REVIEW: Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

REVIEW: Running With Scissors by Augusten BurroughsRunning With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
Published: Picador (2002), Paperback, 320pg
Source: BookMooch
Genres: Memoir, Non-Fiction

Running with Scissors is the true story of a boy whose mother (a poet with delusions of Anne Sexton) gave him away to be raised by her unorthodox psychiatrist who bore a striking resemblance to Santa Claus. So at the age of twelve, Burroughs found himself amidst Victorian squalor living with the doctor’s bizarre family, and befriending a pedophile who resided in the backyard shed. The story of an outlaw childhood where rules were unheard of, and the Christmas tree stayed up all year round, where Valium was consumed like candy, and if things got dull an electroshock- therapy machine could provide entertainment. The funny, harrowing and bestselling account of an ordinary boy’s survival under the most extraordinary circumstances. (from Amazon)

Sometimes when I read a book I know there’s a lot I want to say about it, but I don’t know how to get it all in my review without writing 2000 words and losing all hope of anyone reading it. Normally then I end up talking about maybe one thing and dropping the rest out of frustration, but I think that lessens the quality of my reviews, and so I have to come up with a different way of doing things.

What I think I’ll do is pretend that I’m in a book club (with…myself) and I have to come up with discussion questions for our next meeting. And, hopefully, thinking of questions and then trying to find an answer to them will a) make me think deeper about the book I’ve read and b) be slightly more interesting for y’all to read.

It’s still going to be really long, though. Also a little weird, because I couldn’t decide whether to say “you” or “I” in the questions, but eventually went with “I” to make it less confusing. (Is it less confusing? I hope so.)

The Author’s Note in the front of the book says names have been changed and certain situations/people combined. The “Finch” family filed a suit against Burroughs for defamation of character and invasion of privacy.They also say that most of his book is fictional or exaggerated. How does this affect the book’s veracity as a memoir? Does it affect how I feel about the book?

To be honest, I read that Author’s Note and then completely forgot about it until I started to do more research about Burroughs and Running With Scissors, which is when I learned about the law suit the “Finch” family brought against Burroughs. I also learned that he changed his name from Christopher Robison to Augusten Burroughs when he turned 18, which pinged something in my brain.

The author in 2008
In an early chapter, Burroughs relates his first meeting with someone who asks if she’s pronouncing his name– “Augusten”– correctly. But back than his name was Christopher, not Augusten, so why would he put that scene in there? Did it actually happen? If it didn’t, why did he both including it? It doesn’t actually matter how his name is pronounced because it doesn’t come up in the book again and I don’t really care, myself. So why was it there?

I understand wanting to refer to himself as his current name, even if he was named something else when the events in his memoir took place, but to go so far as to create a completely useless and probably untrue scene explaining the pronunciation…it just seems superfluous, and it immediately made me distrust how true his memoir actually is, and that did negatively affect how I view the book.

I don’t think memoirs have to be 100% true– the very nature of memoir makes that impossible– and I don’t mind so much the meshing of several people into one “character,” or exaggerating certain things to make it more entertaining, or even changing people’s names (although changing your own mother’s name seems weird) but I do take exception to including things that are blatantly untrue. It just seems wrong.

If there are fictional elements in Running With Scissors, should it still be considered a non-fiction memoir?

That’s a tough one. If a story is MOSTLY true, but has some fictional stuff stuck in, should it still be considered non-fiction? If a fictional story has some true stuff stuck in, could it be considered non-fiction?

I think the answer lies somewhere in the authorial intent behind the book. Burroughs intended this to be a memoir. He may have adjusted things slightly for pacing, entertainment, and privacy (in the changing of people’s names), but he stands by it being called a memoir (and so does his publisher). Based on that, even if I take issue with some of the fictional elements included, I would consider it a memoir, yes.

Based on my own judgment, I would still consider it a memoir. A somewhat flawed memoir, maybe, but a memoir nonetheless.

Members of the “Finch” family contest that much of the book did not happen the way Burroughs wrote it. Does that make me doubt the book’s veracity (again)?

Actually, no. Not as much as that thing with the pronunciation of “Augusten” did. With memoirs I’m willing to be lenient with the writer’s memories because a) they’re very one-sided and b) everyone remembers things differently. So while Burroughs might remember something happening one way, the “Finch” family might remember it another way. It’s just the nature of memory, and the nature of stories, beside. Everyone has a different view of things, there are always at least two sides to a story. Sometimes memories get twisted, and while I do think memoirists should make an effort to straighten them out (as I think Burroughs did, albeit apparently on the sly without telling the family he was writing a memoir. Which is not good.) I can understand if some recollection goes a bit awry from the “absolute truth” (if there is such a thing, anyway).

Running With Scissors is frequently challenged or banned for “extremely inappropriate content” aka explicit homosexual/heterosexual situations, profanity, underage drinking and smoking, graphic pedophile situations, and “total lack of negative consequences throughout the book” (source [PDF]). What did I think about the sexuality depicted (which seems to be the biggest issue people have with it)? Do I think it was included just to be shocking, or did it have merit?

