Book Review: The Burn Journals

My copy of the book.

One of the reasons I am an advocate of mental health and destigmatizing talk around it is that depression, and/or other mental maladies, kills people. And I should note, depression eagerly sought to kill me for quite a long time until I was able to get help. In 2020 alone, 45,979 people died by suicide, and astonishingly, another 1.20 million people made an attempt, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I can talk about those numbers and what they mean, and I could try to convey in an attempt at great literary prose what experiencing depression is like, but what depression looks like is a 14-year-old kid so desperate to escape its clutches that he douses himself in gasoline and drops a match on himself, burning 85 percent of his body. That is obviously an extreme example of a suicide attempt — most people who attempt would not do so in that manner — but I think it demonstrates how mind-altering depression is and can be. The 14-year-old I’m talking about is Brent Runyon, who wrote about his experience in the 2004 book, The Burn Journals.

The “hook” of the book, inescapably, is the extreme way in which Runyon tried to kill himself, but what will make the book one I will never forget is how damn relatable it is as a “coming-of-age” book about a kid trying to figure out his hormones, his life, his broken brain, and how to rebuild the pieces of his life after his attempt. Because of how powerfully this book resonated with me, I know I’m not going to do justice to it with any sort of “great literary prose,” and apologies in advance on the incoming ramblings. Nonetheless, even in 2023, I don’t think we talk enough about how hard it is to be a teen; teen issues are often relegated to “teen behavior” or a “phrase” and otherwise not taken seriously. But they’re facing an onslaught of their hormones rapidly firing, shedding their younger adolescent selves, and the often survival of the fittest lion’s den of peer-to-peer socializing in the school arena. Now, take those combustible elements and mix it with a brain chemistry brew of depression and anxiety, and you have someone like Runyon who even before his fire suicide attempt attempted three prior times. In all prior attempts, his parents had no idea he’d even attempted, much less the extent of his suffering or his sadness, as he calls it. That is the hellacious thing about depression in that it makes you like a bumbling corpse trying to return to its grave and yet, you also become adept at hiding the corpse within and its yearning.

The “journals” run from February 1991 when the attempt happens to nearly a full calendar year through Runyon’s remarkable survival and recovery until he rejoins his peers in high school in early 1992. Much of that recovery time occurs in the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington D.C. and then the Alfred I. duPont Institute in Wilmington, Delaware (now known as Nemours Children’s Health). Runyon’s recounting of those early days, and how much pain he was experiencing, and then later, the terrible skin grafting and stretching and itching, made my skin crawl. It really drove home the point to us the readers what Runyon himself was thinking: I wish I could take back what I did. Not only did his attempt mean an excruciating journey to recovery and a life-altering physical appearance, but it was brutal on his family as well, especially his older brother, Craig, who was home when the attempt happened. The parents, I think, are lovingly portrayed here in terms of all they are doing to be quite literally at Runyon’s bedside and support him and love on him, as well as do cool things like somehow hook him up with meeting all manner of celebrities, but they’re also uncomfortable with what happened and have no idea how to navigate it. They can navigate the Burn Unit, but they can’t navigate Runyon’s mind. And Runyon, for his part, doesn’t know how to navigate his mind, either, with each successive therapist falling by the wayside (and they sucked, by the sounds of it, to be fair). In point-of-fact, it seems like even years later, his parents still refer to what happened to Runyon as “an accident.” As if Runyon was burned up in an accidental house fire instead of intentionally setting himself ablaze. But I get it; there is no guidebook on how to understand why you’re kid would want to die.

And dammit, a book about an awful suicide attempt and a skin-crawling recovery shouldn’t be so funny, but it is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. I think those of us in this head space by necessity engage with dark humor; you can call it a coping mechanism, and maybe it is, but Runyon, writing from his 14-year-old self’s perspective, is hilarious. Because there is a bit of a “boy-in-the-bubble” perspective given the state of his condition, along with his 14-year-old self’s stupid, meandering thoughts and dialogue that resonated with my 14-year-old self’s stupid, meandering thoughts and dialogue. In other words, every three thoughts Runyon has are about sex (those hormones are rapid firing), and the ones in-between thoughts of sex are: this is awkward and I’m an embarrassing person, and I hope these people like me. Runyon throughout the book is ogling his “hot” nurses, freaking out over his random boners when he’s getting his burned skin lotioned up by the “hot” nurses, and then constantly worrying if he’s funny enough or cool enough, or if people are ogling him because of his condition. Runyon’s accounting of that time is so brutally honest and real and relatable in that coming-of-age way. One of the funniest scenes because it could have been written from my own experiences, sans the scar tissue from the burns, is when Runyon goes to get a hair cut and the hairdresser is insistent on making small talk and he’s just squirming in his chair dying to get out of there. Yes. Yes, please.

But interspersed also, is Runyon expressing regret for his attempt, which tracks with what we know about the vast majority of those who attempt (the vast majority regret it), wanting to express his thanks and gratitude to his parents and nursing staff without knowing how to do it (also relatable), including how to talk with his brother again, and his difficulty in trying to “fit in” with his prior classmates in his journey back to high school. There is a lot of uncomfortable awkwardness permeating Runyon’s book, which again, is in keeping with it being from the perspective of a 14-year-old and relatable to me.

I think what I will most remember about Runyon’s accounting of this time, though, is him trying to ascertain why he did it — he can’t seem to remember anymore and/or if he does, the reasons seem trivial now (depression blinds our mind’s eye to the triviality in the moment, however) — and potently, his reflections on his depression. On page 118 of the paperback edition, Runyon talks about hearing the word “suicide” for the first time as a fourth grader from a classmate, and the thought astonished him: Why would someone to try to kill themselves? And yet. He states, “I couldn’t stop thinking about it and it got inside my head and started squirming around in there like a worm in the dirt, and then it seemed to disappear. But when it came back four years later, it was so big and so powerful, and it seemed like it ate up my whole brain and it was the only thing I could think about.”

That’s one of the most apt descriptions of depression and suicidal ideation I’ve ever read, and again, is relatable in the way depression and suicidal thoughts seem to worm its way into your brain and take over, or how it seems to be latent for X number of years before manifesting. Runyon was very honest in a post-script for the book talking about how he thought writing the book and about his experience would be a panacea for his depression, and instead, his depression came back, like the unkillable worm it seems to be. Thankfully, this time, he asked for help and is doing better.

Depression is like that. Depression convinces you that the way to solve the worm problem is to kill the host: yourself. But what Runyon came to find out was that trying to burn the worm out of his mind not only didn’t work as a viable option, but led to all kinds of other issues he now regrets.

I would recommend this heart-wrenching, but also hilarious, book to anyone who has experienced or is experiencing depression, because you will fill right at home within its pages and within Runyon’s mind because it’s your mind, too.

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