Augusten Burroughs on and off the wagon

Published in: September-October 2003 issue.


He’s been officially knighted as the literary scene’s “New Mad Hatter,” according to Book magazine’s second annual “Newcomers Issue”—a title Augusten Burroughs readily accepts with a wink-and-a-nudge and a fresh piece of Nicorette gum.

With the publication of Running with Scissors last year, Burroughs’ “best-selling memoir of madness,” the author revealed the true story of how he was given away by his mother as a young boy to be raised by a charismatic, unorthodox psychiatrist and his family—who consumed Valium like candy and whose children played with an old electroshock therapy machine as if it were an Easy-Bake oven.

“People tend to think that because I was raised in that environment that I might not be normal, that I might be a loose cannon or that maybe I still eat dog food or something,” says the author with a good-natured chuckle. “I’m quite clean-cut, actually. I mean, I look like a podiatrist or something, I think. I find that those who are raised in extreme environments tend to be very traditional, like myself, or they can turn into complete freaks.”

            Actually, Burroughs wasn’t always your typically clean-cut, podiatrist-looking, openly gay man living in New York City. His new memoir Dry details his life as a highly successful advertising executive with a penchant for drinking himself into a series of blackouts, that eventually fade into the jarringly bright reality of a gay-friendly rehab center—not unlike the “Pride Institute” advertised in most gay and lesbian newsweeklies across the country.

“Dry has a lot more introspection that Running with Scissors, because when I was a kid I took great pains to not feel anything. And this caught up with me later in life, as you’ll see in the new book. When I got sober, I was mortified by the ‘recovery community’ and how un-fun it was, how filled with ‘reclaiming’ and ‘closure’ it was. With Dry, I also want to show people that just because you stop drinking does not mean you stop being crazy and funny,” he says, champing away on Nicorette gum, his one lingering addiction (he hasn’t been a smoker for quite some time now).

Burroughs says that he is well aware of the alarmingly high rates of alcoholism and drug addiction that continue to haunt gays and lesbians, especially within the circuit-boy segment of the community. “I don’t go to circuit parties and I’m not a bar person anymore, but believe me, I know what it’s like to have to close the Odeon at 4 a.m. every Saturday night. At first, I made a very conscious effort never to become that kind of alcoholic. I was very high functioning. I used to say to myself, maybe I drink like a fish, but I can handle it. Then I literally woke up one day and I was one of those people. Being an alcoholic is not about having fun, it’s not a social lubricant to meet people. It’s about being trapped behind a slammed-shut door and being alone, because you are hiding your addiction, you are miserable and alone. It’s no longer fun. But you can’t lecture someone into quitting, you can’t force them or cajole them into quitting. Believe me, I wouldn’t have recovered if I hadn’t had to.”

Dry: A Memoir, which was actually written before Running with Scissors, is the product of Burroughs’ journals written during his tenure in rehab. “I suddenly had all this time on my hands after rehab, time that I used to spend in bars. And I didn’t know what to do with myself (or my hands), so I wrote constantly for hours and hours each day. I didn’t write Dry with the thought that it would ever be published—or even read for that matter. I wrote it to navigate through my new sober life.”

Burroughs’ new sober life includes Dennis Pilsits, his boyfriend of four years whom he met online, a new sex column for Details magazine (“I write about men’s bodies, body image, dick size, urinal etiquette”), and dealing with his cult following of readers and fans (yes, he does in fact get recognized on the street). “I’ve heard from all walks of life—gay, straight, everyday people and famous people—and they all say that Running with Scissors always makes them feel good about themselves and their own experiences, which is incredible to hear,” says Burroughs, who politely demurs when pressed to reveal details on some of his more “famous” fans—except when it comes to Julianne Moore.

Moore (The End of the Affair, The Hours, Far from Heaven) has signed on to play Burroughs’ mother, a poet “with delusions of Anne Sexton,” in the film adaptation of Running with Scissors. Moore is the ideal person to portray Deirdre, according to the author, “because her face is like tissue paper: It has the ability to crumple up … and show such depth of emotion. One look from her can convey four pages of written text.” The film, scheduled to go into production later this year, will be directed by Ryan Murphy, the creator of the WB series Popular.

While Burroughs has not had direct input into the film, Murphy has been consulting the author on casting selections of the psychiatrist: Christopher Walken, Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine have all expressed interest in the role of Dr. Finch.

“Based on Ryan Murphy’s personality and based on the fact that he just ‘got’ who my mother was, I am confident that the film will be true to the book. This is my life and my work, and I wouldn’t let this become some hideous, tacky thing on the screen; I wouldn’t let it become my Waterworld or something!”

For now, it’s Dry: A Memoir that will be making the big splash, with Burroughs’ trademark wry—and raw—sense of humor, his pitch-perfect comedic timing, and his balls-out honesty on display. “It’s a fun story, and hysterically funny, I think,” offers Burroughs, who says he writes every day, all day long (“in a T-shirt and Adidas sweatpants covered in French bulldog hair.”) “And anyone who doesn’t cry gets a full refund.”

Some Facts about Augusten Burroughs:

  • He’s the 18th-generation grandson of King James the Second of Scotland. “Not that this has done any good in my life.”
  • He was a child actor in a Tang Instant Breakfast Drink commercial.
  • At seventeen he passed his GED and enrolled in college as a pre-med student. Before his eighteenth birthday he had dropped out of college to become a waiter. At nineteen, he moved to San Francisco and became an advertising copywriter. Since then he’s created “some famous, not famous, and mortifying ads” for some of the best-known brands in the world.
  • A full-time writer, he has “no hobbies, skills or interests other than writing about himself.” His next book, Magical Thinking, is a collection of true stories centering around the delusion that the author can “control the world with my mind.”
  • He lives in Manhattan and Western Massachusetts with his “much, much, much better half,” Dennis.


Tony Peregrin is a writer Windy City Times.


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