Sunday, August 12, 2007

Running with Scissors on Towson's campus

I'm starting a new job at Towson University, teaching creative writing, including creative non-fiction, and this semester the university has invited a special guest in the world of memoir: Augusten Burroughs, author of "Running with Scissors." Consequently, I read his book. Praised for its humor and candor, the book tells of Burrough's throroughly insane childhood: the fracturing of his family; his years living with the perverted, stupid and cruel family of his mother's shrink; and incidences of sexual abuse that masquerade as loving sex with an older man.

Overall, I found the book dull: its humor was overly dependent on cultural references; the writing was verbose. Scenes in the book did trouble me, not for their brutal emotional and physical realities, but because I didn't believe them. The book's claims seemed to me so ridiculous I began to think that "Running with Scissors" was itself a clever satire of our recent spate of "woe-is-me" childhood memoirs. Time and time again, I found myself thinking, "well, this is made up." Turns out I'm late to that debate. Read here for Buzz Bissinger's excellent account in Vanity Fair about the shrink's family and the lawsuit they filed against Burroughs and his publisher for defamation. The Boston Globe has also reported on the troubling question of how memoirists treat their subjects. You'll note that Burroughs claims his book is accurate, and that the parties involved settled their lawsuit out of court.

As a former journalist, I'm all for memoirs that are accurate. I appreciate that emotional truth -- or literary truth -- can be different from fact. But emotional truths can be realized through literary techniques that do not trample on reality or on the lives of others (see the work of hundreds of other memoirists). Every effort must be given to treat the subjects of the memoir fairly. Burroughs goes so far as to have his mother-character accuse the psychiatrist-character of rape. Maybe his real mother did that, and yes the psychiatrist is dead, but why traffic in rumor and hearsay regarding such a serious crime? Read Bissinger, a Pulitzer-Prize winner and the author of "Friday Night Lights," and you might well see Burroughs as cruel rather than fair. I don't know who is more aggrieved: the boy who grew up with insanity or the family he depicted years later. But I do know that I'm weary of reading the woe-is-me memoir and wish someone would write a satire that might give us all some perspective on -- and perhaps relief from -- this genre.

Augusten Burroughs speaks at Towson University on Oct. 18.


Sheri Venema said...

Nice post. Aren't you supposed to be unpacking?

Downs said...

Well, my wife arrives soon to help, and she's an unpacking-organizing fiend. I thought she'd like it if I left some of the boxes for her.

Art said...

Welcome to Maryland and Towson University. We aren't Montana, but then again, what is? Enjoyed your post on the upcoming appearance of Mr. Burroughs at our school. Should be interesting to see how it is handled.

Downs said...

Thanks, Art. Thus far, I'm quite impressed with Towson, and I love Baltimore. Both seem to be full of welcoming, kind and smart people. I'm thrilled to be here in the city by the Chesapeake Bay, and even happier to be teaching creative writing.