on March 16, 2003
When he was a teenager in Massachusetts during the 1970s, Augusten Burroughs kept daily journals recording everything that happened to him. "Running with Scissors" is a result of those journals, but it's unlikely that anyone who suffered experiences like his would need a journal to recall them. Instead, his diaries both gave him the therapeutic outlet he needed while growing up and supplied this book with the rich detail that makes it, at times, so unbelievable.
Burrough's mother was a struggling poet who wanted to be like Anne Sexton, and, lacking any talent, she instead suffered Sexton's psychotic episodes. The father, unable to deal with his wife's instability, drank himself out of the relationship. Eventually, Burroughs is abandoned by his family and adopted by his mother's psychiatrist, a certifiable lunatic who dispenses drugs and sex far more diligently than sound advice and who believes discipline is an evil to be avoided at all costs. To complicate an already disastrous situation, other members of this adopted family include several deeply disturbed individuals, including a pedophile who finds a ready victim in the 14-year-old Burroughs.
I read this book two months ago, and, while I found it simultaneously appalling and enjoyable, I didn't know what to make of it. Since then, I've read several press reports that address some of the rumors generated by this book's publication. No, none of the people described in this book have sued (or threatened to sue) the author for libel. True, no child with the name "Augusten Burroughs" ever lived anywhere near Northampton--because Burroughs legally changed his name when he was 18. In sum, I've read nothing to indicate that Burroughs is making it all up.
Yet there are two criticisms of the book I don't understand. Unfortunately for Burroughs, the back cover includes a single blurb comparing him to David Sedaris, and many readers, unable to think for themselves, contrast the two authors and find Burroughs lacking. Other than being gay and funny (and it's insulting that that is all it takes for people to link the two authors), Burroughs and Sedaris have nothing in common--each has his own writing style and a unique sense of humor. It would be just as pertinent to compare him to Ru Paul.
The second criticism is that Burroughs reproduces conversations verbatim from thirty years ago. Putting aside the fact that he was able to consult diaries to refresh his memory, this technique is not uncommon. J. R. Ackerley, Annie Dillard, and Philip Roth--to name just three I've read recently--all use the same conceit in their classic memoirs. Burroughs is not as good as these three writers--his prose is a bit austere, and the book teeters on the edge of John Waters-inspired camp. Nevertheless, criticism of "recreated" dialogue seems gratuitous: any detail in any autobiography can be censured on the same grounds. Burroughs quite successfully recreates for the reader certain episodes of his life--episodes no human being would have been able to forget--and the exact wording of recalled dialogue matters as much as the exact color of the polyester shirt he was wearing at the time.
Regardless of its faults (both real and alleged), the book is vivid proof that Burroughs emerged from his past with a profound sense of dignity. In a recent interview, he said of the older man who sexually abused him: "Mostly I still feel an incredible rage that he would do that to a young person, but just as much as I feel that rage I feel sorry for him, because he was someone who was mentally ill and had the most atrocious therapist possible." This quote alone displays his uncanny ability to step back and reflect detachedly on his experiences and to be both empathetic and sympathetic even towards those who deserve his venom. Some readers will be disturbed by Burroughs's ability to laugh (and make us laugh) at what happened to him. Yet the book probably would have unbearable otherwise--and, if it weren't for his sense of humor, it's unlikely the author would be around to tell us his story at all.
I found myself laughing hysterically at this book while simultaneously shaking my head in horror. It's the story of Burrough's life from the age of roughly 13 to 16. Burrough's lived a middle-classed life, but the people around him were gradually losing it. His mother began to have "psychotic breaks" (although it sounds like she may have had bipolar disorder) and hooked up with a bizarre psychiatrist - Dr. Finch. Soon, every aspect of their lives are touched by Dr. Finch and his equally bizarre family. At times, the events are horrifying, such as Burrough's molestation by Dr. Finch's adopted son. Remarkably, Burrough's manages to find the humor even in these situations. People are likely to compare Burrough's to another gay humorist, David Sedaris; however, Burrough's stories are far darker than those of Sedaris, although both of them write great funny stories. This book was a tremendously quick read, and I laughed out loud more than any recent book I've read. Highly recommended on that basis, but some readers are likely to be highly offended by some of the content.
on June 3, 2004
I saw the cover and chuckled, thinking, aw, this will be a cute story. My God, how wrong was I? Augusten Burroughs writes a memoir of his young years growing up in not only one, but two totally disfunctional households. His parents despise each other and you begin to wonder on which page one might kill the other.
Mom is totally dependent on her psychiatrist, spending endless hours with him. He is portrayed as a Santa Claus-type person...
a right jolly old elf. When Augusten is left to stay with psychiatrist and family, we are plunged into a household that goes WAY beyond bizarre! You really have to read it to believe it. I honestly looked at his picture on the back cover at least
20 times while reading the book wondering how this guy could look so normal after what he had been through!
