[Click the cover below to check it out! If you don’t see a book cover below it’s probably ad-blocker settings]
“Running with Scissors is the true story of a boy whose mother (a poet with delusions of Anne Sexton) gave him away to be raised by her unorthodox psychiatrist who bore a striking resemblance to Santa Claus. So at the age of twelve, Burroughs found himself amidst Victorian squalor living with the doctor’s bizarre family, and befriending a pedophile who resided in the backyard shed. The story of an outlaw childhood where rules were unheard of, and the Christmas tree stayed up all year round, where Valium was consumed like candy, and if things got dull an electroshock- therapy machine could provide entertainment. The funny, harrowing and bestselling account of an ordinary boy’s survival under the most extraordinary circumstances.“
I’ve had this book sitting on my bookshelf for years now, often skipping over it because despite not knowing much about it [and I haven’t seen the movie] I had a feeling in my gut that this was going to be a weird one.
It doesn’t help that the only reason I had even been meaning to read it is because a friend [We’ll call them E] gave it to me years ago, with the commentary of ‘I know you had an insane, often fucked-up childhood – this is for you’ [gee thanks, E]
Well, 2020 has been a weird, fucked-up year so why not?
All I can say is… What the fuck, E?
Let’s get some stuff out of the way first. There’s a lot of legal battles surrounding this book, the movie, the author, and the family that the author wrote about. My copy of the book is apparently an older one because it still says ‘a memoir’ on the cover, but it’s since been changed to ‘a novel’ because there’s a lot of back and forth about what actually happened and what was over-dramatized. Weirdly enough though when I read over some of the complaints made against the author, the most fucked-up parts of the book aren’t the ones that the family actually contested sooo… I guess anyone who is interesting in reading this should take the story with a grain of salt because who knows what did or didn’t happen.
However, as I am also the child of a severely mentally ill mother, I recognized eerily similar situations that the author described that I had experienced myself, and others I know who grew up around mentally ill loved ones have agreed.
CW from here below; animal abuse, child abuse, mental ill abuse, sexual abuse, rape
RwS is one of those books that I wish I could go into details for every plot point [kinda like I did with Jaws] but it’s just one of those situations where… there’s just so much insanity that this review would be pages and pages long and be more confusing than anything, but I’ll do my best to hit on points that stuck out to me.
Like the synopsis touches on, Augusten is a young queer boy that is raised by an alcoholic father who could care less about his existence/has checked out years ago, and a Narcissistic and severely mentally ill mother that often is checked into mental health centers for psychotic breaks and almost killed her husband multiple times. He also has an autistic older brother that escaped as soon as he could as a teenager, leaving Augusten alone in the middle of it.
After one of his mother’s episodes that left his father severely injured and realizing their hate for each other ran so deep there was nothing truly keeping them from killing each other, they divorced. Augusten was under his mother’s custody… until she abandoned him as a 12 year old with her highly eccentric, abusive, and perverted shrink. He’s forced to live with a house full of unsupervised children in absolute squalor, who all have their own mental issues. There are also other patients of the shrink that live in the actual house, including a woman with severe germophobic OCD tendencies, who is pretty much forced to stay inside her room/be a prisoner due to the disgusting state of the rest of the house.
The kids are allowed to shit on the floor, destroy the house [literally], abuse their mother, generally everything to do with living in chaos. Some other ‘notable mentions’ are that a cat is starved to death being forcibly imprisoned under a laundry basket, an electroshock therapy machine was used for ‘playtime,’ all the kids no matter the age were given alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes [by their father].
That’s not even really the tip of the iceburg here, either.
