There are unhappy childhoods, and then there are unhappy childhoods. Augusten Burroughs knows the area intimately. His bestseller turned film, Running with scissors, famous and, oddly enough, hilariously recounted his memories of his mother dumping him at his quirky psychiatrist’s home, where the bizarre collection of residents also included a pedophile living in a backyard shed .
But, in the first of several phone conversations last spring, Burroughs tells me that his goal in bringing his harrowing past to the page was not, at least initially, to become a published writer. He says he just wanted to “fix me”. Writing it all down – the abandonment, the sexual abuse, the neglect – allowed her to make sense of what had happened and then move on. “It literally put the power of transformation into my own hands,” he says. (The family of the psychiatrist, who lost his license to practice medicine, disputed the veracity of many of the anecdotes in the book. Their lawsuit against Burroughs and his publisher was eventually settled.)
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Eight volumes later, Burroughs now puts his energy into helping others deal with their trauma, addiction, or depression with a regimen he trademarked as Focus-Directed Writing. “It is not the writing that is meant to be read,” he notes. “It’s a thought process that you go through.”
To five foxesa The well-being retreat that opened in July in wooded, bucolic Connecticut and is operated by the established private rehabilitation company Private-Switzerland, Burroughs will persuade clients to dig deep, then find a way to come to terms with what happened and build on the lessons learned. “Knowledge is the enemy of rote, senseless, destructive behavior,” he says.
Before Five Foxes opens, Burroughs agrees to walk me through an abridged version over the phone. Step One: Engage in a daily 10-minute stream-of-consciousness writing practice. “Write as fast as you can,” he orders. “You don’t stop for a moment, not to correct a spelling mistake or a typo, to ignore the punctuation or the word to use, to not think about the best way to articulate your thoughts.”
These bursts aren’t exactly journaling, though there may be some overlap, but rather are designed both as an exercise to aid practice for non-writers and as an initial investigation into the problems of a invited, a kind of structured mindfulness. “I strongly encourage people to share it [with me] so I can focus on the area that needs to be focused on” — that’s the “directed” part, says Burroughs, calling it a “collaborative process.” Some clients also bring the writing exercises to their therapists “It’s a brilliant complement to traditional therapy as it provides the therapist with an excellent written record.”
New to therapy, I decide to examine a relationship that has badly frayed, perhaps beyond repair. Since I’m a professional writer, Burroughs suggests on our second call that I go to a later protocol and write a letter to this person – I’ll call him Alex – not with the intention of sending by mail, but as a way to find out how Alex hurt me. I spend the weekend ruminating, trying to verbalize my hurt feelings.
On our next call, I read my letter to Burroughs. “That’s excellent,” he said encouragingly. “There is a lot to see.” He then shrewdly notes that, while the assignment was to write a letter to Alex, “what is striking is that the fourth word in ‘names Alex’s wife, Jordan. We discuss how Jordan became a wedge between Alex and me. He also calls me out for using “sweet words” – “jerk”, “doormat” – which he dismisses as lazy. “Family, we all know what you mean,” he says. “But we need to define the behaviors that you saw.” Noting that Jordan eats most of the letter, Burroughs pitches the idea of writing a second missive specifically for them.
“I push and push,” Burroughs says. “It’s about getting to the bottom of it, the objective truth, about what happened to you.”
Only then, he says, can the client achieve the goal: integration, i.e. “own it”. Referring to the sexual abuse he endured as a child, he explains: “What integration means is accepting that we are all brick houses and that each brick is essential to the structure. The brick of sexual abuse that you want to remove, you can’t remove. We cannot alter the past in any way, shape or form, no matter how horrible. So we have to fully accept that yes, it happened. Then we have to own it, and by owning it, I mean, “It changed me.” What new knowledge do I have? What gift have I hidden in the folds of trauma? ”
In my case, says Burroughs, I had already instinctively found a way to “recycle” my hurt by teaching my daughters to cherish and prioritize themselves and their relationship, which gave me a some comfort and even a little pride. In his case, this gift is to develop this writing tool to help others. “I’m very good at being helpful to people,” he says. “I don’t care about being an author now.” From $50,000 for a week