Augusten Burroughs: Running With Scissors

Augusten Burroughs: Running With Scissors

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but Augusten Burroughs' extraordinary memoir Running With Scissors suggests that truth is stranger still when filtered through a novelist's lurid imagination and recast as autobiography. Running's defiantly cagey coming-of-age story seems too good to be true, both in the page-by-page outrageousness of every episode and in the vividness with which Burroughs remembers every overripe detail. He defies readers to believe his tall tales, though the one possible proof of their veracity is that the events are so strange and harrowing that they could not have been forgotten, no matter how hard he might have tried to push them from memory. Looking back on his adolescence with affection and fresh horror, feelings that aren't always mutually exclusive, Burroughs returns to a post-hippie '70s world where adults were so wrapped up in their own narcissism and neuroses that their kids were free to roam without guidance or care. Yet his tone isn't moralistic so much as painfully bemused, as if his past were so troubled that it somehow bypassed tragedy and became comedy. As the book opens, Burroughs is nearing 13, the son of an increasingly withdrawn, alcoholic father and a psychotic mother who fancies herself a modern-day Emily Dickinson, believing that her awful poetry will win her certain celebrity. After the marriage shatters, Burroughs' mother Deirdre steps up her therapy sessions with the mercurial Dr. Finch, a psychiatrist who maintains questionable intimacy with his patients and has a special masturbation room adjoining his office, where he gets off on pictures of Golda Meir. Intent on pursuing her wild personal journey, Deirdre comes out as a lesbian and takes off with her teenage lover, leaving Burroughs to join Finch's motley family, which extends to live-in patients and disturbed castaways. A place without rules or responsibility, Finch's dilapidated Victorian space equally evokes Miss Havisham and John Waters: It's a madhouse where roaches form a carpet, the smell of excrement fills the air, and people live on a diet of Valium and dog chow. Certain of his homosexuality at an early age, the chain-smoking Burroughs skips school to spend time with his 33-year-old lover, a former Finch patient who treats Burroughs to the crudest deflowering imaginable. Written with humor and clear affection for its oddball characters, Running With Scissors is a story of shocking discovery and unlikely survival, as a boy gets tossed into adulthood like it was the deep end of a swimming pool. Faced with colossal neglect—at one point, his mother and Finch actually help him fake a suicide attempt to help him drop out of school—Burroughs pads his way through a difficult period and somehow emerges a fully realized man. The sole comfort of reading this profoundly disturbing memoir, outside of Burroughs' brave comic perspective, lies in knowing that he lived to write it.

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