Will Byrnes's Reviews > Running with Scissors

Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
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Feb 12, 2009

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Read in February, 2009

Burroughs offers a book that is supposedly a memoir. If so, then truth is definitely stranger than fiction. Let’s say I am skeptical. If you thought you had a tough adolescence a look at Burroughs’ tale will put your experience into a little perspective.

He grew up in western Massachusetts to a mother who was probably bi-polar, in what seems like ground zero for inappropriate behavior. She was seeing a peculiar psychiatrist who had a fondness for having patients come to live at his home, a chaotic household that was a combination of You Can’t Take it With You and the Addams Family. Augusten’s mother, unable to cope, essentially gives her son to the shrink. That Augusten was gay adds even more color to this. That he engages in an affair, as a thirteen-year-old, with one of the shrink’s adopted children, a man in his thirties, makes that a dark color indeed.

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Augusten Burroughs - from his site

While one may feel some sympathy for the author, who had difficulties in school, who was very much a free spirit, who had a pretty awful family, and had to cope with the ostracism and hostility engendered by his sexual inclination, he does not seem like a person I would want to know. Maybe as an adult he grew out of some of the more destructive behavior depicted here.

One does not have to like the author, or his character in a book, to appreciate the work itself. It is an engaging, fast read and I was drawn in for the duration. While Running With Scissors may be tough to swallow as pure, fact-based memoir, I found that treating it as if it were labeled “a novel” made it all go down a lot easier.

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02/21/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-21 of 21) (21 new)

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message 1: by Ms.pegasus (new)

Ms.pegasus I read this some time ago and found it difficult to take. He tries to put a humorous spin on his memoir but it was so over the top I found it painful. Your idea of reading it as a novel is good advice.


message 2: by Rand (new)

Rand Were the early oughts riddled with this sort of book or is that just when my awareness of this sort of "memoir" began?


Will Byrnes I have no metric for judging that, so can only offer palms up hands and lifted shoulders


message 4: by Jay (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jay I laughed a lot when I read this in the early 00's. The ultimate dysfunctional household. The film adaptation was also pretty funny -- in places. Gwyneth Paltrow sure gets around. I think a lot of the faux memoir is just that - faux. As in "fee fie faux fum" - I smell a tall tale.


Will Byrnes Perhaps we can grind his bones to make our bread


message 6: by Jay (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jay We'll leave that to the truth ticklers.


Lilo I read "Running with Scissors" a few years ago.

Had I already been on Goodreads at the time (which I wasn't), and had I your extraordinary writing talent (which I don't), my review would have exactly read like yours. :-)


Will Byrnes Great minds...


Lilo :-)


Diana Having grown up in the '70s, I know how truly crazy and dysfunctional families could be then. The end of the '60s and the beginning of the '70s was a time when good sense seemed to take a leave of absence, and people, especially people in their 30s and 40s at that time, seemed to give in to the anything-goes, you-only-live-once, what-about-ME philosophy that had become pervasive in response to the repressive '50s attitudes and prescribed gender roles. In short, it was kind of a terrible time to be a kid. Because the adults were acting like kids and leaving their children to fend for themselves. While some of his anecdotes may be creatively stretched a bit--there's nothing wrong with poetic license--I believe there's much more truth than fiction here. Yes, folks, some people DO have very fucked up childhoods, and I, for one, am glad some people can make funny memoirs out of theirs. It's so much better to laugh than cry, and it's better to share than keep it to yourself and feel like a freak your whole life.


message 11: by Lilo (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lilo Diana wrote: "Having grown up in the '70s, I know how truly crazy and dysfunctional families could be then. The end of the '60s and the beginning of the '70s was a time when good sense seemed to take a leave of ..."

Don't you think that Sigmund Freud is also a bit to blame for this mess in the 60s and 70s?


Diana Hi Lilo, I just now saw your response. You know, I don't think I've thought of it as specifically as that. Could you elaborate?


