Don’t Box Me In: Finding Confessional, Self, & Dirtbag, Massachusetts

Published July 19, 2022 by Bloomsbury Publishing.

(Trigger Warning: This article contains reference to suicidal ideation and suicide-related behaviors. Please read with care.)

Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional is not about dusting off the skeletons in the family closet after leaving home. Instead, these essays are Isaac Fitzgerald clearing off the mirrors of his current makeup to better reflect on himself. The collected pieces in Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional are the stories of Fitzgerald finding himself and a substitute family, starting from his grade school years through his twenties before returning home. The book is not only about Fitzgerald raising himself from an early age when his parents are unable to care for him but also about picking himself back up time after time throughout his life.

The subtitle lets the reader know that this is a confessional and one of the main themes is, who do we choose to confess to? The piece “Forgive Me” deals with Fitzgerald being a former Catholic and walking away from the church at a young age. This essay also goes into how heavily involved his parents were in the Catholic church and the scandals of the Archdiocese of Boston. “Forgive Me” examines the questionable behavior of priests in Fitzgerald’s presence and how some of the events sent Fitzgerald on a different path than his parents. With that stoic form of confessional removed from his life, Fitzgerald looks at nontraditional places to confess, such as in bars, in the essays “Hold Steady” and “Home.” After moving away to the west coast, it is through working in the San Francisco bar scene that Fitzgerald finds a family amongst his coworkers. They also devised personal commandments to follow when going out to other establishments. These commandments helped remind them why they did their service job, as they dressed up for an evening and showed some respect to their fellow service industry professionals. As a young man, these commandments gave Fitzgerald a focus and foundation not found in the home he grew up in.

Confessions also lie at the heart of the book’s second major theme: when your house isn’t a home. Dirtbag, Massachusetts deals with Fitzgerald coming to terms with his parents’ rocky relationship. They were both married to other people when they met and had him. Though they divorced their other partners and married each other, his father would still continue to have affairs. Financial circumstances would cause an eight-year-old Fitzgerald and his mother to move to rural western Massachusetts while his father still lived and worked in Boston. Fitzgerald’s mother would soon start confessing her suicidal ideation to her young son. She had nowhere else to turn since the church she was so committed to consider the act a mortal sin. Soon, young Fitzgerald would become the parent, raising himself and rescuing his mother from her suicide-related behaviors. Dirtbag, Massachusetts deals with how Fitzgerald grew up not allowed to talk about his mother’s suicidal ideation and keeping secret what was going on at home. “When you can’t talk about something, you’re prevented from naming and describing it, from making it real,” Fitzgerald writes, addressing the stigma around mental health awareness.

The secrets of his home life uncover more heavy subject matter in Dirtbag, Massachusetts. Fitzgerald writes about the recklessness and self-destruction of his youth—drinking and the drugs he took when trying to find his footing in different social circles and when processing his relationship with his parents. From being a poor rural kid at a private school in “Dirtbag, Massachusetts” to climbing the Himalayas in “High for the Holidays,” his smooth writing style helps tell of his healing without bulldozing any details of the rough road traveled in finding closure. This is a book about recognizing ourselves for where we are truly at in life when we look in the mirror. Fitzgerald also learns about not being judged or judging people by their environment from his life in rural Massachusetts. You find yourself rooting for him as he goes beyond its borders and finds clarity through his travels throughout the years.

At its heart, confession is putting to rest shame or embarrassment so the person can move on. Dirtbag, Massachusetts is about seeing our present self and being comfortable in our own skin, as Fitzgerald does in “Confessions of a Former Fat Kid.” There is also the discussion of living with our real selves, not fictional copycats like when he writes about his teenage Tyler Durden self in “The True Story of My Teenage Fight Club.” Apart from exploring the concept of confession, Fitzgerald also makes a point to examine finding purpose in life. In “Maybe I Could Die This Way,” he examines his self-destructive behavior and travels overseas to join the Free Burma Rangers. At the time, Fitzgerald thought that if he was going to destroy himself, it might as well be for something but in giving himself to a mission he found a reason to go on living beyond his time in Myanmar (FKA Burma). The heights Fitzgerald is willing to travel to return to a relationship with family can also be found in “High for the Holidays,” when he writes about climbing the Himalayas with his father and sister. But the throughline of the book is recognizing that we are not the sins of our parents. As Fitzgerald states after addressing the generational trauma of his father being beaten as a child, “We are all sinners, forged out of others’ heat, sinning and sinned against.”

Dirtbag, Massachusetts is a quick read and I would recommend it to anyone trying to find themselves. It is also a book that can reach readers who walked a path similar to Fitzgerald’s and use his experience as a guide for coming to terms with their relationships with one’s self and others. Isaac Fitzgerald knows his truth and his faults and speaks honestly about the work he has done to find a healthy relationship with himself and his family, which is what anyone struggling to better themselves would want to read. Dirtbag, Massachusetts is a collection of essays that encourage any reader to put together their own confessional in order to seek closure with the past.

Dominic Loise

Dominic is a bookseller living in Chicago, Il., with his librarian wife and three rabbits. He is open about and advocates for mental health awareness in his writing. Before coming to Brink Literacy Project, Dominic was the Store Manager at Open Books, Chicago’s first literacy nonprofit bookstore. He was also on the planning committee and created virtual sessions for the Ray Bradbury Experience Museum.