I don’t think it was included just to be shocking, especially since nearly everything else in the book was shocking as well. It was written in the same sort of style as the rest of the book, and while I can see why people have problems with it (because it’s HARD to read about a 13/14-year-old being raped by a 30-something adult man), I think they should probably get over it. Sometimes we have to read about difficult issues to grow as people and as readers.

Since this is a memoir, it has merit by it’s very nature. This was something that happened to the author, something that was every bit as important as his mother abandoning him or his friendship with “Natalie.” It was a big part of his past, and NOT including it would be even more wrong than including fictional stuff.

Why do I think Burroughs wrote this book?

Besides the obvious function of a purging of memories, a memoir can also be an attack, an ode, a question, and a memorial to times gone by. I think Running With Scissors is all these things and more (whatever “more” is). Some parts are confessional, some parts are reflective, and some parts are almost a warning. I’m assuming he wrote it because he needed to get this all down before too much time had gone by.

It didn’t read like an attack on the “Finch” family. Yeah, it doesn’t show them in the best light, but the scenes with them are nowhere near as bitter as the scenes with Burroughs’ parents were. On the whole, it’s not a cruel book and if you like dark humor it’s actually very funny. And weird. And very entertaining!

Maybe Burroughs just wanted to entertain people with his weird childhood?

Did I enjoy Running With Scissors? Would I recommend it to others?

This, I think, might be the most important question, because despite my problems with its truthfulness and despite the difficult time I had reading certain scenes, I did enjoy it a lot! It was scary and gross and heartbreaking and very, very entertaining.

It’s not a laugh-out-loud sort of humor, but a more dark sort of humor. People compare Burroughs to David Sedaris, but I don’t think that’s entirely correct. Sedaris has a self-deprecating sort of humor, and he keeps his memoirs mostly light-hearted on the whole. Burroughs doesn’t deprecate anything, really, and Running With Scissors aren’t all that light-hearted, really.

But it’s a very good book, and I’d definitely recommend it to others!

Do you have any discussion questions you’d like to ask? And what did you think of this review format? Did it turn out okay?

Read: September 2010

My copy didn’t have this in it (I think), but apparently it’s in every new printing:

Future printings of Running with Scissors will contain modified language in the Author’s Note and Acknowledgments pages. Where the Acknowledgments page had read: “Additionally, I would like to thank each and every member of a certain Massachusetts family for taking me into their home and accepting me as one of their own,” the following was substituted: “Additionally, I would like to thank the real-life members of the family portrayed in this book for taking me into their home and accepting me as one of their own. I recognize that their memories of the events described in this book are different than my own. They are each fine, decent, and hard-working people. The book was not intended to hurt the family. Both my publisher and I regret any unintentional harm resulting from the publishing and marketing of Running with Scissors.” (From Wikipedia)

Interesting articles:
Ruthless With Scissors (Vanity Fair 2007)
Augusten Burroughs on addiction, writing, his family and his new book (Wikinews 2007)

5 thoughts on “REVIEW: Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs”

  1. Maybe in real life the mispronunciation conversation was about something else name-related — like maybe the lady asked him if she could call him Christopher Robin since that was practically his name anyway. 😛

    But I know what you mean about it throwing you off. When I learned that James Herriot wasn’t really called that, and his business partners weren’t really called Siegfried and Tristan, I kept fretting over scenes in his books where the characters’ names were brought up and remarked upon.

    1. It’s like the weirdest and almost dumbest thing to obsess over, but when how truthful he’s being is already thrown into question it just makes the weird stuff stand out more. I need to stop thinking about it, because I actually don’t care that much, but I hate it when authors lie (not saying he did, just in general I hate it).

  2. I didn’t have any problem with the fact that there were questions about how much of the book was actually “true”. It was a good story, and that was enough for me without having to wonder what really happened and what didn’t. I tend to believe your theory that memory is subjective, therefore everyone has their own version of a certain event. I thought the Finchs making a big fuss was completely ridiculous. No one would have even known who they were had they not gone public with it!

    1. I read somewhere (I think the Vanity Fair article) that the Finchs knew they were putting themselves in the spotlight by suing Burroughs, but I don’t remember what their reasoning for doing so was. I guess maybe they thought they were about to be outed anyway? Burroughs had been spreading hints around re:where to find them/what to search for to find them/etc. in interviews and stuff. Maybe they wanted to bite first before the paparazzi got to them.

  3. I started reading Running With Scissors when it first came out but I never actually got around to finishing it. It didn’t have anything to do with the content, I think I just got distracted and went on to something else, so I think i’ll have to give it another go.

    I don’t get why so many people complain about books like Running With Scissors either. I mean if you don’t like its content, then don’t read it! Why shouldn’t Burroughs be allowed to write about the disturbing events of his childhood? I hate how some people think all books have to be sanitised and ‘happy’.

    (Also, I really enjoyed your banned books post- it was really interesting, yet disturbing, to see what books people have tried to ban over the years.)

    I really like your review layout too, how it’s in sections about various topics that relate to the book. So it looks like i’ll have to try and find my old copy of Running With Scissors now!

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