Augusten Burroughs: Mad, brilliant and dangerous to know
At the age of 12, his mother sent him to live with a deranged, scatalogically obsessed psychiatrist; he was fed drugs, sexually abused and became a vicious alcoholic. Now, his cult memoir has been taken up by Hollywood and Augusten Burroughs claims he's happy at last. But can you believe a word he says?
Sunday 29 January 2006
Twenty years ago, when he was washing up in a steak house in Northampton, Massachusetts, Augusten Burroughs had a vision of his two possible futures. Both took place in New York City. In the first, he was performing a sexual act with a police officer in the back of a patrol car, having agreed a performance-related fee, not to exceed $15. In the second, he was attending a premiere in Manhattan, on the brink of a brilliant career in the arts.
It would be fair to assume, I suggest, as he picks me up from my guest house in his new platinum Mercedes, that the prospect of intimacy with the NYPD has substantially diminished.
"It's looking that way," says Burroughs, as we drive across his hometown of Amherst, two hours west of Boston. He apologises for having had to postpone this meeting in order to fly to Hollywood to attend the first screening of the film version of his captivating memoir Running With Scissors. Directed by Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy, it stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Brian Cox and Alec Baldwin. Burroughs makes a cameo appearance. He is a writer at that most intoxicating point of success - having demonstrated his extraordinary talent to People Who Read, he is about to become known to a far wider international constituency.
Augusten Burroughs no longer eats dust, or boils his small change; he is no longer in the care of a woman who eats dog biscuits, and an adopted father who divines the future by examining his own excrement on the dining table. Burroughs is 40 years old and shaven-headed - a considerate, modest man who appears initially unremarkable. But the longer I spend with him, the more I get the feeling that the curious world he creates in his writing is not simply the result of his passive experience or invention, but another manifestation of a kind of vortex of weirdness that emanates from the writer himself.
At the small hotel where I am staying in Amherst - a college town which, when Burroughs is not in it, is peopled by citizens of tremendous normality - the female proprietor spends her afternoons watching videos of Liverpudlian psychic Derek Acorah in Most Haunted, consoling her husband, who has lost both legs, and is swiftly brought to tears by many of Acorah's favourite topics, such as injustice and sudden death. There has been substantial ghost activity in the hotel, my landlady says, and the epicentre is my room. I blame all of this on Burroughs, who seems to generate disorder in the same way that some teenage girls attract poltergeists.
On the satellite radio in his car, James Alexander Gordon is reading full-time scores from the Vauxhall Conference. Burroughs admits that he has wished for his impending world fame with an intensity that amounts to a kind a prayer - like a football supporter, I tell him, who strives to manipulate events by listening to the radio commentary in their lucky socks.
"I do absolutely believe that you can will things into being," he says. "I have experienced that over and over again in my life. If you decide on something, and will it, then the universe conspires with you to make it happen. And that takes a real leap of faith, because it is almost contrary to logic."
"Well, OK, very. But my whole life is an example of this. Who was I to think that I could be a well-known writer?" asks Burroughs, who dropped out of school at 12. "The whole idea was ridiculous. I believe it was through sheer force of will that that happened."
He pulls up in front of the house that he shares with his partner, Dennis Pilsits - formerly a graphic designer, and now Burroughs's full-time financial manager - and their two French bulldogs, Bentley and The Cow. This large country property has parquet floors and immaculately tasteful furnishings; we sit in the living-room, whose windows have spectacular views across snow-covered fields. Everything in here looks new. The building was only finished a couple of weeks ago.
Burroughs also has an apartment in New York, but I get the sense that this house, with its perfect order and cleanliness, stands as a symbol of the new life that has now replaced the squalid insanity of his childhood, as related in Running With Scissors, which was first published in 2002.