The father of the household, Dr. Finch [Augusten’s mother’s doctor] is a man who believes that ‘man good, woman bad.’ He openly talks about male genitalia to children [in a non-educational way], and is open about how his doctor’s office has a ‘masturbatorium’ that he goes into to masturbate before/after patients and even leaving therapy sessions depending on the situation. He believes that he is god’s messenger through his bowel movements that he makes his daughters remove from the toilet to dry out in the sun for preservation. He ‘gave away’ [read: sold] his 13 year old daughter off to a patient of his that was an adult man whose world came crashing down after his incestuous relationship with his mother ended with her death – after finding out that the man was rich. His daughter was the man’s sex slave essentially. After his daughter ran home physically battered and they went to court, he kept all of the settlement money for himself and refused to get the house fixed or cleaned. We find out towards the end of the book that he also rapes his female patients as well as losing his license due to insurance fraud.
After Augusten is legally abandoned by his mother [read: Dr. Finch then legally became his guardian] he shortly thereafter is open about his sexuality that he came to terms with as a child and is introduced to another adopted child of Dr. Finch because he’s also gay, Neil. Except that at first it’s supposed to be a ‘take under wing’ situation because Neil is 32 and Augusten is 13 – until Neil starts raping Augusten and telling him that it’s ‘just gay stuff.’ Augusten has no context of their relationship being wrong besides the pain of being raped and a general feeling of ‘wrongness’, because the only person against it is Dr. Finch’s wife that everyone else abuses/shrugs off. We get multiple rape scenes described to us, including Neil orally raping Augusten so hard his head is slamming against the headboard and forcible anal sex that Augusten is vocal about disliking and how much it hurts, and then Neil uses hair conditioner as lube as sort of some ‘I’ll be gentle’ trade off.
If you’re reading this and also like ‘what the literal fuck’ – all of these horrid, graphic scenes are played off for laughs
We’re supposed to find this stuff as funny, just like the rest of the quirky scenes. But all I could do was read in horror.
The book whisks through more of Augusten’s life of his ‘relationship’ with Neil and how he understood he had been being raped this entire time and uses it to hold power over Neil while not really being able to end the relationship. His mother’s continued bad decisions [including sleeping with a minister’s wife, then an 18 year old girl, then a ‘lumberjack’ that gives STDs to three characters in the book and tries to rape Augusten] and her worsening mental breaks.
He also tries to go to college after having been a middle school dropout and how difficult that was, even in the 70’s, and sort of how he needed to leave his insane life behind and all sides of his abusive upbringing if he were going to go anywhere in life.
The end comes pretty abruptly, but I was almost relieved because I wasn’t sure how much more fucked up-ness I could handle in a book; which says a lot because I read a lot of fucked up horror and true crime.
Part of me liked Burroughs’ chaotic writing style, because it really did seem to match his life. The other part just found it a little too chaotic. I also get the sort of general theme of sometimes just needing to stop and laugh at yourself when things are crazy, but I really just couldn’t get over how horrific some of the parts of the book are and that you’re supposed to laugh or be comically squeamish about them. They weren’t funny to me. That being said, there were plenty of other parts I did laugh at. There are parts of this book that are legitimately funny. Just not a lot of the ones you’re supposed to laugh at, I guess?
I also appreciated reading the perspective of someone else that was a young queer person who had a mentally ill mother. Multiple scenes of him picking up on when his mother was about to spiral into another manic episode had me so glued to the book I realized I wasn’t breathing sometimes, because of how similar it was to my own experiences.
I don’t plan on watching the movie, and to be honest I’m not keeping this book for my bookshelves. I’m a little relieved to be able to donate it.
I also don’t really know who I’d recommend this book to. People which dark senses of humor that also had fucked up childhoods? I don’t even know. If you like weird stuff, this is definitely full of it.
I give Running with Scissors 2/5 finger wave curls
“My mother is from Cairo, Georgia. This makes everything she says sound like it went through a curling iron. Other people sound flat to my ears; their words just hang in the air. But when my mother says something, the ends curl.”
“He was like Playgirl’s Mr. October come to life. But I think I would have been happier if the only thing that came out of his mouth was the sound of a turning page.”
“I can’t be a writer,” I said. “I don’t even write. All I do so scribble stuff in notebooks. I don’t even know what a verb is or how to type. And I never read. You have to read, like, Hemingway to be a writer.”
“You don’t have to read Hemingway, he’s just some fat old drunk man.” She said.