If it’s something in the vein of Truman Capote’s sugar-scented A Christmas Memory you’re expecting from Augusten Burroughs’s You Better Not Cry, think again. While the author shares more than a dollop of Capote’s bitter humor, this holiday memoir brims with a darkness that verges on gothic. Yet Burroughs manages to navigate pathways to pathos — even when he’s in the arms of a wanton Santa Claus he picks up at a bar or snuggling with the grimly homeless on the streets of New York. To suggest that Burroughs’s personal life is a jarring juxtaposition of tragic and comic is something apparent in his colossal achievement, Running With Scissors, and the parallel leitmotif can be found in these holiday-themed essays. When reached in New York, where he lives, he’s in the midst of holiday hysteria with an injured hand.
Advocate.com: Are you OK?
Augusten Burroughs: Oh, I’m OK. It was the morning before Thanksgiving. I had to fly to Dothan, Ala. My uncle — I love him to death — went in the hospital for jock itch and left with stage four cancer of an unknown origin. My partner Dennis and I just broke up after ten years. It is a particularly tense time. So anyway, I had a car arriving downstairs in about 10 minutes and remembered that I forgot the rechargeable batteries for the camera. So I ran from the bathroom, down the hall, and whacked my hand on the wall as I went. Once I got into the other room, I realized that I should make the bed up really quick. I leaned forward to do that and when I did, I saw that when I whacked my hand, I had scratched my index finger and I thought, Fuck, now I’ve got to take time to get a Band-Aid on it. And when I flexed it, I saw that it was cut to the bone. I thought, Fuck, this may need stitches. I’m clumsy and I’ve had to have a lot of stitches in my life and I saw that this did. And so I called my doctor and said, "Do I have to go to the emergency room or can you just do it?" He said, "Call the dermatologist," so I called the dermatologist and he was out.
Yet you wound up in the office of one of the finest plastic surgeons in the city. Did you want to have your eyes done while you were there?
I wanted to have everything done. I’d never been to a plastic surgeon before, but one of the things I noticed is that he was so careful. I thought it would be 10 minutes for stitches. He had me go into his little procedure room. It took three motherfuckin’ hours of hand surgery because I’d cut a tendon. I told him, "When I first sat down, it was like having Barbra Streisand come to sing at your 2-year old’s birthday party but it turned into a pro bono concert." He finished up and wrapped me in bandages, but he charged just about nothing.
Can you write?
It’s my left hand, but I can’t type because it’s in a sling, so I have to poke.
A pre-holiday surprise.
Yeah, ho fuckin’ ho. There’s just no telling what kind of mobility I’ll have. It sounds ridiculous — it’s just one fuckin’ finger — except they way I write is so stream-of-consciousness. It just goes from my subconscious to the page. As soon as there is a little impediment in the way, I’m stuck. I was once on a vacation for a week and when I came back, I had lost finger strength. You would have fuckin’ thought I lost my family in a car accident.
So how are you coping?
Traction and Valium. Each of my holidays gets worse that the other. My dog became paralyzed. I spent a year on an inflatable air mattress in the basement. It was Lorenzo’s Oil with an incontinent dog. He got better, and then in time for the next Christmas, it happened again for no reason. Then Dennis and I split up, and now I’m more disfigured than the monkey woman.
Is the dog better?
He’s a little time bomb of a dog. But he’s precious, and he is better.
When did the relationship end?
October, so it’s very raw and awful.
This book, not unlike your others, is certainly autobiographical in nature. Are the stories in You Better Not Cry basically true?
All my shit is true unless I get some detail wrong. I trust my memory. I would never even second-guess my memory. My memories extend deep, deep, deep into childhood. I can basically float my memory; it’s so visual that I feel like I’m transcribing instead of writing. If I have a story I’ve told all my life — "Oh, yeah, there was the time dad put on a lampshade and danced around the living room" — I won’t write that in a book. By the time I’ve told it over and over, I won’t have that movie in my head. Why do I remember things from when I was in a high chair and other people don’t? I never really had an answer until I went to my doctor [for an annual checkup] and he said, "I’d like you to see a psychiatrist." I said, "Why? Am I twitching?" He said, "Let’s be honest here: you didn’t win parent lotto." Mental illness is on both sides of the family. I had been to a psychiatrist, but this psychiatrist asked me questions that I had never been asked — by a psychiatrist or anybody.
I read that you have a “sensory processing disorder,” which results in a heightened memory, and that you’re “rare among people who don’t lose formative memories.” What was your response to that news?
When he said that, I thought, Jesus Fucking Christ, doesn’t that just explain everything? I could never explain why I could remember looking through the hole of a saltine cracker when I was in high chair. But I do and I’d bet my life on it. So I was able to put that to use in these memoirs, and I think that’s why the details are so vivid. It never struck me as suspicious but I guess it has struck other people as suspicious. Before I was writing as a career, it actually drove me crazy.
Listen to Burroughs read an excerpt from Your Better Not Cry here.