Augusten Burroughs' latest book, This is How, (NY, St. Martin's Press, 2012, $28.99 Can) is a blend of self-help and autobiography. The latter genre has made him famous. In Running with Scissors, he told of his early years with two unstable, violent parents. In his early teens his mother gave him away to be raised in her psychiatrist's bizarre family. A Wolf at the Table, another of his books that I have read, is about his father, an angry alcoholic with a personality disorder. Burroughs has also written about getting sober and seeing his partner through a terminal illness.
Having survived all that, and having become an advertising executive and a successful author with no more formal education than elementary school, Burroughs is a remarkable human being with interesting insights.
This is How goes against the relentless emphasis on being positive that pervades not only pop psychology books but also our daily lives. He advises us to ignore society's obsession with being upbeat and to examine and name our feelings. "Real optimism is not the pep talk you give yourself," he writes. "It comes through the labor involved in emotional housekeeping."
Burroughs begins with an incident involving an aggressive positivity-monger on an elevator, He goes on to address some of life's challenges, beginning with the ordinary and ending with the heartbreaking. In his chapter, "How to Find Love", he points out that on a planet with seven billion people, it's likely there is more than just one soul mate for you. He urges those searching for mates to get out and meet more people, to increase their odds of finding someone compatible. When you meet someone who might be "the one", instead of putting your best foot forward, be yourself and never try to impress anyone. "You cannot make a mistake with the right person for you," says Burroughs.
In "How to be Fat", he points out that, in order to lose weight you have to decide whether the unpleasantness of self-denial is worth it. He notes that people who are a little bit larger are statistically likely to live longer and are insulated against certain diseases. "There's absolutely no shame whatsoever in deciding you'd rather spend your life paying attention to something other than the weight of your physical body," he writes. Instead, you can figure out how to style and present yourself so as to be "magnificently beautiful" and "sexy as hell".
With regard to smoking and alcoholism, Burrough's advice is, again, to decide whether the unpleasantness of going without the substance is worth the freedom from addiction. I have no personal experience of smoking or alcholism, but I suspect that supporters of Alcoholics Anonymous will disagree with Burrough's claim that some of AA's concepts "undermine sobriety." For him, the way to stop drinking was to want sobriety more than alcholol. He never felt powerless over alcohol; for him it was always a choice, so he believes that the "powerlessness" step gives people permission to relapse. Also, he thinks that talking about alchohol every day when you can't drink it is counter-productive for some people.
For Burroughs, the way to stop drinking was to fill the space that alcohol had once occupied with something more interesting and rewarding. In his case it was writing. He thinks that those who benefit from AA fiill the gap with particpation in the AA community.
Writing was Burrough's way of getting over his traumatic past. It wasn't so much exorcising his demons that helped, as it was having an absorbing project. If he'd been writing cookbooks, he says, the effect of freeing himself would have been the same. Too many people, he believes, get addicted to therapy and to the story of their past, rather than focusing on projects in the present.
Burroughs' words are worth our attention because he has triumphed over some terrible things. But what of people who are busily engaged in absorbing and worthwhile projects in the present, and then, out of the blue, are felled by some incident that brings to the surface all the terrible memories? I suppose his answer comes in his chapter, "How to Remain Unhealed." He calls "Heal" a "television word", and said that there are some things in life from which you do not heal. Yet the hole in the centre of your life can "narrow" enough for you to rejoice at new good things that come your way.
Tackling the subject of suicide, Burroughs says that if you want to end your life, you don't have to die. You can exchange the life you have for a better one. At one point, he decided that all he needed to change his life was "a door and a highway."
Although lacking direct experience of most of the big issues Burroughs addresses, long ago I cared for a spouse who was terminally ill. Burroughs is right in saying that: "The worst thing you can imagine is not so bad if viewed from inside." In other words, when you're caught up in the situation, coping with the present, you can bear things that you would never have imagined." Burrough cautions us not to imagine the worst-case scenario in advance, as it may never happen. When skittish friends ask if there is anything they can do, he suggests that you ask them to cook something and drop it off, because "no one at your house has the energy to say hi." And finally, the best way to prepare for a friend's death is by "being alive in the same room" with them.
Some reviewers have called Burroughs' observations and advice "cliched", but I enjoyed the humour of the opening chapters and the ring of authenticity in the latter ones. His conversational style and his reminders that he has "been there" make us feel that, whatever we are facing, we are not alone.