I have always loved the feeling you get when characters start growing on you, while reading a captivating book. But sometimes, they grow on you like cancer does, and with each page, each chapter, you dislike them more and more. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is actually awesome, especially in a book that is well written.
At first, I didn’t really know what to make of all the characters in ‘Running with Scissors’. They kind of piled up, and there were more of them with each page, one freakier and more extravagant than the other. The book felt strangely predictable during the first pages, because I was sure that the main character was gay as soon as I realized he was a boy. From this point on, I was sure there would be no major surprises. I have to add that I knew nothing about the story, the movie or the book, prior to my reading. My first suspicions were confirmed by a friend from whom I had borrowed the book. I was somewhat disappointed that her confirmations did not feel like spoilers. To my surprise, however, things turned out much more complicated than I could have imagined. The major survivor of all these revelations was a feeling of annoyance I was not able to get rid of.
The key word will become ‘annoyance’.
The first subject of my annoyance was the mother. A self-absorbed, neurotic woman, living in her own world, is prone to cause feelings of antipathy. Next on the list was the father, and trust me, it is easy to resent a violent, alcoholic man who is absent most of the time, and horrible when he is present. Soon enough, I realized that the two of them had almost nothing in common, except for being oblivious to their son’s feelings, thoughts and problems. At this point I was painfully reminded of all the troubled families I know. So many of my neighbors and acquaintances grew up in somewhat similar circumstances. Having a neurotic mother and a drunken, violent father is not that uncommon. There are enough mothers in the world ignoring their children, their physical and emotional needs, and there are so many seemingly respectable men, who turn out to be cruel husbands and fathers. People handle situations like these as good as they are able to, but being a child diminishes one’s possibilities. There are not enough viable solutions for similar situations.
At this point I started to develop some sort of pity for the poor suffering child. Unfortunately it went away quickly because, you guessed it, I was again annoyed. Instead of turning into a tormented soul, the boy grew more spoiled and silly. For the sake of making that point, I will ask myself if it a nature versus nurture dilemma. I understand granting freedom to a child, but not without setting boundaries. How much of his persona is caused by his parents’ failure and how much is really him, I wonder... Sure of the fact that a big part was really his character, his own flaws, I eventually got back to being annoyed. I have to admit though, I felt a bit guilty for not liking him, since meanwhile, I have found out that he is a real person, not only a character. Maybe it is just the way he was described?
Young Augusten was basically abandoned by his family and moved into the house of a psychiatrist who attended to his mother. I wondered if this was going to make his life a bit easier. And I actually think it did. Maybe, in some weird way, it helped him gain some distance from his own dysfunctional family, while becoming a member of another one.
Each chapter is a rendition of weird events taking place in the Finch household. The doctor seemed to use some unorthodox measures right from the start, but I would have never expected to find out that he is the best candidate for looney-ville, and that he should be locked up together with all his patients. Not since Jane Austen have I met such a dull and flat character like Agnes, the doctor’s wife. A good Christian soul who left all the values of Christianity behind once she got married and faced real life does not seem uncommon either. She is as much of a stereotype as the abusive father. The two sisters seem much too exaggerated to me. Their behavior is beyond anything I have seen in spoiled children. And the baby, well the baby makes the entire picture complete. Somewhere in between we find out that there are actually more children, but I lost track of them. And of course, there is Hope. What a beautiful name the author chose, like she would represent some sort of light at the end of the tunnel. Creating a somewhat normal character, there was a balance between the casual and the insane. She is actually as demented as the rest of the Finches, but it takes some time to notice. It would have been a miracle to develop a sane personality in that household. Eventually, we all meet Neil. For a second I almost thought he wished to escape his family and live a peaceful life. He is truly as deranged as all the rest, and should be considered a danger to himself and those around him. There is no way to sugarcoat it, he mistreats and abuses a thirteen year old boy, while having the blessing of his family. In other circumstances one would be glad that we see a loving and caring relationship develop. Just that it is not. It is gross and horrible and wrong.
Augusten is turning ambivalent. While being mature in so many ways, understanding the world of adults and social constructs, he relishes in his misery. He would have had some strings he could have pulled, but on several occasions, he manifests a strange comfort, he is engulfed by the weirdness and enjoys it. Is he a victim, or does he support the system that tries to destroy him? If he is able to keep himself fed and sheltered without adult supervision, how come that his survival instinct does not tell him to leave the mess he lives in behind?
To make things easier for me, he even gave his novel the title “Running with Scissors”. Taken by its true meaning, the title is an essential argument in favor of the point I am making. If somebody who chooses to run with scissors, I would imagine he is perfectly aware of the lunacy of his actions. The logical conclusion, again, would be that Augusten was always well aware of the risks, but was determined to follow the path even though he might have metaphorically “cut himself”. I am not sure if the author was aware of this while choosing the title. If he was, it could only mean, for me at least, that he was always mindful about the repercussions.
Finishing the novel, I started to research. I was curious about the story, the background and the details. I found out about the scandal the book caused, the movie it inspired and the settlement made. This is how I found out that the author claims to have a really good memory, going back to when he was approximately two years old. If this is true, the logical conclusion can only be that the novel is a pretty accurate memoir, a detailed recollection of events, conversations and thoughts. And with this, I realized why I had the constant feeling of annoyance. Our young Augusten is profoundly self-conscious, it is not an imaginary maturity. If the child was mature enough to realize the faults of those around him, why did he not react differently. If he was able to threaten a man with accusing him of statutory rape, if he felt that he was being abused, emotionally suffocated, why did he nourish the relationship? He was a teenager, and at that age, doing the right thing is often difficult. We all know that it is a hard time, even for those growing up in normal families. It is impossible to put myself in his shoes, since the life he lived seems too outlandish to be real.
Undeniably, the writing is hilarious. The ironic, and sometimes naïve voice makes you forget that the things you read about are horrible. But is a funny package enough to sell the story? I often dislike memoirs, since I consider that anybody who has lived for a while can write one. A really good memoir is the one containing extraordinary events or characters, the ones telling great stories of mankind, humans interacting with the crumbling or blooming world around them. A bonus is, of course, if the memoir is written in a witty and catchy manner.
I feel a bit bad about the fact that I find Augusten annoying, like this is something I need to apologize for. And I know why. Because he is not entirely fictional. He is a real human being, who really lived that life, who really experienced all these things.
Bottom line is, it is definitely worth reading. It is shocking and captivating. It makes you laugh regardless of the eerie and bad things happening. And if I dislike a character, so what? It only means that I will remember him, and I think this is the reason why authors write, and why we all read.