A review of That Fry Boy by James Fry

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

That Fry Boy
By James Fry
New Holland Publishers
Paperback, 240 pages, February 1st 2015, ISBN13: 9781742576725

James Fry was a happy child; a well-loved and well-cared-for child. So why, by 13 year of age, was he already an alcoholic and drug addict, stealing money from his parents and skipping school day after day to get drunk and high with his friends? In this painfully honest exploration, Fry looks deep into the heart of his addiction and finds its early roots in the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that resulted from a particularly nasty and prolonged, though perhaps not entirely unusual, case of schoolyard bullying that took place when Fry was in the second grade.

The book is narrated in first person, taking the reader into Fry’s young psyche and capturing the ongoing inner tension between Fry’s fear of being a victim again, his growing hunger for oblivion, and his desire to do the right thing, What becomes clear right from the start, is how badly he is failed by the school system – not just for the way the principal ignores the initial bullying, even when it results in bloodshed and even when Fry desperately tries to engage his principal and even the police, but later, when he is continually getting into trouble. Although his parents continually try to help him, they are sidelined by inept professionals and a system that thwarts many of his his attempts to get straight:

…I believed it would be only a matter of time before I was able to shed my reputation as a troublemaker and be recognized as someone who had changed. Then one afternoon after one of the many trouble-free days at school I had now banked up in abundance my parents told me at dinner that I would not be going back tomorrow. They said that when I was at school that day Mr Stay had called them. Apparently he had noticed that I had turned my behaviour completely around, but that my prior reputation just meant that he felt it was not appropriate for me to be part of his school any longer. He had gone on to tell my parents that other mothers and fathers at the school had been calling on him for my removal. All the negative feelings that I had developed from my bullying, the sense of worthlessness and isolation, were now reinforced tenfold. (44-45)

The reader shares young Fry’s frustration as he repeatedly promises himself (and his long-suffering parents) that he will get clean and turn his life around, only to find himself walking into trouble again. Though Fry is a sympathetic character, and the reader has the benefit of his hindsight and can see a clear line between the hurt he suffered and the hurt inflicts upon himself and others, at no time does the author attempt to absolve himself of responsibility. Some of his activities are particularly odious, including many instances of stealing from his parents–even taking the electricity money and leaving the family in the dark, picking a racist-driven fight with two shocked Asian commuters, and joining a white supremacist group, Fry doesn’t attempt to whitewash these activities. He repeatedly praises his parents for their ongoing support in the face of the pain he clearly causes them. The sting of his mother’s pain is particularly poignant:

I walked through the dark hallway and past mum, who was just standing there in silence, too upset to speak. What had now become and all-too-familiar look of intense grief was written all over her face. I imagined this to be a look that should have been reserved for a mother who had just lost her son. Physically I may have looked like her beautiful baby boy, but in all other ways that boy was gone, leaving in his place a thief, liar and addict. (143)

I can imagine exactly what it must have been like for her to both know, as only a mother would, how much her son wanted to change, and to feel the frustration at his continued failures. Fry’s writing is lucid and moves forward at a fast pace, driven by the reader’s desire to see him, finally, happy and living a positive, productive life.  It’s hard to read about how this happy and well-cared for boy could have gone so far off the rails, sliding repeatedly back into addiction and violence. Overall, however, That Fry Boy is an affirmative and powerful read, with a strong character arc that is transformative. Fry’s recovery through Twelve Step, and the way he turns his bad experiences into a toolkit for helping others, is inspirational, and will provide solace for anyone who thinks their own case is hopeless. The book is rich with insights, gained from Fry’s own experiences, and also from his later work with troubled adolescents:

Only now as an adult am I able to fully understand that it is generally only those who are deeply scared themselves that feel compelled to portray themselves to the outside world as someone not to be messed with. The truly confident are generally calm and humble individuals, self-assured with the knowledge that should a confrontation arise, they will instinctively have the ability and inner resources to assert themselves if need be. (136)

The Fry Boy is a powerful memoir, which makes it clear that no case is hopeless, and that everyone deserves another chance to lead a positive life, that our institutional structures for supporting children who have been bullied need to improve, and that behind every bully is a scared child who has been hurt. The book sheds light on just how damaging bullying can be, impacting, not only on those involved, but on society as a whole.  That Fry Boy encourages readers to look more closely, put our prejudices aside and find compassion.