It was difficult to imagine handsome, preppy Daniel sitting in the TV room at the Finches', pointing at the family dog and laughing because little Poo was lying on the floor in a fit of giggles with his pants pulled down and the dog licking his erect penis. It was hard to imagine Daniel seeing this and then shrugging and turning back to the TV. Because he'd gotten used to it.
Running With Scissors has one of those covers that you can spot from across the room. The photo that dominates the cover is dayglo orange and shows a relatively normal looking teenage boy - except for the inverted cardboard box perched on the boy's shoulders, entirely hiding his head from us. It is this sense of the elements of unusual (bright coloration, inverted box) with the elements of usual (teenage boy standing in the yard) that make Running With Scissors a great book.
Augusten Burroughs' gifts with the English language don't hurt, either.
Running With Scissors
Published In: 2003
Like: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Me Talk Pretty One Day
What can I say? I wouldn't have bothered to even glance at this book a second time if I didn't spot the unbearably bright cover on the "Summer Reading Sale" rack at Borders. You see, they were offering a deal: all you have to do is buy one piece of literary crack, and we'll toss a second one your way at half price. Since I had wandered into the store to pick up The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and I discovered it on this rack of predominantly modern literature, I was pressed into finding another work in order to get that discount.
The back read, "Running With Scissors is the true story of a boy whose mother (a poet with delusions of Anne Sexton) gave him away to be raised ... *yawn* ... where Valium was consumed like candy, and if things got dull, an electroshock therapy machine could provide entertainment." Reasonably interesting, but what got me was this from the Boston Globe on the back: "Reads like David Sedaris writing The Hotel New Hampshire." That certainly pushed my buttons, and I decided to give this one a shot.
I'm glad I did.
Running With Scissors is a (mostly) nonfiction memoir of the childhood of Augusten Burroughs. Both of Augusten's parents have severe psychiatric issues, so as a result, Augusten winds up living with his mother's psychiatrist, Dr. Finch, and his family, where rules and social mores are rather lax. I guess "rather lax" is something of an understatement; there really are no social rules at Dr. Finch's house.
This is simultaneously the best part of and the biggest problem with Running With Scissors: the complete chaos that is life at the Finch household. It's much like watching a train wreck: you're engrossed by the complete disaster and borderline unbelievability of the things that happen in this book. Children munch valium like it is candy. Augusten and one of his adopted sisters knock a hole through the roof into the kitchen to put in a "skylight" with tape and receive no punishment. Psychiatric patients that really should be in a hospital live in the house along with the rest of the family. An electroshock therapy machine is left out for the kids to play with. Spontaneously, most of the furniture in the house is moved out into the yard, and everyone moves out there along with it. The good doctor starts to believe that his bowel movements can tell the future and saves them on the picnic table outside. The list of over-the-top episodes go on and on; I'm not even giving away some of the more entertaining ones here. You'll have to read it to find out more.
It becomes so amazingly over the top that after a while, you almost become immune to it and some of the later episodes actually seem normal, the same phenomenon described in the quote that starts this writeup. You're kept in the book by developing a deep caring for Augusten, whose childhood seems to have been an utter train wreck; it's amazing he is as relatively balanced as he seems to be at this point. I give Augusten much credit here for not whitewashing some episodes about himself; he clearly has some negative attributes.
It is this honesty about himself that sets Running With Scissors apart from perhaps the most comparable work, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. In the latter, Dave Eggers was proud of himself nearly to the point of pomposity and largely portrayed himself as an almost perfect older brother. Augusten makes no such case, and in that, he becomes much more real. It is the warts of a person that bring them to life; no one is perfect.
Another noteworthy element is that, much like the recent rush of memoirs and essay collections by young writers (Chuck Klosterman, Dave Eggers, David Sedaris), Augusten Burroughs is able to interweave the entire story with countless pop culture references which, by their very nature, provide coloring to the story. Augusten's obsession with Donny Osmond and Tony Orlando, for example; these crooners seem very out of place in the cultural lexicon of the average teenage boy of the early 1980s, and thus it adds some coloration to Augusten's character.
There is another major concern with this book that could bother many readers, although I enjoyed them as part of the story. The book is very frank about sex and it is a constant theme throughout the book; arm in arm with that is that much of the book deals with Augusten's homosexuality and its awakening, manifested in a relationship he had with a thirty three year old man at the age of fourteen. There are somewhat graphic descriptions of homosexual oral and anal sex in this book; if that is going to deeply bother you, I recommend skipping this one. My best guess is that it is the inclusion of such graphic sexuality that prevented this work from being as well known as A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; Running With Scissors is at least as well written as the Eggers work.
There is one element of this book that struck me as odd, and it revealed to me that much of this book must have been written to create a narrative structure around decades-old memories. The book often provides a great level of detail about things such as a normal conversation that took place in, say, 1979, and minor details such as the flicking of lint off of a pair of khakis is noted regularly. These elements appear throughout the book, including segments where Augusten is only nine years old. Either Mr. Burroughs has a photographic memory of the details of his childhood or his journal notes from his third grade year are exquisite. I'm not sure I believe either one; I tend to think that many of the details here are fictionalized to make the work more readable and bring the characters to life.
Augusten's sense of direction and gentle touch with the English language makes these critiques less critical, however. He pulls you into this journey and before you know it, three hours have passed and you've finished the ride. It's not too long, and it's written in bite-sized chunks that convince you to read "just one more," and given the relative brevity of the book, you're finished almost before you realized that you've started. Much like eating some Godiva chocolates.
This book gets my highest recommendation if you can get past the graphic homosexual escapades.
This writeup was written for The Bookworm Turns: An Everything Literary Quest.