Augusten Burroughs: The Catastrophist

Written by | Books, Entertainment

Augusten Burroughs

We’ve read about him growing up in a madhouse and battling with addiction. Now Augusten Burroughs is back to continue his story, with his craziest challenge yet: finding a functional relationship.

The Memoirist

Augusten Burroughs made a splash when he published the best-selling memoirs Running with Scissors (which chronicled his upbringing in the bizarre home of his mother’s therapist) and Dry (which followed his revelatory journey through rehab). Though he’s since produced a shelf’s worth of books dissecting life in his signature style, his latest, Lust & Wonder (available March 29 from St. Martin’s Press) is a spiritual successor to Running… and Dry — picking up with Burroughs’ return to drinking and following him through relationships with one Mr. Wrong after another. Burroughs spoke with Metrosource while awaiting its release.

METROSOURCE: Congratulations on Lust & Wonder; it’s a terrific read and totally unnerved me about every relationship decision I’ve ever made in my entire life.

Well, thank you… [laughs].

Does a lot of extra effort go in to creating a memoir like this — with one emotional through-line like Running with Scissors or Dry — as opposed to a collection of essays like Magical Thinking or Possible Side Effects?

It’s not so much extra effort as it is just a different mind-set. In some ways, every memoir I’ve ever written is almost like a collection because I’m writing moments that happened. I guess there’s more discipline in [this kind]. I’m not just jumping around from, “the time I got chased by a mountain lion in the Red Woods” to “white-water rafting in Colorado.” It’s something I’ve got to live with for several years — going back … and re-examining, re-exploring, reliving those relationships.

How did you choose where the book would begin?

It’s kind of tied into my drinking — when I actually did stop — so most of the book I’m sober. That was the natural jumping-off point for me: my last really horrible drunk relationship. I thought I was going to be sober for a while, but I wasn’t seriously committed. I just thought, “Well, it’s OK – I can go out and have some cocktails. I’ll be fine.” And I slid right back immediately into my old ways and got into this screwed up relationship.

There are several funny portraits of therapists in the book. Do you find therapists to be inherently good sources of comedy, or is that a way to process the danger you see in them?

I certainly have a sordid history with therapy: a lot of experience, a lot skepticism, too. I’ve had many odd encounters with therapists. I think there are some great therapists that really are altruistic and care about people deeply and have great instincts. But I think that a lot of people become therapists because they’re screwed up, and honestly they want to know what’s wrong with themselves first and foremost. I seem to be a magnet for attracting crazy therapists.

It’s kind of a shared cultural punchline that people tend to be dishonest in their dating profiles, but I feel like Lust & Wonder posits that dating and relationships are environments that breed dishonesty. Would you agree that’s true?

I think it is when we go on on a first date. We try to put our best foot forward; we try to be our best selves. Now I believe firmly that you should just be your worst self on your first date … not the thing you plan to be as soon as you lose five pounds or stop smoking or cut down on the booze or become a little bit neater, but the person you actually are in this minute with all your flaws and warts and deformities and dented hubcaps. … You want to be with someone who really sees you for who you actually are and really gets you. … You’ve just got to take a deep breath and just be as you as you can be.

The Libertine

Speaking of dating advice, when you got to the part where you and Dennis decided to wait before having sex, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why do we convince ourselves that there’s this inherent value to waiting until you’re emotionally involved to find out if you’re sexually incompatible?

Yes, exactly! That’s a good question: why? And now I don’t believe in it! [laughs] It’s like, you should have sex and then find out what your names are. Look what happened to me: It’s very, very awkward when you do develop affection for somebody, and there’s a level of intimacy that’s not sexual. When it turns out you’re sexually incompatible — as I was in that relationship — you can keep steamrolling forward thinking it’ll get better or that it’s not the most important thing, and it actually is very important.

You’re very candid in your descriptions of intimate encounters — including those that don’t paint yourself in the best light. Is that hard?

I’m accustomed to exposing myself. I don’t write books so I can look good. That’s never gonna happen anyway, so I don’t think, “Well, this doesn’t make me look good, so I can’t put this in there.” That’s something I think, maybe, if I were a first-time memoirist, I would absolutely be very conscious of — striking a balance between making myself look good versus not, and I don’t think about that now because the important thing is what actually happened. That’s the thing that people will relate to and respond to.

Throughout the book there’s a recurring theme of the idea that “normal” people do certain things — celebrate holidays, go outside and enjoy nice weather — with normalcy positioned as a potentially achievable goal. Do you still view it as a goal worth achieving and have you achieved it?

Normalcy has gone out the window completely. For a long time, it was something I cared about.

Why do you think it seemed important to you then?