This is one mind-blowing read. I was so intrigued by his story that I went on NPR's web-site to listen to his interviews.
Gosh, he sounds so grounded...and yet how could it be?
on October 24, 2005
I wanted to like this book, and don't get me wrong, I did enjoy it on some level. Although some of the scenes are grotesque, they are certainly alive with detail and stick in your brain the way well-written scenes should. However, I feel like Burroughs had a great opportunity to write a truly moving memoir here and he passed it by. The amazing amount of material he had to work with- his insane mother, the intriguing Finch family, his affair with a pedophile- these things could have produced a deep and memorable book. But Burroughs doesn't go that far. I felt as though he skated the surface, anxious to fit in as many gross and weird scenes as possible, without delving into character development or drawing any conclusions from what occurred.
Examples of what I mean: Did anyone feel as though they knew Natalie? We don't even get a clear description of her until the last few chapters, yet she's a main character. Same with Hope, who starts out as the capable and sweet receptionist of the dr. and is later shown as religious and weird- during the cat scene, I actually had to flip to the front of the book and verify that this was the same Finch daughter, because she was acting so different from the original image of her we had been given. Ditto for the dr. and the revelations at the end of the book about him (I won't give it away)- and for Augusten himself. These characters slowly begin to show their colors in the first few chapters, then suddenly they do a bunch of weird stuff and act in ways we don't expect, and then the book is abruptly over, with a dissatisfying epilogue about where these people ended up. We never get to know them on more than a surface level.
This could have been a classic memoir- Burroughs certainly had the material for one. But he crammed an awful lot of events into such a small space that we're left feeling, as one other reviewer said, as though we've just watched an episode of Donahue. We're amused and intrigued but we don't really know these people, or what it all means.
We have all heard the bad rap some writers have gotten over what constitutes a memoir. Did it really happen? Have you fabricated parts to make it more enticing to the reader? Will Oprah come down hard on you when she finds out you fibbed on the details? While reading "Running With Scissors" I found myself asking these questions over and over again. Could it really be possible there was a man who had his children retrieve his excrement and save it on the family's picnic table, believing they were direct messages from God? The same man who gave his blessing to a "relationship" between his 30 something year old adopted son and 13 year old Augusten, his patient/ward? Could it be possible this man was a psychiatrist and he wasn't arrested for child abuse but eventually just insurance fraud?
If just half of this memoir is true, Augusten Burroughs is lucky to be alive and able to tell his story. Some people who have read this book call it funny or hilarious and I just don't see that. Shocking, disturbing, unbelievable are terms that come to mind but not funny. I suppose it's like laughing at absurdities but I still find the entire story more incredulous than anything. The subject matter of insanity, psychic breaks, pedophilia, and child neglect hardly warrants a chuckle and it chills me to the core that this all might actually have happened. Burroughs tells a frightening story of his turbulent adolescence and he somehow made it out alive but don't make the mistake of thinking you are going to find comedy between these pages. Reading this book was like watching a train wreck, hard to look away but repulsed just the same.
Here's the thing about memoirs. Sometimes you read them and you catch yourself saying, "Well, why would the author have the character do that?" Or, "What was the point of the protagonist doing this?" Then you remember it's a memoir--based on real life--and that real life doesn't always conform to the rules of fiction writing.
So, while I'd like to complain about the meaninglessness of having the main character form a really close bond with Natalie, only to throw it away in three pages because of an arguably tough situation right at the end, I can't. Because, as far as I know, the author is simply telling us what happened, and it doesn't necessarily have to have any meaning.
I think I went into this book expecting "The Royal Tennenbaums." This is because the back of the book (which, to my high annoyance, has no synopsis) has multiple quotes from reviewers calling the book "hilarious" or "riotously funny" or "hysterical." That, plus the previews of the movie, make it seem as though the story is going to be fun, quirky ... uhhh ... funny. Maybe a little dark, as Royal was, but not dreadful.
Here are things I simply cannot find funny:
Hateful, selfish parents
Attempted murder of one spouse on the other
Parents who disown their children
And, uh, that's pretty much what this whole book is about. Its very core is about a mother who goes bananas and just says hateful things to her son, before completely abandoning him. The father isn't present at all. The child is left to fend for himself at a psycho psychiatrists house, along with other kids, from the age of 12 or 13, depending on when you judge the true neglect begins. No one at his school, none of the neighbors, NO ONE ever saw these kids and thought, "Gee, maybe something should be done for these kids?"
I don't find that funny, I find it incredibly sad.
And despite the protagonist's "maturity," it is RAPE when a 33-year-old man has sex with a 13-year-old. Just like it's RAPE when a 40-year-old ADOPTS an 11-year-old so he can have sex with her undeterred.
