Running with Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs

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This never happens in the book.  I wish it had.I always thought memoirs written for or by old people, but the subtitle on the cover of my book says “A Memoir.”  I suppose I could be wrong, but this is really more of a collection of essays in the life of one truly screwed up kid than it is a memoir.  That wouldn’t be quite as catchy and succinct as “memoir,” I suppose.

I’ve also always assumed that memoirs are supposed to teach readers something, and this book epically fails to do that (unless the moral of the story is that Burroughs’ life growing up really sucked).

The narrative, such as it is, involves young and screwed-up-in-the-head Augusten going to live with his mother’s psychiatrist, Dr. Finch, and his family.  The Finches live in squalor and don’t do much of anything that could be considered approrpiate.  They believe kids should make their own choices starting at a young age (say, 10 or so) and therefore there’s no discipline or structure in the house.  Surprisingly, this does not turn out to be a sound parenting strategy.  I know.  I was just as shocked as you.

Burroughs’ parents are just as horrible, with his psychotic mother failing to care about him at any point in his life and alcoholic father never paying attention to him at all.  If he wants readers to feel better about their childhoods well, mission accomplished.

Strateagery!

This author has been compared to David Sedaris, and for a while there I thought that was pretty accurate.  He sees hilarity in the minutae of life and is just level-headed enough to be a reliable narrator.  He reports on the characters around him with a kind of detached bemusement that fits the tone of the book, and he’s a willing participant in enough tomfoolery to be interesting.

What sets him apart from Sedaris is his inclusion of several instances of statutory rape.  Young Augusten, having confided in an older gay man, is soon having sex with this man.  Augusten is 13 their first time together, while Neil is 31.  Their relationship lasts 2 years, and is the most unsettling, flat-out disgusting thing in the book.  As uncomfortable as it is for me to type that and you to read it, it’s all the more so unnerving to read it in Burroughs’ words.  Sedaris doesn’t hide that he’s gay, but he doesn’t invite us into his bedroom quite as readily as Burroughs does.

It’s this part of the book, sprinkled throughout the narrative, that I think damns everyone involved.  No one is concerned enough that an adolescent is carrying on with a thirtysomething to do anything other than cluck their tongues.  No one encourages the relationship, but no one calls the police, either.  It took me a long time to get past these few sections and get back to enjoying the read, really, and that’s a shame.

The people in Burroughs’ tale are fascinating in their absurdity and he’s a talented enough writer to convey just how off-the-wall his situation is without the book dissolving into fantasy.  For a non-fiction book (well sort of, Burroughs has been accused of fabricating portions of the text but these claims were never proven) it’s a true page turner.  I wanted to see what happened next, and you don’t see that often in non-fiction.

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2 Responses to “Running with Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs”

  1. Kim Says:

    I’ve never really thought that memoirs are designed to teach you anything, at least not more than other fiction is. They’re a lot like autobiography, except not all-encompassing, which I think makes them a lot more manageable to read and fun because they encourage creativity. I’m a big fan of memoir though 🙂 I’ve never read this one, but I’ve heard “A Hearting Breaking Work of Staggering Genius” by Dave Eggers and David Sedaris have a similar style (no statutory rape in either one!).

  2. Pseudonym Says:

    When someone uses the term “memoir,” I always assume they want us to learn something. They’re giving us their recollections of their lives and letting us learn from their mistakes.

    An autobiography, to me, is the story of someone’s life, warts and all. Of course, this could just apply to me and I could just be quibbling with one word choice.

    Wikipedia tells me I am, in fact, way off base. Wikipedia can suck it.

    I haven’t read Eggers, but if he’s like Sedaris (all of whose books I’ve read and enjoyed), I’ll have to add him to my reading list.

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