I was so mistrustful of myself because I was raised in a very non-traditional environment by my parents’ psychiatrist — who was himself crazy — which I wrote about in Running with Scissors. I didn’t go to high school; I didn’t go to junior high; I didn’t have friends my own age. I was raised so far outside of mainstream society that I was worried about not fitting in. … I thought, “Well, I need to choose the kind of person who seems like they’re healthy.” So I made a decision: This will work. This will be healthy. This seems normal. And, of course, it was anything but.

About halfway through Lust & Wonder, you’ve published both Running with Scissors and Dry — which were such huge best sellers and cultural phenomena, but it didn’t feel like that big of a shift. Did you downplay it?

I definitely could’ve made more of that. I could’ve written about the rise of the books and their success, how that impacted me, what came to my life, what didn’t and all that. But I felt like my primary focus [in this book] was about the relationship.

The Comparer

Tell me about asking, “Are you as happy as I am?” in the context of a relationship.

There’s a section in the book where I ask Dennis on the way back from Fairway Market: “Are you as happy as I am?” And he is not as happy as I am. At the time, I think — and I can remember it like it happened yesterday — “Well, this relationship obviously cannot go on.” But yes it can. Relationships go on like that all the time.

So how essential is equal happiness between partners?

I kind of think of it as: If you are in a place where that’s what you’re analyzing, already you’re in trouble. What I can tell you is that [now] I have never been this happy in my life. My life is also completely unexpected in so many ways: I’m not where I was. I’m not where I thought I would be. It’s messy and great, and it’s a lot of fun.

I wanted to ask about your dogs, since they figure in several relationships in the book, and if you see them functioning the way that children do for some couples?

We have three dogs: a corgi–German shepherd named Radar, an Italian greyhound named Wiley and a Great Dane named Otis. … It’s like Temple Grandin writes in her book about dogs: It’s like our brains are wired for deep relationships with dogs. In some ways, it’s like [having] children but it’s also something different and something more. I mean, we’ve been co-survivalists for so many tens of thousands of years. We’ve evolved with them.

In the book, you discuss your unquenchable thirst for buying jewelry as a source of comfort that reminds you of your grandmother, but is it also something that you laugh at about yourself?

Oh, yeah! It’s just ridiculous and crazy, and I don’t even wear jewelry. [laughs] But it comforts me so much. Then I have it, and what do I do with it? It’s in boxes, in cabinets, but I love it. It reminds me of childhood and my grandmother. I find good memories around jewelry and gemstones, and it seems like the kind of thing which you should be able to get over in literally one therapy session. But it’s an impulse control thing. Here we are, all these years later, and it’s still there. I could spend 19 hours a day just looking at jewelry, even online. And then when I got a microscope, it was like — right down the rabbit hole — because then I could look at it magnified 35 times!

The Fabulist

The end of Lust & Wonder has a very happily-ever-after quality. As a memoirist, where do you go from there?

I don’t think it’s a final happily ever after. I think that it’s sort of happily ever after in this moment in Battery Park City as we’re walking along the Esplanade. It’s unbelievably amazing, and my mind is blown. But I’m well aware of how quickly things can change and how dramatically, how the things we build up can be swept right away. … There was a time in my life — with Dennis especially — when I absolutely wanted that kind of happily ever after and I wanted it signed and and notarized. That’s not real. That’s not a real thing. You can have happily ever after for this hour — if you’re lucky, the whole hour, … but there’s always a piano hanging over your head.

So ultimately, you would advocate that — when it comes to dating and relationships — we try less hard to make a good first impression?

That’s how I ended up with Christopher and being so happy. This is someone I never was going to date; it was off limits! I couldn’t date him, and I didn’t think he was attracted to me. And he was HIV positive, which to me was like: “Oh, well — forget that! I’ve already been there. I’m never gonna do that again!” Because he was off limits, my core instincts to spit-shine myself up around him were deflated. So I was just myself, and I was my worst possible self because the man has seen every single thing I’ve ever written – even things that he thinks are just to hideous to put into print. He knows every thought that I’ve had, and I couldn’t be more myself with somebody, and lo and behold: that’s the person I end up married to!

Let’s get back to why people wait to have sex…

Maybe it’s our puritanical roots or our distorted grab bag of sexual phobias we have as a culture or a moralizing standpoint. Maybe it dates back. It’s very sort of 17th Century: “When we have sex, it’s forever; therefore, don’t have sex until you’re sure!” And it’s just not realistic; it’s not healthy and it’s not really human.

It’s funny how it seems like we, as gay men, can step outside of hetero-normativity enough to have sex with other men but still feel compelled to do things like, “Wait to get to know each other.”

It’s true. When I look back myself in that era, I kind of cringe. That’s probably one of the things that’s most difficult to write … my own unfortunate behavior — having to re-explore mistakes, which I would never make now. I’m not that guy [today] but I was not that long ago; so, it’s painful to think, ”Wow! I should’ve just trusted my instincts.”

