Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sunday Snippet: Running with Scissors


In the early 2000's Augusten Burroughs' memoir Running with Scissors became an instant sensation. Locally, its popularity went over the top, as Burroughs was brought up in Amherst and Northampton. The talk around the book was great enough that I avoided it until after the hype wore off. It was hard to avoid learning things about the book and the author's strange and dysfunctional upbringing. I stuck to my guns, though, as I don't like to read a book or see a film when there is so much of other people's attention focused on it. I like to have a clear and open mind as a reader and draw my own conclusions based on the work itself and not on the swirl of opinions held by others.

Nine years passed and I forgot all about Running with Scissors until a couple of weeks ago when I heard that Burroughs' (that is his nom de guerre) mother Margaret Robeson, much written about in Running with Scissors, had published a memoir in her own defense. A few years ago I  read Burroughs' brother's memoir Look Me in the Eye, about his lifelong struggle with Asperger's, a form of autism. After finding Running with Scissors at my local library, I am now halfway through it and really enjoying it.

The NPR story on The Long Journey Home, Margaret Robeson's recently published memoir, intrigued me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, that three people in the same family should have quite distinct and at times very different perspectives on the same set of events. This is a testament to the complexity of individual experience and its resultant memories and how we interpret both. Secondly, I'll admit to being fascinated by Burroughs' characterization of his mother, who identified herself as a poet and had high ambitions of having her work published in The New Yorker. I'm waiting for inter-library loan of her book to arrive and I'm sure it will be a long wait, as local fans of Burroughs book clamor for it as a means of comparison.

Most memoirs have the feel of vindictiveness or are self-pitying portraits of betrayal and disappointment. Augusten Burroughs' doesn't strike me as self-pitying or vindictive, just as a story he had to write and publish, perhaps as a way of making sense of his strange childhood circumstances. It is also very funny without compromise to the seriousness of child neglect and the dangers of psychological quackery.

 Just a bit of background on the snippet, taken from the chapter Pure Projection: at the age of thirteen, Augusten Burroughs was sent to live and eventually became the legal charge of his mother's psychiatrist, given the name Dr. Finch in the memoir. Dr. Finch had several children, both teens and adults, some of them the children of former patients or patients themselves, living with him in his massive Victorian home. In this excerpt, Burroughs discusses how anger was addressed in the Finch household.

The most excellent fights involved five or more people. Eventually, the fight would be resolved the way all disputes were resolved:  Dr. Finch. He would be called at the office or the arguing group would travel en masse to his office, a hostile collective gang, and oust whatever patient he was seeing at the time. "Family emergency," someone would say. And the patient, whether a potential suicide or somebody suffering from a multiple personality disorder, would be transferred to the waiting room to drink Sanka with Cremora while Finch solved the dispute.

Finch believed that anger was the crux of mental illness. He believed that anger, unless it was expressed freely, would destroy a person. This explained the constant fighting in the house. Since they were tiny, the Finch children had been encouraged not just to sing , dance and jump rope but also to vent.

Anger was like the ground hamburger of our existence. Its versatility was inspiring. There was Anger Turned Inward, Repressed Anger, Misguided Anger. There were Acts Made in Anger, Things Said in Anger and people who might very well die if they didn't Face Their Anger.

So we screamed at each other constantly. It was like a competition and the prize was mental health. Every so often Finch would say, "Hope has been expressing a lot of healthy anger lately. I truly believe she's moved up to the next level in the stages of her emotional development. She's leaving the anal and moving into the phallic." So then everybody hated Hope because she walked around being so smug and emotionally mature. 

I can't wait to read Margaret Robison's memoir to see what she made of Dr. Finch who, by the way, died before the publication of Running with Scissors.

19 comments:

  1. I read that when it came out and I remember nothing about it except that some parts were hard for me to understand. I think I ought to read her book and then read his again.

