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Magical ThinkingReview - Magical Thinking
True Stories
by Augusten Burroughs
Picador, 2004
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Feb 8th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 6)

While the many people who write Internet blogs telling stories from their lives get few readers, Augusten Burroughs has managed to convince publishers to print his stories. Indeed, people love them. This new collection of his work is currently in the top 1000 best sellers on Amazon.com and his abused-childhood memoir Running with Scissors was a New York Times bestseller. It is worth thinking about why people are so fascinated by the details of other people's lives. Burroughs' first memoir was about how he had a crazy family and was virtually abandoned as a young teenager, left to stay with the family of his mother's psychiatrist, where he was allowed to get involved with a pedophile in his thirties and completely dropped out of high school. Burroughs' second memoir, Dry, was about his alcoholism, his treatment at a rehab center for homosexuals in Minnesota, and his struggles with sobriety and Alcoholics Anonymous while living in New York City. It is easy to see the enjoyment and shock value in reading about the details of an utterly dysfunctional childhood, and while the genre of addiction memoir is reasonably saturated, the twist of being a gay alcoholic makes Dry different enough from the rest of the pack.

However, the stories in Magical Thinking are mainly about his current life. The main exception is first story in the collection, which tells about the time when he was a young boy and television-advertising executives came to his small town to shoot an advertisement for a soft drink. It was an important event in Burroughs' life because it showed how much he wanted to get the attention from others and was able to get the executives to agree to put him in the ad. It was also significant because it gave him a glimpse of his own future career, since Burroughs' himself became a copywriter when he finally left home and arrived in the metropolis. The story also foreshadowed his tendency to mess up and hurt his own chances. On the other hand, the tale says almost nothing about his family, and relies mainly on the reader's interest in Burroughs' life. The same is true for the other stories in the book, which are mostly about his life after alcoholism, some about the period before he his first book (the novel Sellavision) was published, and some about the time after, as he starts to become better known and eventually has a best-selling memoir published.

So it is all about Augusten. As with the recent writing of David Sedaris, these essays depend on the writer's charm and our interest in the lifestyles of the gay and famous. He writes about his undertaker boyfriend, his work as a copywriter, his brother with Asperger's syndrome, his psychotic cleaning woman, his long-term relationship with his boyfriend Dennis, and various other episodes from his life. He is an entertaining writer, because he is quirky, vulnerable, a little shocking, and uniformly acerbic. These qualities are enhanced in the unabridged audiobook read by Burroughs himself, and this adds to the sense that we are getting to know him well. He performs his own work well, and he seems a likeable guy, especially in the final extra on the audiobook, an interview with him in which he just talks about his life now and gives a few anecdotes. He is in a stable relationship and he has stopped drinking, so he is probably a great person to know, even if by his own admission he is obsessed with himself. Readers get to have their own relationship with him through reading his writings about his life.

I was pleased to listen to this audiobook and I expect I will read Burroughs' inevitable subsequent memoirs. Yet I am not sure what to make of the phenomenon. Maybe we should wonder whether it is good for us to be listening to the reflections and stories of people whose main accomplishment is to be survive their abused childhoods and self-destructive behavior with a wry sense of humor. But then again, I'm not sure whose stories I would prefer to be hearing.

 

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2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved. 

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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