Running With Scissors
The memoir game has turned increasingly dark and depressing, a sort of literary strip poker with ugly childhood memories serving as the ever-rising ante. According to his account of his upbringing, Running With Scissors, novelist Augusten Burroughs had a humdinger of an early history: After his violent, alcoholic father and unstable, narcissistic mother split, 12-year-old Augusten was unceremoniously handed over to Mom's shrink to raise in his filthy, chaotic house. But while the writer doesn't spare any gory details--sometimes he almost revels in recalling the gross-out moments--he manages to do a lot more than simply add to the pile of best-selling victim lit. He fashions a tale as funny as it is harrowing, one that manages to be life-affirming in its own cock-eyed way.
It would be easy and understandable for Burroughs to succumb to self-pity. In 1970s western Massachusetts, his mother, a confessional poet who experienced annual breakdowns ("It was like her brain went on a Winter Clearance Sale"), deposits her son with the family of Dr. Finch, a practitioner of questionable credentials and methods. (When Augusten complains about being a misfit at school, Finch helps him fake a suicide attempt to get out of going.) Finch's family is a feral assemblage that includes several daughters, one non-potty-trained (and usually undiapered) 6-year-old grandson named Poo Bear, and Neil Bookman, the Finches' 33-year-old adopted son, who first sexually abuses Augusten and then becomes his moony, clinging boyfriend, a development that seems to alarm no one, not even Augusten's parents. (Mom's reaction: "I am very, very fond of that young man. He's always been very supportive of me and my writing.")
Instead of distancing himself from all this dysfunction and turning Scissors into a wail of outraged anguish, Burroughs does something remarkable: While still expressing spurts of anger, he dives into the middle of his experiences and shows us the humor and humanity within--casting himself as a sort of wide-eyed, Me Decade Holden Caufield, writing it all down to make sense of it later. Along the way, he creates a literary hero worth rooting for--himself--and discovers that, "unwittingly, I had earned a Ph.D. in survival."