Burroughs was born in Pittsburgh, but moved as an infant to Amherst, where his alcoholic father John was a professor of mathematics at Massachusetts University. He describes his mother, Margaret, an aspirant writer, as manic-depressive. She went crazy, in Burroughs' words, "not in a let's paint the kitchen red sort a way; crazy in a gas oven, toothpaste sandwich, I am God sort of way. Gone were the days when she would stand on the deck lighting lemon-scented candles without then having to eat the wax."
This last observation is typical of the deranged elegance of Augusten Burroughs' work. "I handed him one of my mirrors," he writes in Running With Scissors, recalling a haircut he gave someone in his brief and undistinguished period as a would-be stylist. "Unfortunately, I had many."
He has his father's acute intelligence, and writes like the poet his mother was - and still is - striving to be: dry, surreal, and with great wit. Burroughs' work is, at the same time, unspeakably sad.
"My mother married my father because he threatened to kill her if she didn't," he says. "She had a lot of threats." Margaret was treated by a highly unorthodox psychotherapist who, according to Burroughs, resembled Santa Claus. In Running With Scissors, he is given the name Dr Finch.
"He gave her all kinds of drugs that exacerbated her condition. After I was 11 it got worse and worse. She had major hallucinations - visual, auditory and nasal. And she engaged in this wild, manic behaviour, writing non-stop, producing this nonsensical poetry. She would just explode."
"That doesn't sound much fun."
"No, but in some ways it was exciting. The lights were always on until 4am. There were people in the house all the time. She would be playing opera full blast, writing what she believed would be the greatest poem in the world."
"I would be on the other side of the room..."
"Needing a mother?" (omega)
"Yes. And having no access to a mother because she was so determined to be a writer. I don't believe she deliberately set out to harm me."
But his mother was mad, as the word is commonly understood, and when her son was 12, and she had separated from her husband, she put Augusten in the legal care of Dr Finch who, as described in Running With Scissors, was madder. In order to get the boy out of school and into his large, dysfunctional family, Finch, Burroughs says, persuaded the boy to take an overdose of whisky and barbiturates.
"He said it would be like a vacation."
"Were you not asking yourself, even at 12, what kind of a doctor gets a child drunk, drugged and admitted to hospital to have his stomach pumped, in order to get him out of the state education system?"
"Looking back, I feel his household was almost a cult. This was a doctor who was extremely charismatic. Everyone admired him and took his word as law. Part of me felt: Now you are in the pool of truth. This is the way to live."
"And the other part?"
"The other part said, this is absolutely crazy."
The doctor had six children, and Burroughs became especially close to two of Finch's daughters, named in the book as Natalie and Hope.
"We were young," he writes at one point in the book. "We were bored. And the old electroshock machine was just under the stairs, in a box next to the Hoover."
Augusten Burroughs was sexually molested for several years, from the age of 13, by another of Finch's adopted sons, known in Running With Scissors by the alias Neil Bookman, who was 20 years Burroughs' senior. Though the writer says that their relationship was consensual, in so far as the adjective has any meaning in this context, his description of his sexual initiation is horrific.
He says that Bookman also attempted to assault his older brother, who lives next door to Burroughs, here in Amherst.
"How many people knew that you were having a physical relationship with this man?"
"Did your father mind?"
"He was disgusted."
"But not disgusted enough to phone the police?"
"My father's reaction was to withdraw himself from the situation. He washed his hands of me."
Burroughs changed his name from Chris Robison when he was 18. He took his new surname from the office equipment company (unaware, he says, that it was founded by the grandfather of dissolute legend William Burroughs). He adopted the middle name Xon, a programming term to denote that a computer is ready to receive information. Augusten Xon Burroughs, I suggest, is not the sort of pseudonym that would occur to a career dishwasher. It is a name that proclaims a certain ambition.
"I changed my name for two reasons. I wanted to be a new person. I was so furious with my father that I couldn't stand the thought of carrying on his last name. And then, when I tried to get into advertising, nobody ever remembered me. I knew I needed a name people wouldn't forget. Changing my name involved appearing before a judge in Boston; it took 60 seconds and it totally worked. I have always had ambition. But my ambition as a child was not professional. My ambition then was to find some happiness."
