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.

Burroughs-This is How

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 writes:

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.

Augusten Burroughs

[A. Burroughs: your naughty, brilliant uncle.]

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.

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.


  • Thank you, Richard, for this post on Burroughs (which in other persons and situations has also been a name to conjure with–but I didn’t realize that this Burroughs was also the writer of “Running With Scissors,” which we loved on the screen). Again, memoirs and autobiographies are not my strong suit, but I can see reading this one eventually, simply because “Running With Scissors” made such an impression on me. It made me think of the way we all feel slightly dysfunctional until we hear someone else’s story and realize that we didn’t have it so bad, or at least not all the time, or that we are all more alike in our dysfunctionality than we are different.

    • Richard says:

      Yes, truly, Victoria. That’s a strength of memoir, that story we not only empathize with but that helps us put our own story in perspective. We are our narratives . . . and they are hard to change, and sometimes hard even to see.

  • Great review, Richard. I thought you were–what does Fox News say?–fair and balanced in your discussion. I’ve toyed with putting Burroughs’ book on my burgeoning To Read list, but haven’t so far. Maybe I will now.

    By the way, I have not read (or commented) on your previous post because it looks like a spoiler for Breaking Bad and I’m determined to download those missing episodes and watch them before I read anything about it. A chore that is becoming increasingly difficult as the *entire* web is like a minefield for me right now. LOL. We need to drive up to the capital, where Internet service is less than inferior, but alas, our car is having electrical issues. And so, I remain in stealth mode, but I am dying to know about your thoughts on prologues…

    • Richard says:

      Thanks, Sarah! I do find Burroughs’s book very much worth reading. I am halfway through a second reading. The purpose is both to examine his technique as a writer and to ensure I fully absorb his advice that I find true.

      My BB post really isn’t a spoiler, only in the sense it discusses a minor spoiler—BB’s own prologue! But if you haven’t made it yet to this season, I suppose it gives something away by saying what the prologue says and seems to portend.

  • Well said, Richard. I agree with Sarah’s “balanced and fair” assessment.

    I suppose it’s inevitable that memoir and self-help will start mixing/blurring, because self-help is such a huge sales category and many of us read memoir so that we can put our own story in perspective” which a kind of self-help, isn’t it? If I was a publisher, I’d be doing everything I can to increase sales and this gimmick sounds like it might work.

    Besides, the category of “self-help” is chock full of books by gurus and strong personalities who are not like you, not in the least bit reticent to be authoritatively, relentlessly didactic. They are not concerned about gently guiding people into self-awareness. Instead, they blast out absolute prescriptions.

    So, “self-help” as a category in the bookstores isn’t a very accurate description of what populates those shelves. Sounds like Burroughs book fits right in there, with the outstanding additional merit of being a fine piece of literary writing.

    My personal choice would be to preserve the purity of separation–setting memoir apart as sanctified, as a kind of literary altar where ritualized action and contemplation are hallowed but preachy-evangelism is not condoned.

    But then, would all the people who are looking for the kind of inspiration that someone like Burroughs can give, find him? Quite a few people actually want to be told exactly what to do, when, and even want someone to explain how they ought to feel about it. In times of dire stress and trauma, it’s so much easier to imitate by rote than to think for oneself. Some people are so hurting and confused that they just can’t muster, at the moment, the strength to think for themselves. They want a strong leader, a hero, to take them by the hand and drag them to a better place. Then, later, after they get to that better place (by imitating a hero) some find enough safety and healing that they can start thinking for themselves. I say this with heartfelt compassion for “them,” because I have been them. I would have appreciated a best-selling author/leader/guru who was also a brilliant writer.

    Once again, you’ve convinced me that I must read another book I hadn’t planned on reading.

  • Janice Gary says:

    Fascinating review on a fascinating concept- going from memoir to self-help book. Funny, because when I first started my memoir, Short Leash, I thought I was going to write a self-help book. It would be easy, right? But I quickly became disinterested in telling other people what to do.
    I’m kind of confused about your take-away on this book. Did you like it? Do you recommend it? The beginning of the review makes me think not, but the ending is much more upbeat.

    • Richard says:

      Oh, I liked it, Jan. I just had to point out that he pulled off something that most wouldn’t be permitted to try, that melding, though actually it isn’t in practice so much a dual-genre book as a true self-help book by a famous memoirist. I imagine a lot of authors in that genre would use examples from their own lives, but this is billed as memoir too just because he’s a famous memoirist. And I don’t agree with all his advice—I think it’s important to say why I think some of his advice is flawed. But as in the example of his friend who lives in the past in his damage, much of it is brilliant. As I am trying to write shorter, that example, along with the stray mention of his advice on dealing with the dying, must stand for the positives.

  • shirleyhs says:

    Richard, once again you introduce me to a book I would not otherwise have considered reading. I’m intrigued enough to buy the book myself. And my guess is that other memoirists will follow Burroughs down this path, especially if his book sells well.

    The internet has changed publishing in ways we are only now beginning to understand.

    Memoir as a genre might not have arisen as we know it without the internet. And the research on book “discoverablity” is likely to create new genre blends, even among literary writers, especially those as interested in marketing as their publishers.

    I am exceeding my knowledge base here but following a fairly well-honed intuition bolstered by a few random facts. :-)

    Your thoughts?

    • Richard says:

      Shirley, you have seen portents. But after fighting technology problems in a classroom and my laptop on campus this week, it occurred to me that the problems and the technicians who fixed them would not have even existed so many years ago. I do think the Internet is having all kinds of effects regarding books. For instance, very quickly self-publishing seems to be going from something that had at least a slight stigma to a preferred option. Before long, authors will be on the defensive about why they were so passive that they went with a middleman instead of self publishing!

  • marianbeaman says:

    Great epigram to pair with the review: I’ve always loved reading and teaching Auden. Thank you for introducing me to a book I may not have considered reading before. Thank you as well for your kind words about my review on Shirley Showalter’s blog post yesterday.

  • shirleyhs says:

    From Phyllis Rose in The American Scholar: “We want to learn the secret of creativity, because it can be the secret to happiness. We turn to all kinds of literature, biography and fiction both, to learn how to live, and in a way, all books are self-help books.” http://theamericanscholar.org/examined-lives/#.Ukb0-7x56Ud

  • Richard says:

    Nice. Thanks, Shirley. I for one will follow that link . . .

  • Beth says:

    I haven’t read any of this author’s books or seen the movie based on Running With Scissors, so I’m absolutely unqualified to comment, but of course that has never stopped me before. I did read a 2008 piece in New York Magazine by Sam Anderson, http://nymag.com/arts/books/features/46475/. Anderson persuaded me I would prefer not to have dinner in a public place with Mr. Burroughs, but between the two of you, I’m sufficiently intrigued to go back and read the original memoir that set off his serial memoir-writing. My own memory of childhood is vague and spotty, perhaps because it was generally pleasant and perhaps unexceptional, and so I’m fascinated by this author’s presentation of his own experiences and phenomenal memory from a very young age.

    • Richard says:

      Thanks for that link, Beth. I will read. On the one hand, in his advice book he implicitly presents himself as a together guy, or at least untortured. Even happy. On the other, there’s a line it about how he finds interpersonal interactions very difficult. Which raises all kinds of questions about whom we take advice from. I found many of his insights true and exciting, as I say, and others wrongheaded. In truth I read his book as a writer to see what a writer could do with it, as much as anything.

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