Diana Also, I found this great quote from Augusten Burroughs himself that speaks to the veracity of his memoirs:
'While critics continue to challenge the veracity of Burroughs's books, questioning everything from his alcoholism and advertising career to his earliest childhood memories, the author remains nonplussed, even philosophical. "To be a journalist with a major American newspaper or magazine, you have to have an A-list college education. And to get into that A-list college, you had to do very well in the right high school. So the chances are, you were not being fucked up the ass at age twelve by a pedophile. The facts of my life are generally questioned by extremely privileged and well-educated people who, more likely than not, learned most of what they know about life's dangerous, shocking and sometimes unbelievable underbelly from books, television and the occasional Quentin Tarrantino film. The reason my books continue to sell, despite frequently being dismissed as "unbelievable," is because the people who read my books recognize the truth that is in them. They know the scent. They have smelled it. The very details the media view with such suspicion are the same details that prove to my reader, this guy was there. I remember that, too." '


message 14: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Byrnes Methinks he doth protesteth too much. As for my education, it was ac CUNY, with class background and list of privileges that have been decidedly working class. Burroughs may indeed be telling the truth, but it seemed to this low-end wage slave that the story told here might be a stretch


Diana From another interview:
Interviewer: In light of revelations about the falsity of other memoirs (now forever linked to Oprah's Book Club), you've received some criticism yourself. But even these critics must realize that all of our memories are malleable, especially those from childhood. If a memoir resonates with a reader, does its veracity really even matter?

Burroughs: Veracity matters to me. And while I do believe that any two (or more, obviously) people may experience the same event and then report very different, even opposite interpretations ("The party was so much fun. I met so many interesting people." vs. "The party was so awful I wanted to leave as soon as I got there. All these pretentious people with nothing better to do than cluster together in little cliques."), I also feel strongly that to invent in a memoir is both counterproductive and misleading. While it's one thing to re-create dialogue, to put words in somebody's mouth that you, with your knowledge of that person, your experience with them and in your best assessment, they would either have said, would have been likely to say or could have said, it's another thing altogether to attribute to another person words or actions which are contrary to their nature, contrary to historical fact and which exist only to make one's memoir "more compelling."

In my particular case, I rely on my memory. Over many years, my memory has demonstrated itself to be a reliable tool. I can offer no proof or substantiation that I recall being a year-and-a-half and sitting in my high-chair, peering through the tiny hole of a Saltine cracker. But I know this occurred because I can see it. For many in the media, this is simply not enough. In light of the products released into the stores and marketed as "memoirs" which were in fact partial or complete fictions, there is a great deal of skepticism with respect to memoir in general, but my memoirs in particular. It is wondered, how can one person have experienced so much? And how can anybody recall such tiny details from so early in life?

So I can actually understand this skepticism, even if I find it offensive. Imagine saying to a woman who was raped, "This did NOT happen the way you say it did. You asked for it. You flirted with the guy." No journalist would ever say such a thing. But they feel comfortable saying exactly this to me because I am male, and I am "funny" and I have been successful--something which I have no control over.

The ironic thing is, I consider myself to have a very poor memory. I always have. My ability to willfully recall events is extremely limited. That said, I do possess a somewhat unusual memory for sensory details, of which I have little control.

There is a spectrum disorder in my family and while I myself do not have Asperger's syndrome like my brother or autism, I have a complex sensory disorder that prevents me from processing sensory input like other people. In general, this means I have difficulty listening to people, looking at their eyes. I am always fidgeting because clothing irritates me, and my skin is prone to breakouts. The sun bothers me. And I can hear sounds that are of a frequency too high for most people to hear. But one of the other things that comes along with this condition, and which the neuro-specialist informed me was not uncommon, was that I retain memories, rich in detail, from deep in my past. A typical person would simply forget something as unimportant as looking through the hole of a Saltine cracker. But I do not release these details. They instead accumulate. And they are as vivid as if they are happening right now, not yesterday.

Prior to being an author, this reservoir of information was without use and sometimes distracting and annoying. But as you can imagine, it becomes extremely useful when I am writing about my distant past.

However, the very nature of memory, the way in which memories are created, assures a certain degree of inaccuracy. Essentially, a memory is a tattoo, etched onto the nerve fiber by a neurotransmitter, a chemical. Each time we access this memory, additional "tattoo work" or etching is done. So the memory itself is physically altered, which is why our first recall is our most accurate. And I have always felt this, instinctively, long before understanding how memory works. I have always felt that I have one chance, and that I must be writing when I first "go back" and remember. I have never been able to trust those memories which have become "stories" I have told. They no longer feel, to me, real or true. But rather like scripts I have learned. So I never write these particular stories.