"Meaning what, exactly?"
"Well to me it would have meant, at that time, waking up in the morning and not having the first emotion be dread. And the second be fear. And the third be worry. I wanted to be happy. That's what I was ambitious for. And that is how I got through my childhood without killing myself."
It's Finch's wife, called Agnes in the book, who eats Purina dog chow. At one point, according to Burroughs, the family laid all of their living-room furnishings - desks, sofas and tables - out in the garden, and kept them there for months. It is far from the wildest scene in Running With Scissors, but the outdoor furniture somehow stays with you, as the defining image of the dysfunction and mayhem in his young life.
"Where were the social services?"
"I wondered that repeatedly," he says. "There was a compulsory education law but I was living under the supervision of a physician, and at that time a doctor carried great authority."
Burroughs tells me that the real Dr Finch died in 2000 of a heart condition and Bookman, to the best of his knowledge, has also been laid to rest. But some of the living are not so happy. In a $2m (£1.14m), lawsuit, filed in July 2005 at Middlesex Superior Court in Cambridge, Massachusetts, six members of the family of a Northampton psychiatrist, Rodolph H Turcotte, allege that Running With Scissors has caused them to suffer defamation, invasion of privacy and emotional distress. Rodolph Turcotte died in 2000, of heart disease. The website maintained by his family mentions his fondness for wandering round town in a Santa Claus hat. His psychiatric licence was revoked before his death after he was accused of handing over guardianship of his 13-year-old daughter to one of his patients.
Burroughs, like everyone else embroiled in this ongoing litigation, has been advised not to comment on the case, though he does remark on the relatively long period of time that it took the Turcotte family to file their suit.
To most readers, the idea that Augusten Burroughs might have improved on reality in the minutely observed detail of Running With Scissors or its 2003 sequel Dry - his diary of recovery from alcoholism - is unlikely to be of overwhelming concern. The really incredible thing is that he hasn't been sued by more people: other potential litigants include his cleaning lady, the Mormon church and his father, who is described at one point as suffering from psoriasis that "gave him the appearance of a dried mackerel that could stand upright and wear tweed". (omega)
I don't doubt Burroughs on the defining issues of his turbulent childhood, like his being given away by his mother, or his abuse at the hands of Bookman: he's just too livid about what happened to him. His mother also has a website - www.margaretrobison.com - where she has finally published her poems, some of which deal with the stroke she suffered in 1990, since when she has been confined to a wheelchair. Burroughs says that he and his mother are "estranged". What this comes down to, he agrees when pressed, is that she emails him, but he won't see her.
"This woman - who never did anything to stop a paedophile molesting me when I was a teenager - has not earned the right to expect me to change one lightbulb in her apartment. She gave me away when I was 12, and she does not get to have me back."
He has never called his work autobiography, but memoir, a term whose standard definition (an account based on the writer's knowledge of people, places and things) doesn't explicitly demand rigorous adherence to fact. "His life is in his books," is the phrase his publishers use. And - as he mentions following an exchange I initiate for the first, and I hope the last, time in my life: "Just how many undertakers have you actually had sex with?" "One" - real characters from his past have been duplicated, or merged with others.
"Do you remember the time we were in the car together and you said you were gonna kill the thing that meant the most to my mother and you glared at me and sped up, heading for a rock?" he asks his father, in Dry. "And I had to jump out of the fucking car? When I was like nine, you motherfucker."
"You make crap up," he quotes his father as replying. "And I'm tired of it."
He then describes his father grinding a lit cigarette into his forehead, an action which, he says, resulted in the scar between his eyes which I, like other people who have met Augusten Burroughs, try very, very hard to make out.
"I can't see a mark there. Did he really burn you?"
"I'm not sure to this day. I think so. I hope not. But my father was sadistic. He was emotionally cruel."
