PBC: Running With Scissors

RWSWelcome to the first posting of The Progressive Book Club 2014. Whether you’re a participant or not, I invite you to review the list below and allow the group to shine a light on some of our best reads of the past thirty days. Each month is open to new members, with selections as diverse as the people writing the posts.

Released in 2003, it only took a decade before I finally got around to reading Augusten Burroughs’, Running with Scissors. I could kick myself for waiting so long.

The story, a memoir of his life from ages 12-16, should be required reading for any teenager who thinks their parents lack in the child-rearing department more than his. Impossible.

Unless, of course, their parents are riding off the rails of the Crazy Train. All aboard!

It could be also used as an effective tool for handling misbehaving kids: “If you don’t straighten up, I’ll send you to live with Dr. Finch!” Believe me, that alone is worse than any threat military school could ever pose.

Dr. Finch is one of the antagonists of the story, the Bad Santa of the psychiatric world, a robust and jolly man who believes children should live their lives as they see fit, eat candy for breakfast, put holes in roofs, run with scissors. It doesn’t take a psychiatric degree to know something afoul will eftsoon follow.

And that stench was Burroughs’ life during his adolescent years.

A product of divorce, he was cast off by his mother, an intense Anne Sexton wannabe teetering on the threshhold of psychosis, to live with this man, her psychiatrist, for a week or two until she got her act together. It never happened. One week became a month, became a year, became a nightmare.

Running with Scissors is an account of that period, aided by years of journals Burroughs kept—most likely out of a desperate need to reach out to someone, anyone, even a nameless, faceless page—in order to not feel abandoned, which in essence, he was.

The memoir is darkly humorous in a way that makes the reader giggle uncomfortably, but giggle nonetheless. Actually, page 88 had me rolling. There I was, in the parking lot waiting for my sister to get off work, when I reached that point a third of the way into the book.

I chuckled.

I read it again.

I guffawed.

The people in the car beside me looked over and I held it to the window. “Good book,” I said, then returned to the page, found my place at the bottom, re-read it, but this time, laughed uncontrollably. They looked at me as if I was the crazy one and drove off. How could I tell them I was reading the following line?

How could she expect me to think about school at a time like this? Furthermore, if I had just stayed in school, look what I would have missed. Fern, the minister’s wife, was not only a card-carrying lesbian, but my mother’s lover. Fern was a muff-diver. And she was diving on my mother’s muff.”

Excuse me for a moment while I finish my knee-slapping and gut-busting. That priceless line is indicative of the humor and absurd situations throughout the entire book, and chapter titles such as The Masturbatorium and Phlegmed Before a Live Audience  promise the reader even more absurdity—or should I say insanity.

And that’s where this review stops. I could take it apart line-by-line and relish each word, nibble the sinfully delicious concoction of a well-written piece and regurgitate it for you, but I won’t. My recommendation? Buy the book. It’s worth every chew.

On a final note, one of the reasons I chose Running with Scissors is its unique voice. I love Burroughs’ writing. His voice is strong, independent, fiercely honest, and can only come from the life he led. And he’s true to that voice.

I’m reading a great deal of memoirs, partly because they interest me, but mainly to tap into my own strong, independent, fiercely honest voice with the same abandon as Burroughs, and in the process, grow more as a writer. Phoniness has a way of shining through. Burroughs, with all his damaged and mishandled baggage, teaches a lesson in fearlessness. Kudos, Augusten!

PBC 3DThe Progressive Book Club meets the third Wednesday of each month. If you’d like to know more, click on the badge to link to the guidelines. Any book is welcome, and we’d love to have you—the more participants and titles, the greater the likelihood one will resonate with our readers. Hope to see you next month!


ML Swift

MikeBeachML Swift is a writer of Middle Grade, Young Adult, and Adult fiction, although he dabbles in many genres.

An Alzheimer’s caregiver for the past ten years, he has published several articles on The Alzheimer’s Reading Room, the largest online website catering to that community, and plans to write a novel about his experience in caregiving.

He resides in Florida with his dogs, Rameses and Buster, attempting to reclaim his side of the bed.


