Review: Running with Scissors
Author: Augusten Burroughs
Genre: Humor, Memoir
My Rating: ★★★ (3 of 5 stars)
Everyone has probably tried attaching punch line-hugging ends to the ‘when life gives you lemons’ proverb; I’ve heard phrases that are as hip as those involving tequilas and the beginning of a citrus monopoly. But I haven’t heard or seen anyone did it like Augusten Burroughs. Life has practically cannonaded him with thousands of lemons in his childhood and instead of feeling miserable about it, he used all the fruits to write his bestselling memoir, Running with Scissors.
The book follows a big slice of Burroughs’ childhood life. He was only a little boy when his parents—a manic-depressive poet mom with Anne Sexton delusions and a professor dad with "the loving, affectionate and outgoing personality of petrified wood"—divorced. His mom gives him away to be raised by her unorthodox psychiatrist who is a dead ringer for Santa Claus: Haven’t Bathed in Weeks edition. Burroughs then befriends the doc’s abrasive children, starts a relationship with a thirtysomething pedophile residing in the backyard shed, and slowly accepts that playing with electroshock therapy machine when things get dull, or substituting dog food for popcorns, or even consuming Valium like candies, are normal…as long as he lives in the midst of this Victorian squalor. But this is one thing he is 101% sure of: when you inherit a family as dysfunctional as the Finches, you’d know you’d just jumped from the frying pan into the fire.
I was full of head-shakes, of smirks and snorts, of this-couldn’t-be-real’s, and of oh-my-god’s (in varying intonations) while reading the book. From the reactions Running with Scissors elicited from me, you’d know that Burroughs is a man of talent. I turn the pages and see his ‘70s to ‘80s life unfold in full color. I like how his style of storytelling balances between complete wack and sheer cynicalness. Aside from being mostly hilarious, his darkish tales are effective in a way that it makes his readers yearn for a life that is—in his own words—“fabric-softener, tuna-salad-on-white, PTA-meeting normal”.
But one does not need rocket science to know that behind all the gags and sarcasm, it’s not as funny as it sounds—a sad Burroughs must be somewhere beneath all the kookiness. Sure, there are stuff that can be a real barrel of laughs at one point (scatological fortune-telling, anyone?), but on the other side of the scale there’s staging a suicide attempt to avoid school (supported eagerly by Dr.Finch), being sexually abused, the fact that you’re having guardians that cannot guide or guard you in life at all, among other things. It’s awesome that Burroughs can joke about the whole thing David Sedaris-style, but something tells me it would have been more honest if there’s a little poignancy thrown in there somewhere. He’s a bloody kid! I’m all for positivity, but no one is that positive; too much cynicalness for a situation comedy-like effect sometimes takes away all the humanity from a character.
Speaking of lack of humanity, that is my main beef too with the supporting characters. The author failed to sculpt them into something the readers can feel as real people, and I’m not even talking about their colorful craziness. They’ve become hackneyed paperboard-cutouts in a sitcom-ish set of tales.
Towards the end the book becomes more disjointed, the anecdote-chapters reading like standalone vignettes. It’s only on the page before the epilogue that Burroughs made an attempt at sentimentality, about how taking risks to reach his dreams is like running with scissors (or something to that effect). It was quietly hopeful, but the buildup to the moment was shabbily constructed that there wasn’t a big impact at all.
It was still a good read, although I’m having second thoughts about reading its sequel, Dry.