A July 30 Style article about the writer Augusten Burroughs misstated the name of his editor at St. Martin's Press. She is Jennifer Enderlin. (Published 8/2/02)
Memoir writer Augusten X. Burroughs (a name he picked for himself at 18 and legalized in a Boston courtroom) doesn't look even a teeny bit afflicted. You want him to be curt, sardonic, reflectively embittered. You want him to say something gross.
You want the kind of boy who, specifically, according to his life story "Running With Scissors," was thrown into a loony, adopted Massachusetts family that okayed pill-popping, kept the Christmas tree up until May, looked approvingly on sex between grown-ups and minors, lived comfortably with filth, and divined their twisted fates by the shape of things in Dad's toilet bowl.
Yet all the notes from our lunch on a muggy, Upper West Side Tuesday afternoon indicate that the subject turned out to be a cheerful, chatty, well-adjusted, 36-year-old man who walks with an optimistic, boyish gait. He wears frayed cargo pants, a lawn-green shirt, New Balance running shoes and a Yankees ball cap. He tells funny jokes, and can't say enough good things about his boyfriend.
He's so sweet you could barf.
Augusten Burroughs seems bulletproof to his past, unfazed by what may come. "A bus," he says, "will either hit you, or it'll have your face plastered in an ad on the side of it."
"Running With Scissors," released this month to uncommonly effusive critical huzzahs, praising both its brutality and humor, has just jumped onto the New York Times bestseller list, and the words "David Sedaris" are being bandied about by comparison.
Burroughs's material makes that writer's tics and wacky affectations seem quaint and normal. Sedaris is a finer prose stylist and funnyman, but young Augusten has much more material to work with. "I always win the [bleeped]-up-childhood contest," Burroughs says, "no matter who's in the room."
"Running With Scissors" is the kind of book you covertly thrust into the hands of people you know can handle it -- friends who enjoyed John Waters's early oeuvre or are conversant in the freakish; people unfazed by life's scatological, evil underside. It's a shocking, sad tale -- "horrifying," the reviewers agree, and yet "mordantly funny" (Los Angeles Times), "hilarious" (San Francisco Chronicle) and "sociologically suggestive and psychologically astute" (The New York Times).
"I thought people would be bored by it, honestly," Burroughs says. "Bored or just . . . so put off. You can't even really describe the book without it seeming X-rated. I spent a lot of years not telling people about my childhood, because I was embarrassed or ashamed. People who grew up in nice families and went to Ivy League schools -- to me that's what's shocking. I'm riveted by stories like that: 'Really? You still talk to people you knew in high school? You're on speaking terms with both your parents? Tell me more.' "
He opened the June 28 issue of Entertainment Weekly, which pictured him snacking on dog biscuits, a salient point to the plot. It also gave the book a deep, wet kiss. "My eye went down to the little red 'A' grade they gave the book and I couldn't believe it," says Burroughs, who dropped out of school at 13 (better than writing an excuse note, his mother and her shrink helped him fake a suicide attempt), got his GED at 17 and then flunked out of community college. "Already that's the highest grade I've ever received on anything. My whole life I've been used to seeing a grade that's either a 'D' or 'Incomplete.' "
Carolyn See, one of The Washington Post's book critics, weighed in on July 12, comparing boy Augusten to a 20th-century Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn, albeit one who survived on Chicken McNuggets and a "Mary Tyler Moore Show" fantasia, when he wasn't busy having sex with the pedophile who lived in the shed behind his surrogate family's house: "I've just finished reading the most amazing book," See wrote, ". . . freaky-deaky, berserk, controlled, transcendent, touching, affectionate, vengeful, all-embracing. It makes you happy that there's such a thing in the world as a string of written words." (See even used exclamation points: "Oh, I love him!")
"You have got to be kidding," Burroughs says. "It's not possible to get a better review. It's as if I'd killed Carolyn See and was imitating her by wearing a wig and sneaking into the office to write the review myself."
The Eyes of Augusten Not everyone loves "Running With Scissors": Lawyers at St. Martin's Press had Burroughs change the names of almost everyone in the book, tempting some readers to suspect its veracity.
Like most memoirs (an exhausted genre to begin with, glutted as it is with the badly written baggage of so many messy childhoods), Burroughs's book is almost too well-remembered. His best defense and Q-source gospel is a cache of the spiral-bound notebooks in which he kept journals as a boy, even keeping the candy-bar wrapper on which his first boyfriend/adoptive brother/backyard psycho wrote him a love note. "I should have my journals carbon-dated," he says. "And if only I could have put in pictures of everyone in the book. The lawyers wouldn't let us do that. It would immediately end all of this discussion."
