Augusten Burroughs: Writing saved my sanity

Raised by his mother's analyst, who fed him on dog food, he survived to produce two hugely successful books, now made into a film. Liz Hoggard meets him

Sunday 04 February 2007 01:00

"Sometimes the family you're born with isn't the family you live with," Augusten Burroughs tells me. "Sometimes you have to cobble together your family from the scraps along the way." Burroughs should know. He survived the most dysfunctional childhood imaginable to become a literary phenomenon.

His volumes of memoir, Running with Scissors and Dry, topped The New York Times best-seller list. To date, he has sold two million copies and has a huge fanbase in Britain. A Hollywood film based on his childhood, starring Annette Bening and Gwyneth Paltrow, opened on Friday.

Burroughs grew up in Massachusetts in the 1970s. His father was an alcoholic, his mother a manic-depressive poet. When he was 12, she decided it would be best for him to be adopted by her psychiatrist, Dr Finch. Augusten found himself in a chaotic Addams Family-style home in which there were no rules and no school. The Finches ate dog food, consumed Valium like candy and reverentially treated the turds in the toilet bowl as "messengers from heaven".

All this is told with huge, bawdy irreverence in Running with Scissors. But there was a dark side, too. Under Dr Finch's treatment, his mother suffered psychotic episodes. Meanwhile the doctor's 34-year-old adopted son, Neil Bookman, openly began a sexual relationship with Burroughs. Finally he ran away to New York aged 17, changed his name from Chris Robison to Augusten Burroughs and got a job in advertising. In 2002 he published Running with Scissors, which was an overnight success.

What makes his writing so extraordinary is that, unlike other successful chroniclers of misery lit, Burroughs has no time for self-pity. "From early on, I learned to look at a situation and find out what was funny about it. It's almost like a mental game."

Today he sees the Finch household as a semi-cult. But Running with Scissors is not a hatchet job. All the characters have real charm, from the monstrous Dr Finch to Augusten's hilariously selfish mother. But he is quick to point out that there is nothing funny about mental illness. "If you've ever lived with someone who is mentally ill, it is all in the eyes. They're not there. That's what Annette nails so brilliantly in the film."

Today Burroughs seems remarkably sane. Even the fact that Running with Scissors is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit fails to dampen his spirits. He lives with his partner, Dennis, who is now his manager, with their two French bulldogs in a country mansion in Massachusetts.

But the legacy of his toxic childhood persists. He suffers from obsessive compulsive tendency. And the battle to feel lovable is ongoing. "I can't imagine what it's like to have parents who are actively engaged in your life, and interested and supportive."

Running with Scissors ends on a note of reconciliation. His mother breaks with Dr Finch, his father has stopped drinking, Augusten has a top job working as a copywriter. But the story doesn't end there. For 11 years Burroughs was an alcoholic. In Dry he recounts how he once filled 27 industrial sacks with empty whisky bottles from his apartment. At 30 he was sent to rehab and underwent intense therapy and had to recover repressed memories.

Dry is a remarkable book: laugh-out-loud funny, but also profound. Through therapy he comes to see Bookman as a paedophile, not a glamorous ex-lover. He tells me: "I always thought that because I was a willing participant, it was not sexual abuse. But as I got older, so many problems came up, such as an inability to be intimate with people and to maintain friendships, that I was able to trace back a trail of psychological evidence to him."

After rehab, Burroughs was sober for 18 months, then relapsed when his lover died of Aids. "I developed heart and neurological problems and was really bloated. I looked like a body that was fished out of the river. I knew I was probably going to die but I was OK with that because I'd had a huge life. Not a good life, but a big life."

His lover left him a piece of jewellery with the inscription: "I'm watching you. Now stop drinking." In fact, writing saved Burroughs. From the age of nine, he dictated a diary into a tape recorder and, from 12, he wrote everything down. Then in 1999 he wrote a novel called Sellevision, a satire on home-shopping. "I just started typing and it made me laugh for the first time in two years." He wrote the novel in seven days; on day four he stopped drinking. "I realised it was getting in the way."

Although Burroughs never revealed the identity of his adopted family, reporters found out the psychiatrist's real name: Turcotte. The real Dr Finch died in 2000, but in 2005 the family brought a $2m lawsuit claiming libel and invasion of privacy. In a magazine article, Theresa Turcotte, a sister, said Running with Scissors was "filled with things that she believed were categorically untrue, false or had been wildly embellished".

With his father dead and estranged from his mother, Burroughs now lives next door to his older brother, John, who has Asperger's syndrome. John is a ghostly presence in the books. He had left home by the time Augusten moved in with the Finches, but recently he revealed that Bookman had tried to molest him, too. And John is now a writer. Augusten encouraged him to write an account of living with Asperger's, and last week there was a bidding war in New York for the manuscript. "It sold for a humungous amount of money and it's going to be the book of the spring."

It's hard to see Burroughs as a cynical manipulator of his past. He is incredibly moved by the effect his books have on people. "People come up and say: 'I've had that exact same childhood'. They relate to the sense of abandonment and isolation." And he's very ambitious about the next book. "I know where I want to be as a writer and I'm just not anywhere near there."

And life just keeps on happening. Recently his dog Bentley woke up unable to walk. So he spends most days caring for a paralysed, incontinent dog. "The constant caring for him is very satisfying because I can see the transformation in him."

The funny thing is that Burroughs never wanted literary fame. As a child, he wanted to be a TV presenter or a model. "My mother was a writer. I just associated writing with mental illness and unhappiness and poverty. But I always wrote because it was efficient. It was a way to remove the steam and the pressure. I can't imagine my life if I hadn't written. I wouldn't be functional."

Biography: From abuse to acclaim

Born Christopher Robison in 1965 in Pittsburgh, son of John G Robison, late head of the philosophy department at the University of Massachusetts, and writer Margaret Robison. Left school after sixth grade. Moved to New York at 17 and got a job in advertising, before publishing Running with Scissors in 2002.

2003 Releases Dry, about alcohol rehabilitation. Also a collection of short stories, Magical Thinking.

2005 His first novel, Sellevision, is published in the UK. Ranked 15th in Entertainment Weekly's "25 Funniest People in America".

2007 Publishes new volume of essays, Possible Side Effects. Release of the film Running with Scissors, starring Annette Bening.

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