“Relative Distance” by David Pruitt

Reviewed by Faith Eidse

A barbaric father forces three sons to travel the long road to normalcy in David Pruitt’s sibling memoir, Relative Distance. The story opens on a moment when all three sons are, separately, homeless. They’ve been rejected by a brutal father and abandoned by a mentally-ill mother. Told in first person, present tense by Pruitt’s adept, unflinching voice, the reader is pulled through the frame into the cruelty of their childhoods in real time. Here children are treated worse than dogs—and even dogs are treated worse than dogs.

 Vivid images and incisive observations interweave and deepen this memoir where a beloved carpet-wetting weenie dog is driven into the woods and abandoned while the boys watch horrified as their beloved pet chases the family car on stumpy legs.

The child wants to scream at his father’s unrelenting rule, “we’re damaged, abnormal, it’s not supposed to be this way.” His spirit begins to break, “resentment and apathy replace hope and ambition” in a home where “bad things are normalized.” Yet the child is “stubbornly loyal to blood over behavior” and seeks an elusive “love and approval…because it provides a sense of self-worth.” Throughout, Pruitt wraps the abused child in compassion, recognizing that he survived a hellish existence for years. “There is a real loss to the child of a failed parent—and there is pain.”

In a recent interview with Southern Literary Review, Pruitt said, “I cried a few times in writing this book. I’ve seen the potential of a childhood stolen. There’s always capacity to do more and contribute more. Twenty-five to thirty million adults have experienced some form of child abuse. It’s the best kept dirty little secret. I wanted to do something and give back. I had a larger purpose. I’m not looking for pity. I want to raise awareness and change lives.”

All three siblings succumb to mind-racing anxiety, fear of failure and abuse, bouts of depression—even mental illness like their mother’s—and outbursts of violence. But one son is convinced he can do no good while another is driven to prove he can. All three struggle in school and with social anxiety but the eldest escapes first, flounders but gets a hand-up from his father to stabilize his life. The second, convinced he’s a failure, drops out of high school and escapes to the open road as a homeless traveler for almost 25 years. The third, the author, is driven to disprove his father’s declarations, “You’re not worth a shit for nothing.” He struggles but graduates from college and climbs the corporate ladder to CEO of a multi-million bicycle corporation.

The story wisely focuses on comparing the two sons who travel the furthest distance from their abusive home. The author occasionally connects with his traveling brother who hitchhikes the East coast, escapes violence by wage slavers, and hops trains westward. These sometimes terrifying episodes are told, necessarily, in second person, often more formally, in summary. Yet they too reveal the extreme vulnerability of the homeless who often face mental crashes and surprising rescues by compassionate individuals, counselors and shelters.

However, the gripping power of this book is the way Pruitt begins to break the cycle of abuse even as a beaten-down child by finding a better model—the loving father on the Andy Griffith show. Pruitt is encouraged by this Hollywood portrayal to protest his father’s abuse and stand up to his mother’s indifference. In his prayers, despite a faith handed down in an erratic, unsafe environment, he begs for his life to become normal.

Pruitt’s revealing struggle describing impacts from child abuse will enlighten anyone who has survived childhood pummeled, shamed, and filled with anxiety and self-doubt. Every ten seconds a report of child abuse is made, over 4.3 million children a year.

Pruitt advises the abused to find a role model, find God or a person you can trust and confide in, find a better world and unconditional love, find courage to try and believe, and find determination to survive, build and achieve a better life.

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