The reason I think Burroughs is really unusual as a writer, I tell him, is that - given the circumstances of his upbringing which, lawsuit or no lawsuit, were highly disturbing to him - you would expect him to have got one book out of it. But only one.
"Like someone who has been in a plane crash in Ecuador," I suggest, "and survived in the jungle by drinking their own urine and eating mangled body parts. Anyone could write about that."
"I see what you're saying," Burroughs replies.
But Dry is another tour de force, on a subject that few of us might think we would be very interested in: the recovery from alcoholism of a man in the advertising business. Most of us have read The Lost Weekend. We don't need to read it again. And why should we care about copywriters, when we have ample proof, every 15 minutes on commercial television, of their patronising attitude to us? The trouble about Burroughs is that he writes, quite literally, like a dream. (omega)
Describing one of his favourite bars in the days before he was despatched to rehab, following an "intervention" by his bosses, he says: "They use the tiny green olives here. I like that. I despise the big fat olives. They take up too much space in the glass."
He got into advertising at the age of 19, having graduated from a household where, as he told one of Finch's daughters, "My only skills are oral sex and restraining psychotics."
At his interview, "I never mentioned that I didn't know how to spell or that I had been giving blowjobs since I was 13. That's the great thing about advertising. People don't care where you came from. You could have a crawl space under your kitchen floor filled with little girls' bones and, as long as you can dream up a better Chuck Wagon commercial, you're in."
He worked for both Ogilvy & Mather and Saatchi & Saatchi, among others, and you can see something of the skill of a copywriter in his chapter headings, almost any of which would serve as excellent book titles, among them: "Imagine My Shock", "Just Add Water" and "Beating Raoul".
In Magical Thinking, his collection of bizarre essays published in the UK earlier this year, he recalls an ad he prepared for US rail operator Amtrak. The great thing about trains, his slogan proclaimed, was: "You can drink Chardonnay 10ft from an alligator - or cross the desert in your pyjamas." The client "glared at me and said: 'I don't want you working on our business.'"
"Likewise, bitch," Burroughs replied. "And from now on, I fly everywhere."
His thirst used to be impressive even by British standards: he filled 27 industrial rubbish sacks with the empty Dewars' whisky bottles that were lying around his apartment before April 1995, when he entered what he refers to as a "gay rehab centre" in Duluth, Minnesota. "I thought, 'I don't belong here. I make $200,000 a year. The CEO of Coca-Cola once complimented my tie.'"
He was sober for 18 months, then suffered a lengthy relapse, during which he took crack cocaine: "A feeling," Burroughs told me, "that you do not want to have. I got sober again, for the last time, in 1999."
Though it has become his living, he seems bewildered by his own biography.
"All I ever wanted was what I have now - to be in a stable relationship and have dogs. And yet all my life I have been like a magnet for traumatic experiences."
As if his life wasn't exciting enough - with the possibility of appearing at the Academy Awards ceremony, and in court - this month sees the UK publication of his first novel, Sellevision, a satire on US shopping channels, which begins with a presenter having a humiliating mishap with his dressing gown. Sellevision, which was his first published title in the US, in 2000, is what would customarily be described as a highly entertaining romp.
"I am not under the illusion," he says, "that this book will win prizes."
It's fun, but not his masterpiece. The circumstances of its composition were less than light-hearted.
"I'd just relapsed after leaving rehab," he recalls. "I never changed my sheets for months, and I was a bed-wetter. Then I wrote the first sentence of Sellevision: 'You exposed your penis on national television, Max.' And that night I started drinking a little later than usual. Then I stopped altogether, because alcohol was getting in the way of the writing. I wrote the first draft in a week. And after that my life changed. I thought:I have written a fucking book. It may not be a great book, but now I will continue to learn, and be inspired, and improve. I became a different person when I wrote Sellevision. That's when my life changed."