I know why people find this book charming. The author does have a skill for finding the humor in some awful situations. Some of the dialogue is downright witty. And, any reader can look at the book and say, "Well, his childhood couldn't have been all that bad. I mean, look how successful he's turned out to be."
Sure, true. And honestly, I might not have minded this book so much had someone ever said to me, "It's very disturbing and sad, but the author has a gift for finding some light in the darkness" I might have gone into reading the book with the right mindest and really liked it. But I was expecting funny and what I read seemed to me anything but.
on August 5, 2003
Reading this book, which I just finished, brought me a couple of surprises. The first was that, although the author is a competent writer, I could not for the life of me understand the list of accolades this memoir has received by both the elite media and average readers alike. Huh? Is this what's passing for excellence in literature these day? It's perfectly okay, but I approached it with high expectations and felt cheated by the end. It fell short of the real genius of a dazzling comedic writer like David Sedaris (an obvious influence), with his wonderfully detailed, well-structured, finely etched stories and essays. Sedaris doesn't just write humorous one liners--he writes hilarious, heartfelt situations, kooky but real characters, with a brilliant and complicated satirical eye.
Burroughs sometimes ends a paragraph with a tacked-on quip that you might hear on an average TV sitcom, but that's about the extent of the comedy. Actually, this book was more on the lines of a Jerry Springer episode. You may stop to watch while flipping the channels, interested in looking at the freak show, but the majority of the time you don't feel for any of the participants--and you don't laugh at them. You cringe. They are two-dimensional, cartoon-like characters who simply disgust--it's the same with the characters in "Running with Scissors."
Which leads me to the second surprise: nothing in this book was anymore shocking than something you would see on an average daytime talk show. What disgusted me were Mr. Burroughs descriptions of the people in his life and his different environments. What stands out in my mind is crusty masturbated-on blankets, heads flaking with huge dandruff scales, greasy MacDonald's fingers leaving fingerprints on everything, flabby bodies stuffed into sweat stained polyester-uniforms, decaying poultry bones left all over the house, and constant chain smoking in filthy, roach infested rooms. When I closed the book, I felt like I wanted to bathe. There's not a single person in the book to like, to root for. And that, by the way, includes the narrator, who is not a particularly, intelligent, witty or a nice person--at least not during the time frame of this memoir. He starts off being a neat freak obsessed with pop culture celebrities, but turns into a pig almost overnight. For all I know, Mr. Burroughs may have grown up to be a very charming dinner companion. But by the end of this book, you just want the freak show to end so you can switch the channel.
on July 13, 2005
How on earth can a story about pedophilia, homosexuality and interracial lesbian love affairs be so godforsakenly BORING? I made it to about page 200 before I just flung the book across the room and said "FORGET IT!" Badly written and chock-full of stereotypes, it tries too hard to be "shocking". Not to mention that the writing "sounds" like a ten-year-old, which made it impossible for me to read. You're a child. I get it. You don't have to WRITE like one! RWS is emoporn at its finest - only presented as a comedy as opposed to a tragedy. Why do people love to read about children being molested much, anyway? The fact that our country eats garbage like this up with a spoon is just further proof that America is in serious moral decline - that, and R. Kelly's new album going gold in one week. (And I'm a liberal!)
The only beef I had with what I considered to be well written book was that I spent much of the time reading it utterly horrified at what this guy went through in his childhhod. Falling under the category of truth is stranger than fiction, Augusten Burroughs is lucky to have any sense of humor at all in regards to his past. A near psychotic Mother, a non existant emotionally detached Father, and a Doctor that gives a hideous name to psychiatry, are just a fraction of his distorted reality. I wanted to love it and again only didn't because I found myself so depressed at the circumstances. From reading some other reviews, I guess many people have compared him to David Sedaris, and that seems inevitable given they both had some wacky incidents in their lives. I just never felt that Sedaris' were as potentially dangerous and destructive as the world Burroughs presents.
on October 20, 2006
I picked this book up after I had read that the author had been declared by some media outlet as one of the "fifteen funniest people in America."
I bought it and read it, thinking that I needed some diversion that might make me laugh while I was in the middle of a very stressful time.
I want to preface what I am about to write by noting that I have a very quirky, very dark sense of humor, and that I can laugh at some pretty edgy stuff.
However, I did not find any of the situations in this book to be funny at all. The people portrayed in this book are not funny, they are mentally ill, and in my experience mental illness is not a laughing matter. It is a serious matter, and the people who suffer from it are not wacky, quirky, or cute. They are ill, and sometimes, they are dangerous to themselves and other people.
I simply could not laugh at any of the situations or characters in the book because they were all too sad, pathetic or frightening. I understand the healing power of laughter in helping a person overcome the ugliness that is his or her life, but I didn't sense any of the healing light that comes from laughing at the past in this book.
All I could feel was bitterness.
And that was not an enjoyable read.