A Modern-Day Witch: Talking Augusten Burroughs

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The first time I picked up a book by Augusten Burroughs, I was ten years old and terrified—caught between being an angsty teenager and living in a troubled home. I spotted a worn copy of his best-seller, Running with Scissors, on my mother’s bookcase. I asked her if I could read it, but, to my discontent, she said I was too young.

Ten years later, you could call me a die-hard Augusten Burroughs fan. Some people collect ephemera like concert tickets or move stubs; I collect Augusten Burroughs memoirs. Multiple copies of each of his nonfiction books fill my bookshelves. I recommend him fiercely to friends, peers, and coworkers alike. His prose stimulates me and his stories nourish me, making me feel understood. I grasp his words firmly, as though they are my only port in the storm.

Sellevision, Burroughs’s first book, debuted in 2003, followed by three bestsellers: Dry, This Is How, and Lust & Wonder. Upon discovering he had a new book forthcoming, I knew I had to have a copy. Toil & Trouble surprised me with its wit, familiarity, and also the shocking (to me) discovery that Burroughs identifies as a witch. I’ve had my own journey with magic—enough to consider that more than coincidence was at play. I find myself captivated by the stories he threads together about the magic that has trailed throughout the maternal side of his family through generations. He reveals how he tells his partner about this side of him, how he uses “magick” for good, and the reassurance that he seeks from something beyond that which is this world.

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The Rumpus: I have been a fan of yours for quite some time. Your latest memoir, Toil & Trouble, touched me in a different way. I have always felt a similar witchiness about myself and at some point, I stopped chalking everything that happened out to a coincidence. What was the moment that made you realize that there was something more?

Augusten Burroughs: First of all, thank you. To answer your question, I was nine years old when the perplexities and coincidences I experienced all coalesced. It’s a scene I show in the opening chapter: I was coming home on the school bus and I suddenly just knew that something had happened to my grandmother. I could see her with blood on her forehead, and it turned out she had been in a car accident at that exact moment. That was when my mother first recognized that I possessed a certain family trait: I was a witch just like her, just like her mother, just like her aunt, and on and on through the family line. I was in grade school, so it’s never been something about myself that I question or doubt, not even at my weakest or most troubled moments. But that’s not to say I’ve always used it properly or for my benefit. I think, in fact, I created a windy swirl of chaos around me for many years.

Rumpus: Has anyone regarded you in a negative light for writing this? What do you tell your critics?

Burroughs: It’s been really positive. People have been telling me it touched a nerve, like, Me too, I just never realized what it was! It’s divisive subject matter so I’m sure there’ll be an opposing, You have got to be friggin’ kidding me. I never respond to a negative review, though. I might not always agree with it and sometimes I might even think, they should be called out for this, it’s so homophobic or dismissive or irresponsibly incorrect. But the reviews aren’t for me, they’re for potential readers. Without mentioning names, I will say that there’s a weird celebrity who follows me on Instagram, and the first post I did about witchcraft got this immediate, “Nooooo, turn away from Satan!” response, and I thought, “This is going to be interesting…”

Rumpus: Toil & Trouble shows your relationship with your mother in a different light—all relationships are layered, especially ones with a mother. When you look back onto your relationship with your mother, how do you choose what to write about? Do you leave things out either to protect her or yourself?

Burroughs: I was never going to write about being a witch. My mother taught me from a very early age that it was the most natural thing in the world but it was also a private thing because society at large didn’t understand witches. Well-educated people (like my PhD- and MFA-credentialed parents) didn’t believe in witches and would be disturbed by somebody who claimed to be one. I understood from day one that if I ever spoke about being a witch, I would be considered a joke or just stupid. So I really had two significant relationships with my mother and I had two significantly different mothers: My mother in her thirties painted dead relatives in the living room and schooled me in witchcraft every afternoon after school. My mother in her forties lost her mind to mental illness and sent me away to live with her insane psychiatrist. I wrote about this mother in Running with Scissors. My relationship with her in those years was strained, to say the least. And by the time I escaped from my childhood, I wanted less and less to do with her until I finally stopped emailing her. She would claim that I cut her off, cut her out of my life, but that isn’t true at all. I just never called her again. I never wrote her another email. But my phone number remained the same and so did my email address and she never once contacted me. And that, in fact, defines my mother. She was an untreatable narcissist. Even when I was very young, prior to the arrival of her mental illness, her focus was always on herself, even if her gaze was sometimes in my direction. The young mother I write about in Toil & Trouble was aloof and self-absorbed but she was also brilliant and she supplied me with all the tools I would require to fix anything broken in my life. She taught me to rely on myself. And I feel a great deal of gratitude towards her for that.

