything that could help me with that.
I saw a quote today that helps understand this:
First there is a time when we believe everything, then for a little while we believe with discrimination, then we believe nothing whatever, and then we believe everything again - and, moreover, give reasons why we believe.
- Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
In my experience, those of us raised with a faith tradition take on the faith of our fathers at first. Then we find that faith doesn't fit. In fact, for some of us it not only is uncomfortable, it's choking us to death. Then, we chuck the whole thing away or most of it anyway, until we can find a way to reconstruct it into something that actually works for us.
I recommend this book for people who have been scarred by a fundamentalist upbringing or for people trying to understand someone who has been. I don't know how much of the book is autobiographical. But, Rossi writes with the understanding that would seem to only come from someone who has been through the things he writes about. If Rossi is not Jeremiah, he did a great job of understanding the character. The book is PG-13 though containing some strong language and some fairly explicit sexual scenes (with the grown Jeremiah). I wouldn't really say I enjoyed reading the book as it did take me back to some uncomfortable places and feelings I have tried to put behind me. But, as I learned when I was in counseling a few years ago, if we never face those feelings, they never really heal and they haunt us in ways we don't even imagine. To truly defeat Stick Man, you have to face Stick Man.