Running with Scissors
First published in: 2002
This edition: Picador 2002
Cover photograph: Jan Stromme / Photonica
Cover design: Steve Snider
RUNNING WITH SCISSORS used to be on my wish list, and then I kind of forgot about it until I found this copy at a book fair, and figured, why not? I was still up for a "hilarious" memoir full of "funny" stories.
Augusten Burroughs recounts his strange late childhood, a period preceded by his parents' nasty divorce. Dad doesn't want anything to do with him and his mom Deirdre is an erratic famous-poet-wannabe regularly trapped in her own narcissistic psychoses, and thus pre-occupied with herself rather than with raising and disciplining her son. So, Augusten finds himself living with the Finch family, the patriarch of which is none other than Deirdre's eccentric psychiatrist, Dr. Finch.
Early on, I developed a feeling of unease when I realized Burroughs was writing this book as his memoir, but it was mostly about other people. And these other people – The Finches, Burroughs's mom – are not painted in a very positive light, and it makes me wonder: are these people all really that horrible? Or did Burroughs use them and embellish their flaws for the sake of providing his readers with interesting reading material? (It's the memoir-debate again: people remember events differently. Is what's true to Burroughs really true to the Finches?)
I don't much mind a book about eccentric and erratic people. I can be amused by this material. But it's hard to be amused by anything or anyone in RUNNING WITH SCISSORS, because this book is full of unsympathetic people doing unsympathetic things.
I didn't like Deirdre or any of the Finches, except for Natalie. Half of them don't know squat about right from wrong (which I will get to shortly), the other would-be-sympathetic half are impossible to really like because Burroughs describes them as filthy, crazy dog food eaters and living room crappers, their dialogue largely consisting of name-calling and cursing.
…and I really couldn't stand Augusten. His teen-aged voice is vain, spoiled, arrogant and emotionally detached. Natalie Finch seems to be the only person Burroughs even liked back then, so it irks me that he can't even spare her, but instead points out regularly how fat she was. This whole book just leaves a bad, unfunny taste in my mouth.
Perhaps it's me. A psychiatrist such as Dr. Finch – here goes – is not funny material to me. Yes, he wears a Santa hat at times and parades around the street covered in balloons. Quirky. Oh, but there's more.
He let's patients live in his own house. He feels the regular need to masturbate in between sessions with patients and has a little "Masturbatorium" available to him to relieve himself. In his office.
Hey, I admit, I kind of think Burroughs just made that one up. But I doubt he made up that Dr. Finch felt it is perfectly fine for thirteen year-olds (Augusten, Natalie – his own daughter) to have sexual relations with adults. Because, says Dr. Finch, kids are "adults" at age 13. Disgusting.
And how about "that time when" (bratty) Augusten didn't want to go to school anymore "because I'm not as popular as the Cosby girl, wa wa wa!" Dr. Finch got him out of school by helping Augusten fake a suicide attempt.
None of the above is ethical behavior for a psych-anything-but-o, and it bothers me tremendously. Ethics notwithstanding, most of you would agree with me that the (borderline) rape and subsequent "love" affair Augusten, aged 13, experiences with Dr. Finch's adopted thirty-three year old son Neil, is not funny. It's not hilarious.
The rape scene in question comes as a total shock: the reader is just starting to enjoy the book, when bam! Out of nowhere, page 111, explicit descriptions of Augusten being violated by Neil. I have nothing against these kinds of scenes in books but I wasn't expecting to find any here. Not like that. In a "funny" book. Was I supposed to have fits of laughter? Something must be awfully wonky with my funny bone for me to not find this hilarious.
…RUNNING WITH SCISSORS is a sad story. Though part of me doesn't know what to believe, I applaud Burroughs for finding a way to deal with his past by writing about in such a manner, light and trying for wit, a guy who rises above it all. I still don't like the guy or the book, but in that sense RUNNING WITH SCISSORS has that strength. Burroughs could have turned it into a crying fest of teen-aged angst and tragedy but didn't.
But some depth would have been nice. Augusten's detachment from the situation doesn't give the book the depth it could have had. It's kind of like, la-di-da he just violated me, now I'm going to dye Neil's hair. Oh! It turned out green, not blond. Giggles! The book falls short in both humor and emotional insight.
When there are moving moments (mostly between Augusten and Natalie), I can barely smile before I am instantly reminded of the fact that the real-life Finches, including real-life Natalie, have sued Burroughs for defamation (the case was settled; a victory, says Burroughs's publisher – a sad, sad ordeal, say I). Suddenly the moment Augusten finds emotionally important enough to include in his memoir is meaningless.
Burroughs did a phenomenally crappy job at obscuring this family's identity, and while I feel no pity whatsoever for the psychiatrist who allowed adults to abuse children, nor do I feel sympathy for Neil, I can imagine how it must have been for the other real-life Finches, having their dirty laundry out for all to see, their personal stories (Natalie's especially) told by someone else.
The reason is bothers me so much, is because Burroughs thanks the family in his author's notes, for "taking him in", only to crap all over them in the subsequent 300 pages. "Thank you", he should have said, "for being there for everyone to laugh at". Maybe then I would have at least respected the guy.
Failed to move, failed to amuse.
– Is a story about survival; at least Burroughs kept it light.
– And yet, it lacks depth.
– Book is marketed to be funny, hilarious! But it deals with a boy being victimized (parental neglect, rape) and I don't find that funny at all. A light tone does not bring the lolz.
– Book loses flow in narration after about 100 pages: becomes a collection of Fun-Finch-Episodes, a poor man's David Sedaris, instead.
– … I just don't like the guy.