Rumpus: You talk about your three dogs in this book. What has being a dog parent taught you about your humanity and theirs? Could you ever have imagined after all those years of self-destruction, of caring for these magical animals that keep one in check and furnish an abundantly flowing heart?

Burroughs: Temple Grandin’s brilliant and insightful Animals in Translation does a beautiful job articulating the profundity of “our” relationship with dogs and why we have it. Her thesis that we co-evolved, our brains are complementary, that dogs are autistic savants, rings perfectly true to me. Our three dogs are three of my favorite people in the world. We have never trained them. Except for housebreaking and “sit” and “no,” our dogs are entirely self-directed. They have completely different personalities and they love one another and have never once had a fight. The thing is, Christopher and I have never had a fight, not in the twenty years we’ve known each other, so all they’ve ever known is adoration.

The dogs, of course, love Christopher most. If he is in the city and I am alone with them at the house here in Connecticut, I don’t go upstairs to my office. I work in the living room so the dogs won’t feel alone. Except they never come into the living room with me; they stay in Christopher’s office with his left-behind molecular presence. Later they pass through the living room, say hi to me, and go into the kitchen to wait for him by the door. But that’s all I do when he’s gone; I wait for him to get back home. I learn something new—he surprises me—every single day. Christopher is my superior in every way: he is smarter than I am, he is more interesting, funnier, a better person. I don’t say these things to denigrate myself; I’m the second most fascinating person I know. Sometimes I will objectively think, We would be the most popular series on Netflix if I just shot our daily life on my iPhone. And I actually think this is true. Remember when I told you my mother was a narcissist? Yeah, well, I’m not. Just so you know.

Rumpus: There’s less this time about your drinking, but you have written other memoirs (like, Dry, This Is How, and Lust & Wonder) about it. Are you ready to move on from that story? I realized something profound the other day—I was using the stories of my past to define and shape my future. As a nonfiction writer, how do you let go? When is it time to start telling a different story?

Burroughs: I never think about my sobriety—or rarely. I absolutely never want a drink. I don’t miss alcohol at all. It’s so unappealing to me now. But it wasn’t always like this. In my early sobriety, I did think about alcohol. I wrote Dry while I was getting sober, while I was living a sober life in my twenties in Manhattan and I wrote it as a diary, never knowing it would be a book. It was written in real time. When something happened, I ran home to my tiny apartment and wrote about it. I wrote constantly. Alcohol had a smaller role in Lust & Wonder because only a part of the book takes place when I was drinking. But I had to be careful not to just repeat myself, tell part of the same story. I probably get the most reader feedback from This Is How. A lot of people tell me my books have helped them through hard times, but This Is How is the one where they say, “It saved my life.” It’s a “self-help” book for people who are psychologically ambitious and want to get over their shit, so it necessarily has a chapter about alcohol. It’s DIY.

I have survived a lot of really bad stuff. And I have made so many terrible mistakes. And that learning, that wisdom, is what I placed into This Is How. In it I write that there is no mystery to getting sober. You simply do not drink. Relapse is not part of recovery, as AA would have you believe. Relapse is part of drinking. It’s only uncomfortable not to drink. Uncomfortable, unfair, and infuriating. It’s those three things. But that’s all it is. You have to honestly want to not drink. You can’t wish you wanted not to drink. Even though I no longer drink and am not active in any kind of recovery program, my alcoholism is still a part of me. Everything we’ve ever done or been is still a part of us. We have to embrace, we have to own it all, even the ugly stuff. Because ugly recycles into beautiful. So many of the things we consider our biggest flaws are actually our largest gifts, except we are viewing them from the wrong angle.

Rumpus: In the first chapter of your book, you write about your inherited magic, how it was inherited from your mother through her mother, etc. About your mother’s mental health decline you write, “From that point, I was on my own.” Do you ever think about the impact of that moment? Did you think you would be who you are today? Did you think you would end up where you are today?

