You Better Not Cry: Stories for Christmas - Augusten Burroughs Running with Scissors - Augusten Burroughs

"This year, our tree was so tall it nearly touched the central cedar beam of the cathedral ceiling. It was the tallest tree we'd ever had and my father almost didn't get it. He was worried it wouldn't fit on top of the car; then he was worried it wouldn't fit inside the house. He threatened to get this stumpy, awful little tree that looked like an angry fat person. It reminded me of my mother before she went on Weight Watchers. When I mentioned this to my father -- 'Doesn't it remind you of her? Especially from the side?' -- he immediately turned away from the angry stump tree and said 'We'll get the other one.'"

~Augusten Burroughs, You Better Not Cry 

 

 

** originally posted on my old Blogger book blog, January 2013:

 

Given my need to vent my stress a lot lately, I dipped back into some of Augusten Burroughs' books, one of my favorite nonfiction writers. I find comfort in hearing the crazy stories of others being steamrolled by life and Burroughs just has a special talent for being real with a special blend of humor, poignancy, and him crying out "Give me an f-in break!" like we all want to do so many times! With the Christmas season, I picked up his holiday collection You Better Not Cry about past Christmas seasons gone horribly wrong but still managing to provide a life lesson or moment of gratitude in the midst of all out disaster or heartbreaking family / relationship moments.

 

One quality I love about Burroughs' writing, is his unabashed honesty. He writes about uncomfortable topics, topics people tend to shy away from -- divorce, unhealthy relationships, the AIDS epidemic, homosexuality, Asperger's Syndrome (which his brother has) -- but within the dark moments of his story, he finds the nugget of humorous insanity and turns them into these great reads that make you think about your own harsh realities. He gets you to laugh it out rather than take it out on someone. One of my favorite sections of You Better Not Cry is when Burroughs is describing meeting a great love of his, George, for the first time, because it brought my mind back to the beauty in the slow motion moment of meeting my love for the first time:

 

I approached the wide, grand staircase leading down. Step by step, mistake by mistake, choice by choice, everything that I had ever done, every right instead of left, had been designed to get me here. In time, I would come to believe that all along, without my ever knowing, every single time I wondered Why? the answer had been to carry me down these steps on this day so that I could reach the one moment upon which all the remaining moments of my life would be based. But at the time, I only thought that I was walking down some stairs to meet a guy.... George was vertical, not horizontal. All of him was right there from the very first moment. He didn't have "sides"; he had fathoms. If you didn't know him after one date, you couldn't know him... I could only be truly crazy if I walked away from such a find. 

 

This one is shorter than many of Burroughs' books (though all of his books seem fast reads to me), but it took me longer simply because every time I sat down to read for a bit, I was getting interrupted or sidetracked with holiday happenings. But I was not disappointed by the time I got to the last page.

 

After wrapping up with his Christmas stories, I got back into his well known memoir, Running With Scissors. I'd read this one awhile back but got a reminder of it from my Netflix queue (part of my list is movies I remember watching at one time but don't remember much about because it was so long ago so I get 'em to refresh my memory). The movie is coming up soon for delivery on my list so I got back into the book, and had a moment of "wow, forgot just how wild this story is, and it's a memoir!" This one definitely reads like a novel (my favorite style of nonfiction writing -- I love learning new things but can't stand it when SO much emphasis is put on facts that the interest for the reader is completely lost, give it to me w/o making it sound like an instruction manual!)

 

 

'I do believe that may have been my last psychotic episode. I think I finally broke through to my creative unconscious.' I marveled at my mother's view of her mental illness. To her, going psychotic was like going to an artist's retreat .... Like a sheep or a dog that can predict an earthquake, I had always been able to sense when my mother was about to go crazy. Her speech quickened, she stopped sleeping and she developed a craving for peculiar foods, like candle wax. 

