You can’t walk into a book store these days without seeing them. Self-help books. Not only is there usually a section reserved for them; they can take up the majority of some store’s floor space. It seems like almost everybody with a pulse has the perfect solution for making your life better. There are self-help books on everything from how to lose weight to how to deal with the pain of heartbreak. You can buy a book that will tell you how to find your perfect match and right beside you’ll find another book on how to dump him or her when they turn out not to be so perfect.
Normally I wouldn’t be caught dead in that section of a book store let alone reading a self-help book. However, when I found out Augusten Burroughs, the man who wrote Running With Scissors, Dry, You Better Not Cry as well as a number of other books had published something people were calling a self-help book I was intrigued. This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can’t turned out not to be nothing like any self help book I’ve ever come across for any number of reasons. The main one being its author appears to not only care about what he’s talking about, but you also get the impression even if he’s not lived through something he has the empathy and compassion to understand another person’s experiences.
So,when I was offered the opportunity to talk with Burroughs, I jumped at the opportunity. However, I ran into a slight hitch; I had a difficult time in coming up with questions. Anything I came up with concerning This Is How he’d pretty much answered in the book. It was that good. Don’t despair; I did come up with some question eventually and the result is below. Without further ado: Augusten Burroughs.
You’ve written very publicly about what some might think are very private matters. How do people react to you when they find out you’re the guy behind stuff like Running with Scissors?
They don’t react like I expected as they often share something really personal or make reference to something personal. One of the first stores I ever did a reading/signing in was in LA. I looked at the audience, and it was full of well dressed cool people, people who I thought would never be my friends in real life. I was really nervous. But afterwards people were coming up to me, and telling me stuff that had happened to them. I’m constantly surprised by what people share. They tell me how much they identify with the books or certain parts of them and that leads them to share highly personal events in their lives. I’ve had perfect strangers, some of them people you might recognize, come up to me and tell me things. It’s actually kind of daunting because I feel a responsibility to them. However, the implicit trust they have in me that allows them to talk to me is a real gift.
Writing has enriched my life in ways I never imaged. When I first thought of being a writer I had visions of stacks of books in stores with my name on them, that sort of thing. But I never imagined this would be the reaction. I was just at a book signing in Portland Maine, and three young women, maybe in their early twenties came up to me. One of them mentioned she had just lost her younger brother. Then one of the others said they were from New Town in Connecticut, you know where the shootings took place, and it turns out all three of them had lost a younger sibling during the shootings. They had come to the signing because they wanted to tell me how much This Is How had helped them deal with their loss. I can’t begin to describe how this made me feel
(There was a kind of awe in Burroughs’ voice as he recounted the details of the three young women, as if he couldn’t believe he could have had this kind of impact on someone. I could tell he was still incredibly moved and more than a little awed by the fact they had come to see him just to tell him about the book. This had just happened the night before our interview, and I think he might have still been feeling a little overwhelmed by the event as I could still here the wonder in his voice)
What are you hoping/ have hoped to accomplish by telling your stories ?
I just want them to be useful. I think if you’re going to write this type of book, a self-help book you have a moral obligation to the people who read it to make it something that will be of use to them. If you write these books you have to have done the work, or at least gone through something similar, or how can you talk about the experience with any authority. Some might call it a case of the blind leading the blind when it’s one person telling you something based on what they’ve lived through. But if I were blind I’d rather have another blind person leading me around because they know what I’m dealing with and they’re experiencing the same things.
You cover a huge variety of topics in This Is How where most people seem to focus on one subject. Was there any particular reason for this?
(At this point I interjected to tell him how much my wife had appreciated his chapter on Anorexia as it was one of the few books she had read — even with studying the subject when training as a therapist — which had understood the disease. So we talked a little about that before moving on.)
The chapter on Anorexia was the hardest to write in the book. For one thing I’ve no personal experience with it. But what I discovered in all my readings about the subject is how little actual work has been done on researching the disease. They still make the girls, and it’s mainly girls who still suffer from it, keep food diaries (records of what they eat each day) which just makes them fixate on food even more. There really needs to be more work done on treatment.
There’s a deeper commonality running through the book aside from the issues relevant to the individual topics. Honesty with yourself is at the root of pretty much everything I talk about. Take for example if a person feels like they are fat and when they look in the mirror all they see is fat. And they say they want to feel sexy, what a lot of people will conclude is they need to be thin to be sexy. However, they might not necessarily want to be thin — the thing they want is to be sexy — so no matter how hard they try they can’t get thin because that’s not what they really want. What they have to do is figure out how to be sexy without being thin. It’s a process of stripping away everything you think you know to get the actual truth. You have to be ruthlessly honest with yourself, almost brutally so, in order to understand what it is you actually want. It can be expensive to be honest as you won’t get certain things you want, because it turns out you only thought you wanted them. Only through honesty can you figure out what and how to get the things you want.
