Augusten Burroughs on self help, "issues," therapy and love
Best-selling author of "Running With Scissors" and "Dry," Augusten Burroughs, 46, draws energy from sugar-free Red Bull (coffee is too labor intensive) and watching the rebuilding of the World Trade Center from his downtown apartment. He will be signing copies of his insightful, idiosyncratic new self-help book, “This is How” at 7 p.m. May 8 at Barnes & Noble, 33 E. 17th St. A Sirius radio show in which he will take questions from listeners is also in the works.
By Sheila Anne Feeney
Q You’re such a successful memoirist – why switch lanes into self help?
A I have something to say beyond entertainment. I want to help people. It’s an incredibly strong drive. Things cripple people that shouldn’t. I’ve been changed by the people I’ve met who have said my books matter so I want them to matter more. I had this urgent need to be clear and I’ve never made so many revisions of a book in my life. I felt the need to be clearn, clean and very specific. I’ve spent my whole life saying, “look at what I survived!” In this book, I wanted to say, “this is actually how.” I was relentless and unfailing in my psychological ambition to fix myself, repair myself and move on. Also, I’ve lost interest in talking just about myself: It’s boring.
Q What’s wrong with getting “therapy”?
A Therapy can be helpful, but you must never forget therapy is a business –a business that is designed for repeat business. Most issues don’t require the time and money that therapy requires. You don’t need to see a therapist if you need confidence. Just break it down: Confidence is a word others use to describe a particular quality a person has. You get it by not allowing yourself to say, even for an instant, ‘oh my God – did I f--- up?’ Focus! I’m confident on stage because I don’t give a s--- how stupid you think I am. I’m focused on telling you a story! I have a thing to do! I’m not worried about what my stomach looks like. It’s a complete fallacy that confidence comes from ability. It comes from complete engagement. I last went to therapy several years ago, to a Jungian. I didn’t get the solution I needed. I didn’t see the correct door, but as I sat on that sofa, the right answer was in me: My life as I knew it needed to be completely dismantled. I broke up with my partner because I wasn’t happy and he wasn’t happy.
Q It almost seems as if you view suicide as a failure of the imagination. Is that true?
A There are different kinds of suicides – there can be a neurological crisis – a kind of hysterical, fatal warping of reality, like a psychosis. Or the kind of suicidal feelings I had as a teenager, a sense of futility and a deep unhappiness with your life when you see zero options. . . . but those thoughts are gross inaccuracies because you’re apprising your life from inside your life. If you’re going to kill yourself, you have no sense of a vista. You need to completely step outside your own life in order to see it. Actualization requires awareness. If someone gave you a pill, put you on a plane and you woke up 18 hours later in Goa, you wouldn’t kill yourself – at least not that day. You’d wake up and think, “where do I go to the bathroom?” Our brains are wired for novelty. So you need to step outside your current life in favor of a new one. You need a novel stimulation, to pluck yourself out of your normal life. Sometimes it’s like not drinking: You take it one day at a time.
Q You were given up and raped as a child and yet argue ardently against self pity.
A This is what I want to tell kids! Even if you were horribly victimized you are never allowed to be a victim. It doesn’t matter that it’s not your fault. It’s your LIFE. Maybe both your parents are horrible. So f------ what? Parents are a luxury. Focus on your own life. Build your own life. Decide what you want for yourself. There’s a tremendous freedom in taking steps. The past doesn’t haunt us – we haunt it, by revisiting it endlessly. I’m not saying, if you were raped at 12 or 13 not to dwell ion it. With any trauma, it’s important to grasp it. Experience it to the point you feel the grief, or the magnitude of if it, and see the solution to it. But then – leave it. Or recycle it! Build a career helping others who have also been attacked. This is not the same as emotionally denying the events of your past and remaining afraid. But you’re never going to get resolution. And you don’t need the apology. You need to focus on what’s for dinner. You are free to stop thinking about the person or the act that hurt you.
Q What’s the most valuable advice you ever received?
A Maybe it was from my mom (the poet and writer Margaret Robison). She said, “Whatever happens in your life, as long as you keep writing, you’ll be okay.”
Q That’s ironic, given the difficulties of your much-chronicled relationship. Do you still see your mom?
A I haven’t spoken to her for more than 10 years. I have no ill feelings and hope she’s well, but I had to move on with my life. My parents, for whatever their reasons, did not make very good parenting decisions. Having your child engage with a pedophile is appalling. It’s a deal breaker. Just because you haven’t seen your mother doesn’t mean you have some kind of Oprahesque issues. Sometimes your parents are just broken. I have a life now and can’t imagine why I would be in contact with her.
Q So what are your unresolved issues?
A I have organizational issues in terms of time management. I have some kind of sensory processing disorder and when I’m focused on something, it’s to the exclusion of anything else. I love gemstones and gemology and I’m studying to become a gemologist. Time I should spend writing I spend looking at occlusions in some piece of jade from Burma. I always thought I wanted a nice, beautiful apartment, but I realize I want to want a beautiful, nice apartment more than I actually want to have one. The time I could spend worrying about window treatments I spend hunched over a microscope. I love nephrite and Burmese jade. Jade is the toughest gemstone: It’s as hard as a diamond, but a diamond is more brittle. (Jade) is very tough, very fibrous and resilient.
Q Do you have a partner?
A Yes! Christopher Schelling. He owns Selectric Artists.com, a literary and talent management agency. It’s paperless: SASEs are so passé. I met him in 1999 and had the biggest crush on him, but he was my agent. He’s my favorite person in the whole world and now he’s my boyfriend. I left my partner in 2008 or 2009, but I didn’t leave him for someone else. I take full responsibility for not seeing how unhappy my partner was. But with Christopher, from the first day, we’ve both been very, very happy. It’s the dream situation: I’m engaged to marry my best friend.
Q What’s stopping you?
A I’m looking for just the right rings from the 1800s – they’re called poesy rings. They’re 22, 23 or 24 carat gold and they have these wonderful poetic inscriptions inside them.
Q Does your relentless questioning of orthodoxies and authority come from what having gone through rehab and become sober? Does it have something to do with being gay?
A With rehab, no: People go through rehab over and over and still might not be honest with themselves. But when you’re very young and you feel different, you have to make a very large commitment to the truth at an early age. Being gay definitely gives you practice at a very early age of of forming an opinion in opposition to the broader opinion of society. Children have absolute knowledge about absolute truth: It’s factory installed. You have to have brute force honesty and under the layers of assumption and political correctness. The truth, the truth, the truth is the answer to your problem. We can actualize who we really are by probing our assumptions that we must complete law school, or why we don’t have sex in our marriage. That’s my argument for gay marriage. When people say, “the sanctity of marriage will be destroyed,” (if same sex couples marry) then I say the sanctity must be destroyed – because it’s more important that all citizens be equal. No institution is more important than the individual. It’s like oppression against women across all cultures – it will never endure because it’s fundamentally false.
Q Do you extend your notions about the rights of individuals – and the need to live an honest and ethical existence - to animals?
A We’re learning more about the intelligence of animals on a daily basis. It’s quite possible that we’ll understand soon that their intelligence is just different from ours, not necessarily less, and it will become impossible to serve them on a platter with a potato in their mouths. It makes more sense to eat things like spinach, anyway. I eat meat, but I probably ought to be a vegan. There are a lot of truths that need to be uncovered.
Q What self help books do you read?
A I don’t read self help at all. I did as a teenager. I read science books. This book is just stuff I know that works, because I lived it.