The Humorist

Some of my favorite laugh out loud moments in the book are the bickering of Dennis’s friends Sam and Paula; they’re so specific. I was wondering if they they lodged in your memory, or if you you took notes, or if you had to look back and go, “All right, what’s the kind of thing these people would fight about?”

That’s exactly what that was: “What’s the kind of thing that they said?” Actually I take that back – it’s a mixture. Some actual and then some like that.

Having experienced Running With Scissors adapted as a film, do you think about how your writing might end up adapted as you’re working on it?

I don’t think about it while I’m writing at all because that would just get in the way. It’s also such a theoretical notion. There are enough stumbling blocks to writing a book. I don’t need to add another one: “Is it going to filmic? Is it filmable? Is it shootable?” . . . Afterwards my LA film guy will look at it and see if it’s filmable . . . but, it’s always something that happens after the fact (unless it’s something like a screenplay, for example; then obviously, that’s the whole point of it). But I’m an author, and I write books. That’s really my first love, and it’s the place I’m most comfortable. So, to keep that as pure as I can, all the books I write — I really do kinda write for me in a way. I can’t have a readership or an audience in my head while I’m writing.

At one point, you present relationships as a kind of accounting, where each partner’s assets including the quality and quantity of friends. How much are we judged by whom else we bring to the table?

I don’t know if that experience with Dennis was unique or if a lot of people go through that. I can remember feeling just mortified that I didn’t have more friends. It seemed like I should. And “Why didn’t I?” And, “Oh, f**k!” Again, that’s something I absolutely never think of now, … but, yeah, I bet that does matter to people. People who come with a good set of friends are like a car that arrives with all the options.

Do you still worry about the “Are you as happy as I am?” question regarding your current relationship?

It’s an exciting relationship. I’ve known Christopher for 20 years at this point, and yet every single day there’s something new. That love is like reaffirmed, and the closeness is reaffirmed. So I never think about quantifying anymore. Sometimes as a joke I will ask him: ”Are you as happy as I am?” But it’s not something that I think about — because I think that question arises out of a sense of deep insecurity, and it’s just not a question I have anymore. It’s not one that I feel. I know Christopher is so happy with me, and I am with him. I remember years and years and years ago, when I was working in advertising, and there was this article — I think it was in Glamour magazine — that talked about “Five Signs You’re in the Right Relationship.” One of them was: “You never have to talk about your relationship to your friends.” That stuck with me; it just took so long for me to see the truth in that — having been in relationships where I wanted to call my friends and say, “Is this normal? What do you think about this? What does this mean? What do you think he meant by this?” And I can’t imagine that now. Now that little quote from some magazine years ago makes complete sense to me

The Catastrophist

You end up labeled a “catastrophist” because of your constant mental preparation for worst-case scenarios. Yet I would argue that you’d also have to be an optimist in order to constantly think bad relationships are going to work out. How do you reconcile expecting the worst but also hoping for the best?

Those are two traits that I feel like I’ve had my whole life, that have coexisted within me. I think in the grand scheme of things — big picture — I’ve always been very optimistic. I’ve always been very focused on improving my future; that has remained so for as long as I can remember. But at the same time, I’m absolutely a catastrophist. On a very daily, small, micro-level it seems almost inescapable. Sometimes it bothers me, and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s sort of always there. If I sneeze: “Did I just sneeze too hard and blow a blood vessel like in my brain? Am I gonna have a stroke?” The thoughts come in, and … sometimes they they linger, and that’s when I could get anxious about something or fixated on something, dwell on it, go over and over it. … It’s absolutely some form of compulsive mental illness that I’ve never experienced release from — so it’s something I’ve learned to live with. When I let the dog out to pee, it’s always a thought of: “Is there some kind of wild creature out here right now that’s gonna grab him by the neck?” It’s the first thing I think. Then I can move past it, but it’s definitely there! And yet, there is that optimism where I believe things will work, or things can be better, and … I can get to a place where I want.

They do work together. Sometimes I think the catastrophe thing is frustrating and a hindrance, and it definitely adds stress that doesn’t need to be there. Being with Christopher has been great in that sense because he’s the opposite of a catastrophist. There really is some sort of LA surfer dude in him. He’s very laid back about that [sort of thing]. … Sometimes I’m thinking: “That tree is gonna fall right here on the roof.” And he’ll just laugh. It’s ridiculous to him. It’s comical. That kinda takes the power away a little bit.

Last modified: September 18, 2019

One Response to :
Augusten Burroughs: The Catastrophist

  1. Paul inMass says:

    Best interview article I’ve read in a very long time! The questions are as interesting as the answers and Paul really did his research to mine out some truly thoughtful and in-depth answers.
    More like this please

Comments are closed.