I’d avoided Augusten Burroughs’ childhood recollection for some obvious packaging issues. I’m sure he’d understand, obsessed as he was in childhood with designing catchy packaging for hair care products. The cover of the book shows a young child in a hokey seventies era picture and the title reminded me of those t-shirts advertising bad behavior that certain not terribly intelligent people wear. “Doesn’t play well with others” or “Eats paste.” It all struck me as pre-fabbed hipster coolness. If the kid on the cover had been wearing Spiderman Underoos, that certainly would have put it over the top.
There are a number of books I’ve listened to that I wouldn’t have given the time of day to in their print format. With the actual book there in my hand, there is a compulsion to finish that an audiobook just lacks. A Map of the World is such a horrible book, written as if told by such a dingbat, that I could easily stop before the first disc was over, put the book away, and move on.
I’m certainly glad I gave Burroughs a chance. The story he tells is horrific, hysterical, quirky, and ultimately moving in its own very peculiar way. It is the story of growing up with a parent who is insane. As Burroughs himself puts it “And my mother began to go crazy. Not crazy in a ‘Let’s paint the kitchen in a bright red’ sort of way. But crazy in a gas oven, toothpaste sandwich, I am God sort of way.”
The book starts right in the middle of Augusten’s parents’ disintegrating relationship and it just gets worse before halfway through disc one. Augusten’s mother is an aspiring confessional poet while his father is a highly functional alcoholic math professor with a curiously flat personality. He says things like “You know I rather like that smell. I wouldn’t mind living next to a landfill one bit.” Theirs is a mismatched pairing, one of many throughout the book, but the one with the highest potential for violence.
As a method of dealing with their dysfunctional failing relationship, Augusten’s parents begin to attend a therapy session with an eccentric psychologist named Dr. Finch. What would have been a run of the mill story of growing up in a disintegrating family takes a turn for the even more unhinged bizarre with the introduction of the good doctor.
Just how potty Dr. Finch is is made indelibly clear when the Dr. explains to Augusten and his mother that he has a room at the back of the office he calls “The Masturbatorium” where he goes in between patients to jerk off. He offers the two of them a tour, which they try to decline. Along the way, Dr. Finch rhapsodizes about his true spiritual wife, Golda Meier, to whose picture he jerks off.
Perhaps at this point, you and I would be ending our doctor-patient relationship with this Finch. That is because we are sane people. It is a strange notion that people who are so mentally ill or unbalanced that they need counseling are in a capable position to best choose a doctor.
Augusten’s mother Deirdre is, as we discover, a terrible judge of doctors. As the marriage continues to go down the drain, she increases her time with the doctor and even sends Augusten off to live with the Finch family while she and the doctor engage in an intensive therapy session. Rather than curing Deirdre, the doctor’s therapy regulates her psychotic episodes so that they occur every year in the fall.
Augusten finds, oddly enough, that the Finch’s own brand of familial eccentricity is actually healthy for him. While his mother, displaying true obsessive tendencies, would shout at him for moving an ashtray even an inch, the Finch’s live a life almost devoid of rules. When Augusten and Finch’s daughter Natalie decide that the kitchen ceiling is too low and oppressive, they stay up all night tearing it out. No one complains about this. Nor do they complain, much, about the Christmas tree that stays up all year, long after it’s shed its needles. Nor the months’ worth of dirty dishes in the kitchen.
This loosening up allows Augusten to admit what is quite obvious to the listener by this point, even though there’s been no physical manifestation of his homosexuality. The hints dropped are rather among the stereotypical kind — a fastidious personal hygiene and grooming regimen, the dream of growing up to be involved in the beauty industry, a domineering mother figure — so that when Augusten does come out, you’re rather ready for it.
What I was not prepared for was Augusten’s relationship with Finch’s adopted son, a thirty-year-old mentally unstable man who completely disappears before book’s end. Not disappears in the sense of just stops being written about, but disappears as in runs away and is never heard from again. Their relationship starts out with what is almost rape, then progresses to see-saw power trips where each takes turns with the whip hand. A moment of tenderness is followed by Augusten telling his lover, “I hate you, you’re a failure as a man. You disgust me.” This cruel side comes as a bit of a shock, as up to that point Augusten seems like a rather nice thirteen-year-old.
To make matters even odder, Finch, through various psychoses of Deirdre and issues with her lovers and her struggles with insanity and poetry, is ultimately given custody of Augusten. While living here, Augusten is given such dubious advice such as Finch’s plan to get him out of school by Augusten faking a suicide attempt, which Finch engineers with Valium and bourbon.
The book is filled to overflowing with black humor like this. Consider the scene in which Finch and Deirdre drive Augusten to the mental hospital where they will commit him as part of their ruse. Deirdre, sensing a captive audience, forces the two of them to endure a reading of some of her poetry. Half an hour after, the doc gives him the pills and bourbon, and when Augusten next opens his eyes, he's having his stomach pumped at a hospital.
Or you might find scatological divination more to your liking. At one stage, Dr. Finch calls the family in to look at an extremely large shit he’s just taken. He then practices divination using it, deciding that God's sense of humor is really quite amazing. God, it seems, is telling him through shit that the family fortunes will be looking up soon. When the positive turnaround in their fortunes really does follow his he begins scrutinizing all the family's bowel movements.
Or consider this scene when Augusten walks in on his adoptive mother, the harried wife of Dr. Finch, Agnes:
Agnes was on the sofa in the TV room eating out of a bag of Purina Dog chow. When she saw me walk into the room, she laughed. “It’s not as bad as it looks. It’s actually quite good. Would you like to try some?”
“Uh, no thanks,” I said.
She said, “You don't know what you’re missing,” and popped another brown nugget into her mouth.
And right there at every turn, Augusten is there with his handy journal, documenting every ounce of insanity and every step of craziness. Luckily for us he did.
This story is narrated by Augusten himself. Normally, I find authors to be terrible readers of their own work, but Augusten did a wonderful job with this. It’s the kind of personal story that is well served by it being told in your own voice in your own way. He is not a terribly evocative reader, nor does he have a wonderful voice, yet there’s something compelling about him describing the very things that happened to him. There’s something powerful in hearing of a madness survived and hearing it from the survivor.