Ultimately, though, yes. All that really and truly matters is that the reader takes something of value from the memoir. And if it's entirely fictional but feels true to the reader, bone true and authentic, who's to say that's not a book of value? Likewise, I can imagine a book that is both memoir and fiction, one that blurs the lines. In which case there would be no reason to say the book is anything but what it is: a fusion. So I believe that anything is possible, that any of the "rules" of memoir or literature in general may be freely broken if it serves the author's purpose. I also feel that to deliberately mislead a reader, to claim a certain set of circumstances is the whole truth and nothing but, knowing this is not the case, is manipulative and corrupt.

The media has been unhelpful in this area because, in general, it rewards most of this kind of behavior. I have no doubt that I would be far less famous and of far less interest or use to the media if every journalist who read my books felt certain the stories were fully true. Just an old-fashioned, honest survivor who gets into mess after mess but still does pretty much OK is far less interesting or marketable than a manipulative marketing genius who pulls the wool over everyone's eyes and laughs all the way to the bank.


message 16: by Lilo (last edited Feb 20, 2016 10:57PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lilo Diana wrote: "Hi Lilo, I just now saw your response. You know, I don't think I've thought of it as specifically as that. Could you elaborate?"

Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalysis blamed just about every dysfunction on sexual phantasies (created by oppression to admit to sexual feelings). For this, the parents were usually blamed. IMO, this caused havoc in many families and created more dysfunction. People were trying to free themselves from all former customs, rules, and regulations. A hippie sub-culture emerged. And, as you said, this hippie-kind "anything goes" also contributed to this chaos.

You think the 1960s and 1940s were a terrible time to be a kid. I am not so sure. Born in 1939, I was a child in the 1940s and early 1950s. Believe you me, this wasn't a good time to be a kid, and especially not in Germany. My daughter, born 1962 in Canada and moved to Germany in 1970 had a better childhood, even though my first marriage had started crumbling soon after our return to Germany and finally faltered in 1979.

I think every era has its problems for adults and for children, and it depends on the individual family how bad these problems get. My family was rather dysfunctional, mainly because my father had been raised in a patriarchal family (with all the females waiting on the males hand and foot), whereas my mother had been raised in a matriarchal family (where males were supposed to cherish females and "carry them on hands"). This didn't go well together. And Sigmund Freud was totally innocent in this case. :-)

Re the above book: I don't think that Augusten Burroughs embellished too much. There are a lot of crazy people around, and some of them are psychoanalysts and psychotherapists.

Have you ever read Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson? I recommend all of his books but especially the following to which I'll give the links:

"Final Analysis"
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2...

"The Assault on Truth"
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1...

"Against Therapy"
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3...


cedric de laporte se n'est vraiment pas malin


message 18: by Lilo (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lilo cedric de laporte wrote: "se n'est vraiment pas malin"

Why not?


message 19: by Ivy Bookqueen (new)

Ivy Bookqueen Hi Will
Outstanding review


Diana Lilo wrote: "Diana wrote: "Hi Lilo, I just now saw your response. You know, I don't think I've thought of it as specifically as that. Could you elaborate?"

Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalysis blamed just abou..."


Thanks for your recommendations, I'll check them out.

It's true, children are at the mercy of the adults in their lives no matter when they are born. And, although there was a lot of craziness in the '70s, the other side of that is that there was a lot more freedom then to explore and find things out for yourself, although that can be good and bad for a kid.

I do think Augusten Burroughs has been truthful--after all, the family that sued him did NOT win the right to label his memoir "fiction," they just got a bunch of money--but people who had more conventional childhoods may find it hard to believe.


message 21: by Lilo (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lilo Diana wrote: "Lilo wrote: "Diana wrote: "Hi Lilo, I just now saw your response. You know, I don't think I've thought of it as specifically as that. Could you elaborate?"

Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalysis bla..."


I agree with everything you are saying. And yes, it is hard to believe for people who had conventional childhoods to imagine or believe that what happened to Augusten Burroughs could be real.


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