Augusten Burroughs didn’t set out to become the new bad boy of American letters when he careened onto the bestseller lists two years ago with Running with Scissors, his hilarious, horrifying account of the world’s worst childhood: it just happened, like much of his highly unconventional life to date. Abandoned by his dysfunctional parents to the "care" of his mother’s lunatic shrink, his Valium-gobbling patients and the pedophile next door, Burroughs left formal education in the fourth grade, overcame childhood sexual abuse, earned his GED at 17 ("It was like, Spell cat,’ " he recalls) and by 19 was a New York advertising writer responsible for $200 million accounts. Unusual events seem to form a static-like cling to Burroughs, leaving him to process them the best way he knows how by writing about them.
There are dark passages indeed to Burroughs’ modern-day Horatio Alger tale as depicted in Running and its 12-step sequel, Dry. America may not have been quite prepared for his depiction of addiction, obsession, AIDS and graphic gay sex, but we soldier through the grim stuff for the same reason Burroughs did: in the belief that love and happiness lie just around the next ordeal. He has earned his place alongside such singular dysfunctional hall of famers as Oscar Levant (The Memoirs of an Amnesiac), Frederick Exley (A Fan’s Notes) and Jim Carroll (The Basketball Diaries).
So it came as a relief to hear Burroughs’ upbeat tone as he spoke by cell phone from the newly paved driveway of the home he and Dennis, his partner of five years, are building in Amherst, Massachusetts, a few blocks from his brother and not far from the unsettling sites of Running with Scissors. It’s the very Beaver Cleaver moment that the articulate, engaging Burroughs has been dreaming about most of his life.
"I never had a home, never had a home with a washer and dryer, so this is a first," he says. "These are the days when I’m finding myself in grocery stores, which is something I never did, and that kind of thing fascinates me. I can’t tell you how much I love Target and Costco, that kind of culture, because it’s something I never felt a part of. I’ve always felt like a tourist because I have never fit in anywhere."
Burroughs’ new beginning is evident throughout Magical Thinking: True Stories, his first collection of funny, edgy essays drawn from a life way less than ordinary. Raise your hand if you’ve ever been cast in elementary school for a Tang commercial only to be left on the cutting-room floor, drowned a rat in your bathtub, had the roof of your mouth splayed open by a dentist on a routine visit, or had a gay fling with an undertaker in the same viewing room where Rose Kennedy’s wake took place.
What keeps us laughing and turning the pages even as we shudder at the thought of these experiences is Burroughs’ unflagging humor, relentless optimism and endearingly self-deprecating style. Witness his response when a particularly odiferous street person shows up at a book signing:
"But then, look at me. My brain is incorrectly formed, and I’m shaped like a tube. Plus, I’m an alcoholic, a survivor’ of childhood sexual abuse, was raised in a cult and have no education. So, really, if you think about it, the only thing that separates me from the guy with the stinky foot and no teeth is a book deal and some cologne."
At 40, Burroughs is free of the stampeding alcoholism that threatened to trample him (see Dry), unchained from the lucrative but unfulfilling world of advertising and involved in a relationship that evens out his eccentricities. His last bout with substances was muscle-enhancing steroids, chronicled here in a chapter called "Roid Rage," that ended with a herniated disc from weightlifting. The fact that he only chews a half a box of nicotine gum a day is almost quaint, considering.
Burroughs says he understands how readers might get the wrong idea about him.
"When people meet me, many times they’re very surprised because they expect someone who is kind of wacky with seven piercings and very hip and cool and New York City, and I’m not," he says. "I’m like the guy who prepares your taxes or a dentist. I’m very conservative and boring in a lot of ways." OK, so your accountant doesn’t regale you with tales of gay sex. But Burroughs maintains he’s not out to shock anybody; he merely presents the details of his admittedly unusual experiences to underscore the universal themes of his writing.
"I think people tend to see the bigger point, which is maybe not fitting in and feeling like you didn’t have the childhood that you expected you would have, or that you felt lonely or struggled with drugs and alcohol or just that you were able to achieve your dreams. These are the themes that I personally struggled with."
There is a sense of completion about Magical Thinking (the title is a psychological term for the belief that one exerts more influence over events than one actually has), a sweeping-up that suggests the author may be ready to move beyond his fractured past. Early next year, shooting begins on the film version of Running with Scissors, with Julianne Moore as Burroughs’ mother and Jill Clayburgh as the psychiatrist’s wife. But for Burroughs, his imperfect past will always be, in the words of Pat Conroy, "a renewable thing."
"I really look at my childhood as being one giant rusty tuna can that I continue to recycle in many different shapes. As a child, I was never drawn toward depraved or extreme situations; I really wanted a normal little childhood. Unfortunately, that’s just not what happened. But I ended up having the ability to appreciate this strangeness I found, an ability to use it for something better."
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