In this memoir, Burroughs tells the story of how his mother suffered multiple mental breakdowns, each one increasing in intensity. During an early episode, young Augusten goes with his mother to the home of Dr. Finch, his mother's shrink, presumably just for a visit with the doctor and his family. Augusten is shocked to hear that his mother intends for him to live with Dr. Finch and his family "just for a few days, maybe a week". Those few days turn into a few years of cohabitation between Dr. Finch's home and sporadic bunking down at his mom's apartment when she allows it.

 

Poor Augusten discovers his mother finds motherhood to be a roadblock to her "creative process" as an aspiring famous poet. He ends up being adopted into the doctor's family, forced to live in this bizarre, unsanitary house where roaches roam free, cleaning of any sort is optional and children are considered adults at the age of 13 (two of the therapist's daughters are even allowed to have their choice of guardian outside of their parents, one picking a man twice her age. The other siblings have their suspicions that the man is sleeping with their sister). Augusten meets another adopted member of the family, Neil Bookman, a former patient of Dr. Finch's. Augusten and Neil first bond when both discuss being gay and Neil offers his friendship but from there Neil takes it to a special level of weird. Neil is in his late 30s and Augusten is just entering his teen years when one day Neil pretty much forces himself sexually on Augusten. This later progresses into a twisted relationship of sorts where Neil swears he feels an all consuming love / lust for Augusten but Augusten is (understandably) just a muddle of confused and mixed emotions most of the time. It's clear that, good or bad, Bookman played a pivotal role in Burroughs' formative years but good lord did he come off as a pervy creep!! Luckily Augusten's able to stay somewhat grounded with his friendship with Natalie, one Dr. Finch's biological daughters. With her, he's able to be a kid -- go to movies, sit and chat over trays of fast food, discuss and share his aspirations with her and not be judged.

 

This is not the easiest book to read  -- remember what I said about Augusten being honest in his writing? -- there's some pretty graphic stuff in this one. Burroughs goes into very specific detail about unexpectedly being deflowered by Neil, his parents' constant screaming matches, his father's distant demeanor, the sadness around his mom's psychotic breaks, all of it. His memories of his parents together were so close to my own memories of mine that I half laughed, half gasped & teared up.

 

Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? was filmed in a small white house on {Smith} campus, just down from the boathouse next to the waterfall. I had seen that movie at the Amherst Cinema and loved it completely because Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton reminded me so much of my parents. It was the closest thing I had to a home movie. 

 

But it also brought to mind a discussion my mister and I were having on a drive back from a visit to his parents. There was a 90s flashback on the radio (where the channel plays a block of nothing but 90s songs) and my husband asks "Knowing what you know now, would you go back if you could?" Thinking about it, I told him I do remember the 90s having a lot of happy memories for me, even with my less than stable environment, but the problem is, 90s grunge rock songs helped me get through the dark times. I love them so much now because I can look at everything as a whole, remember what was going on when I needed that song so much, and see myself now and look at what I survived, feeling that sense of pride that I wasn't broken. I still get up and find something that makes me laugh or smile nearly every day. Those dark times formed my inner strength and my sense of humor that keep me going present day. I sense something similar in Burroughs' stories. I guess sometimes there's a part of me that would like to go back, but then ... wouldn't that ruin the nostalgia? Nostalgia has the advantage of only giving you the good. Would I really want to revisit the parts I'm so glad to be free of now?

 

It sounds like hell to those who were lucky enough to bypass that kind of life, but coming from a somewhat ugly past myself, I can say you'd be surprised what can become normal lol. What your mind and body can learn to tolerate. And what it can't.  I'll admit -- I do have a twisted, dark sense of humor (not serial killer twisted, just fun twisted -- like Tim Burton) that I'm sure is a coping mechanism I developed years ago. Thankfully I found a man who fell in love with it and shared his own similar twistedness with me. Here's hoping I can one day channel my own stories into books half as entertaining and moving as Mr. Burroughs!

 

*** PS. I thought the "bible dips" mentioned in the book were a fun idea -- you basically use the Bible like a Magic 8 ball. You ask God a question you need answered (via the Bible), open the book to a random page and let your finger fall where it may. The first word your finger falls on is your answer -- though it'll take some deciphering on your part as to how that word relates to your situation. Any of my readers ever do this? *****