To be or not to be a memoir. This was the question hanging over Running With Scissors when it received a lawsuit in 2005. In fact, the background story of this New York Times best-selling memoir is almost as amusing as the memoir itself. Firstly, to the story.
Running with Scissors opens with the American 10-year-old, Augusten, living with his neurotic mother, a chain-smoking aspiring poet who when, after divorcing, becomes a lesbian feels cramped by her son’s presence. When she ships him off to live with her Northampton psychiatrist, Augusten enters an eccentric world where life is likened to — running with scissors.
The Finch family
Augusten lives with the Finch family, a pseudonym, where the patriarch is a Santa-look-a-like who indiscriminately offers Augusten pharmaceuticals and condones the boy’s affair with an adult male client, which looks a lot like paedophilia. The Finch matriarch eats dog food and remains oblivious to the madness around her. The house is squalid, entertainment consisting of free-roaming children watching a dog poo on the living room carpet, and other tests to conventional notions of hygiene and sanity.
The episodic format of the book gives it a contemporary television feel, as does the humour, where the tragedies of Augusten’s abuse and neglect are played for laughs. It is very funny.
As with many memoirs, matters of the accuracy of remembering what took place in times long past arose when the book was released.
In an author’s note, Burroughs said he changed the names of the characters so they could not be identified. However, apparently, people in the Northampton area recognised the “Finches” as the Turcotte family and so began the lawsuit.
The Turcotte family reportedly sued Burroughs for more than $2 million.
They claimed that Running With Scissors was in the main a work of fiction and intentionally written that way in order to sensationalise Burroughs’ past and make his book more marketable. Marketable it was, as its success testifies.
The Turcottes claimed the book had brought them harm and humiliation. Invasion of privacy was another charge.
In a Vanity Fair article titled Ruthless with Scissors 1 Buzz Bissinger says that in the genre of the growing-up-in-dysfunction memoir, Burroughs’s book rises to a new level:
"The narrator's mother, who has grandiose visions of being the next Anne Sexton, gives him away so she can pursue her own life. He lands in the Addams Family – like the household of a bizarre and manipulative Northampton psychiatrist whose wife and children and grandchildren are depicted on page after page as being crude, disgusting, profane, and utterly lacking in rational judgment." - Buzz Bissinger
The case ended in a settlement between parties of an undisclosed amount, a result that is said to have left Burroughs feeling vindicated.
However, subsequent printings of Running with Scissors contain modified language in the Author’s Note and Acknowledgments pages. The Acknowledgments page had previously read:
Additionally, I would like to thank each and every member of a certain Massachusetts family for taking me into their home and accepting me as one of their own.
Now the following appears:
Additionally, I would like to thank the real-life members of the family portrayed in this book for taking me into their home and accepting me as one of their own. I recognize that their memories of the events described in this book are different from my own. They are each fine, decent, and hard-working people. The book was not intended to hurt the family. Both my publisher and I regret any unintentional harm resulting from the publishing and marketing of Running with Scissors.
In addition, on the Author’s Note page—but, as the family agreed, nowhere else—the word “book” replaced the word “memoir.”
The work is still described as a memoir on the cover, title page and elsewhere.
On many platforms, including Macmillan publishers, US, the film is promoted as follows:
The #1 New York Times Bestseller
An Entertainment Weekly Top Ten Book of the Year
Now a Major Motion Picture
Running with Scissors is the true story of a boy [who] …. found himself amidst Victorian squalor living with the doctor’s bizarre family and befriending a pedophile who resided in the backyard shed. The story of an outlaw childhood where rules were unheard of, and the Christmas tree stayed up all year round, where Valium was consumed like candy, and if things got dull an electroshock- therapy machine could provide entertainment. The funny, harrowing and bestselling account of an ordinary boy’s survival under the most extraordinary circumstances. 3