I read Running With Scissors in a single day, unable to put the book down. I found it quite funny, a drily witty examination of impossible levels of familial disorder and dysfunction. For those of us who grew up in households approximating what passes for normal in our society, it is difficult to react to this story as anything other than a comedy of errors.
But Running With Scissors isn’t a comedy, or even a novel. Author Augusten Burroughs offers it to us as a memoir, an autobiography, a recollection of historical facts.
So this is a peek into madness, the recollections of a pre-teen and teen growing up under bizarre circumstances. His father is emotionally unavailable and then completely absent. His mother is beyond self-absorbed, when she’s not having a psychotic episode. Burroughs winds up living in the household of his mother’s psychiatrist, which is much more a web of interlocking neuroses than a family. The older teens around him are immature and out of control; the adults around him are adults in years only, certainly not in emotional maturity. Co-dependency rules.
Growing up far too fast and far too soon has its consequences. Burroughs smokes, drinks, uses drugs and has sex. None of this is glorified in any way. All of these behaviors are depicted as symptoms of the massive dysfunction of his developmental environment. The teenage Burroughs has the freedom many teens think they want, and the direct result is an acute awareness of his own need for adult guidance.
Readers of differing backgrounds will find very different benefits from reading the book, which is probably why it’s been on the New York Times Bestsellers list and has been made into a movie. Some will be entertained by what seems to them to be a home life that couldn’t possibly be real. Many will gain a new appreciation for the normalcy of their own upbringing. A few may be comforted to learn they’re not the only ones raised in the midst of a mental hurricane.
Of course, I wouldn’t be reviewing Running With Scissors here if it hadn’t been challenged somewhere by misguided adults who mistakenly believed they were doing minors a favor by keeping this book from them. Currently (March 2010), in the frequently censorious state of Florida, some parents in the Hillsborough County School District want the book dropped from a high school reading list and removed from all school libraries in the district. Committees at each of the nine high schools in the district reviewed the book and made varying recommendations. In four high schools the committees voted to retain the book with a “mature readers” sticker on the front, three decided to require parental permission, and two voted to ban the book altogether. Ironically, a book about adults who can’t act as adults is being banned by some supposed adults who do not understand the value of literature, don’t understand the choices teenagers are realistically faced with, and simply cannot grasp the distinction between private choices and public policy.