Memoir Noir

Augusten Burroughs shares some dirty little secrets in Magical Thinking

When Augusten Burroughs was 12 years old, his not-so-sane mother gave him up and sent him to live with her even-less-sane shrink. At his new home, the teenage Burroughs entertained himself with prescription drugs, an old electroshock machine and sexual dalliances with a man 20 years his elder. He never finished high school, and when he finally got a break in the form of a good job, his alcoholism brought him back to the brink. So he completed rehab. And then he tried something out.

"The day I got out, I didn't know what to do with myself," he says, "so I started writing, just as a coping mechanism to navigate my way into what I was feeling. I did it to know where I was."

If Magical Thinking, his new collection of true stories, receives a response anything like that of his Running with Scissors, Burroughs knows exactly where he'll be for the foreseeable future: atop the best-seller list. Scissors, his hilarious tale about his horrifying childhood, established him as a dark humorist of the finest grade, and it stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for more than 70 weeks. In Dry, his second memoir, he told about his struggle with alcoholism in a similarly cynical, harrowing and humorous way.

Burroughs dishes on sex with priests and dispatching 
telemarketers and rodents in Magical Thinking.
Dennis Pilsits
Burroughs dishes on sex with priests and dispatching telemarketers and rodents in Magical Thinking.

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While Dry and Scissors careen along, propelled by the sheer emotionality of their topics, Magical Thinking "bounces," to use Burroughs's term, from one anecdote to the next. The difficulties of his past are at each tale's periphery, but lighter, day-to-day tales are the book's meat. One describes Burroughs's graduation from the Barbizon School of Modeling, another his bungling attempt to kill a rodent, and another his unique method of dealing with a telemarketer (tell him you'll buy if he sends you a picture of his penis).

Nothing is censored; Magical Thinking, like Scissors, indulges in explicit detail, sexual and otherwise. (Burroughs devotes an entire chapter to divulging how he's received oral sex three different times from Catholic priests.) Yet Magical Thinking is harmless. Burroughs's stories aren't gratuitous, they're just the truth. While reading, you feel as though you've received someone else's personal e-mail by mistake, and you keep reading because the voyeur in you can't stop.

Burroughs likens reader response to his tales to people slowing down to view a car wreck. And when he writes, he's just like that driver, alone in his car and unaware he's about to become the center of attention. "I write for me," he says. "If you think about people reading you, then it makes you self-conscious and you can't write."

Magical Thinking may just be, for Burroughs and his readers, proof that he doesn't need a totally screwed up life to produce good material. The book's last chapters reveal the writer's new life: He's living happily with his longtime partner, Dennis, building a home, and hasn't had a drink in years. Running with Scissors will soon be a movie, and he's thinking about starting work on a novel.

"I spent my twenties lying and hiding," he says. "It's a lot of work to keep secrets," he says. Getting it all out, it seems, is easier than keeping it in. Catharsis for him, candy for us.

 
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