30 thoughts on “PBC: Running With Scissors

  1. I read this one a while back, along with “Dry,” his memoir of his struggle with alcoholism and his path to sobriety. Also a terrific and harrowing read. What I appreciate most about Burroughs is that he never makes the reader feel pity for him. He’s very matter-of-fact (and deliriously funny) about how fucked up his life was, but he won’t have you feel sorry for him, for the bad decisions that were made for him, and the bad choices he later made for himself.

    PS – the movie adaptation of RWS is to be avoided at all costs. Awful.

    1. That’s what I liked about this, Gus; I didn’t feel pity, but an admiration for his survival in a rather harrowing situation. I certainly wouldn’t want to have lived it. But I’ve witnessed such, and let me tell you, I believe him.

      I read the excerpt of “Dry” that accompanied the book and am looking forward to that as well.

      And truth be told, I saw the movie years ago…couldn’t remember anything about it but Annette Benning and the bad doctor from “X-Men United” being in it, so those are the people who came to mind in his telling of events. I always prefer books to movies, although I appreciate movies for their contributions (especially when awesome special effects are incorporated).

      Thanks for participating!

    1. Rebecca, I won’t lie…it might make you cringe at times (and I only say so because you’re of the gentler persuasion), but I didn’t have a problem with it. I appreciated the frankness and humor he incorporated to turn what could have been a slog of a read into a wildly funny romp that always left you saying, “Goodness! I can’t believe he said that.” Not shock jock, but the playful twist of words.

    2. I’d like to think I’m pretty open-minded (I read Chuck Wendig’s blog and laugh aloud at some of his creative crudity). But I have to admit I missed the big humor in the excerpt you offer above, and there’s no denying I tend toward “gentler”. A good twist of words can win me, though.

      1. I guess you had to read the 87 pages beforehand to laugh like I did. I think it caught me totally offguard, and a shock like that usually makes me giggle nervously.

        I have to run, but will get to yours when I return. I checked a few times this morning, but it hadn’t posted yet.

    3. Mine is up now. I had it set to go live at 5a.m. but was messing with it last night and forgot to hit “publish.”

  2. I read this book several years ago. I like his writing, but it definitely pushes the edges for me with his style. It was a little “in your face” for my tastes. I also read his brother’s book, “Look Me In The Eye: My Life With Asperger’s” (John Elder Robison). It’s such an interesting contrast to Burrough’s account precisely because he was seeing everything through a lens of Asperger’s (another support for the “truth” being a big, subjective concept). I appreciated Robison’s book so much more. In his forward Robison writes:

    “In most cases, I’ve used people’s real names, but in cases where I do not want to embarrass someone or where I can’t remember someone’s name, I have used a pseudonym. In the case of characters that appeared in my brother Augusten Burrough’s first memoir, Running with Scissors, I have used the same pseudonyms he used.

    I hope all people who appear in my book feel good about my treatment of them. There are a few people who may not feel good, and I hope they at least feel that I was fair. I thought very hard about my portrayals of everyone, and I tried to treat the tougher scenes with sensitivity and compassion.”

    Now that is a guideline I hope to incorporate when/if I write something so personal.

    Great review– Burrough’s writing is very funny and edgy!

    1. It was indeed frank, Julie, but that’s what I liked about it. I wouldn’t expect a person who lived such a life to be squeaky clean in the retelling.

      Because I’m interested in memoirs, I read beyond the book—the backlash of events and subsequent denials—and question how far and willing am I to go? I use Schwab and Burroughs as examples because I know those are memoirists we’ve both read, but I’m sort of a mix of the two. As loving and kind as Schwab, but with the slight acerbic attitude of Burroughs. I expect I’ll have a mixed approach to mine, as well, always trying to keep others in consideration, and keeping the story focused on me and my change because or despite all of this.

      I haven’t read his brother’s book, so I can’t compare, but it did raise a couple of questions without having to read it.

      Of course it came after Burroughs’ accounting, after the backlash, so my first questions would be, “What was the purpose of his book? Why did he write it? Would he have written it without Burroughs writing his?”

      If his purpose was to simply relate a life story of someone with Asperger’s (have written it without Burroughs writing his first), then that’s fine and dandy. More power to him.

      But from his foreword or acknowledgements, I don’t think that was his only motivation. Perhaps he did want to tell his story, saw the opportunity with his connection to Augusten, and could either corroborate or negate his rendition. He also noted the backlash and decided on a gentler approach…you can tell that from what he said.

