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Writer's Misery Loves Humor

A squalid upbringing yields a grimly droll memoir

September 05, 2002|LOUISE ROUG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Augusten Burroughs smiles as yet another reader approaches his table inside Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard on a recent evening.

"I'm Mike," the fan tells Burroughs, who is signing copies of his bestselling memoir. "You know, I e-mailed you...."

Burroughs offers a few noncommittal sympathies--Mike is just one of several hundred readers who have felt a compelling need to contact the author, having read "Running With Scissors" (St. Martin's Press, 2002). At times, fans have offered Burroughs intimate confidences, at times their own unsolicited memories, in response to his story of how his unstable mother gave him away to be raised by her crazy therapist, "Dr. Finch," when he was 12 years old.

Despite its grim subject matter--Burroughs is essentially a neglected child, growing up in squalor--the book is amusing and told with little self-pity.

"The really magnetic force of the book is that feeling of not being comfortable in the world," said the 36-year-old author, explaining why readers identify with his writing.

One man, for instance, told Burroughs the story of how he was sexually abused as a child. Still, it wasn't exactly the writer's ambition to do double duty as his readers' therapist.

"All I wanted to do was to make people laugh," he says the day before his Book Soup appearance, as he fights jet lag with espressos in the garden of the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard. "In a sick way, it's great to read about someone who's worse off than yourself."

Especially if the story is humorously told. And "Running With Scissors"--whose episodes range from a faked suicide to his mother's abandoning him to pursue her "poetry career" --is a surprisingly funny book.

It also belongs to a genre that could be called: "If it doesn't kill you, it'll make a good anecdote."

Burroughs has been polishing this set of anecdotes for years, first in a daily journal he began as a young teenager to prepare for the autobiography that he--with the self confidence of a 13-year-old--knew was inevitable.

When he revisited his childhood journals as an adult, "they disgusted me--what a pathetic kid," he says. "But then I opened them randomly, and I started laughing. I was so tortured, so profoundly upset."

If there was teenage angst, there was also the arrogance of youth. "I always saw everything with a smirk." The young Burroughs was also the star of his own movie, playing to the imaginary cameras that followed him everywhere. "Tony Orlando--I dressed like that," he says.

Burroughs craved attention and glamour, but beyond everything else, normalcy. Instead of the celluloid-perfect "Eight Is Enough" childhood, though, he got a "cold sore of a past."

As the book opens, Burroughs lives with his father, a functional alcoholic, and his mother, a manic writer of bad poetry, who is crazy. "Not crazy in a let's paint the kitchen bright red! sort of way," he writes. "But crazy in a gas oven, toothpaste sandwich, I am God sort of way."

All the 9-year-old Burroughs wants is for his life to be "fabric-softener, tuna-salad-on-white, PTA meeting normal."

Instead, he is sent to live with "the Finches," in their dilapidated Victorian house, where Dr. Finch's wife can be found eating dog food, and patients roam the halls, contributing to the general mayhem.

One anecdote begins like this:

"We were young. We were bored. And the old electroshock therapy machine was just under the stairs in a box next to the Hoover...."

In the book, well-polished anecdotes include eating the Christmas tree, which was still standing in the living room in May, and visiting Dr. Finch's "masturbatorium," where the doctor retreats with pictures of Golda Meir.

Reviewer Carolyn See, in the Washington Post, warned that, though she loved it, the book wasn't for everyone. "PTA ladies and some Republican members of Congress might want to give this book a pass," she wrote, noting that the book, "has a very high gross-out factor."

"Absolute squalor, eccentric chaos" is how Burroughs describes his childhood environment in Massachusetts. "I felt like a freak, a total outsider." As a child, "it's no wonder you sit there, fastening and unfastening your belt."

Despite being a compulsive worrier as a child, Burroughs grew into a confident adult. In public appearances and in private, he fires off glib one-liners, his stories--written as well as told--bearing traces of his years in advertising.

As he undertook what he terms "the greatest recycling project," writing about his childhood, the trick was to make the work honest and funny, without getting sued.

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