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Book Reviews: The Cock and Bull of Augusten Burroughs   |    
Running With Scissors ? Dry: A Memoir ? Magical Thinking
Jeffrey L. Geller, M.D., M.P.H.
Psychiatric Services 2005; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.56.3.363
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by Augusten Burroughs; New York, St. Martin's Press, 2002, 302 pages, $23.95 • by Augusten Burroughs; New York, St. Martin's Press, 2003, 293 pages, $24.95 • by Augusten Burroughs; New York, St. Martin's Press, 2004, 268 pages, $23.95

The 2002 memoir of Augusten Burroughs (neé Chris Robison), Running With Scissors, catapulted him to national attention. It is a personal account of growing up in one of the most dysfunctional families ever described in a memoir. The book begins when Burroughs is nine years old and ends when he is 17. Burroughs's mother, who has a lesbian relationship with a minister's wife, gives custody of her son to her psychiatrist. The psychiatrist, whom Burroughs refers to as Dr. Finch, is as unusual a psychiatrist as has ever been presented in a work of fact—and ranks right up there even in works of fiction. For example, Dr. Finch collects his excrement from the toilet bowl, perceiving it as signs from God.

Where was Burroughs's father? He was "occupied in his role of highly functional alcoholic professor of mathematics at the University of Massachusetts." What was the relationship between Burroughs's mother and Dr. Finch before the handover? "Seeing Dr. Finch constantly. Not just every day, but for hours every day." Burroughs's opinion of his mother: "A bitch period. She was a rare psychotic-confessional-poet strain of salmonella." Burroughs's take on himself: Gay all his life. Burroughs's goal: "I just want a big life…. I want to get noticed. I don't just want to be a nothing." Where to find his first audience? "The permanent inmates of the Northampton State Hospital."

Hidden beneath the jocularity in Running With Scissors is the story of a sad, abandoned, depressed little boy who "told myself that I was like a bi-coastal celebrity, moving between Amherst and Northampton at will, when the spirit moved me. But what I truly felt was that neither place was home." His mother, first hospitalized when Burroughs was eight years old, had been gone "so long, I forgot what her face looked like. I worried she would never return from the hospital. When she did, it was like not all of her came back. She returned flat, sad. As though an important part of her personality had been surgically removed." Burroughs's mother would relapse every fall. As a boy he learned to detect the first signs of her deterioration. He grew up believing he "had been born with some kind of sonar that detected mental illness."

In Running With Scissors, Burroughs reflects, "Our lives are one endless stretch of misery punctuated by processed fast foods and the occasional crisis or amusing curiosity." Nearing the end of the book, Burroughs needs to turn misery to mirth. He sums up, "I took an inventory of my life: I was 17, I had no formal education, no job training, no money, no furniture, no friends. 'It could be worse' I told myself. 'I could be going to a prom.'"

Burroughs might have written a more intriguing memoir had he chosen to be serious rather than amusing, but he certainly would have sold fewer books. What concerns me about Running With Scissors is Burroughs's misrepresentation of psychiatry. His adoptive psychiatrist-father is cruelly portrayed. "Dr. Finch" was a real person who lived and worked in the Amherst-Northampton area and died in 2000. He was in his 60s when Burroughs became a member of his family, and he had already wandered far from mainstream psychiatry. Burroughs could have told us more about some of his real accomplishments. "Dr. Finch" died before the publication of Running With Scissors. I wonder if he, as I, would have preferred it if Burroughs had done his homework and accurately reported when and how he lost his license to practice medicine. What Burroughs tells us is far removed from reality, which leaves open the question of how much else in Running With Scissors is equally far from any reality other than that of a mixed-up kid.

Dry is a sequel to Running With Scissors. Burroughs is working in Manhattan as an advertising copy writer. The book is about his alcohol and drug abuse history and its treatment: age seven, Nyquil; age 12, first real drinking episode; age 13 to 17, pot and alcohol once a week; age 18, intoxication nightly; age 19 to 20, ten drinks per night, occasional binges, and coke once every six months; age 21 to the present, a liter of Scotch a night chased with cocktails and cocaine once a month. In Dry Burroughs again displays an ambivalence about psychiatry and psychiatrists, especially in his portrayal of inpatient detoxification. One of the other patients in detox is a psychiatrist who is addicted to valium.

In Dry, as in Running With Scissors, Burroughs's ability to write in beautiful prose when he casts aside his self-mocking style comes through—but only occasionally. For example: "Sober. So that's what I'm here to become. And suddenly, this word fills me with a brand of sadness I haven't felt since childhood. The kind of sadness you feel at the end of summer. When the fireflies are gone, the ponds have dried up, and the plants are wilted weary from being so green. It's no longer really summer, but the air is still too warm and heavy to be fall. It's the season between the seasons. It's the feeling of something dying." Dry is far from the best of the recent autobiographical accounts of alcohol, substance abuse, and recovery. Far better, for example is, James Frey's A Million Little Pieces (1).

Magical Thinking, the third confessional, autobiographical work of nonfiction by Burroughs, further celebrates his self-described negative character traits (self-centered, passive-aggressive, obsessive-compulsive) and disorders (sexual dysfunction, social anxiety, mania). Burroughs again parades his ambivalence about psychiatrists ("shrinks are wrecks, that's why they're shrinks"). But really, the reader learns little new about the author, and the entertainment value is much less than with Running With Scissors.

If, after reading one of the Burroughs trilogy, you want to learn more about the author, read his first book, Sellevision (2), a novel that is more revealing of the undefended Burroughs than any of the nonfiction.

Dr. Geller is professor of psychiatry and director of public-sector psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.

Frey J: A Million Little Pieces. New York, Doubleday, 2003
 
Burroughs A: Sellevision. New York, St Martin's Griffin, 2000
 
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References

Frey J: A Million Little Pieces. New York, Doubleday, 2003
 
Burroughs A: Sellevision. New York, St Martin's Griffin, 2000
 
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