Publishing six deeply revealing first-person accounts over the past 10 years, Augusten Burroughshas gained prominence as a leading memoirist. Via his hilarious and often shocking books, he’s shone a light on his profoundly tumultuous childhood, his erratic family, his disastrous former life as a drinker and provided dispatches from subjects further afield, including Christmas and incontinent dogs. His latest book, “This is How,” out in paperback this week, has all the verve of his previous works, but this time he’s looking outward. A self-help guide to “Surviving What You Think You Can’t,” it’s bound to inform, inspire, infuriate and intrigue his own fans, as well as aficionados of the genre. Bookish spoke with Burroughs when his book first hit stores about his challenging take on how to heal oneself and loved ones from the most vexing problems and why he’s done writing memoirs.
Augusten Burroughs: I never read a self-help book growing up. I glanced at them in bookstores, but they had a kind of cheesy feel to them. I didn’t want to drag around “Co-Dependent No More,” you know?
Bookish: There’s an unyielding nature to “This is How.” Do you worry about what readers will make of that “tough-love” approach?
AB: Growing up, I never had any adults in my life. I’ve had to figure out every single problem that I had on my own. It was like the reinvention of the wheel every single time one of my wheels didn’t work.
So, I felt like I had weird urgency when I was writing “This is How” because people need to be realistic–there can be no handholding. It’s one thing to get support from people and [get a feeling of] community, from AA for example–that’s perfectly legitimate. But you’ve also got to take responsibility. Because when you’re in the same room as alcohol, you want it more than you want your wife or your kids. And until you can be honest with yourself about that, you’re just not going get sober.
“This is How” is not as hopeful as many other self-help books. But people shouldn’t be made to feel positive and hopeful, like change is easily accomplished. This book is for people who have some degree of psychological ambition and who want to fix themselves.
Bookish: You say in “This is How” that writing six memoirs has freed you.
AB: I don’t need to continue to recycle my past, and I honestly feel like I’m not interested in it anymore.
Bookish: Does that mean you’re finished writing memoirs?
AB: I think the memoirs are done, yes. I really don’t feel motivated right now to write anything other than more instructional material.
Bookish: You write in the book, “Consider this statement: ‘I was raped. It happened 20 years ago and even to this day, it still haunts me. I still find it very difficult to get on with my life.’ Who could question such a statement? Well, I could.” Were you ever concerned about taking on the subject of rape in the way that you did?
AB: No, because I felt really strongly about it, and I feel like the truth is much more important than any sort of political correctness. I came from a family where the books that were admired were by women–Ann Sexton, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich–all of them powerful women. The principals at my school were women. I spent 18 years in a career working for women. And furthermore, I was raped as a kid and I think that that experience, even though it wasn’t a violent assault by an unknown person–well, rape is rape. So, I felt perfectly justified in speaking about it.
Bookish: You also talk a lot about anorexia.
AB: I think that anorexia is a spectrum disorder, related to autism and Aspberger’s syndrome. I think it’s a hyper-, hyper-, hyper-sensitivity to any sort of direction or suggestion. [That’s why I say in the book that if I was the parent of an anorexic who was not bedridden and hospitalized and hooked to an IV] I would cut my teenager off. If she was mobile, I would kick her out, and I would do that not to be cruel, and not even out of hard love, but for the simple, practical reason that she would need to be overwhelmed with decisions.
Let’s imagine you told me right now you were going to kill yourself–you’ve made your plan and you are going to do it. If I gave you a sleeping pill that knocked you out for 13 hours and put you on a plane, and you woke up in Goa, India, you would not kill yourself that night because when you woke up the first you’ve have to do is pee.
And as soon as you walked out of the airport, you’d be confronted with colors and smells that you’ve never seen in your life. You wouldn’t know where to begin–you would have so many decisions that day that you wouldn’t kill yourself immediately. Maybe you would the next day, but if you can break that neurological loop–that circular thinking, that sort of internal hamster wheel–if you can break it once, you have a chance to continue to break it and establish new patterns.
That’s not a treatment, it’s a band-aid. But, a band-aid is better than a coffin. I don’t expect anyone reading my book who has an anorexic daughter [to actually kick] their kid out. But I think what it could do is [start a discussion].
I talked to an anorexic teenage girl for months. I said, “I’m going to put this thing about kicking out an anorexic in my book and I want to know what you think.” And it was the only time in my numerous, multi-hour conversations with her, that her voice was filled with emotion and passion. And she said, “Oh my god, I wish somebody would say that to me.”
I hope it is controversial, because that will get people talking.
Bookish: There’s a lot of passion coming from you about this–not only on this subject, but throughout the whole book.
AB: Everything I’ve written [up to now] has been pulled from the shoebox at the top of my closet, a shoebox filled with crazy life stories, of all that I’ve gone through. For “Running with Scissors,” I was in a really weird situation and paid really close attention to it, and that’s all. I wrote “Dry” in real time–it began as my journal–but, by the time it was published, it was ancient history. To me, the stuff is so familiar that it long ago–decades ago–lost its novelty and its power to move me.
I’m perfectly proud of [the memoirs]. But “This is How” is completely different because it’s not that I had a story to tell–it’s that I had something to say. It’s the first book that if I could, I would drop it from helicopters onto city streets, because I know for a fact that it works and that it will change lives.
Bookish: Why does this matter so much?
AB: It’s because of book tours. Going out on them made me more human. It made me see that I don’t have a group of readers at all; I have Paul, or Margery with a G, or Rebecca or Renee. It’s all individual people who I meet for a short time, and it’s intense and I feel in awe of them. The brevity and intensity of my exchanges with the people at my readings allows me to really see people, however briefly and however incompletely. That makes me feel like they belong to me, and that it is not only my obligation but my privilege to do everything I can to help them. And, if I know something they don’t know, I’ve got to get out there and tell them, right now.
Bookish: Do you wish you could do more?
AB: There are so many things in this book I wanted to do and can’t do. I wish it could be interactive where [a reader could] push a button on an iPad and enter a question and I could answer it right away. And I wish I could’ve given a 300 or 400 percent money back guarantee.