Sunday, August 5, 2012

This is How, by Augusten Burroughs

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about honesty, how keeping secrets can really be a form of lying. I've been thinking about how much of what we tell other in everyday life isn't really direct and honest discourse, but so much bullshit -- untruths, half-truths, stories with key parts omitted. Lies are the mother's milk of our culture, don't you think? I've often had the experience of dogpaddling through the muddy waters of a certain situation, only to discover, years later, that the shiny surface of the story is covering a bare, naked kernel of truth that doesn't in any way resemble the story I've always told myself.

Which is why "This is How," a kind of new-style self-help manual, is one of my favorite books of ALL TIME. (I won't even demean the previous sentence by capping it with the ubiquitous exclamation point.) Burroughs, edgy and blunt, may not be everyone's cup of tea. After surviving an unusual and tragic childhood, he then survived the fallout: years of alcoholism. This is something I know about personally, not the alcoholism part, but the existing at the fringe of society part, about holding onto life by the proverbial thread. Going through life this way does one of two things to a person: it either destroys him or her, or it leaves the hanger-on-er clear-headed, able to see past the inanities of polite society in order to get to what's really important. Like Love. Compassion. And Truth--even though those truths might sometimes seem cruel. Truths can be hard to hear, can expose the dark underbellies of our shame. In writing this I don't mean to hold myself up as any sort of better-than-thou truth teller. I do believe, however, that my life experiences have often positioned me nose-to-nose with unsavory truths, without the luxury of being able to turn away -- whether those truths were about others or myself.

Here's a random sampling of Burroughs topics: How to be thin; How to feel like shit; How to be fat; How to feel less regret; How to live unhappily ever after. Sure to be the most controversial of Burroughs' offerings, "This is How" comes out against AA, recommends (in certain circumstances) one kick an anorexic child out of the house, and purports that overweight people aren't heavy because they can't lose weight, but because they haven't committed to losing weight, and that they should stop whining and embrace their muffin tops.

Burroughs' childhood (crazy mother and unstable home life which featured a constant parade of wacky and dangerous characters) may seem outrageous to most, but because it's not that different from my own experience, I feel an odd sort of comradeship with him. The drama and trauma of unstable early years exacts a high price, but I think that if you can survive them, they have the potential to transform you into someone who can cut through the ubiquitous bullshit of everyday life.

Truth, for me, is kind of like pornography -- it's hard to define, but I know it when I see it. And when I see or hear something that captures a truth, I experience a visceral reaction as it resonates through my body. Remembering Burroughs' book has me shivering all over again.

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