Synopses & Reviews
I don't want to get out of bed.
I'm so stupid.
I did so many things wrong.
I don't know what to do.
I'm going to be in so much trouble.
What am I going to do?
I'm completely screwed.
In 1991, fourteen-year-old Brent Runyon came home from school, doused his bathrobe in gasoline, put it on, and lit a match.
He suffered third-degree burns over 85% of his body and spent the next year recovering in hospitals and rehab facilities. During that year of physical recovery, Runyon began to question what he'd done, undertaking the complicated journey from near-death back to high school, and from suicide back to the emotional mainstream of life.
In the tradition of Running with Scissors and Girl, Interrupted, The Burn Journals is a truly remarkable book about teenage despair and recovery.
"Despite its dark subject matter, this powerful chronicle of Brent's journey to heal expresses hope, celebrates life and provides an opportunity to slip inside the skin of a survivor with a unique perspective." Publishers Weekly
"A fascinating account of the mending of a body and mind, told with the simple and honest sensibility of someone too young to have endured so much." Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha
"Runyon has, perhaps, written the defining book of a new genre, one that gazes...unflinchingly at boys on the emotional edge." Booklist
"A taut, chilling account of the author's attempt to commit suicide...a must-read for teenagers struggling with self-doubt."The Denver Post
About the Author
Brent Runyon is a regular contributor to public radio's This American Life, where portions of this story first appeared. The author lives on Cape Cod, MA.
Reading Group Guide
1. This memoir is unique in that Runyon chooses not to annotate his account from an adult perspective but rather to let his fourteen-year-old voice stand alone. How does this lack of analysis and retrospective insight shape the narrative? What effect does the detached, primitive, sometimes belligerent nature of this teenage voice have on the story?
2. Brents description of his mothers eyes moments after the disaster-“her eyes . . . are the most beautiful things Ive ever seen” [p. 18]-echoes studies on newborns reactions to their mothers eyes moments after birth. To what extent is Brents suicide an attempt to revert to an infantile state in which he will be unconditionally loved? Are all suicides overtures toward rebirth?
3. How does Brents nebulous adolescent understanding of his own sexuality play into his depression? Do his thwarted attempts at intimacy with women and girls read as comical or disturbing? Does he mature in this area over the course of the memoir?
4. Brent recounts several episodes that seem to suggest a lack of sensitivity on the part of his parents to his violent tendencies, even after his release from rehab. In one, his father employs Brents reluctant help in bludgeoning a possum to death. In another, his father buys Brent boxing gloves and allows Brent to knock him to the ground. In a third, Brent ponders his childhood practice of mutilating toys, a habit obviously unnoticed by his parents: “Poor Papa Smurf. . . . Sometimes we used to light a can of Lysol and spray him with fire. . . . We also tore the arms off of Cobra Commander and put his head in a vise. We took Duke, from G.I. Joe, and twisted him around until his spine snapped. . . . And then we set them on fire too. Why did we do that?” [p. 288] Are these passages intended to impugn Brents parents on some level? Or are they meant simply to pinpoint Brents growing awareness of violence and its ramifications? Why do you think he includes them?
5. Brent struggles to find a means to articulate his sorrow and regret over the disaster to his family. Yet when presented with family therapy specifically tailored to facilitating this kind of dialogue, Brent becomes reticent, unyielding, and sarcastic. Why?
6. Brent writes of his burn treatments: “There are two kinds of people in this world. People that have to lie on their stomachs for ten days straight and people that dont. And the lucky bastards that dont have to lie on their stomachs for ten motherfucking days are the ones that get to skate through life like they have their own personal Zamboni smoothing the way for them” [p. 82]. How much responsibility does Brent accept for his injury? To what extent does he blame fate?
7. Brents mantra, “I hate myself,” continues well after the fire. How much of this can be attributed to the normal pains of adolescence? What are the signs that his self-loathing is abating or shifting by the time he returns to school?
8. Some of the memoirs most excruciating dialogues occur in the context of psychological evaluation. In the presence of a family therapist, Brent has a bizarre argument with his mother over whether five or ten minutes of silence have passed [p. 136]. During a session with two psychologists, Brent accuses one of the doctors of saying “scarcastic” instead of “sarcastic” [p. 216]. Do these episodes suggest true madness, or does Brent purposefully warp his ostensible grasp on reality in order to get attention? What sort of agony do you think therapy sessions like those Brent describes can invoke for a teenage boy?
9. In Darkness Visible, his memoir of mental illness, William Styron writes, “Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self-to the mediating intellect-as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.” Does The Burn Journals succeed in rendering Runyons depression comprehensible to readers? Is this book an appropriate cautionary or helpful tale for depressed teenagers to read?
10. One reviewer wrote of The Burn Journals: “[Brent] isnt spared the sight of the pain felt by his family and friends, as he would have been had he died. In accepting the burden of the anguish he caused them, he finds healing and a new depth to his relationships” [“The Burn Journals A Gripping Must-Read” by Karyn Saemann, The Capital Times, November 5, 2004]. Is this an accurate assessment? If so, what evidence is there of Brents healing? Which relationships are deepened and renewed?
11. When Brents parents ask him if he is involved in the occult, Brent is overwhelmed and hurt by their ignorance of him. “They know nothing about me. Nothing at all. . . . Why dont they love me? Why dont they take care of me? Why dont they act like Im their son? . . . I cant believe how little they know me” [p. 192]. Does Brent ever convey this sense of betrayal to them? Does this issue of misinterpretation reach a denouement?
12. When Brent is given permission to forgo his plastic face mask when he goes back to school, why does he hesitate?
13. Which of Brents caregivers makes the most lasting difference in his recovery process? Why?
14. The passages that describe Brents burn care routine in the hospital are graphic, even grisly. What role do they play in the memoir?
15. When a nurse suggests that Brent ought to be grateful for his lapses in memory after the fire, Brents mental response is, “I dont want to forget anything. I dont care if they are terrible memories. Theyre mine” [p. 86]. To what extent is Brents journey out of darkness a process of reclamation? What societal forces could cause an upper-middle-class white teenager to feel disenfranchised or in need of reclaiming what is rightfully his?
“The Burn Journals
describes a particular kind of youthful male desolation better than it has ever been described before, by anyone.” -Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your groups reading and discussion of Brent Runyons The Burn Journals, the provocative, raw, and unsparing account of Runyons long journey back to teenage life after a botched suicide attempt leaves him physically and emotionally shattered.