Friday, February 06, 2009

Stuart: A Life Backwards

Stuart Shorter did a lot of living, most of it not very pleasant, before his tragic death-by-train at the age of thirty-three. A victim of muscular dystrophy, Stuart was ostracized and ridiculed by children his age because of the way he walked. He suffered at the hands of sexual predators, both in his own home, and in the Cambridge, England, facility he lived in after being placed “in care.” His drug usage progressed all the way from glue sniffing to heroin and his thievery landed him in more than a dozen prisons – where he would spend several years of his short life. When not locked up, Stuart Shorter lived on the streets and, though people feared his tendency toward violence, he most often managed to do more physical damage to himself than to others.

When Alexander Masters, while studying at Cambridge University, met him, Stuart Shorter was more in control of his life than he had been for a long time. He was living in his own small flat and had limited his use of alcohol and drugs enough to keep himself from getting into much new trouble with the law. Masters, an advocate for the homeless, saw the spark in Stuart that made his story an exceptionally tragic one and the two worked together for over three years to get that story down on paper. The result is Stuart: A Life Backwards.

Neither believed that the early trauma and taunting associated with Stuart’s illness predestined him to homelessness, severe drug addiction, or his violent nature. There was much more to it, and Stuart’s question “What murdered the boy I was?” became the central theme of the book. It was when they hit on the idea of telling Stuart’s story in reverse, a backwards biography of sorts, that a variety of answers was unearthed for their consideration.

Stuart: A Life Backwards
is largely told in Stuart’s own words along with Alexander’s reaction to his stories about prison life, school days, homelessness, violence, sexual abuse, and drugs. It begins at the point the two first meet, when Stuart is 29 years old, and progresses backward by jumps of roughly five years all the way to Stuart’s birth. Each of the segmented periods includes a real-time conversation between Stuart and Alexander about those years plus what the author learned through his own research.

As Stuart and Alexander search for the answer to his question, Stuart becomes a unique, and surprisingly insightful, person in the eyes of the reader. As the real tragedy of his life is revealed, one comes to believe that Stuart cannot possibly come to a good end – and, sadly, he does not.

Alexander Masters provides an interesting look into a lifestyle seldom described through the eyes of someone actually living it, especially someone self-aware to the extent that Stuart is, a man struggling to find answers of his own. What a shame it is that Stuart was not around long enough to see the finished product.

Rated at: 4.0


  1. Very much so, John. It's not a book that I can say that I "enjoyed," but, for sure, it is one from which I learned something. It's the first book I've read that gets into the homeless to this degree.

  2. I haven't read the book but a British TV film was made and aired last year based on the book. It was brilliant! Funny and heartbreaking, I remember it as a very human story and intelligently filmed. Stuarts character and Alexander too were entertaining and quirky making a difficult story very watchable and moving. I will look out for the book, thanks for the review.

  3. I saw a few pictures on the web, Leah, from that BBC presentation. I'll have to see if it's available in this country because it seems to have been pretty well done.