Do you have any expectations, or hopes, for what readers will take away from your books in general and “This Is How” specifically?
I wanted to change people’s lives, to give them the tools to allow them to experience really profound changes. In the book I describe the things I’ve done to change my life. When I first had the idea of writing this book the last thing I wanted was to be associated with self-help books, it’s such a cheesy category. Most of them just have people chasing after the ever elusive confidence, and most of the time they end up confusing it with competence, which has nothing to do with it. It’s funny, people look at me up on stage giving a reading or a talk and they say how confident I am. There’s no confidence involved in what I’m doing — I’m just focused on what I’m doing and not worrying about anyone else. You’ve just got to stop worrying about what other people may be thinking of you and stay focused on what you’re doing in the moment.
When I wrote the book I sat down and thought about the things people have shared with me and the issues they talked about. Weight or finding someone to love and be truly connected to. I then tried to take readers through my thought process. There are too many of these books out there which give people recipes that don’t work. I’m trying to not only give them the means to work through things but to show them how to do the work.
I noticed you didn’t talk about a couple of issues — repressed memory and flashbacks. Was there any particular reason why you didn’t address them in This Is How
They’re not something I’ve experienced, so I didn’t think I should talk about them.
What do you think of the idea of forgiving an abuser as a means of getting on with your life?
I don’t know that forgiveness is necessary. I don’t think one needs to spend so much time on the abuser. It’s almost like waiting for an apology from your abuser, you’re just giving them too much of your energy. Lets define forgiveness — what does it imply? A form of accepting what’s happened. Forgiveness is a very loaded word — it means different things to different people. I’d rather focus on getting on with life. I wouldn’t want to waste any of my brain cells on forgiving if it’s holding me back. The implication is that you’re still actively angry with your abuser and you need to forgive them in order to get over the anger so you can move on. However, if you obsess with forgiveness you’re still spending time with the abuser and you won’t be getting over the abuse.
For example, take what happened in Boston, with the bombs during the marathon. If I had my legs blown off by a bomb, which would I rather be doing. Finding a way to forgive the guy who set the bomb or figuring out a way I could run the Boston Marathon without legs? I’d be doing the second one. That’s not the easy choice — it’s easier to stay angry and stuck in the past. It’s one thing to react to something, but to stay there is not conducive to healing. You’ve got to move on.
Then there’s also the whole issue of there are just some things that are unpardonable. Forgiveness implies a pardon for doing something unpardonable. I’m not going to waste my energy looking into the eyes of someone like the guy who blew my legs off trying to find a way to forgive him for doing something that horrible when there are way more productive ways I could be spending my life. You’ve got to focus on moving on.
Why should readers follow your advice or even think you know what you’re talking about?
(laughs) Who is this guy anyway? I may not have degrees but I’ve street smarts. I’ve overcome a lot — sexual abuse, death of a loved one, bad parents and experienced life. My nature is such I not only survived all this but I have thrived. I’ve always been psychologically ambitious in that I’ve never been willing to settle emotionally for anything less then what’s needed. I’ve wanted more then that from life. I’ve learned how to turn the adversities in my life into enriching experiences. You can actually gain a lot from adversities and they make you the person you are today. You can make almost anything a learning or positive experience. I think I offer a good example of how to make the most out of what life gives you and how to keep moving on.
(Which is roughly when his other phone started ringing which meant I had run over my allotted time slot. However, let me say a couple of things before ending this. Reading this over I realize it doesn’t really capture Mr Burroughs as well as I had hoped. If you’ve read This Is How you’ll know how much of a good example he is for anybody wishing to cope with whatever it is they want to cope with. Yet what impressed me the most, was how talking to him on the phone made me realize how much of himself he let come through in the book. In the book he comes across as compassionate and honest. In my review I had likened him to a loving and honest friend. Well that’s just how he comes across in person.
(I go back to when he told me about the three young women who talked about losing their siblings and the sense of wonder in his voice at the fact his work was able to help them. There was a humility about him which you can’t capture on the page with the written word. He was genuinely grateful, and a little bit amazed, how he was able to help them. Coupled with the sense of responsibility he feels because of the impact his words have on people, this makes him a pretty remarkable human being.)