Running with Scissors
By Augusten Burroughs
Two scruffy teenagers in the grip of common teenage ennui are sharing McNuggets at a red plastic table in Northampton, Massachusetts. The date is some time in the 1970s — but it might be any boy, any girl, any time. Except for the details of the conversation. Because the girl, Natalie, has a realization. “You know what we need?” she says. “We need to get jobs, get the fuck out of that crazy house.” “Yeah, right,” sighs the boy, Augusten. “Jobs doing what? Our only skills are oral sex and restraining agitated psychotics.” At which Natalie laughs, licks mustard sauce off her fingers, and says: “How pathetic, and true.”
Running with Scissors is — in every positive sense I can think of — a blast. You know the way those “howler” letters work in Harry Potter, making the reader’s eyes bug out and hair stand on end? Running with Scissors does that. How did this kid become expert in oral sex and restraining psychotics by the age of fourteen? How can he be so flippant? This well written and entertaining book is the true story of a kid whose mentally ill mother dumped him in the home of her psychiatrist, without apparently noticing that the children of this particular doctor’s household lived in filth, threw sardines at the neighbours, were sexually abused by older mad people, and played (for fun) with electric shock therapy equipment. Augusten lived at the Finch household for five formative years, and if you fancy nothing else about his book, at least consider this: his breezily humorous recollections make snivelling Dave Pelzer look more of a contemptible git than ever.
The thing is, Augusten Burroughs is a very likeable and wry narrator, and a born writer. The cover image of Running with Scissors — a child in a striped T-shirt with a cardboard box over his head — could hardly be more inappropriate: Augusten is a kid whose salvation, absolutely, is his natural author-like attention to sights and sounds and smells. Not much escapes his notice. And not much, quite frankly, can make him switch off his noticing equipment, however much the reader may fervently wish for a veil occasionally to be draped over proceedings. During his first (graphic) sexual experience at the age of thirteen he actively ponders, as his head bangs against the wall, “He smells funny. It’s almost like a food, like you could eat a smell. Well, I guess I am eating the smell.”
Does Burroughs hate his mother, as Pelzer does? Well, he obviously resents the confessional bloody poetry she devoted all her time to, but there is nothing overtly vengeful in the book; the reader is just made fully aware of the horrors of having a parent who’s crazy. And as he says, that’s “not crazy in a let’s paint the kitchen bright red! kind of way. But crazy in a gas oven, toothpaste sandwich, I am God sort of way.” From the age of nine or ten, Augusten could detect the first, unnerving signs of his mother going mad. “I would start to see that look in her eyes, smell that odd aroma wafting off her skin. And I would know. I would always know before anyone else. I had been born with some sort of sonar that detected mental illness.”
No wonder he actually preferred life with the Finches, where at least the weirdness was constant. An obsessive-compulsive lady lived upstairs and never came out (a wise decision); kids screamed at each other in Freudian insults, “You’re so oral. You’ll never make it to genital!” Finch himself (described as resembling Father Christmas) consulted the contents of his toilet bowl for omens, and when he found good ones, got his daughters to fish them out for display on the picnic table. (He had evidently reached the anal stage himself.) His wife swept, and ate dog chow. When a teenage boy in his care (Augusten) told him that he hated school, Finch provided him with materials for a bogus suicide attempt which landed the boy (as planned) in a mental hospital.
So if you thought The Ice Storm showed how messed up the liberated Seventies were, think again. In the world of horrific and self-amazing childhood memoirs, Running with Scissors sets a new standard for, basically, getting over it and getting out more. In his late teens, Burroughs moved to New York, became an advertising copy-writer and, years later, wrote this incredibly funny book. One wonders whether growing up among mad people made the rest of his life a doddle. Was Dr Finch’s reign of anarchic insanity actually vindicated? Perhaps one can’t speculate that far. But you can’t deny one thing: this boy’s early expertise in oral sex and restraining agitated psychotics did come in handy in the long run.