    I do understand 3 different people in a family having unique perspectives on various events and situations. My three kids are like that; each of them remembers some things differently.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I loved the book also at the same time thanking my stars that our son, who has Asperger's was not like that. I'll have to catch the mother's version of the story.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I've never been tempted to read that book until now. My own mother's habit of remembering my memories for me used to drive me mad with irritation. We all have our own interpretive lenses through which we observe the world. Some are more deliberately blinkered than others.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I have never heard of any of these people, but your post is intriguing, as is the title 'Running with Scissors' - which was expressly forbidden on pain of death (but not from scissors) should one disobey!
    Let us know your final verdict on the book - please.

    ReplyDelete
  5. i picked up 'look me in the eye' in an airport last year, on a business trip. the photo of the child on the cover was compelling and impossible to resist. i thoroughly enjoyed it, and then passed it on to a friend who, coincidentally, has 2 sons w Asperger's..... it was one of those 'meant to be' things, i guess. must now follow up with 'running with scissors'.... i didn't know the connection till now. must confess that i too avoid the popular bandwagon stuff, unless it's recommended by someone with some credibility.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Kenju - I have similar experiences with certain books. One of the things I'm enjoying about the memoirs are the frequent mentions of places in my community. Mr. Pagan Sphinx recalls hearing about the crazy parades the Finches sometimes organized in downtown Northampton. Otherwise, I wouldn't worry too much about missing some kind of classic, with any of these books! :-)

    Yogi - just to clarify, the author of RWC is not the author who has Asperger's. John Elder Robeson, the author of Look Me in the Eye is the Aspergian.

    I didn't know your son is an Aspergian. I personally like that better than to say that someone "has" Asperger's, though I do slip up a lot. Robeson is now a very successful person. I've heard him speak and he's brilliant. He too was on his own at a young age, but being the older brother to Augusten Burroughs, he had moved away from any personal connection with Dr. Finch, though he was his patient. Robeson actually feels that Dr. Finch saved his parents from killing each other, by persuading them to seek a divorce.

    I know several Aspergians and a couple of "high functioning" Autistic people. Some Aspergians don't acknowledge they are, others hold very strong opinions about how society should and should not treat them. Some Aspergians resent now being a part of "the autism spectrum" and not a category in and of themselves.

    I will respond to the rest of the comments later. Gotta go and use my new weed-wacker! ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  7. "complexity of individual experience"

    nuff said. a most interesting post Gina. I'm intrigued by Dr. Finch.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Ah, Gina, we all have our own versions of the past, don't we?

    Initially, perhaps, they don't diverge so much from each other, but in telling them repeatedly to ourselves and others we form them into stories - the stories which are ours and not necessarily anyone else's. And often, all the different stories, recounting the same events quite differently, are all true ... :-)

    ReplyDelete
  9. Gina, I read and reviewed the book back in 2000 for the Times Union when I worked there. It totally freaked me. I will look at the new book by Mother. Thanks for this posting. You are always so interesting~ I did not know about the Amherst connection. Gin

    ReplyDelete
  10. Becky - that's the buzz-word! Thank you!

    Francis - yes, we do. I find it endlessly fascinating. Sending a hug.

    Gin - it *is* a very freaky book!!! Talk about individual experience. Had I grown up like Burroughs, I think I would have been on the brink of suicide my entire adolescence. I perhaps would have wanted to end it. Where does the resilience to overcome such tragedies come from???
    Hugs, dear lady!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Hi, Gina. I will try to remember to take a look at one of these books, to see if I want to round out the family. My sister and I are three years apart and have completely different memories of living in the same household.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I see that the film of the book is now out on DVD. I shall continue to avoid both. Had enough of all that kind of thing in earlier years!

    ReplyDelete
  13. gfid - I enjoyed Look Me in the Eye. As an educator and child advocate, Autism spectrum interests me a great deal. I've worked with several students "on the spectrum" and their families. One child I'm very close to has a brother who, like him, is labeled "high functioning" on the spectrum. An intriguing read by an "Aspie" who didn't and doesn't want to be one. Not all Aspies feel that way and there is a growing movement of resisting what society and the medical and educaitonal profession says about them and how they see themselves. A lot of aspies and HF autistics just want to be left alone to be themselves. I see value in what they say.

