By Suzanne Van Atten
“Running with Scissors” author Augusten Burroughs has made a career of writing about the horrific events of his life — the sexual abuse, the abandonment, the crackpot therapist, the alcoholism, the death of a lover. But he manages to do it with such humor and a surprising amount of optimism. And all his topics aren’t grim. He’s also chronicled his long-term relationship with his boyfriend Dennis and their idyllic home in rural Massachusetts with their beloved dogs. In his new book, “You Better Not Cry” (St. Martin’s Press, $21.99), Burroughs recalls his life-long desire for the perfect Christmas, from his childhood memory of eating the wax face off a life-sized stuffed Santa to a drunken one-night stand with a department-store St. Nick. He recently spoke to the AJC about his quest and what he’s learned along the way.
What is it about Christmas that is so fraught with emotions?
You know what I think it is? We learn of the Christmas myth. Santa Claus lives at the North Pole. He’s married and he’s got little elves that help him make toy soldiers. That is a big story. He gets in his sleigh, he flies, he’s got reindeer, you know, and they land on a roof. He gives presents and there’s a good list and a naughty list. It’s a very involved story and, even if we come from a deeply spiritual household, we learn the full extent of the Santa Claus myth before we learn about Jesus and God or whatever it is that a family believes in. We don’t ask, we are told. At that age, 3 and 4, most of our learning comes from pulling on things and getting our fingers smashed or asking: What? Why? What’s that? Here, though, they sit us down and they tell us, which is probably the first time that ever happens. At that age, such an involved, large story has to be a relatively large percentage of our knowledge and it’s been given to us by the people who give us our food. In otherwise, people who we trust fully.
As it turns out, later we learn, well, there is no Santa Claus. But things we learn at a very young age often become ingrained, and we don’t even know why. No rational adult would believe in Santa Claus, but what is it then that gets all those New Yorkers out at Rockefeller Center in the freezing cold to watch a tree get lit? Because you know the thing is, with a tree, no matter how tall it is, once you see it get lit, it’s going to look the same next year, too. There’s not much that happens. I think there remains in people an unacknowledged, unspoken belief or expectation in the very back of the mind that it’s possible — it’s possible that something miraculous can happen. With that, though, comes a kind of pressure, I think, that everyone wants at least once to have that perfect holiday.
Your book is about your quest for the perfect holiday.
Now I see that the only way to get that perfect Christmas is to fork over $4.5 million and buy the Norman Rockwell painting. And that’s the only place it exists. It’s so rare that it hangs on a museum wall. It’s much better to hope for nothing and as much as possible play it by ear and allow it to unfold. It’s about accepting that the Christmas ham of life is probably always going to be burned. We alcoholics have a saying: What you focus on grows. That is one of the truest things anyone will ever tell you. So if you focus on the fact that your Christmas ham is burned then that is what your holiday is. The thing that you should do is switch over to the potatoes au gratin.
So did you ever get that perfect Christmas?
No. It’s no longer even remotely on the list of things I desire.
What are you going to do this Christmas?
I don’t know. I’m probably not going to do anything. Some years it matters and some years it doesn’t. I don’t know that it’s a holiday that I’ll do anything for this year. You know, my family is in a state of chaos. And I just can’t imagine what kind of thing I would do. Things are hideous. I’m in a hideous stage.
What’s going on?
Well Dennis and I separated, right in time for the holidays. And that’s hard. And I don’t know how that will turn out. So I’m back on my own, back in my little cage back in New York. Yeah, it’s awful.
I’m so sorry. What about the dogs?
We share them. Dennis has them now while I’m on tour. Then I’ll get them when I get back.
So, you spent time in Atlanta when you were a child.
I spent summers with my grandparents, Jack and Carolyn Robison, on Scenic Highway in Lawrenceville. It’s been torn now but it was a grand old house. It was a school for wayward girls at one time. She had peacocks out there. Her grandfather Dandy built it. It was beautifully built of marble and stone and wood and brick. Not terribly old, maybe the ‘30s or ‘40s.
You loved your grandparents.
I loved my grandmother. I was intimidated by grandfather. They’re gone, but now I’ve got Bob, he was my father’s brother. And I’ve just been crazy about him all my life. He’s in Dothan. I love the South. I love Alabama. I always feel totally at home in the South. One year, maybe I shouldn’t even say this. It’s true. How can I say this without them getting mad at me? Well, I have cousins I didn’t even know I had. They’re sort of more distant cousins. I had heard they were a little uncomfortable about me and Dennis coming down because we were gay. You know because I don’t think they hung around people that were gay very much. But what ever I’d heard was instantly evaporated when they were faced with the reality. I think they really didn’t know what to expect and they didn’t expect what they got, which was a couple of guys dressed more like rednecks than them.