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For a Narrator with No Positive Role Models, Augusten Burroughs Sets a Good (Writing) Example

Running With Scissors is the memoir of a child who is neglected at best and endangered at worst, written by Augusten Burroughs. Living with his mother’s psychiatrist, Dr. Finch (who has no business tending to the mental illness of others), Burroughs loses his innocence as well as his grasp on any sense of normalcy. It’s a tragic tale, hailed as “hilarious” by multiple reviewers on its back cover, as if it were fictional – a romp without real repercussions.

Burroughs’ treatment of the subject makes it readable. The book should be torture to endure but isn’t, thanks to Burroughs’ dry-eyed, wry way of recollecting. Burroughs doesn’t stop in the middle of any moment for self-pity or hand-wringing; he tells what was, and he makes jokes, trusting that his readers know it’s not funny even as they laugh. To laugh is the only defense against such dysfunction as he describes: his mother eating candlewax, Dr. Finch reading his bowel movements as messages from God, the Finch children making their own kitchen skylight by hurling rocks at the roof.

Burroughs doesn’t try to convince the reader of the reality of these events. He only explains his amusement and passivity. His first visit to the Finch house is spent nervous and frightened; up to this point, he has been controlling – minding every strand of his hair, every stray droplet of his bathwater  – to cope with his mother’s unpredictability. Under the Finch roof, Burroughs changes. He reflects: “…if I lived slightly in the future – [wondering] what will happen next? – I didn’t have to feel much about what was going on in the present.” To believe in Burroughs’ telling as sincere is all that’s needed to take his word about everything else. That’s a lesson in earning reader loyalty.

Burroughs makes his bizarre story into something to which anyone can relate. He includes experiences that come from dysfunctional human tendencies we all have, showing us how the Finch family takes them to extremes. Everyone has a hard time getting up the gumption to clean up after the holidays, but they do not usually leave every dish in their sink for weeks. Abigail is not the first mother to imply that her daughter is overweight, but she harps on it longer, and more bluntly, than most parents could. If there is one person who always cleans, now and again they might refuse to be the custodian of a certain mess, but this doesn’t usually result in an entire family stubbornly allowing a Christmas tree to stay up until May.

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Image Credit: y c via FreeImages.com

Speaking of the Christmas tree, Burroughs is clever for springing weirdness on the reader. He opens the scene with the tree as if all is normal, then says that it’s springtime. Elsewhere, he writes that the Finch family is talking among counter and stove, before revealing that everyone is outside; after trying to have a tag sale, they realize they like living on the lawn. For a moment, we get to experience the culture shock that Burroughs otherwise does not much address.

One secret Burroughs does not keep back is Dr. Finch’s taking advantage of Burroughs’ mother. The pieces are all there for the reader, and yet it’s still stomach-churning when it is finally revealed. It works that the reader knew all along because, really, so does Burroughs. He needs to be told before he can face it, and so do we.

The first inkling we get that Finch is a predator is the scene in which he openly discusses his “Masturbatorium” (a back room full of dirty magazines, with a couch) with the child Burroughs and his mother. Though he is a doctor, “I’m still a man,” he says.

Toward the opposite end of the book, a waitress sees Finch with Burroughs’ mother and tries to suggest that Finch is not what he seems. Burroughs insists that his mother is insane, that Finch is a doctor trying to help, and the waitress mirrors Finch’s own language; she says “he’s still a man.” This is such simple, effective rounding of the story – done with such common phrasing that I believe it is real, rather than a writer writing mindfully.

Burroughs tells a bizarre story the only way he can: naturally, with flawed perspectives and coping mechanisms intact. He casts himself as a storyteller by necessity; he must tell it because he there, not because he intends to perform any grand literary tricks. It’s a well-written memoir that doesn’t shout about its excellence – a horrible tale that does not beg for sympathy.

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