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Dumb people who come from screwed-up families go on Jerry Springer. Smart people who come from screwed-up families write acerbic best sellers, leaving their dignity intact. Well, sort of.
If it weren’t for his ability to wittily string a sentence, you might imagine that the child protagonist of Augusten Burroughs’ memoir Running With Scissors grew up to be a finger-snapping, no-you-didn’t! cross-dresser who gives blowjobs in men’s-room stalls for crack. Even in this age of anything-goes households, Burroughs’ New England upbringing was a bit, well, different, not at all what you’d expect of the serious-looking, bespectacled New York writer pictured on the book’s jacket.
Indeed, Running With Scissors often seems more like the product of a lavish imagination than an autobiography. The Finches, the family that young Augusten lived with after his mother, Deirdre, decided she was too unstable to care for him, seem pure caricature: Dr. Finch, Deirdre’s psychiatrist and Augusten’s eventual legal guardian, ran a mini-mental ward in his home and “read” his bowel movements for guidance; wife Agnes Finch, a “lady hunchback,” ate dog food and snored in front of the television; and the Finches’ myriad children, both biological and adopted, were apparently unaffected by the fact that their messy house smelled like “wet dog and something else. Fried eggs?” Augusten encountered two of the Finches’ daughters on the day his mother dropped him off at his new home:
[T]wo ratty girls came running down the hallway, side by side. They both had long, greasy, stringy hair and dirty clothes. They were Vickie and Natalie….
“Hi, Augusten,” Natalie said sweetly.
Immediately, I didn’t trust her.
“Hi,” I said back.
“You’re all dressed up,” Vickie smirked. “Going to church?” She giggled.
I hated her already.
Augusten, you see, by age 10 was the type of boy who wore navy blazers, listened to Barry Manilow, and yearned for the literal spotlight afforded his favorite celebrities. The unusual product of a suicidal poet and a homicidal professor (Mom and Dad, respectively), Augusten at first refused to go to school when his hair wasn’t perfect and eventually refused to go to school at all because he didn’t fit in (which, when he compares himself to a perfect-looking “Cosby bitch” in his class by saying, “I was positive she did not have razor burn on her face from kissing a man twice her age”—as Augusten himself did—isn’t hard to believe). And because Dr. Finch and his mother believed that, at age 13, Augusten was an adult (his father had long since disappeared), not only did they not force him to go to school, Dr. Finch even helped him orchestrate a pseudo-suicide attempt so he could be legally excused from ever again attending class.
Also involved in the Burroughs-Finch clan were Augusten’s misunderstood biological brother (“born without taste or the desire to be professionally lit”); Bookman, Dr. Finch’s 33-year-old adopted son, who quickly became the barely teenage Augusten’s obsessive boyfriend; and a potpourri of Deirdre’s weird lovers, male and female. There’s not a single character in Running With Scissors who’s anywhere near being a respectable member of society. (Augusten’s unsophisticated brother comes close, but he wisely stayed away from the family after rejecting Dr. Finch’s attempts at therapy with a “Huh. I feel OK,” leaving everyone to assume that he was “so deeply mentally ill as to be untreatable”).
Whether you can accept Burroughs’ accounts of his childhood as fact is irrelevant; what matters is whether you’re willing to go along for the ride. Any work in which every character is quirky to an extreme, especially when there are so damn many of them, can become tiring. (Wes Anderson’s film The Royal Tenenbaums comes to mind.) Burroughs’ dry humor and nonjudgmental, there-you-have-it presentation of his family’s eccentricities, though, will surprisingly leave you more charmed by the tale than horrified at the mistreatment of all the players involved. He infuses young Augusten with a simultaneous sophistication and vulnerability to make him both sitcom-precocious and immediately endearing: “I don’t want her to go. My umbilical cord is still attached and she’s pulling on it. I feel panicky.”
And regardless of the often appalling ways in which each of these characters lived their lives, Burroughs’ telling is laced with a refreshing air of acceptance. Deirdre, for instance, didn’t forbid her son to smoke or to skip school, because she felt oppressed by her own mother growing up and didn’t want to make the same mistake with Augusten; she kicks the teeth out of the theory that we all become our parents. And despite the disgust with which Augusten first regarded the Finch clan, he learned to adapt to their lifestyle, becoming at first an impartial, then an affectionate observer. After watching Agnes eat dog food, initially refusing to try it, then being coaxed by his soon-to-be boyfriend to give it a chance, Augusten popped a nugget in his mouth and found it “surprisingly tasty.” Following this miniadventure with a walk in which he admitted his homosexuality, he let go of his disdain for the kibble-nibblers and even made a positive connection:
I felt mildly intoxicated, like I’d just taken a big swallow of Vicks 44. Then I saw a stray Purina Dog Chow Agnes had dropped on the seat cushion. Without hesitation, I picked it up and popped it into my mouth. No longer would I be afraid of trying new things.
In a society in which we’re often shamed by our neuroses and urged to exorcise them with vigilant self-policing and lifelong therapy, it’s gratifying to dip into a world in which it’s OK to be weird.
It helps, too, to know the end result: This is Burroughs’ second book, he has relocated to Manhattan via San Francisco, and he’s involved in an allegedly healthy relationship. The elegance of Burroughs’ writing—and the fact that you’re not reading it in the Enquirer—allows you to plunge into the story without the distaste of knowing that all the dysfunction didn’t add up to another threat to society. Odds were that, at the end of hearing such a history, you’d shake your head and yell at the TV for the drug addict/compulsive cheater/sex worker to find some help and change his ways; in this case, though, you can just turn out your light and go to sleep with a smile on your face. CP