Painting By Numbers by David Thyssen is a visceral account of the journeyed descent into hell of an adolescent boy who has been pushed into the darkest of emotional places and as a result, his life and those of many around him end in tragedy. Although a fictional account, the story is based on the author’s own experiences of being bullied and humiliated in school.
Seth Mason is fourteen years old. He is highly intelligent and insightful, attractive and extremely articulate. He comes from a wealthy family and doesn’t want for anything material, except for the love and concern of his parents. On the surface, his family appears to be a model one, however, in Seth’s reality his family is highly dysfunctional.
Seth’s sixth year of life proved to be a seminal one, the events of which would indelibly mark him emotionally and affect the course of his short-lived life. At the age of six he witnessed his mother having sex in his parents’ bed with a man who was not his father, and at the same age was sexually abused by his father.
Further complicating matters, Seth was diagnosed as bi-polar/schizophrenic at a young age. His mental illness manifests itself in severe depression and soaring highs with bouts of anger that sometimes have a violent outlet and he hears voices, which he calls the Nomans. He’s been on medication for years. Sometimes the meds work and sometimes they don’t. When things become unbearable, he self-medicates by smoking dope and cuts himself to provide a controlled outlet for the pain.
Small in physical size even for a fourteen-year old, Seth has endured bullying, harassment, public humiliation and physical abuse from his peers throughout elementary and middle school. He hoped that this would change in high school, but it didn’t, in fact it became worse. He tries to make himself invisible in school in the hopes of avoiding harassment from bullies, students and teachers alike, but this proves futile.
“It has happened to me before, but never has it been as embarrassing as today. There was something intangible in the air when I woke up this morning, as if God was sending me a warning, but I’m so used to being in constant danger in school, I didn’t pay any attention to whatever omen I may have felt. Early morning warning signs never scared me though, I’ve been beaten and kicked, I’ve been pushed around and down to the ground, and held in very uncomfortable positions for extended periods of time, and I already have been pantsed twice before. The last time it happened about a year ago, but I could hang on to my boxers, and was able to prevent total humiliation. The first time was in fifth grade when they got me good and managed to pull my pants inside out over my shoes, which took forever to pull back up. That night I tried to choke myself with my pillow.”
There are few safe havens for Seth. His grandmother, whom he loves dearly, is really the only one that keeps Seth going. And while he is close with his sister Frances, he doesn’t always trust her. His relationship with Troy, a boy he met online, also provides Seth with some fleeting joy. And despite the fact that he is confused about his sexuality and his bisexual encounters and desperately doesn’t want to be gay, he’s in love with Troy and hopes to be with him some day.
Seth doesn’t speak to anyone about the terror he endures at school, and no one, including his parents, pays enough attention to ask or to listen, except for his grandmother, but she’s not always around. Seth’s only outlet is his blog where he writes about the events in his life and his deepest and darkest thoughts and feelings. And while he hopes that someone is reading his posts, he knows that there isn’t anyone out there who would likely care.
When his grandmother dies, his online relationship with Troy falls apart, and he discovers through hypnotherapy that he‘s been living a lie that may make him a monster by his own definition, Seth completely unravels. He sets out to get back at those who have caused him immeasurable hurt and pain. Seth meticulously plans and carries out the murder of several teachers and students at school, before he turns the gun on himself.
The story is written in the first person from Seth’s perspective through a series of online entries that he posts on his blog over a number of months. Seth’s account begins and ends with the aftermath of his rampage at school. He is holed up in the teachers’ lounge posting his final entry before he commits suicide and in the time that elapses he recounts his full story.
The writing displays an acute understanding of this character’s plight and the mind of this fourteen-year old boy. Mr. Thyssen gives voice to Seth with an unnerving sense of realism and eloquence providing the reader with an extremely intimate level of insight as to what would push a fourteen-year old boy to pick up a gun, premeditate and execute a mass murder before killing himself.
The author strips away any artifice when it comes to the depiction of this character while at the same time ensuring that the portrayal of Seth and his violence is not gratuitous, sensational, nor is it romanticised. No doubt Seth’s inability to cope with the victimization he endures at school is further exacerbated by his mental illness and the author does not attempt to hide or make excuses for Seth’s violence, or his sexist and racist tendencies.
At the same time, however, the writing deftly communicates to the reader with understanding and compassion the sheer anguish of Seth’s existence and the reasons for his vehement self-loathing, his anger and his feelings of utter helplessness and hopelessness. Mr. Thyssen achieves a fragile balance in the writing of this character. Even with what Seth has done, it is difficult to dislike him. The emotion that does surface while reading this novel is one of deep sorrow at the tragedy of Seth’s life.
In this sense, the overarching message of this story is not a moral debate of whether Seth is a victim, or a monster, or both. Rather, the story questions why no one stepped in to help Seth in school, and how and why a boy in Seth’s predicament can so easily slip through the cracks and go unnoticed in virtual plain sight by family, teachers and society until it’s too late.
Painting By Numbers is by degrees both a heartrending and disturbing story and a courageous undertaking by this author. Understandably, it is not a story that will appeal to every reader, and I don’t recommend it as anything other than fiction for adults. In the end, this story broke my heart and the character of Seth continues to haunt me. It is a well written and starkly compelling account whose subject matter in many respects is truer than real life.
Painting by Numbers by David Thyssen is available at Amazon.
Music: Jeremy – Pearl Jam
NOTE: This review was originally published online by Rainbow Reviews.