A review of This is How: Surviving What You Think You Can’t.
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
—W. H. Auden, “Musée des Beaux Arts”
This is How: Surviving What You Think You Can’t. Picador, 230 pp.
This book exists only because Augusten Burroughs has published bestsellers. Any expert in memoir or self-help—or book publishing—would have put the kibosh on it from you or from me. With one word: Don’t.
Yes, it seems like a natural pairing, self-help and memoir. That’s why others have thought of it—and been beaten all the way back to Dubuque by agents. But here are the category codes right on the back cover of Burroughs’s This is How: Self-Help / Memoir.
It does have a personal aspect, in that he tells stories from his life, and it does merit shelving in the self-help genre. But it’s actually advice. Wise, hard-earned advice from a smart guy who’s suffered—having had the most epically dysfunctional and lavishly documented childhood in history—and some of the writing is mesmerizing.
Like the story he tells about a friend. This guy was smart, funny, tremendously appealing. Yet he had no partner—for all his friends, he was very much alone. Turns out, after you knew him a while, he told his Story. He’d been abused grotesquely in childhood by his parents. Once he revealed this, his inner reality he’d been waiting to lay on you, it became a third wheel. And it derailed any relationship.
Burroughs has seen someone and his broken crutch, seen him down to the marrow. Someone whose entire life is lived shackled to his past. To his Story. Readers get the message of that chapter, “How to Get Over Your Addiction to the Past.” Ironic coming from the author of six memoirs, among them Running with Scissors, and Burroughs addresses this. Make something from your pain, he says. Use it as fuel.
Who could blame him? It was a wonder he was still alive.
Today, I see it differently.
My friend is a dramatic example of someone who is haunted by their past. But because the past is gone, how does it haunt?
Of course, it does not. The past does not haunt us. We haunt the past. We allow our minds to focus in that direction. We open memories and examine them. We reexperience emotions we felt during the painful events we experienced because we are recalling them in as much detail as we can.
This is the book’s great strength, its concrete examples—the sort of stories and truths we pick up in life and can’t forget—followed by his cold-eyed conclusions. And Burroughs has more examples than most. But this aspect is also the book’s weakness, its personal nature. That is, Burroughs’s nature. Highly intelligent, very self-disciplined, and hugely assertive. If you’re all those as well, this book is your flawless Huckleberry. If you’re none, or only some of those things, This is How is less than perfect. Others of us may benefit, but Burroughs’s perfect advisee is just like himself. So not all his truths are eternal verities.
For instance, when he was an adolescent, he behaved so meekly that he decided he had to get over it. (When someone stepped on his foot, he apologized.) So he went into a store and brazenly cut in front of a couple of women to buy a pack of gum. When one politely protested, he said something so vile he won’t reproduce it. But he was cured—praise be.
Then there are his criticisms of AA. Basically he loathes its reliance on the group and its notion that alcohol exerts unique power over addicts. Now, AA’s an organization I respect, based on what I’ve read and been told by those whom I believe. Of course, he’s the alcoholic who’s been there, not me. Yet the AA stuff, while personally true for Burroughs, feels kind of irresponsible too. His default setting is, Suck it up and use willpower. Which also worked for him in quitting smoking. But maybe he wasn’t clinically depressed or whatever. Just smart and mightily pissed off.
Yet how can you not admire a writer with a chapter called “How to Remain Unhealed”? Some gurus say you can transcend wounds and even ego. Which seems to promise you can transcend being human. Can escape suffering. And Burroughs says you can’t. I honor those who want us to aim higher. And I believe some people do achieve enlightenment. But I admire as well Burroughs’s less ambitious agenda for himself and for us.
This is How is Uncle Augusten’s gift to the world.
I sat right up, reading it, very still—sometimes intent and amazed, sometimes almost holding my breath, as when he writes about living with loss and tending the dying. A talented writer’s blazing truths will do that to you. Even in places I disagreed with him, I admired his audacity.
Later I returned to this book in a post to quote it; and the quotes show why it amazed me, better than does this brief notice.