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Saturday, July 13th, 2002


Running with Scissors: A Memoir

by Augusten Burroughs

A review by Georgie Lewis

If you casually peruse the Salon.com sex section, you may well come across one of Augusten Burroughs's essays. They are pretty hard to miss, with such eye-catching titles as "A Priest on his Knees: Some of the best sex in my life has been administered by men of the cloth," which is a hilarious self-confessional about his experiences with certain members (no pun intended) of the Catholic Church.

Burroughs has a way of writing reminiscent of David Sedaris. His mock-naivete is a little shocking, a little naughty. He confesses to things that most people just don't admit to in polite conversation. But the twinkle in the eye is there, the nudge in the side encouraging you to "c'mon, admit it — you thought it was funny." Also, like Sedaris, Burroughs makes laugh-out-loud fun of his family, his own quirks, and his experiences growing up. Yet Burroughs's family life is pretty damn extraordinary — his account of his teenage years tends to have you clutching your stomach with laughter, while covering your mouth in horror and utter disbelief.

Running with Scissors is Burroughs's memoir of his early teenage years, focusing on the years after his parents' separation. And whew — where to begin? His mother, Diedre, is unfortunately quite insane, with a penchant for bathing with her (equally insane) new girlfriend in a tub of water and broken glass. She writes dreadful poetry and has remarkably bad taste in psychiatrists. Dr Finch is the therapist of choice, and at the age of thirteen the young Augusten finds himself living in the Finch household along with the rest of the eccentric Finch family, and the occasional patient or two. He becomes sexually involved with Neil, a 33-year-old ex-patient of Dr Finch. Finch condones the affair as long as Augusten keeps him abreast of the situation. When school authorities are insisting the Augusten attend seventh grade, the good Dr Finch cooks up a suicide attempt to help Augusten out. I could go on, but the horrific scenarios never let up!

In the hands of many writers this could be a turgid survivor story — one part Oprah, one part Jerry Spinger. Burroughs's book, on the other hand, is breathtaking. It is generous of heart and astutely observed. The prose is graceful and wry, yet lacking the self-conscious whimsy of that "other" memoir — that Running with Scissors has already, inevitably, been compared to — Dave Eggers’s Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Burroughs has had an astonishing upbringing, but more astonishing is his ability to recount it so brilliantly.

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