Augusten Burroughs: Dry: A Memoir

Augusten Burroughs: Dry: A Memoir

A prodigious talent and an even more prodigious screw-up, Augusten Burroughs is only in his 30s, but he's already amassed enough life experience to fill two memoirs, starting with the painfully funny Running With Scissors, which reads like a tall tale (or an especially perverse fable) recast as autobiography. With a wry sense of perspective, Burroughs relayed a sordid coming of age that read like an early John Waters movie: Forced to live with his mother's half-cracked psychiatrist in a home where cockroaches formed carpets under his feet and residents popped Valium and dog chow, Burroughs found his closest bond with a 33-year-old pedophile who deflowered him in the basest way imaginable. But where the events described in Scissors were almost too bad to be true, the horrors in Burroughs' follow-up Dry are garden-variety in comparison; the latter book is a straightforward account of addiction and recovery that wouldn't be out of place in an average Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. By his own admission, Burroughs' struggles with alcoholism take the form of a movie of the week, but that squareness is also key to the book's wrenching effect, because it gives his ordinary temptations a universal resonance. Sobering in more ways than one, Dry finds Burroughs trading some of his tragicomic outrageousness for a more probing and introspective look into his battered psyche, though one still rife with grim humor and precipitous falls from grace. After barely escaping his upbringing, Burroughs begins the book cloaked in a deceptive veneer of success, having landed a cushy, well-paying job as an ad copywriter in Manhattan–not bad for a home-schooled dropout who never went to college and can't spell. Though he likes to imagine himself a casual drinker, his evenings usually begin with a liter of Dewar's and spiral downward from there, often bleeding into mornings in which his colleagues can smell the scotch emanating from his pores. When his employers force him into rehab, Burroughs heads for a 30-day stint at the Proud Institute in Minnesota, which caters to gays and lesbians, prompting dreams of an alcohol-free bacchanalia with other hardbodied lushes on the mend. But after one day of detox, group therapy, and affirmations–including the ceremonial passing of ratty plush animals named Monkey Wonkey and Blue Blue Kitten–he's ready to break down the doors. Yet the longer he stays, the more Burroughs responds to conventional treatment and confronts his frightening disease head-on, which leads to some honest and heartbreaking revelations about his self-destructive nature. Once he returns to more therapy and daily AA meetings, his fragile hold on sobriety meets with stiffer challenges, including a close friend succumbing to HIV and an ill-advised fling with a former crack addict from his therapy group. Though it never gets better than the moving section at rehab, where Burroughs' self-obsessed persona dies alongside his poisonous habits, Dry gets much of its strength from everyday torments and the unique phenomenon of addicts healing other addicts. With his past nipping at his heels and the bottle frequently at arm's length, Burroughs battles his impulses as his friends drop off the wagon one by one, but just when he seems to have a handle on his life, one slip sends him reeling. Where less-committed alcoholics on the mend may get by on a pot of coffee or a cold splash of water, Dry views recovery as a second career, with the days and months and years of hard work subject to instant demotion.

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