Though the towns of Amherst and Northampton, Mass., remain the same, all the streets and house descriptions were also changed.
But already one member of his former, estranged family has sent angry e-mail to his Web site. "She has every word misspelled," Burroughs says, "even [the F-word]." In the book, it's a sister called Vickie. In real life, she's not happy about the book and vaguely threatening: "She wrote, 'I live on Staten Island' -- also misspelled -- and she also wrote, 'Remember, don't let Santa hear you crying!!' "
Santa is a reference to "Dr. Finch" -- a bearded, bellicose psychiatrist who treated Burroughs's mother through years of manic episodes and nervous breakdowns. Eventually, Burroughs's mother (she's called Deirdre in the book) signed over legal custody of young Augusten to her wildly unorthodox shrink. (How unorthodox? For starters, Finch's office contained a room referred to as "the masturbatorium.")
Burroughs writes in a postscript that Dr. Finch, having been stripped of his medical license, died of heart disease in 2000. Burroughs's mother, ailed by a stroke, now lives under care in Massachusetts. They sometimes speak, but by e-mail only, he says, and she has already told him "Running With Scissors" is worse, to her, than "Mommie Dearest." ("She thinks she's famous. Everything to her is about her," he says. "She wonders what she's going to tell her 'press' when they call about the book. I'm like, 'What press?' ")
Burroughs recently drove past the Finch house, which still has an Addams Family dilapidation to it; whoever's living there now -- Burroughs isn't sure -- has hung a banner outside it that reads, "Santa Lives!"
He kept driving.
Life in the Finch household, unfortunately for young Augusten, was about a zillion times more manic and strange than home with Mom. Caught in a Freudian phallic loop, where anger-expression and acting out were daily events, the Finches lived willfully eccentric lives. Even their joy was complicated and bizarre. One sister, Hope, makes every decision with a "Bible dip," randomly pointing to a word in the Bible and translating it as an answer to a crisis as simple as what color to dye someone's hair, or whether to starve the family cat. (Another Bible dip determines the cat's burial; then there's worry that the cat's been buried alive.)
On another occasion, the Finch family, faced with financial downfall, holds a yard sale; they end up living outside, with the furniture, for several months, in front of their Victorian. There are forced parades down the street -- the doctor in lead -- and unlimited freedom for the kids to do drugs -- the doctor prescribes -- and skip school.
Neil Bookman, a pseudonym for another of the doctor's patients, is a 33-year-old "adoptee" like Augusten, who lives in the back yard. Neil quickly sodomizes Augusten, then 13. They continue a sexual relationship for two years, with everyone's approval. "It's weird, but it is not the part of the book that seems to be freaking people out the most," Burroughs says. "I hardly get any questions about that part." (Bookman disappeared when Burroughs was 15 and was never heard from again, he says.)
So strange was Burroughs's pseudo family that his own sexuality had to take a number to even get service as an issue. As a result, he's not comfy with the wide world of gay identity politics -- "the rainbow flags, the parades, whatever. I just don't relate."
The events described in "Running With Scissors" certainly "[bleeped] me up in a major way," he says. "Relationships were hard. I mean, imagine the third date when someone says, 'So, what about your family? Tell me . . .' "
Selling It An excerpt, describing the beginning of the end of Burroughs's childhood:
"As time went on, my parents' relationship became worse, not better. My father grew more hostile and remote, taking a particular liking to metallic objects with serrated edges. And my mother began to go crazy. Not crazy in a let's paint the kitchen bright red! sort of way. But crazy in a gas oven, toothpaste sandwich, I am God sort of way. Gone were the days when she would stand on the deck lighting lemon-scented candles without then having to eat the wax. Gone, too, were the once-a-week therapy sessions. My mother began seeing Dr. Finch nearly every day."
Burroughs's writing style, as critics have noted, reveals his many years spent working as an advertising copy writer. He's prone to one-liners that seem almost cruel in their summing-up of abuse, madness and despair.
He's loose with chronology, and many of the facts in his book are essentially unverifiable. (A background search corroborates his own name change and his post-Finch life in Boston, San Francisco and New York.)
Some pop-cultural gaffes mar his gift for precise personal recall, too. ("Donny and Marie" wasn't yet on the air the year he says he imagined his mother looking like a glittery guest star on that variety show; and he misspells Donny. It is Marcia Brady's charm bracelet, not Jan's, that nearly knocks over the house of cards in a "Brady Bunch" episode, which renders irrelevant his scorn for the dreaded Jan hubris in that instance, as he fantasizes himself as "Shaun," an invisible seventh Brady child.)
