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September 26, 2022

Review in Haiku: Running With Scissors

By Katrina Stonoff

Young boy grows up fast
when his mother leaves him at
her shrink's mad, mad house.

Running with Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs, is one of the funniest, most unusual books ever written. Undoubtedly, it is the most unusual memoir.

If the book is to be believed, Burroughs had a very odd childhood indeed. His mother suffered from mental illness, and he was at least partly raised by his mother's eccentric psychiatrist.

My interest in memoir cooled after James Frey's A Million Little Pieces was shown to be fiction, and Running With Scissors suffered from way too much buzz anyway (which, you probably know, tends to put me off).

But Burroughs won me over when I heard him speak on the Authors on Tour, Live podcast, where he was promoting, Possible Side Effects. He spoke with such warmth about his autistic brother (who lives next door to him), and he was roaring-out-loud funny. I was driving on I-5 to Portland, and I'm sure I looked rather odd, pounding the steering wheel and wiping my eyes.

So when my husband brought Running With Scissors home from a trip, I put it straight onto my nightstand.

I read it in less than 48 hours, carrying it with me the entire time. This is a great beach read. Or a great read for a commute. Or a vacation. Or your nightstand. Whatever. It covers the human experience (and even inhuman, at times).

It's hard to explain why it's so funny, though Burroughs' quote on the dedication page is a good start: "Look for the ridiculous in everything and you will find it" (Jules Renard, 1890).

But it isn't just me who found him hysterical. Entertainment Weekly named Burroughs the 15th funniest person in North America.

Running With Scissors opens with young Burroughs watching his mother dress for a poetry reading. "Something is not right," she says. So she pulls two Kotex maxipads from a box, peels off the wax paper to expose the sticky strip, and glues them into her dress like shoulder pads. After she leaves, her son dons in the dress she rejected and gives his own reading to the smoked glass mirror on the closet door.

And indeed, something is not right. Two chapters later, dear Mom takes young Augusten to visit her psychiatrist. Augusten (who's fanatical about medical personnel because they are proper and sanitary-clean) dresses carefully in pressed slacks, a starched shirt and navy blazer (yanno, the standard Dress for Success uniform).

The house is filthy. Piled with stuff, yes, and the sofa is even lying on its back. But also disgusting. A health department official would have condemned it with one peek inside. Here's one example: the doctor's 6-year-old son Poo Bear comes into the living room, naked and holding his penis. He crawls under the grand piano and takes a dump, right there on the carpet. His family sits on the sofa to watch, and applauds him when he's finished.

And Poo Bear isn't the only person fascinated by his ... uh ... poo. The good doctor, believing fate speaks to humans through excrement, insists on analyzing everyone's bowel movements ("Don't flush!" he calls). Particularly communicative piles are carried out to the picnic table and preserved for posterity.

And this is the house where Burroughs' mother leaves him. This is the family that ultimately raises him.

Is it any wonder that he changed his name (to Augusten Burroughs; his mother didn't really name him Augusten) the day he turned 18? Or, for that matter, that the psychiatrist's family sued him for defamation (they settled out of court)?

Parts of Running With Scissors are SO outrageous they stretch credibility, especially to a readership tainted by A Million Little Lies. It's difficult to believe a psychiatrist could really be as unprofessional and ... gosh ... outright nutty as Dr. Finch.

Burroughs swears it's all true, but then ... so did Frey, until The Smoking Gun proved otherwise.

I tend to believe Burroughs though. At least partly because I know how often factual stories sound more unbelievable than fiction. And partly because Burroughs hasn't glamorized his life at all -- if anything, he's besmirched it, made it smaller than life. The character Augusten Burroughs isn't a hero, just a criminally neglected boy, a victim who has climbed out of the cesspool to become a productive, if imperfect adult.

And fact or fiction, Running With Scissors is one hysterical story.

Article © Katrina Stonoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-05-19
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