A bottle in front of me...
I have a confession to make.
For months (years?), I have been pretending to be a fan of Augusten Burroughs, the wunderkind essayist and author of Dry and Running with Scissors. He's the latest in a long line of dysfunctional gay memoirists, from Oscar Wilde to Christopher Isherwood to Truman Capote to David Sedaris. Everybody I know looooves Burroughs, so I pretended I did too.
The truth is I never read him. I've scanned some of his pieces in Details and other mags, but I never sat down and read Running, Dry or his other book, Magical Thinking. But I would lie and say I had. I'm not sure why—probably because it seemed like I should have read them and I didn’t want to be called out. I figured I get to them eventually, so it was really more of a prediction than a bald-face lie, right?
Well, last weekend I found myself in a cabin in Old Lyme, Connecticut (home of the insidious Lyme tick) with no TV and a copy of Dry in my lap. I'm a firm believer in book kismet. If I see three people reading a book—unless it's Harry Potter or the Da Vinci Code—I usually take it as a sign that I should pick up a copy. So I started reading Dry Saturday night and finished it Tuesday morning. (I'm a ravenous reader). It was one of the most confounding books I've ever picked up.
A follow up to Running, which details his childhood being raised by his mother's unstable therapist and molested by a thirtysomething neighbor, Dry focuses on Burroughs' alcoholism, his career as a successful advertising executive, and his affair with a devastatingly handsome crack addict.
The problem with memoirs is that they're written by the protagonist. How you feel about the character affects how you feel about the writer and, by extension, the book itself. Burroughs the subject is a self-involved jackass who callously tosses aside anyone who really cares for him in favor of a pretty face or a Dewar's and soda. Even as his best friend is dying of AIDS, he manages to refocus the event as being all about him. His sobriety does little to temper his self-involvement.
We're expected to cry a river for a guy who is rich, good-looking and wildly successful--whose drinking problem doesnt even cost him his friends or job? Somehow the greatest inequity in the the universe is that Burroughs can't have just one drink. Guess what, Augusten? We all have horrible burdens to bear; we just dont devote 300 pages to hand-wringing about it.
I would've chucked the book after 50 pages except for one thing: Burroughs is a damn good writer. His descriptions are eloquent and he has an uncanny knack for capturing modern urban life in all its vagaries. So I was torn between throwing the book in the fireplace and speed-reading through to the end.
Reading about Burroughs' dance with the bottle reminded me of how much I can't stand alcoholics—and addicts in general. I know that sounds harsh, but I've had many experiences with people in (and out) of recovery.
I lived in a group house with a woman in N.A. who would toss out glib clichés like "let go, let God" and "There's no express elevator to sobriety—you have to use the steps." She would start conversations with "You know what your problem is…?" and yell at us for not reorganizing our lives to benefit her sobriety.
Another roommate would routinely decide to go cold turkey and throw out all his pot and paraphernalia—and mine as well. (Yeah, I know—addicted to pot?!)
I even went to a few Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to support a friend who was in recovery. What I found was a group of people so self-involved they couldn’t even show empathy for others going through the same struggle. It's like the disease is a strange hybrid of narcissism and self-loathing and addiction is just the physical manifestation.
And it seems like AA just substitutes one addiction for another. Personally, I'd rather have the compulsion to drink than to chain-smoke and blather on endlessly about my issues with a group of people who are just waiting their turn to "share." On this, at least, Burroughs and I agree. He stops attending AA meetings halfway through the book (though he does continue to see a therapist).
The point is, Burroughs was no more likeable sober than he was drunk. He's writing this story with some clarity and distance, but he's just as solipsistic. Suffice it to say, I'm in no hurry to pick up his other works.
Side note: I'm not sure who decided AA was the one and only solution to a drinking problem. The group doesn't keep records of its success rate, but research showed that about 5% of people in AA manage to remain sober. The success rate for people who quit drinking on their own without AA? Again, 5%. Now, if AA works for you and puts you back on track, more power to you. But don’t pretend it’s the answer to everyone's problems.