I have to confess to being surprised by Augusten Burroughs, in his generosity and his thoughtfulness. He's almost shy; I'd expected him to be slick, calculating and engrossed in his own image, in the manner of his fellow American novelist Chuck Palahniuk. In his books - especially the more recent ones, like Dry and Magical Thinking - Burroughs tends to depict himself as a fastidious egotist; a man who you would struggle to out-bastard.
"In Dry," I tell him, "someone says that, when you drank you were ugly, mean, and vicious. Do you still have those qualities in you?"
"I would say so."
Much of his humour, certainly, retains a dark, un-American, politically incorrect edge.
"I would be an excellent quadriplegic," he once wrote. "Not like those awful, independent cripples who are always talking about how abled they are. I would sit in my wheelchair and moan until somebody came to assist me, possibly carrying a beverage."
It's hard to think that the memory of his paralysed mother did not come into his mind at this point. He does recall "stomping on sidewalk cracks pretending that the line dividing the pavement from the sidewalk was my crazy mother's spine". Vengefulness is an identifiable part of his character, and he has a capacity to be vicious when slighted. Try him on his hair loss.
"Women smirk at baldness. How adorable would they find it if they began to lose their breasts in their late twenties? If both tits just shrunk up - unevenly I might add - and eventually turned into wine-cork nubs. Then it would be a different story. Then men would get the pity that they deserve. As far as I'm concerned, baldness is the male breast cancer only worse, because almost everyone gets it. True, it's not life threatening. Just social-life threatening. But in New York City, there is no difference."
You could trace this school of writing back through Thomas De Quincy who, in his essay titled "Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts", argued that a fire which allows itself to be extinguished should be hissed, like "any other performer that arouses public expectations which it later disappoints".
But there are moments in Burroughs that go beyond satire, and enter the realm of real spite.
"There is an episode in Magical Thinking where you recall an argument with a woman advertising colleague in Chicago. You tell her: 'Just because your husband is screwing your daughter at home is no reason to take it out on people at the office,' and then fantasise about willing her under the wheels of a bus."
"Were you making that up?"
"You said that to her."
"And later, when she had an aneurysm and dropped dead, holding an armful of storyboards, you say: 'That's better than a bus.'"
"It's awful, I know. I do have a cruel streak. I am not proud of that."
I think a lot of that spirit dates back to his drinking. Now, as he says, he has mastered the skills of survival.
"You mentioned a plane crash," he says. "If I was in a plane that was going down, I wouldn't sit there praying, or holding the hand of the person next to me. I would land the plane."
He is understandably proud of his transition from obsessive-compulsive behaviour, as exemplified by his constant desire to boil money, to the tranquil existence he now leads in his spotless mansion on the hill. That said, when we drive back into Amherst to have lunch, I can't help noticing that he washes his hands both on leaving the house and on entering the restaurant: a sensible precaution I'm sure, but a reminder of the mad life he's left behind him. I still believe that, were he a villager in Southern Italy, Burroughs would be widely shunned as having the malocchio. He has not entirely shaken off his own superstitions, and does say at one point that he visualises Jesus in the sky accompanied by a baby cow, which he feels he has to stroke in his imagination, to guarantee luck.
"I know you wrote about that as an idea," I say to him. "But do you actually do it?"
After I leave him, in the late afternoon, I drive down to New York and board a plane which has to empty its fuel tanks in the Atlantic before making an emergency landing in Newfoundland. It's something I have never experienced before, and a stewardess tells me it's the first time that this has happened to her in her six years of flying. When I get to London there is an email from Burroughs who - possibly having forgotten to stroke the calf while I was with him - got home to discover that the water pipes in his new house had - to use his word - "exploded", soaking his sofas, rugs and chairs, and leaving the whole of the lower level in ruins.
Which must have come as a particular shock because Burroughs had told me, in the restaurant, that his current existence was "real, solid and stable", and appeared finally to be free of the turbulence that has followed him like a curse. As I left him, I was struck by the thought that Augusten Burroughs's life - for the very first time - is at exactly the place that he always dreamed it would be. But his furniture, at the time of writing, is out in the garden.
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