Running With Scissors

Running With Scissors opens with the telling words, “Something is wrong here.” The first of two memoirs by Augusten Burroughs, this book chronicles the uproarious and bizarre travails of its author during his teen years and succeeds in painting the grotesque picture of an upbringing gone horribly awry. Having sold several million copies in the United States, Burroughs’ graphic and jarring story is being adapted into a star-studded motion picture directed by Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy. The Motion Picture Association of America should have quite a film to review because indeed, something is very wrong here.

As a boy, Burroughs’ biggest concern in life was not picking on the kids at the playground, but striving to make his hair look as smooth and plastic as that of a mannequin. He is mesmerized by sitcoms like The Brady Bunch and loves Maude, imagining himself one day occupying his own timeslot. He plays Donna Summers and “The Captain And Tenille” on his record player; he lines the items in his bedroom with tin foil, and he lays out his neatly pressed outfits for the next day. Meanwhile, just outside the door, his parents threaten to stab each other with the kitchen cutlery.

After his parents’ divorce and his mother’s psychotic break, Burroughs is unceremoniously shipped off to live with her equally off-balance psychologist, Dr. Finch, and his beyond-eccentric family in small-town Massachusetts. Finch’s filthy kids run around the house, the kitchen sink has weeks worth of dirty dishes in it and Finch’s young grandson is left to prance around in the nude. Burroughs is a Felix Unger in a world of Oscar Madisons, standing there in his pressed blue blazer on a carpet matted with cat hair and something sticky beneath his foot.

Instead of finding himself in the center of one of his beloved sitcoms, he seems trapped in some kind of All in the Family episode on acid. As the young version of Burroughs wonders how many days he will have to stay in this pit of a house, the reader discovers he will grow up, discover his identity and step out into the world.

Burroughs’ most jolting realization of his new and surreal surroundings comes as he works up the courage to tell his “family” that he is gay. The Finch family’s only response is that they could have guessed as much, and they fully support his love affair with a man twice his age. It is through their shocking indifference that Burroughs understands for the first time that he lives in a world with no rules, a world where washing his hands ten times a day, donning dress slacks around the house and simply combing his hair is not only outside the norm but bizarre to the Finches.

There is one main flaw in the otherwise wonderfully written book. Burroughs seems to want to present himself as someone desperately in need of some fun-loving eccentricity, somehow edified and snapped out of his compulsive behavior by the Finch family. Instead, the family comes off as less eccentric and more like a three-ring circus of bizarre, even horrifying behavior. While some of the mischief is harmless and heartwarming, a good deal of it is disturbing. Instead of helping Burroughs lighten up, the Finches apparently did nothing but scar him for life.

For every amusing and homey anecdote about installing a skylight seven inches smaller than the corresponding hole in the ceiling, there is one more about Dr. Finch’s allowance of acts of pedophilia and violence to go on in his home. This constitutes the most amazing part of the memoir, which is Burroughs’ attempt to make all of the Finches likable. Despite the fact that the kids are abusive to their siblings, Agnes is a bitter Old Maid and the doctor himself is a horn dog with a “Masturbatorium” adjoining his therapy office; the story does not evoke hatred or even distaste for any of them. Even as Finch begins calling his whole family to the toilet bowl to read his own excrement like tealeaves, one can’t help but find the family alluring in some way.

The insane behavior is on display not only at the Finch house, but in his mother’s apartment is trying for Burroughs in every way. His mother’s inability and, at times, lack of desire to be a parent are at least as scarring as his experiences at the psychologist’s house and propel him toward his indifferent adolescent years. It is during those years that he befriends the only one of the Finch kids who seems to find the rest of the nutty pill-popping family to be less than normal, Natalie.

Their close companionship constitutes the meat of the story. It fuels the emotional side and transforms the tale into more than just a documentation of a childhood, but a comment on the trials of friendship.

Even for those who don’t usually enjoy non-fiction, Augusten Burroughs’ story may as well be a work of creative writing because of its truly remarkable improbability. Laced with themes of sexual identity, abuse, negligence and heartbreak, this is the most unconventional, darkly comic and even twisted coming-of-age tale I have ever read.

While it’s a fast read that is appealingly written and intriguing, it is not for the meek of heart. If you don’t mind laughing while being quite mortified at the same time, or if you enjoy a revelatory, game-changing twist at the end of the stories you read, Running with Scissors is the book for you. “Something is wrong here,” and even so, Burroughs emerges from it all as a captivating, artful and successful storyteller.