As the saying goes, no one really knows what goes on behind closed doors, unless they themselves are behind those doors. This statement applies particularly well to the American family. Running with Scissors is an outstanding example of the abuses that can and do go on in homes in this society unbeknownst even to the neighbors. The author and main character, Augusten Burroughs, lived in two such households while growing up, and he has opened up the door to let the world in. In this autobiographical work, Augusten relates tales of his youth through many superficially amusing anecdotes which, when examined closely, are really horrific tales of abuse and neglect. He has changed the names of the characters to protect the real individuals.
Along with the problem of dysfunctional families, this book also highlights abuses of privilege within the medical community. It clearly illustrates the inadequacy of the licensing and monitoring of medical professionals, especially in the mental health fields. Dr. Finch, the psychiatrist who treats the Burroughs family, is an excellent example of an incompetent and unethical professional. His treatments are bizarre and his boundaries are nonexistent. Throughout the book, it becomes increasingly apparent that he is really the craziest character of all—much sicker than any of the patients he treats.
The book begins with nine-year-old Augusten living with his parents in their beautiful home outside of Boston, Massachusetts. His mother, Deirdre, is an amateur poet who travels to coffee houses giving poetry readings. She is stressed and frustrated because she has not yet achieved the fame that she thinks she deserves. Augusten’s father is a successful math professor at the University of Massachusetts. Unfortunately, he is also an alcoholic. This makes for a highly unstable and volatile home atmosphere, which frequently escalates into violent fights between Augusten’s parents.
Augusten has a somewhat flamboyant personality. He loves shiny objects and dressing in nice clothes, especially those of his mother. He craves neatness and order in his life. He creates a private haven in his bedroom to which he escapes when his parents fight. His room reflects his personality with bookshelves lined with aluminum foil to make them shiny. Augusten adores his mother and, like her, has dreams of one day becoming famous. When dressed in her clothes, he pretends to give poetry readings like she does. Augusten’s relationship with his father is somewhat more estranged. Their only pleasurable father-son activity is the occasional trip to take their garbage to the local dump.
Over the years, Augusten’s home life becomes increasingly dysfunctional as his parents’ relationship further deteriorates. Their fights become more physical and dangerous. At this point, Deirdre seeks the help of Dr. Finch, whose professional competence as a psychiatrist could easily be challenged. His methods are somewhat unethical and sometimes even illegal. He cheats the insurance companies. He overmedicates patients in order to manipulate them. He crosses many of the boundaries set up by the mental health community, such as having sexual relations with patients and taking patients to live in his home.
Along with his professional incompetence, his sanity is highly questionable. At home, his behavior is extremely eccentric. For example, at one point he decides that his bowel movements are messages from God and must be saved on the picnic table outside his home. Another time he makes the whole family parade through town wearing balloons. At the office, he has his “masterbatorium,” a secret room behind his office for said purpose.
Augusten is wary of the doctor even though he physically resembles Santa Claus. Augusten innately senses that something is not quite right with the doctor, but Deirdre trusts Dr. Finch totally and follows his advice without question. Marriage counseling fails to help Augusten’s parents and Deirdre...
(The entire section is 1622 words.)