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At only fourteen years of age Brent Runyon secreted himself in the bathroom of his parents' house, soaked his bathrobe in gasoline and attempted suicide by self immolation. Like many teenage suicide attempts this was an impulsive act. A catastrophic appraisal of recent events, combined with apparently little appreciation of the finality of death or the impact on survivors, was enough to precipitate the young man into a tragic action. It was also a life changing act, one which stimulated his remarkably clear sighted memoir, The Burn Journals.
In his memoir Runyon provides a background to his suicide attempt, followed by a vivid depiction of the months that followed as he went through surgeries and painful physical therapy. He describes a series of placements at various facilities, along with some rather limp attempts to help the family to adjust psychologically. Runyon was still in his mid twenties when he committed all of this to print.
In the course of his year's treatment and rehabilitation Runyon encounters a memorable cast of characters; fellow burns victims, sweet natured nurses (and a few Nurse Ratchets in training), There are meetings with Magic Johnson, and Dennis Miller, a phone call from Jay Leno, even a meeting with Lech Walesa's wife. He also meets some rather desperate sounding drug users at a rehabilitation facility, where Runyon seems singularly misplaced.
Runyon is painfully honest in discussing his parents' responses and efforts to help his rehabilitation. At the end of the book he comments on the differences in views they still hold, but it seems that the writing process has allowed Runyon to exorcise at least some of the demons that plagued him as an adolescent. This memoir is not a plea for sympathy. Nor is it an attempt to explain events in terms of anything more than a troubled young man's responses to the life he found himself living.
The Burn Journals is highly readable, with a strong sense of authentic voice. At 320 pages it is longer than many memoirs of its type, but Runyon's writing is sharp and absorbing. Descriptions of events are interwoven with his thoughts of the time. He gives a running commentary on his unspoken responses to his nurses and caregivers, parents, brother and friends. His responses to the earnest psychologists, most of whom seem incapable of developing any sort of rapport before pestering Runyon with meaningful questions, are at times highly amusing.
Runyon has provided a perceptive and moving insight into the emotional life of adolescent boys. The lessons from this book extend well beyond suicidal and self harmful behavior, although they also serve to alert parents, counselors, teachers and professionals to the dangers of overlooking signals of distress. This, of course, is no easy task. There is no list of such signals that doesn't include behaviors that every adolescent will experience in their life. If Runyon's account helps sensitize those involved with the welfare of adolescents, especially adolescent boys, it serves an admirable purpose. Highly recommended reading.
© 2007 Tony O'Brien
Tony O'Brien is a lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: [email protected]
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