      Burroughs’ brother was much older than him, already in college by the time this story started. That’s a big age spread. I know it’s all in the person’s individual perception of events, but aside from the self-inflicted isolation of Asperger’s, Robison also disconnected from the family years before this took place and really had nothing much to do with Burroughs.

      The point I’m trying to make is that both the mental illness and alcoholism progressed over these years that Robison wasn’t subjected to. And Burroughs seems to have a mental quirk as well, as exhibited by the OCD symptoms.

      Actually, the only “villain” I saw in RWS was Finch, who manipulated the people as if he were God. Even the pedophile was encouraged to pursue his relationship, or at least not discouraged or reported—by a trusted authoritative individual!

      Robison already seems to be defending his family with the excerpt you left, which is his prerogative and perspective.

      Every book I read could not be a bare-all graphic telling as this was. But I appreciate the telling of it, as is. Heck, “The Color Purple” (granted, fiction) used some pretty graphic language and in your face stuff, but that was THE story. Without that, it wouldn’t have read the same.

      I can’t say which laundry I’ll choose to air, but I’d like to think whatever I write, I’ll handle with care. The truth isn’t always pretty, but no, we don’t have to be ugly.

      Wonderful discussion (and your post, too)! It seems like we both have been wondering what direction to take when composing non-fiction.

      Thanks again for your participation! 😀

    2. Roberson, if I recall correctly (been awhile) mentions both the age difference and the fact that he has Asperger’s as reasons he didn’t have the same experience as his brother. That’s absolutely correct.

      I put that quote in there less as an attack on Burrough’s voice (I liked the book and have read others by him, they’re just not my favorite style) and more just an additional thought on the whole “tell all” approach to writing, more of a continuation of thought.

    3. Yeah, I sort of got that and sorry if I sounded overly defensive, because I wasn’t trying to be. But I do wonder how less gentle Robison would’ve been if he wasn’t trying to paint his side of the story in contrast to Burroughs. If he was simply telling his story without Burroughs involvement at all, as if that story had never been told.

      And that’s the $64,000 question that has been haunting me—how personal should I be? What phrases do I turn? Some things that seem benign to me might really offend someone else if I write it. Or I could tell it in a “let’s try not to offend anyone” way and write a piece dryer than Melba toast. Ugh. You had it right the other day when you said, “write everything on the first draft, edit with your heart and conscience later.” 🙂

  3. ACK! How did I miss the PBC??? Oh man, I’m sorry, Mike. I’ll join up next month!! I did love reading about Running With Scissors, though 🙂 When an author can manage to infuse a tragic, awful story with humor, I’m SOLD. That’s my favorite kind of writing to read. Thank you for sharing this!

    1. I did like the witty way he expressed himself. And no sweat…we’re open every month! As a matter of fact, sign-ups for February begin at midnight tonight. So you have a month to join in. Thanks, Liz!

  4. I need to read this book. There is something comforting in people who survived crazier families than my own. Honesty is a tough thing to be. I mean, I’m by no means a liar, but I’ve been raised to hold my cards close and that doesn’t always help a writer!

    1. My mom always told me I tell too much…and I probably do. I hold my cards close to the vest, but eventually play them. But you raise a good question: How honest is too honest? We’re ALL from crazy families, in one way or another. It’s the kind of light in which we choose to present it that makes the difference. Thanks, Elizabeth!

  5. I also enjoyed this book. I didn’t read the brother’s book though. Maybe I should. I’m sure that Burroughs also wrote a sequel to Scissors called DRY.

    I see you liked the voice and immediacy of this writing. I think you’d also enjoy the memoir A PIECE OF CAKE by Cupcake Brown. Seriously, don’t laugh too hard at the name.

    1. D-Hole! What a pleasant and unexpected surprise! Welcome to my humble abode. There was an excerpt of “Dry” at the end of this book…read it and it looks like another for my TBR list. As a matter of fact, I looked through his portfolio and liked a few of his titles…will see how “Dry” goes, then consider another.

      Cupcake Brown…sorry, already laughing. But I’ll check out the book betwixt giggles.

