Saturday, July 13, 2013

Meet the Robisons

Two brothers, two memoirs, and two remarkably similar covers -- a boy with a box on his head, another with his eyes squeezed shut. Just what is it they can't bear to look at? The answer is a dysfunctional family with parents who loathe each other, the father an abusive alcoholic, the mother mentally ill. Enter a philandering, balloon-loving psychiatrist who invites patients to live at his squalid house and eventually becomes the legal guardian of thirteen-year-old Chris.

Running with Scissors

This is his memoir of those early years. He is gay, hates school, and likes to polish jewellery. He wants hair as smooth as plastic and dreams of becoming the next Vidal Sassoon. He also has a wicked sense of humour, and at the psychiatrist’s home there is plenty of opportunity to exercise it.

The kids play with an electroshock machine. Bowel movements and randomly selected bible passages are consulted for divine guidance. And since Dr. Finch believes repressed anger is dangerous, he encourages confrontation. The result is some hilarious foul-mouthed vituperation among family members. No one escapes the book's wounded humour, including the author himself. In one place I actually shouted with laughter. But the book's purpose is to shock as well as entertain, and includes a couple of uncomfortable sex scenes.

Dr. Finch eventually lost his licence and Chris changed his name to Augusten Xon Burroughs. He worked in advertising before launching his career as a memoirist. Running with Scissors was a huge best-seller and made into a movie, but also triggered a lawsuit against Augusten and his publisher. The case was settled out of court with both sides claiming vindication. Burroughs maintains the memoir is accurate.

Look Me in the Eye

Augusten's older brother, John, has Asperger's Syndrome, which went undiagnosed until he was 40 years old. As a teenager, John was written off as a lazy misfit by teachers and therapists. He dropped out of high school and left home at age 16.

What happened next is remarkable. An interest in music and electronics led to a successful career as a sound engineer for Pink Floyd's sound company, and soon he was modifying guitars for Ace Frehley of KISS so they would produce smoke and shoot rockets. Eventually he set up his own business based on another of his passions, repairing high-end autos – Porsches, Rolls-Royces, etc.

Where Running with Scissors is shockingly funny, Look Me in the Eye is earnest and inspirational, shedding light on what it's like to be an Aspergian and celebrating its gifts. Yet John is not without his own sense of humour, and it can be as bent as Augusten's. Some of the scenes are as startling as anything in Running with Scissors. Others are just plain memorable.

In one, John attends a faculty party with his parents and puts some snooty profs in place with an outrageous off-the-cuff tale about why you should tip your garbageman. In another, he's working at Milton Bradley, the toy company, and sets up a joke involving a pile of white powder made by shaving a plastic countertop in the R&D lab. A company VP doesn't report it -- he snorts it and keeps coming back for more.

It was Augusten's encouragement that caused John to write Look Me in the Eye. Augusten wrote the foreword, and in his own book devotes a chapter to John. At the same time, John records his own encounters with Dr. Finch, using the same pseudonyms that Augusten uses. At the end of Look Me in the Eye, we learn that the two brothers have built homes nextdoor to each other.

The complementary nature of the books is a good reason to read them back-to-back.

Meet the Finches
Ruthless with Scissors

Meet the Parents
John G. Robison
Margaret Robison

Meet the Authors
Augusten’s website

John’s website