Living to tell the tale

Isaac Fitzgerald’s “Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional” is filled with memorable essays.


“My parents were married when they had me, just to different people.” So opens Isaac Fitzgerald’s funny, searingly honest and compassionate book of essays that make up this compelling memoir. Every chapter circles around something specific from his life, but each is like a dance, moving this way and that so that taken together, “Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional” is a loose rather than strict chronological recounting.

We do start with his early years in the first chapters, pulling back the veil on his complicated family. His parents, who met in divinity school, which he notes is a pretty funny way to start an affair — eventually, get married, but do not achieve “happily ever after.” His father’s next affair and a move from Boston to a remote old house in a hill town in North Central Massachusetts speeds into a tale of a home filled with anger, violence, depression, suicide attempts, and other dysfunction. One such example is his mother’s oversharing about her pain — including telling him at age 8 that she almost had aborted him, and that perhaps it would have been for the best. He writes: “My mother was sick. She was in a desperate place. She told me too much…as if it were a way to pass the time, to keep her madness at bay…I would listen…letting it all pour into me.” Throughout, Fitzgerald eloquently conveys his perceptions, understandings, and pain without self-indulgence.

We see this in the essay “Confessions of a Former Fat Kid” as he goes far deeper than discussing his weight and the way it played out in his childhood. At one point he writes, “When it comes to body-image issues, we are all in our own personal hells. And my hell is but a flickering Bic lighter when compared with others. But that’s the thing about hells: Comparing them does not lead you to the exit door of your own. Even as I grew older…even as my weight fluctuated, my sense of self never did. Not once did I like what I saw in the mirror.” But he later writes about his current perspective: “There will be no ideal weight…Instead of looking for a perfect body…I understand I will never be perfect. I’m learning to be okay with that.”

Fitzgerald is honest about the drugs, alcohol, theft, and other “bad boy” behavior of his youth. However, we feel nothing but empathy for this boy who was dealing in the only way he knew how with the trauma in his life. He speaks with wry humor, never condemning but rather unraveling the nuances of his intimate relationship with bars, a dip into the porn industry, time working with a group that smuggled medical supplies into Burma, and many other experiences.

In his finely crafted essay, “When Your Barber Assumes You’re a Racist, Too,” Fitzgerald uses his experiences with too many barbers who turn out to be overtly racist to explore his response to these situations and others where he should have spoken out but did not because of his fear of being rude. Speaking about working on this in therapy now, he writes: “This politeness is a sickness…I still have the politeness of my past to keep me up at night…I can honestly say that I regret every time I didn’t speak up while I was sitting in those barber chairs. And sure, I could add something about how it’s hard to disagree with someone when they’re lining your beard up using a straight razor but that’s weak and you know it and I know it. Full stop.” He exhorts people to have uncomfortable conversations with their barber, uncles, or others: “Stop forcing marginalized people to have those conversations on their own while you sit, quiet, telling yourself you’re one of the good guys while you refuse to even get close to the heat, let alone jump into the burning building.” Fitzgerald ends by sharing that he now has these conversations and his gratitude for those who have had conversations with him that allow him to change and grow.

This same compassion abounds in the final essay, “My Story,” revisiting and catching up on his relationships with his parents and extended family and exhorting those with painful memories to confront their own issues…and to work on themselves. If you do not, Fitzgerald says, “They stack up, one on top of another, eventually becoming the structure and shape of your life. Unacknowledged pain? Refusing to work on yourself? Yes, there are consequences.”

He also tells us where things are now for him, writing, “Slowly but surely, I figured out how to live my life, how to find the things I loved and how to get good at those things and even be able to admit to myself that I was good — that I was allowed to feel proud of myself. Occasionally, at least.”

While “Dirtbag, Massachusetts” is not for the faint of heart, Fitzgerald’s brave if brutal honesty leaves us with hope, and gratitude to the author for so generously sharing his marvelously written stories and insights.

“Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional,” Isaac Fitzgerald, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022.. Available at Edgartown Books and online. Isaac Fitzgerald will be speaking on Zoom on March 7 at 7 pm. The registration link is and the password is: ​dirtbagmass.