Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Running with Scissors

Just finished Augusten Burroughs' memoir, Running with Scissors. It makes David Sedaris's wacky family seem like the Cleavers.

The conditions under which the author grew up are mind-boggling: After he spent a childhood witnessing toxic, violent fights between his parents, his mentally ill mother relinquished him to the care of her addled psychiatrist. That home is not just roach-infested and filthy but packed to the rafters with dysfunctional family members and some of the psychiatrist's patients.

The dysfunction takes both benign and rather horrific shapes. On the amusing side, when the author and the psychiatrist's daughter decide the kitchen ceiling is too low, they decide to remove the ceiling altogether. No one cares. After a yard sale, the family notices that the unsold furniture makes a delightful open-air home and live outside for a summer.

The scary stuff: Beginning at 14, the author engages in a sanctioned, abusive relationship with a 32-year-old man. The psychiatrist's 13-year-old daughter has an affair with a 40-some-year-old, who then becomes here legal guardian and then abuses her. Another daughter, at 14, leaves the family home, again with her father's approval, to travel around with a bunch of hippies. Yet another daughter tortures and kills the family cat because she is convinced he is terminally ill. And in one of the most disturbing events, the psychiatrist, merely to provide the author with an excuse not to attend school, helps him fake a suicide attempt (via bourbon and Valium).

Despite the content, the author's tone throughout -- wry, sardonic, sarcastic -- makes the book downright entertaining. I wonder, though, about the embellishment factor. I don't necessarily doubt the veracity of the events, but the extensive dialogue throughout the book gives me pause. Surely that must have been not just re-created but revamped, revised, and otherwise altered for maximum readability and dramatic effect. I suppose that happens with most memoirs, though. People don't go through their childhoods with tape recorders, yet memoirists do tend to include a lot of dialogue.

The author's written a follow-up, called Dry, that follows his life after he leaves the psychiatrist's "care." I'll be reading that book soon.