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.