Burroughs: It’s like I said before: I abruptly lost my mother to mental illness and then in the years she recovered from it, I found her narcissism impossible to be with. At the same time, she had given me such valuable tools. She taught me how to write. And she taught me how to move molecules of matter around with my mind in order to create something. She taught me that some things can be seen or experienced before they technically occur on the timeline. And all of this has been so profoundly important to me.

Rumpus: You write in the book about a knowing—knowing this book would sell, knowing where you would end up living, amongst other things—what does this knowing do to a person? What does knowing feel like?

Burroughs: Knowing feels different from wanting, wishing, hoping, or being pretty sure. When you know something, you can bet your life on it. It exists as surely as you exist in this moment. Sometimes I will know something that it is not possible for me to know, given our understanding of physics therefore, something is missing from our fundamental understanding of how the universe functions. Then there is creating something, causing something to happen, and knowing it will happen. Different, but the same.

Rumpus: Can you become a witch or are you born one? How do you stay away from the commercialization of something that tethers you to yourself?

Burroughs: I honestly don’t know if you are born a witch or if you become one. I suspect it is genetic but I don’t know if it’s universally encoded within all humans or only in certain humans, say humans with a certain percentage of Neanderthal DNA or what other variables may be at play. It would make sense to me if the thing called “witchcraft” began in the very earliest days of our human journey, when the male was out hunting and the woman was left at home in the cave. If harm were to arrive at the cave, she would need a way to communicate this to her mate. She would need to text him, basically. So to have cellular tissue that could send and receive data without respect to distance would greatly benefit the species.

Rumpus: Do you take creative liberties when writing dialogue about childhood or do you truly remember these conversations? When writing about my childhood, oftentimes I am stumped whether to include something because I think it happened a specific way or leave something out because I cannot remember it exactly. How do you bridge that gap?

Burroughs: I don’t know. When I write about the past, I am watching it like you would watch a movie and I’m typing as fast as I can to capture every word, every movement. I am never aware that I am writing dialogue. I am only focused on listening and using my fingers to hook what I hear and throw it into my laptop. It’s impossible to know how accurate my dialogue is because that moment no longer exists and there was no recording. But I learned during the lawsuit over Running with Scissors that my memory was incredibly accurate. Several years ago a psychiatrist diagnosed me with Sensory Processing Disorder, which he admitted was a sort of amorphous condition. He told me that one of the features he frequently sees is a memory that extends deep into the past. He explained that after most people no longer need to use the high chair, they forget the mechanism that makes it open, they forget the details about the high chair. He told me that those memories which are no longer of use are purged as new more useful memories replace them. But in my case, my brain never purged those useless memories. And before I was a writer writing about my past, I would sometimes just lie in bed and revisit old motels I’d stayed in, stand atop the slippery polyester comforter on the bed and run my finger across the sparkly popcorn ceiling. But when I became a writer, by accident really, all of a sudden all those weird useless little details were suddenly incredibly useful. It was exactly like finding out I lived on top of an emerald mine.

Rumpus: You are one of my heroes. The reason my wife and I are together is because we bonded over This Is How. If I could choose to invite an author (dead or alive) to a dinner party, you would be it. What would you say at the party?

Burroughs: First of all, I am SO HAPPY you told me you met over This Is How. I wrote that book to change people’s lives. I really missed an opportunity by not giving it a cool title. Anyway, what would I say? I would mostly ask questions. And I would definitely try and fix things. Like, if somebody said something that revealed a psychological error or flaw, I would catch it and I would confront them and find out if they wanted to get over it, to fix it, and if they agreed, we’d do that. That’s what I love more than anything else. I love showing people the truth about themselves. I use myself as the mirror. But sometimes, like in person, I don’t need to use myself. Certain people are capable of massive and dramatic personal transformation. I think more people are capable of this than are not, actually. And so many things are so much easier to fix than people understand. So all the conversation would be about somebody at a party or a few somebodies but definitely not about me. I wouldn’t, like, tell stories about myself or be “funny” or hold court. I write about myself for a living. If you worked at a pizza restaurant, would you want pizza when you came home from work at night?

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Photograph of Augusten Burroughs by AXB.


Haley Sherif lives in Boston, MA with her wife and dog. Her writing has been previously published with The Rumpus, GRAVEL, Hobart Pulp, and Visual Voices. Her reading goal for 2020 is 270 books. Friends think she is nuts. More from this author →