Yet it is this quick humor that pulls Augusten (and his readers) through unfathomable oddness colored in a sick, '70s hue. Whether or not "Running With Scissors" is wholly accurate, it certainly rings true, which is the most important task of a memoir. A finesse emerges; the book is deceptively deep just where it seems most shallow. Augusten leaves it all behind at 18 -- a homeless runaway with no education and only his wits to guide him. (The book ends there; Burroughs is already at work on a sequel, tentatively titled "Dry.")
After years of copy-writing in the ad industry, Burroughs hammered out a novel in 2000 in about seven days -- his first attempt. The result, "Sellevision," was a light, naughty tale about a home-shopping network. It got a few good reviews.
But it was his stories of childhood that tantalized his agent and his editor, Jennifer Ecklin at St. Martin's:
"When he finished the manuscript, there were things that were too horrific," Ecklin says. (Burroughs says they nixed "Unplugged," a chapter about a fight between two Finch sisters involving a tampon.) "There were other things where my notes to him were to 'go deeper.' He had done all the remembering, but I wanted to know more about how he felt.
"Then we had this book that just defies description," she says. "At our first launch meeting, I told people, 'Here is a book you are either going to love, or totally not love, but you will never forget what's in it. And I was right. People have very strong reactions to it, one way or the other, but they can't get certain images out of their heads. Even as you're going along, reading it, there are parts where you can't believe you're laughing."
After the first draft, Burroughs's partner of two years, Dennis Pilsits, read it and "was upset a lot by it," the author says.
"He doesn't think it's funny at all. I think he understands why other people read it and think it's funny, but he doesn't. . . . We had to go really slow when we first met. I had to dole myself out in small portions. I'd tell him little things, a bit at a time, and he's very grounded, very rock-solid, someone who's been through a lot of therapy. I'd tell him something and he'd immediately leap on it, and say 'Have you been to therapy about this?' and 'Have you worked on this?' "
The answer is yes. Burroughs is a fan of therapy, even though "a trained clinical psychologist did have a go at me, early on," he says. "It was called a core evaluation, and I was 13, in junior high, and they decided I was retarded. On an IQ test I scored just below 80. I didn't put this in the book, but the school put me in a class with kids who were retarded or had Down syndrome. I was just like, 'You have to be kidding me. This is ridiculous.' . . . I think I've always gone through life feeling flawed. The difference is that now I'm okay with being flawed."
There has been a lot of growing up since he abandoned the Finch family. Burroughs lived in San Francisco for five years, then moved to New York in the early 1990s. He was also a drug addict, he says.
"Which again, was all about this, my story," he says, pointing ominously toward his book, which is lying on our lunch table, with its bright orange cover picture of a boy with a cardboard box on his head, evoking an oblique kind of shame. "I did rehab when I was 30. I was drinking and doing crack and every [bleeping] thing you can think of. I would literally go into a business meeting in the same suit I'd just worn in the South Bronx with people smoking crack in the room, go from there to the subway to the meeting. I was just a disaster."
Although he's not the first writer to commodify his darkness into profitable material, Burroughs is emerging as a fresher, more honest voice in a heavily medicated century. He's not angry or wounded, which helps.
His essays for Salon have explored his two sexual encounters with priests (at age 14 and 26), in which the men of the cloth are no match for his experience and ambivalence toward them. In another essay, "Beating Raoul," he hilariously deconstructs a date with a Type-A gay perfectionist who turns out to suffer from acute under-endowment.
Why is his tragedy so funny? What is it about Augusten Burroughs that almost dictates that everyone he knows will have a strange secret? He walks in on his mother and the neighborhood church lady in flagrante delicto; if there is a priest in his stories, then the priest has a porno mag in the desk drawer; if there are drugs in the room, then Burroughs has taken them. The man is a walking black hole for depravity; is there anything he's not personally witnessed and precisely noted for future reference?
How about cannibalism?
"Oh, I didn't live in Milwaukee in the 1990s, but I so would have been Jeffrey Dahmer's boyfriend if I had," he says, instantly enthralled by the thought. "I'd be like, 'Hi, what's your name? Jeffrey? Hey, I'm Augusten. I like your hair.'
"But that said, if Jeffrey Dahmer ever picked me up it would have been his head in the freezer. Guarantee you of that. That's the one thing growing up the way I did, I did not come out of it a victim. And I'm clever. I would have outsmarted him, I know I would have. It's inconceivable to me that I would have ended up roasted."