Careful observers will note that something is missing from the cover of Augusten Burroughs’ new memoir, Toil & Trouble, in which he reveals his biggest secret yet: He is a witch.
What is on the cover: graceful, charcoal-gray ombre loops and swirls that wend their way behind and through acid green and stark white lettering. The undulating background and crisp type artfully combine into a visual that’s wholly intriguing, a bit unsettling and a touch electrifying, hinting at what readers will find inside.
But the cover doesn’t inform in the ways you might expect. There’s no “#1 New York Times bestselling author” banner, nor a mention of Burroughs’ best-known book (later adapted into a film), 2002’s Running With Scissors.
Rather, the author told BookPage in a call to his Connecticut home, “My only direction was, on the cover, just take off ‘#1 bestselling,’ take off every book I’ve ever written.” (Toil & Trouble is his 10th.)
He explains, “This is not a book for people who have read and loved my previous books—although it is! But really, this is for people who feel like they’re the only ones [who are witches], because I literally feel like the only one. I’ve felt like a freak my whole life because I’m a witch, a thing that doesn’t exist that absolutely exists.”
He adds, “I know from experience that if I feel this way, and I’m one, there are others that feel the same way who will hopefully find themselves in this book.”
What does Burroughs mean by witch, exactly? Well, he’s not the black hat-wearing, broomstick-riding, cauldron-stirring cackler the word so often conjures up. Think less Halloween, more Hogwarts—except, instead of having loads of similarly gifted classmates and teachers with whom to practice the craft, Burroughs discussed his abilities only with his mother and select relatives who were witches themselves.
Burroughs first learned of his witch-hood when he was 9 years old, he explains in Toil & Trouble. One day his school bus ride home was filled with anxiety and distress; he was certain something terrible had happened to his grandmother. It turned out she’d been in a car accident, which he had sensed because, his mother said, he was the latest in a long family line of witches.
This revelation was, he wrote, “simultaneously the most confusing and the most comforting thing anyone had ever said to me.”
Burroughs’ mother taught him to understand his unusual abilities and to keep them hidden. When she became overwhelmed by mental illness and sent him to live with another family (a stage of his life he chronicled in Running With Scissors), he no longer had anyone to talk to about this aspect of himself.
It became a secret he kept from everyone, including his husband, until he wrote Toil & Trouble, an experience that was itself more of a bursting forth than a planned endeavor.
He recalls, “Our Great Dane had horrible invasive surgery, and the vet said he couldn’t move [during his recovery], so we had to bring a foam mattress into the living room . . . and make a giant playpen.” The dog, Otis, stayed still if Burroughs was there watching him, so the author hunkered down with his laptop—and the words started pouring out.
“I destroyed my laptop, I broke the keyboard, it just exploded out of me—like it or not, there it was!” he says. He adds that his husband, Christopher, who is also Burroughs’ longtime agent, “didn’t have any idea what I was doing. As far as he knew, I was writing a thriller. I gave it to him, and he was like, wow.”
Wow, indeed. Not only was Burroughs’ typing ferocious enough to destroy his laptop, it also gave him tendinitis in his shoulder for about six months afterward. But with the damage, and with the freedom of declaring this is all of me, came relief. He acknowledges that this might seem surprising to those who’ve read his previous work.
I’ve felt like a freak my whole life because I’m a witch, a thing that doesn’t exist that absolutely exists.
“After writing so many memoirs, journalists would ask me if there’s anything in my life I haven’t written about, since I’ve written about stuff people would be embarrassed by, like sexual abuse, alcoholism, addiction,” Burroughs says. “But I always felt like, no, there’s nothing about myself I wouldn’t write about—except, obviously, the one thing I’m never going to write about! It was so off the table, I didn’t even realize I wasn’t replying accurately.”
Not least because, he says, “I get it, I really do. . . . ‘Oh my god, now he’s a witch!’ I wouldn’t believe it either, except I do.” However, those early years under his mother’s tutelage weren’t characterized by dissonance. He knew what he experienced, so it wasn’t strange to him that his mother or aunt practiced witchcraft in addition to their scholarly pursuits.
“My mother’s approach to witchcraft was not about spells, cloaks and herbs so much as, look, we possess neuroanatomy people haven’t found yet,” he says. “We have the ability to influence matter in ways that seem impossible and that would be called laughable and not taken seriously.”
There is the occasional spell in Toil & Trouble, particularly during Burroughs’ efforts to get Christopher to see the upsides of moving from New York City to the Connecticut country-side. These finely crafted snippets of poetry do help his goals come to fruition, but the author says spells aren’t a necessity.
“Magic is about specificity, about needing to know exactly what needs to happen, and writing can be a way to shape that,” he says.
But this shouldn’t be confused with mere wishing: “You do want to achieve an outcome, but you don’t achieve it through wanting. You achieve it through an incredibly disciplined and crafted and powerful focus in the mind.”
The men and their dogs ultimately did move to Connecticut, where they encountered neighbors whom Burroughs describes with a mix of acerbic wit and genuine warmth, from a foul-mouthed and highly skilled contractor to an aggressively odd opera singer. There’s also a realtor named Maura who takes Burroughs on some truly astonishing house tours (keep an eye out for the phrase “cake abattoir”) and is a witch, too.
Majestic old trees loom over the couple’s new house in a way that sets Burroughs’ senses tingling, even as they prompt a deeper look at the eternal push-pull between humans and nature. The author also muses on things ranging from illness and addiction to gardening and tattoos, as well as the 1960s TV show “Bewitched.”
Woven throughout these topics—sometimes densely, sometimes more loosely—are Burroughs’ reflections on what being a witch has meant to him, from the teachings passed down via his ancestors to how he lives his life as a witch every day.
Of course, it remains to be seen what life will be like for Burroughs, now that he’s put Toil & Trouble out into the world and his being a witch is no longer hidden. “My husband says witchcraft needs a new name and a new PR agent. People immediately think of bat wings being boiled,” he says. Then he clarifies, “All those words . . . like ‘eye of newt,’ are just words for different herbs.”
He adds, “The thing we call ‘witchcraft’ is really a sense and an ability that probably a lot of people have, who would never say they believe in witchcraft—yet, through the sheer power of focus, they have achieved things that would seemingly be impossible. . . . It’s time to come out of the closet and be legitimized, because it’s not some fringe weirdo thing. It’s not actually supernatural, it’s hypernatural . . . the fundamental nature of the universe.”
Ultimately, though, Burroughs knows readers will come to their own conclusions. “Either I’m completely lying, or life is a little bit more complicated than we think it is.”
Author photo credit: AXB