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Review of David Patten's "Dummy: A Memoir"

One Pilgrim’s Progress—David Patten’s Dummy: A Memoir

by Barbara K. Richardson


One Pilgrim’s Progress—David Patten’s Dummy: A Memoir

David Patten’s compelling memoir gives the word pilgrimage new meaning. Born in the early ‘50s with severe learning disabilities and autism-spectrum disorder, Patten did not have to travel anywhere to journey toward the divine. His arduous pilgrimage was himself.

Dummy puts you inside the “reckless intensity” of a boy stymied by schoolwork, tormented by bullying, plagued by reactive rages, and drawn at age fourteen into the visceral pull of suicide. Without posturing or self-pity, Patten reveals the harsh and often terrifying choices he makes after his suicide attempt fails.

As in the classic Pilgrim’s Progress, this story contains dark passages. Coming of age in ‘60s Chicago involves drugs, dealing, gang violence, and institutionalization. Willing to try anything to learn to read and write, Patten also travels to California for a stay in Jacquie Schiff’s Transactional Analysis home, where schizophrenics are at times brutally “reparented” to cure them of their delusions.

Wherever he turns, whatever he tries, Patten’s genius-level abstract thinking skills remain buried. His only real successes come in the underworld. His only true love is a drug-addicted girlfriend who’s fleeing an abusive home. And yet, within this “war zone,” flashes of transcendent insight come.

Dummy propels the reader from drama to drama—landing at last in a grace so whole and indestructible, it lights the darkened room we call everyday existence. Though the writing is at times unpolished, Patten’s insights are often stunning. A rugged beauty exists beneath the text, in the struggle of one lonely man to realize a truth greater than his enormous day-to-day defeats. Tibetan teacher Anam Thubten calls this “spiritual exhaustion,” a crucial step on any pilgrim’s path.

Dummy demonstrates with a wallop that we are not the stories we tell ourselves. We needn’t “make form into a kind of god.” We can trust the moment to provide all we need, and “become the world’s compassionate witness.” Take heart, Patten says, you cannot fall outside the loving embrace of awareness.

Barbara K. Richardson’s novel Tributary, a fearless portrait of 1870’s Utah, follows Clair Martin’s difficult journey to spiritual belonging. Links: http://www.barbarakrichardson.com/index.html


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