So, you think you had a weird childhood, do you? Well, get over yourself, because the weird childhood crown has just been taken by a young writer named Augusten Burroughs. The bad childhood award is, of course, a hotly contested literary prize among writers of all persuasions. One need take only a cursory browse through the memoir section of the local bookstore to realize that seemingly no writer has ever had a "normal" childhood, much less a happy one. This humorless onslaught of damaged psyches and preachy "life lessons" has given rise to the depressing publishing addage: "The More You Suffer, the More You Sell," to which a nation of emotionally battered readers must finally stand up and cry, "Get Over Yourselves!"
Cue the much-welcomed entrance of Augusten Burroughs, a young writer whose hilarious new autobiography, Running with Scissors, may just reinvent the memoir racket by forging a new genre: the traumedy. While this strange "through the looking glass" peek at yet another writer's whacked childhood contains all the stock elements of a generic bad youth memoir (absentee father, manic-depressive harpy of a mother, weird foster home, sexual identity issues, criminality, etc.), it is Burroughs' ability to look back with gallows humor and frame it all in the style of a nutty sitcom-from-hell that makes the book simultaneously funny, sad and unnerving. In fact, it is the juxtapostion of the matter-of-fact, often jaw-droppingly bizarre details of this boy's existence with the inherent sadness of a young life sliding off the rails that makes the book's insights into the importance of "just getting over it" all the more powerful.
Burroughs has been compared by some critics to David Sedaris, and it's easy to see why. Both come off as cultural outsiders, as well as skewed sociologists whose observations on the absurdities of normal behavior are mixed with a fascination for cultural minutiae (Burroughs freely admits to an erotic childhood obsession with Tony Orlando's lush arm hair) that feeds into an almost gleeful embrace of the horrors of really nasty situations. But where Burroughs diverges from Sedaris is in his almost uncanny refusal to veer into cynicism or judgement, and his penchant for spotting the sunshine through even the darkest clouds. Think Little Orphan Annie, but with a better sense of humor.
Charting the rocky road of the author's pre- to late teen years, from the late '70s through the mid '80s, Scissors shines a light on Burroughs' nightmare adolescence as he is forced to deal with an invisible father and a mother drowning in a '70s-style whirlpool of paranoia, sexual experimentation and bad feminist poetry. Befitting the young Burroughs' obsession with the world of television (he dreams of attaining some sort of vague stardom, like maybe playing a doctor on TV), the supporting characters in Scissors are painted with the broadly visual strokes of a Brady Bunch reunion movie. The Mother, who is not only psychotic, but also obsessed with getting her sub-Anne Sexton inspired poetry published in The New Yorker, is introduced into the sitcom via a series of cultural references ("My mother is standing in front of the bathroom mirror smelling polished , and ready like Jean Naté, Dippity Do and the waxy sweetness of lipstick"), and given a boffo entrance scene (after trying to carve up the Father with a butcher knife, she angles for sympathy from her horrified son by putting on her best "Edith Piaf" face). And this is all during the opening credits sequence ... I mean, the first few pages.
Once Augusten is dumped by the increasingly unstable Mother into the home of the creepy Family Doctor (who just happens to be taking sexual liberties with The Mother under the guise of psychotherapy), and his house full of weirdo family members/out-patients, Scissors really rockets into Fellini territory. Augusten's "temporary" stay with this suburban Manson family eventually stretches into several years, and he is forced to adopt their bizarre rituals or be cast adrift.
Highlights from some favorite episodes of the Scissors sitcom include: The feral 5-year-old who refuses to wear pants and delights in defecating under the piano. The gay loner /pedophile who lives in a barn in the backyard, and who becomes the 34-year-old tutor to Augusten's 14-year-old student in the ways of love. The ghostly, germ-phobic Old Woman who lives in a completely white room in the attic. The Noisy Family Dog who is addicted to the calming shots of Nyquil administered by its loving owners. The Rebellious Daughter who refuses to wash or remove her sweaty polyester McDonald's uniform. The family ritual of predicting the future using bowel movement readings (a practice that must be read to be believed). Etc,etc. While Burrough's charming accounts of several rather horrifying childhood incidents risk offending more sensitive readers, it's precisely his insistence on laughing at his own misfortune that make Scissors so beguiling.
While the bulk of the story is played for yucks, the wrenching reality of a young boy forced to forge his own identity without the aid of any stable adult figures ultimately gives the book its heart. As he moves from outside observer to inside family member, and discovers his voice as a writer while simultaneously struggling to keep his sanity in check, Augusten's journey takes on a poignacy that the author thankfully refuses to exploit with the kind of cheap emotional pornography that is often used to satiate the memoir mandate for "feel good" endings.
In fact, Burroghs has cleverly structured his sitcom without the requisite happy resolution, and without tying up all of his adventures into a thoughtfully packaged IMPORTANT LIFE LESSON to be shared with readers, opting instead for a decidely more ambiguous fade-out at book's end. It's a strategy that may not make the book a hit with those seeking a more conventionally cathartic look into an unhappy childhood, but it does remain true to the book's wonderfully eccentric and clear eyed view of catastrophe and survival.
In the end and true to form, Burroughs manages to pull off one of the best summations in recent memory of how to survive a bad childhood by evoking the televised ghost of one of his sitcom heroines, Mary Tyler Moore: "In the opening sequence to The Mary Tyler Moore Show , Mary's in a supermarket, hurrying through the aisles. She pauses at the meat case, picks up a steak and checks the price. Then she rolls her eyes, shrugs and tosses it into the cart. That's kind of how I felt. Sure, I would have liked for things to have been different. But, roll of the eyes, what can you do? Shrug. I threw the meat into my cart. And moved on."