This book is a memoir, written by Augusten Burroughs, of a period of time in his youth (age 9 through 17) where a rough home situation of a mother and father constantly yelling at each and giving little attention to their two boys (one of which is the author) goes from bad to worse.
After a divorce, Augusten’s life with his mother is no picnic. She is emotionally unstable, dreaming of being a famous writer, chain-smoking, wanting more than she is mentally able to gain from her existence. She is seeing a psychiatrist named Dr. Finch almost every day and Augusten is often left sitting in the waiting room for hours. The doctor makes house calls when Mrs. Burroughs is extremely agitated. Eventually, still unable to cope, she arranges for Augusten to go live with Dr. Finch and his household on a part time basis to enable her to clear her head.
This is more than a dysfunctional family situation over at the Finches. It is a home where the doctor’s patients are often brought in to live with the already large family of daughters. Augusten is shocked at the disarray as he is meticulous in his own person and environment.
There is much for the reader to be shocked about as well. The way the author presents this household is that everyone does as they please and takes responsibility for themselves, which of course, they do not do. The doctor and his long-suffering wife, Agnes, appear to waltz around each other through their days, and Agnes appears to be constantly treated as a maid by all.
There are some points in the narrative where I–and this is perhaps because of my own relatively normal, middle-class, loving-parent, style of upbringing–began to doubt the veracity of the narrator’s expositions of life with the Finches. I checked and sure enough, the family upon which he was basing his story had sued him for slander after the book came out. There was some sort of settlement, Burroughs clinging to his position that very little was hyperbole or sensationalized for publications, and yet it changed the way I read the story.
Memoir is of course based on personal point of view and thus, perspective. Some allowance of course would be given to recollection of events–and I suspected that memory would change events as well, but Burroughs insists that he kept journals at the time and stuck closely to actual events. Time also would influence the story as an adult looking back at a very strange and unsettling childhood.
The problem I had, even taking all this into account, and allowing that humor is often a manner of coping, was that I still did not empathize with any of the characters, even the narrator. I think that while we can often laugh at the strangest and most traumatic events in retrospect (think of Mary Tyler Moore’s “Chuckles the Clown” episode), this wasn’t a series of laughable events, or wasn’t presented as such. Though the timeline is linear, we seem to hop from strange event to strange event, almost like a stand-up comedian telling a string of bad jokes.
If this book had been presented as fiction, maybe some of the scenarios would be approachable as humorous. But there was an underlying disassociation by the author from his story that brought out different emotions in me. He does not seem hurt by all that has happened to him, yet his attempt at humor comes off more as a shocking story at the expense of others. No one seems real so it is harder to accept them as such.
Meanwhile, had it been fiction, I would have been fine with it, even with the voice. After all, having read Octavio Paz’s story “My Life With The Wave,” I never thought of metaphor but accepted that the guy met and loved a wave.
The ending is wrapped up rather quickly and it seems that another book was planned to continue the story as Augusten reaches maturity. There is a quick rundown (as at the end of a true-story TV program) of what happened to each of the characters that doesn’t really satisfy even if I had cared enough about any of them. Of all the cast, Natalie would have my concern, yet she too seemed to cope with the conditions and circumstances of her life by developing a tough attitude and evidently did extremely well scholastically and in her career.
I wasn’t really drawn into the story by Burroughs, nor truly grossed out in the parts that were detailed with oddness or flagrant misconduct and abuse. I don’t think I really was the one holding the story at arm’s length; I believe Burroughs did that for the reader.