Does the narrator of a memoir need to be likeable? What if he’s particularly unsympathetic? What if the life he describes is so very different from your own that you can only shake your head in amazement?
Augusten Burroughs (a pseudonym) has written a memoir about his horrific teenage years in western Massachusetts in the 1970’s. After an unpleasant divorce, his father breaks off all contact and his unstable mother ends up signing him over to her psychiatrist, patriarch of a crazy family living in an old wooden house.
What does Augusten wish for when his parents separate? That “life would be fabric-softener, tuna-salad-on-white, PTA-meeting normal.” But what he gets is quite the opposite. Dr. Finch looks just like Santa Claus and has a tatty waiting room and a Masturbatorium where he relieves intimate needs that arise during the course of the day. His 28-year-old daughter serves as receptionist; another daughter is sold off at 13 to a 41-year-old killer who beats her. His wife serves as the family doormat. The adopted son, an ex-patient, age 33, starts an affair with Augusten, age 13.
The voice is unsettling, and it catches your attention. From the beginning, it expresses a very unusual sensibility. The nine-year old male narrator watches how his mother dresses to go out for an evening and admires her dress: “It is long, black and 100 percent polyester, my favorite fabric because it flows. I will wear her dress and shoes and I will be her.” Augusten is already aware as a young boy that he’s gay. What drives him to know he’s attracted only to men seems strangely superficial–identifying with mom getting dressed up, polishing his mood rings, playing with people’s hair. He grows up totally lacking moral responsibility, constantly shifting the blame for his strange actions to his mother or father. You can sense Augusten wishing for a figure to stop him in his decline, to say "no" to some of his wilder ideas – but none shows up.
Running with Scissors seems intended to be accepted as a true story, but much seems hard ot believe–the crazy doctor, the patients he has living with him, his Masturbatorium, his family. Why does no-one came along and stop him in his tracks, showed him up as a charlatan? How could it be that he staged a parade for World Father’s Day handing out mimeographed newsletters “How Emotionally Immature Fathers Are Failing Their Children and Society in General, by B. S. Finch, M.D.”? It gets even worse. When Augusten complains he can’t get along with others in school, the doctor suggests he attempt suicide so he can be admitted to an institution and get out of school for several months.
The book’s sick humor is an acquired taste: “I’d never seen a real, live gay man in person before; only on the Donahue show. I wondered what it would be like to see one without the title ‘Admitted Homosexual’ floating in blocky type beneath his head.” Augusten dreams of going on television, preferably in a doctor show, since he loves the white uniforms and the respect accorded to doctors. His brother, on the other hand, “was hopelessly without style or any sense of what was going on in the world, culturally. … born without taste or the desire to be professionally lit.”
The tone remains consistent throughout – in itself quite an achievement. At times the emptiness of the narrator’s inner life, the poverty of the dreams that he dares to dream, is exhausting. Then again, it’s quite something that he broke out of there and became a writer.
– Nancy Chapple