Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #104: Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

While reading this book, I had to keep reminding myself that this was a memoir and not outrageous fiction, which made it all the sadder. While hysterically funny at times and morbidly depressing at others, Running with Scissors is in fact a story of child abuse not all that different from “A Child called It.” And while it was evident that the author wrote the book as humor in order to try to contend with his horribly abusive childhood, I am frankly amazed at all the reviewers who gave it a thumbs up for its “bawdy wacky humor” and did not simultaneously weep tears of outrage on behalf of poor Augusten.

Augusten is the child of a couple who despise each other. The mother is a self-absorbed Southern dilettante and would-be poet who is probably bi-polar, the father a cold-blooded alcoholic who is completely disinterested in his son. Both parents have spent years physically and verbally abusing each other, until he finally walks away and never looks back. She discovers her homosexuality and signs over custody of her 13-year-old son to her psychiatrist, freeing herself to indulge her lunacy which periodically devolves into full-fledged psychotic outbreaks (sometimes directed at Augusten himself) and confinement in a mental hospital. Augusten’s next three years are spent living in Dr. Finch’s household with a variety of mental patients, which include Dr. Finch himself (he reads the future in his own turds, hands out psychiatric meds like candy, and openly keeps several wives and mistresses), his wife, children—both biological and adopted—and several of Dr. Finch’s mental patients. The house is a collapsing, roach-infested Victorian pile, and everyone lives according to their own rules, or lack thereof.

Augusten is removed from school when Finch devises a fake suicide attempt for the boy, and his rape by a resident adult pedophile is viewed more or less benevolently as a “relationship” by his new guardian. Augusten reminded me of nothing so much as the ball in a pinball machine, batted back and forth between his psychotic mother, his obsessed pedophile lover, the lunatic Dr. Finch, and the crazy episodes of the Finch “children.” All the “freedom” he is granted to choose his own lifestyle and life rules equals so much chaos, and ultimately turns into boredom as Augusten discovers by age 16 that his lack of education, lack of life skills and lack of direction makes him unsuited to survive in the outside world. His mother’s sudden “revelation” that she has been raped, overmedicated, and manipulated for years by the man she had turned her child over to, creates a moment of crisis for Augusten in which he is asked to choose sides. How he resolves this and whether he emerges into adulthood intact is the subject of a second memoir.

While laughing aloud at some moments (he is a truly funny guy and writes a great turn of phrase), I basically found myself wincing and outright cringing through much of this book. The Glass Castle is a profoundly funny, insightful, and poignant memoir about a dysfunctional family; Running With Scissors, for all its “bawdy wackiness,” made me downright sick with anger at what this child suffered–and how society failed him. I can only wonder that he survived to tell the tale.

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8 thoughts on “Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #104: Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

  1. Congratulations on making 104! Well done.

  2. Actually, there is some doubt as to whether the book is truly a memoir and not fiction (at least in part). The family that Burroughs refers to as the Finches sued him over their portrayal in the book. Vanity Fair ran an interesting piece on the family and their side of the story a few years ago: http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2007/01/burroughs200701
    The Robison family (Burroughs’ real name is Chris Robison) is the epitome of dysfunctional. Burroughs’ brother John Elder Robison has also written about it (Look Me in the Eye — his story of how he came to know as an adult that he had Asperger syndrome). The “Finch” family was pretty messed up, too, but perhaps not to the extent that Burroughs’ claims. It’s hard to know whom to believe.

    • Actually, I was familiar with the story of the lawsuit, the name change, the brother’s autism, etc. But it doesn’t change the perversity, sickness and abuse this book is filled with, and I find the reactions of most reviewers of the book–either outright admiring or casually dismissive–to be disturbing, at best. I’d be curious to see what other Cannonball readers of this book think.

  3. Regardless of whether or not this book is “fictionalized,” I’m right there with you. I found it far more disturbing than funny. Whatever you do, don’t read Wolf at the Table. That book doesn’t even have the courtesy to be funny. It’s just messed up.

  4. I understand and share your distress about the book (I recommend not reading his Christmas essay collection “You Better Not Cry.”) I love David Sedaris and had hoped that Burroughs’ stuff would be similar. On the whole, I find Sedaris to be the funnier and more entertaining writer, but even he includes stories in his books that I find more sad than funny. I have wondered if the problem is me — too sensitive, not in tune with gay culture? And Sedaris has also been accused of fabricating or exaggerating in his stories. I find it worse with Burroughs because he seems to be going for shock (if he is making it up), and he doesn’t try very hard to protect the identities of the people he writes about.

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