Sunday, July 12, 2009

Running with Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs

I really enjoyed this book. It's a family biography with a sharp edge, tempered by humor.

I read Burroughs' "real" memoir, The Wolf at the Table, before reading this one. The Wolf concerns itself with the early years, the years Augusten spent with both parents, and most particularly with his father. We soon come to realize how cruel his father was. There are episodes in that story that made my flesh crawl.

In this book, by contrast, Augusten is living with his mother as well as with the family of his mother's psychiatrist, Dr. Finch (the names are changed with good reason). He never sees his father, though he mentions him a couple of times in passing. Augusten passes from age 12 to adulthood here, and the book takes a much lighter approach.

Augusten thanks his parents, by the way, for giving him such a memorable childhood, however inadvertently. That childhood certainly was off the charts in strangeness, but I think the reason he remembers it so vividly is that he wrote about it all the time, in his journals. When I think of recording events from my own childhood I draw a lot of blanks.

But back to the book. Augusten's mother is a self-centered poet who is concerned mostly with overcoming what she considers oppression in her life. And just about anything, including a critical comment by her son, counts as oppression. She has a tendency to go off the deep end from time to time. Her son has an unerring sense of when these periods of madness are about to arrive. Thus Augusten eventually finds himself, from time to time, in the home of her doctor. And that life is no less crazy.

No calm, sensible guiding family there. Instead, Dr. Finch believes that when one reaches the age of 13 one has the freedom to do whatever. Further, he believes that most insanity comes from repressing anger. Thus the house is in constant chaos and the family members revel in acting out. At first this exposure is unnerving to the ultra-tidy Augusten, but in time he goes with the flow. And enjoys it, for the most part. Even takes part.

In a way, the book is about Augusten growing up in a crazy world but not being actually crazy himself. He takes on the observer role as much as the participant, and his observations are funny. At times, the events are very funny too, while at other times they hint at madness and horror.

While overall a very funny book, Running with Scissors also hints at the underlying pain in a boy growing up without a caring parent or substitute parent. He learns to take caring where he can get it.