We gave it an A
The memoir gets a bad rap. Anyone who slogged through recent books about Anne Heche’s insanity or Elizabeth Wurtzel’s inanity certainly has reason to suspect the ”woe is me” genre. Too many confessionals read like shameless attempts to prove that one is (a) more screwed up than everybody else and (b) not to blame. The examined life, at $23.95 a pop, is not always worth reading.
But the best bits of personal history — think Mary Karr, think Tobias Wolff, think David Sedaris riffing on his North Carolina brood — offer blessed opportunities for a reader not to think about one’s own self for a while. Perspective is a given in a good memoir. A meaty story is a must. And a sense of humor helps. So ignore the genre’s stigma, and take a chance on Augusten Burroughs’ outrageously amusing recounting of his teenage years, Running With Scissors.
”I would have been an excellent member of the Brady Bunch,” he writes. ”[I] would have cautioned Jan against that tacky bracelet that caused the girls to lose the house-of-cards-building contest.” Instead of a TV-perfect family, Burroughs is stuck with a drunk math professor for a father who hides in the basement from his crazy mother. ”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.” The parents divorce. The father hightails it, and the mother, a frustrated poet obsessed with her sense of oppression, comes under the care of Dr. Finch (names were changed), a psychiatrist who calls his back office the Masturbatorium. With a couple of quick signatures, Burroughs’ mom relinquishes guardianship of him, and he moves into the western Massachusetts home of Finch, his wife, Agnes, their two daughters, Freud the cat, and Joranne, a patient who admires William Blake and eats the sink caulking.
Burroughs wins the year’s Best Scene Opener award with this dandy: ”We were young. We were bored. And the old electroshock therapy machine was just under the stairs in a box next to the Hoover.” Agnes snacks on dog food, roaches blanket the kitchen, Joranne howls like a wolf, and the doctor studies his poop for signs of whether he’ll be sent up for tax evasion. Finch’s loyal patients, including Neil Bookman, a 33-year-old man whom the doctor long ago adopted, float in and out of his house. Bookman is the 13-year-old Burroughs’ first lover.
While his account of their sex is violent and depressing, Burroughs’ descriptions of coming out to his mother and the Finches are hilarious. What do these kooks care whom he wants to sleep with? His adopted sister Natalie tells him she already knew. ”’You did?’ I asked, alarmed. Did I emit a certain gay odor? Or maybe it was my unnatural obsession with cleanliness that clued her in. It was one thing to be gay. But it was something else to seem gay.”
That Natalie is a real mess (but that’s another memoir). She’s a great friend, though. Wild, fun, and fat, she wears her McDonald’s uniform off-hours because the polyester has such terrific give. Burroughs rises above the standard get-a-load-of-my-material type of book by making all these people, cuckoo clocks that they are, human and knowable. There’s some real love in this loony bin. And sometimes the chaos of life with the Finches seems preferable to an average day of high school, which, incidentally, the doctor helps Burroughs avoid by staging the boy’s suicide. Seriously, wait until you get a load of this guy’s material.
Through all the nuttiness of his youth, Burroughs takes refuge in cigarettes and his private journals. But despite his constant scribbling, he dreams about becoming a hair product baron when he grows up instead. ”My mother was a writer but she was also crazy,” he says of his reticence. ”And the only people who read her poems were the depressed women in the writing class she held at her house in the summers or friends she called on the phone…. I could never live like that: no money and even less fame. I craved fan letters and expensive watches. ‘I’ll be able to get a great boyfriend,’ I reasoned, ‘once I’m the next Vidal Sassoon.”’ Sometimes things really do work out in the end. St. Martin’s ought to buy Burroughs that Rolex. And he can consider this a fan letter.