Humor is a time-honored defense mechanism, one everyone uses at one time or another to defend themselves or lighten an otherwise unbearable situation. But some situations are so painful, that even a wit as sharp as Augusten Burroughs’ can only make them so much lighter. Running with Scissors
is Burroughs’ memoir of leaving the home of his insane mother to live with her
even crazier psychiatrist, Dr. Finch. Without Burroughs’ darkly funny observations (such as his fantasies about becoming the lost Brady Bunch sibling, Shaun), the tale would be impossible to read. But funny though it may be, it’s still painful to read about Burroughs’ “relationship” with the psychiatrist’s thirty-something adopted son (Burroughs was 14 at the time) or about the “masturbatorium” the doctor has in his office.
The beginning of the story details Burroughs’ mother’s quick descent into madness or, as Burroughs puts it,
“My mother began to go crazy. Not crazy in a let’s paint the kitchen bright red! sort of way. But crazy in a gas oven, toothpaste sandwich, I am God sort of way.”
Seeing Dr. Finch doesn’t help, but Burroughs ends up spending more and more time at the doctor’s dilapidated Victorian house, with his decrepit wife, wild children and hordes of roaches. The characters include Dr. Finch’s daughter Hope, who lives at home although she’s almost 30, another daughter, Vicki, who seems to live with a family of nearby hippies, and a grandson, nicknamed
"Poo Bear" (the reason for which becomes quickly apparent), just to name a few.
Eventually, Burroughs ends up living with the crazy Finch family fulltime and starts succumbing to its general insanity. During this time, Burroughs becomes more aware of his dawning sexuality, and even comes out to both of his families (when Hope tells him that she already figured out that he was gay, Burroughs is somewhat disturbed: “It was one thing to be gay, but it was something else entirely to seem gay”). He then meets the aforementioned “adopted” son, Neil Bookman. Their relationship quickly becomes sexual, by force at first, but then Burroughs begins to crave Bookman’s attention. Their encounters are presented in great detail, which is at times excruciating to read, mostly because both become so dependent on the relationship. Burroughs soon realizes that there is something wrong with Bookman, but doesn’t want to be without that companionship. He also develops a soul mate in Finch’s daughter Natalie, who also seeks solace in abusive relationships with older men.
Running with Scissors is far from a delight, but it is extremely moving and insightful. It’s even sympathetic to the Finch family, and it’s a great tribute to Burroughs that he’s able to see them as human despite the damage they must have caused him. It’s not a comforting read, but it is a fascinating, disturbing and, yes, funny one, proving that humor may not relieve pain entirely, but can make it easier to bear.