    Jack - my interest in memoirs has never been extensive until this trio. I'm finding it all so interesting. As I said, the settings are local, making it especially interesting for me.

    Vincent - thank you for commenting!

    I don't blame you. I don't think you'll be missing anything classic to avoid RWI and the film. I tend to ashew films made after books. When I do see one, it's because I read the book first. I am always prepared to be disappointed by the film.

    ReplyDelete
  14. A very interesting post. The previous ones as well. I always learn something new from you.

    ReplyDelete
  15. However, there is another movie in the hippie genre that I will recommend: the Swedish film Together about a commune in Stockholm, where self-expression, Marxism & free love are shaken together like a kaleidoscope and exposed to their children as well as to us the audience. It’s wonderfully balanced between satire, ridicule, farce and genuine affection.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Vincent - I've not seen Together, that I recall. Will have to add it to my Netflix queue. Sounds good. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Olga - I'm glad that you enjoy the blog and I am grateful for the comments, which are the proverbial icing. That comments have picked up in recent months due to a small but wonderful set of new readers is nothing short of fulfilling for me. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  18. Grrr, still frustrated that my comment got deleted when my browser got silly with me! I told you about that. Wish I had the energy and time away from work to reconstruct a thoughtful response, but for now suffice it to say I enjoyed this very informative and thought-provoking blog post. Makes me want to read, and add to my (sadly rather untouched) list of pleasure reading, for once life calms down.

    Thanks for a good read, PS!:) I'm most interested in how their accounts reportedly differ so drastically...

    ~UM

    ReplyDelete
  19. Hey, U !!! I love it when you comment, dear Girl!

    You will like RWS; an easy, hard-to-put-down read. I started the first chapter of the mother's book and I don't like it, so I may just cut to the juicy parts! I can't stand it when people write auto-biographies or memoirs and begin the day they were born...*yawn*. Mark Twain was right-on in not doing this, though his auto-biography is two volumes long and I'm not sure I want to tackle it. I LOVE the idea of it from every account I've read!

    You would like Look Me in the Eye, as well. Of the three, Augusten Burroughs' (aka Chris Robison) is the best. He is, of the three, the best writer.

    ReplyDelete

Thank you for taking the time to say you've been here.

I am sorry to say that I don't publish anonymous comments unless I know you through your initials, first name or blog name. I don't publish comments that have ANY kind of commercial or 'for sale' links.

You are Invited to Scroll Down! :-)

Please feel free to scroll down and look at the followers list, badges, photos and tons and tons of great links!

Search This Blog

In Memory of Bobbie

In Memory of Bobbie
Almost There

ARTLEX Art Dictionary

Kick Homophobia in The Butt: Add Your Name to the List of Supporters

Kick Homophobia in The Butt:  Add Your Name to the List of Supporters
click photo

Northampton Prop 8 Protest

Northampton Prop 8 Protest

It's Only Love

It's Only Love
See More Elopment Pictures here

Million Doors for Peace

Lines and Colors

Lines and Colors
A New Art Resource I Just Discovered!

Emily Dickinson - The Belle of Amherst

Emily Dickinson - The Belle of Amherst
"When the Amherst sphinx styled herself a pagan, she meant she didn’t believe in the biblical God. What sort of deity, if any, she did believe in is hard to pinpoint."
-- Gary Sloan, "Emily Dickinson: Pagan Sphinx,"

National Protest Against Prop 8

National Protest Against Prop 8

My Daughters

My Daughters

Code Pink

"The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."
~Martin Luther King Jr.
Love and compassion is the Universal religion. That is my religion.
~ The Dalai Lama

Blog Archive

Fair Use

I believe that the images and writing posted here fall under the "fair use" section of the U.S. copyright law http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap1.html#107, as they are intended for educational purposes and are not in a medium that is of commercial nature.

Labels

LinkWithin

Blog Widget by LinkWithin