      Thanks so much for coming by! Great to see you. 😀

  6. Hey, Mike! I hope you’re well.

    Burroughs is a phenomenal writer and, since I read this book, I’m utterly inspired by him as a person. My only problem was that, unlike any other book I’ve read, this one caused me to experience an intense visceral reaction. When I read the one particularly violent scene , I cried and felt so upset I almost vomited. It was so well written and took me by surprise. Violence against children is an issue I’ve been very passionate about too. I just wished I’d been warned. It was difficult to finish the book after that, but I’m glad I did. I saw the movie, too, but it was poorly done. Anyway, I still think it’s an exceptional book by an exceptional man. But it’s not one that I would call funny. (The reason I read it is because someone told me it’s hilarious. Not so.)


    1. I think I know the scene of which you speak, Robyn…I only say “think” that way because I didn’t have a similar reaction anywhere that made me want to stop reading, but I sure didn’t like what was going on.

      Burroughs made light of the situation, as many AMAC’s do, in order to process it. Believe me, I know of what I speak. He’s touted as one of the 15 funniest people in the US because of this and other works, but yes, it’s black humor. It’s funny in a sickly twisted way…but it was a sickly twisted life.

  7. I know I’ll like this book. I feel like a schmuck for missing the deadline to participate. I posted a book review today, nevertheless. The folks in my area are accustomed to seeing me laughing to myself – or crying – with my nose in a book. Yep, I have to hold it that close. Which accounts for the handkerchief and the tissues I always carry in my crazy-big bag.

    Thank you, Michael. I love it when I secretly think – Oh, I wish I’d written this! 🙂

    (Don’t think I’ve gotten over the typewriter envy!)

  8. Hello Michael, I came across your blog through Julie Luek and look forward to reading all these reviews.
    Love the interesting viewpoints that are posted here about the same book. It sounds fascinating, raw and may actually help me through my writing.
    Excerpts were originally given to me in my Memoir writing class last year. I am going to reread what I have already and I already put it on my wish list.
    I have many books to get to first.

    1. My “To Be Read” list is also quite long, Lee. One book at a time.

      I love discussions on books, varied viewpoints and how each person can have totally different experiences in their understanding of the tale. This was a juicy one. Reading various memoirs has helped me find my voice, noting how each author is true to their voice enables me to be more confident in mine.

      Thanks for checking us out, Lee, and anytime you’d like to join in, add your name to the link list. We’d be glad to have you. 🙂

  9. I have not read the book but I saw the movie. The movie made me want to read the book. I actually own the book. Got it at a used book sale years ago but have yet to read it. I actually forgot I had it until this post just reminded me, which means I have way too many books on my book shelves waiting to be read. One day I’ll get around to reading this one.

    Also I just read page 88 and it didn’t have the hilarious effect on me as it did you, though probably because I haven’t read all the preceding pages.

    Nice review.

    1. I saw the movie first, too, and years later, when coming across the book, had to get it. Since I’m into writing memoirs (or memoir-like fiction that draws from life), I’ve been devouring every one I can get my hands on. They’ve been great learning tools for discovering various styles and finding my own voice.

      As far as page 88 goes (and you’re the second to tell me they didn’t have the same response, but it probably didn’t stop with the two of you), this is why I found it so hilarious:

      Although written by an adult, this is more or less in the voice of a teenager, sort of like Ralphie (albeit, a kid) in A Christmas Story. I hear a teenager when I read it. I mean, he did a fantastic job with it. I even feel like a fellow teenager when reading it, as if following alongside Augusten and Natalie or Hope and listening to their conversation. Just one of the gang.

      It was the terminology…muff-diver and she was diving on my mother’s muff. For one thing, I can see the incredulous look on the thirteen year-old’s face. And that would be exactly how a thirteen year-old would put it.

      Remember the scene in Sleepless in Seattle when Tom Hank’s character (I think it was Sam) was dating that woman and his son (Jonah?) got on the phone with the radio psychiatrist and said, “She’s a ho! She’s a ho!”?

      Well, there’s nothing particularly funny about that line—we hear stuff like it all the time—but coming from that particular character made it comical. There was a certain innocence broken in that moment—unexpected “adult” language and perspective that caught us off-guard.

      That’s how I felt when reading page 88. Actually, the whole book. It’s innocence lost told in the quirkiest of ways. The guy’s funny. 🙂

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