When a Christmas tree is still up in May (and the kids are still mining it for candy), and a girl wears her McDonald’s uniform to the beach to go whale-watching — wearing a button promoting the newest, hottest menu item, Chicken McNuggets, no less — you know you’ve stumbled into a wildly memorable memoir. I’m talking about the famous, movie-adapted 2002 memoir by Augusten Burroughs, Running with Scissors. It helps that in addition to a ridiculous story to tell, he also has such a writer name, and a great title, although I’m not sure what the thought was behind the cover picture of a boy with a box over his head since I don’t recall a story about that from the book.
The premise of the memoir is already bonkers, folks. Burroughs’s mother, a chain-smoking, aspiring poet, who seems to have manic episodes, after divorcing her abusive, alcoholic husband, sends Burroughs, age 12, to live with her … psychiatrist, Dr. Finch, and his wacky family. It sounds like the setup of a comedic sitcom, and in many ways, it is exactly that. And yet.
First, Dr. Finch is beyond the pale, and a quintessential portrait of a quack psychologist from the 1970s, if there ever was one. He thinks his poops — yes, his poops — are pointing to heaven and giving him directions from God, and orders his daughter, Hope, to carry the poops outside to dry out on the picnic table. He has a Masturbatorium in his office, where he openly talks in front of a 12-year-old, and his patient, the mom, about how often he needs to go into that room to masturbate — at one point, Hope, who is his assistant, uses the room and its blanket to nap, and come to find out, the blanket is “sticky” — and oh, he allows patients, or their children, to live at his home, adopted one of them (who turns out to be a pedophile, but more on that momentarily), and he has three wives. Somehow, none of that is even the wildest thing about this “doctor.” The wildest thing is that he believes an adolescent at about 12 or 13 should be free to do what they want, and apparently older adults are free to do them. That is why he doesn’t bristle at his own daughter, Natalie, dating a much older man, or Burroughs at age 13 dating Finch’s adopted patient who is 33-years-old. In point-of-fact, we need to call it what it is, and what Burroughs even details the brute fact of it: rape.
It seemed like Burroughs and Hope, who has a slavish devotion to her father, hence her willingness to pick up his poop with a spatula, were going to be the predominant “relationship” throughout the novel, other than Burroughs with his mother, but Burroughs and Natalie actually develop a lovely little care-free relationship. She’s insecure about being heavy, and Burroughs is insecure about his skinny, pale body, and they both bond over feeling stuck in their lives, with no clear destination ahead. That is the deep irony of the book. Even though they both live at the Finch home and can literally do anything they want, like rip up the ceiling to create a faux-skylight in the kitchen, or chain-smoke and drink, or curse and yell at their own mom (the Finch mom that is, Agnes), they still feel terribly stuck and in need of a liberation of a kind.
They eventually find their liberation, both through the other’s friendship, and through education to escape the circumstances of their lives. Unfortunately, Finch being a rapist, druggist monster (he was also recklessly giving Burroughs drugs) to Burroughs’ mother is what tears their friendship apart. Natalie wants him to pick sides, and instead, Burroughs goes neutral and moves out of their shared apartment. Burroughs doesn’t elaborate in the Epilogue whether they mended their friendship, but he seems to know a lot about what became of her in the years thereafter, so maybe they aren’t estranged?
On the other hand, Burroughs is still estranged with his mother. His mother writes 50-page poems, thinking they will get in The New Yorker and make her famous. Unfortunately, she can’t quite get healthy due to her manic episodes, and more importantly, due to her abiding faith up until the end of the story in Dr. Finch. She has romantic flings with various women, including a married suburbanite, and even brings home a psychotic older man known as the “Lumberjack,” who rapes Burroughs.
As for Burroughs, he’s just a kid trying to find his place in a world where he doesn’t quite belong anywhere, oscillating between his mother’s house and the Finch house (his dad doesn’t take his collect calls). He aspires to own a chain of hair salons, and he likes to style his hair with conditioner overnight, or outright dye it. (Funny aside, I thought, is that Burroughs’s author photo on the book has him in a hat.) He also has an affinity for doctors, albeit, mostly television doctors because, like his mother, he wants to be famous. It isn’t until Natalie points it out to him that Burroughs, like his mother, realizes he could be a writer. The way he is able to probe and observe the Finch family, and his own, has all the makings of being a writer and a storyteller even if Burroughs wasn’t “classically trained.” He didn’t finish high school, for example, and only later got his GED and went to college.
All of this sounds awful, right? It is, and it would weigh down this memoir in different hands, but in Burroughs’ hands, his acerbic approach to the makeup of his life makes for a funny, amusing, and therefore, more deeply affecting story. If Burroughs was a redditor, his favorite subreddit, and one for which he would have had ample material, is r/youseeingthisshit.
Like, it’s nuts, more wild than fiction, to paraphrase the cliché, but Burroughs’ takeaway, and one which the reader must also share, is that, shrug. It was his childhood, what can you do? He couldn’t opt to have a different childhood, warts and all.
If, like me, you haven’t read this famous, best-selling memoir, I highly recommend it.