Give thanks to Burroughs for telling us ‘how’
This Is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More, For Young and Old Alike (Picador, 2013 reprint, $15) has minor flaws to irritate every reader. For me, the title on the dust-jacket of the original hardback was almost impossible to read, and certain sections of this “self-help” book — the chapter “How To Let A Child Die” was arrogant, sentimental, and condescending — were as annoying as a stink bug circling a light bulb.
And yet the more I read This is How, the more I flipped the pages, skipping here and there from one essay to the other, the more I appreciated the wisdom and experience that Augusten Burroughs brings to the reader. Author of Running With Scissors, Dry, and other memoirs, all of which describe his difficult youth, his alcoholism and drugs, and his sexuality, Burroughs here gives such honest, direct advice, cutting through much of the cant that surrounds so many issues these day, that I found myself reading parts of the book aloud to friends and sharing with others some of the many examples served up here.
In “How To Finish Your Drink,” for example, Burroughs discusses alcoholism, sobriety, and Alcoholics Anonymous. Though he believes that AA has helped drunks stay sober, and though he at one point attended AA meetings during his own battle with the bottle, Burroughs tells us what many former drunks already know: that you stop drinking when you want sobriety more. You stop getting wrecked when you decide you’d rather live without alcohol than bury yourself with a bottle. He writes: “My view is that the way to stop drinking is to stop drinking is laughably simplistic on the surface. It’s ‘Just say no.’”
Though this sounds like one of those anti-drug ads that used to appear on television, those who suffer from addiction — not just drinking, but any addiction — know that Burroughs is right on the money, that other people and organizations can offer help, but in the end only the addict can beat the addiction.
In the chapter “How To Identify Love By Knowing What It’s Not,” Burroughs begins with a list. Here are a few of his astute caveats:
“Love doesn’t use a fist.
“Love never calls you fat or lazy or ugly.
“Love doesn’t laugh at you in front of your friends.
“Love does not make you beg.
“Love does not maintain a list of your flaws and weaknesses.
“Love believes you.”
In “How To Feel Sorry For Yourself,” a chapter which should be required reading for every American, Burroughs ends by with this reminder: “Self-pity is waiting to be bottle-fed your dinner.
“The truth behind the truth is this: even if you are a victim, you must never be a victim.
“Even if you deserve to be one.
“Because while you wait for somebody to come along and set things right, life has moved forward without you. “
The chapter that most moved me was “How To Be Fat.” Though I myself am no longer fat, I have overweight friends, particularly females, who obsess about being fat. Near the end of the chapter, after writing that “There is no shame in deciding you look fine just as you are. Or even better than fine. There is no shame in deciding just to be fat,” Burroughs includes a wonderful description of a woman he saw at a hotel swimming pool in Palm Springs. This woman entered the pool area wearing a sarong, high heels, and an oversized hat. She was, as Burroughs notes, what one would “typically call fat,” but he then writes:
“I was astonished by her beauty and her utter command of the entire area surrounding the pool. I glanced around at the other people near me and indeed, every man was watching her. Lust is not easily mistaken for repulsion; these men wanted her. The women sitting outside were watching her, too. And their expressions were just as easy to read, as clear as words printed on a white page: how the hell was she doing that?
“Because this woman was the sexiest, most sensual woman I had yet encountered in California. I expect the vast majority of those looking at her felt exactly the same way.”
He then imagines the woman, at an earlier point in her life, standing before a mirror in her jeans, accepting the fact that she was fat, and after deciding that she wanted to be “sexy as hell,” did the things that made her that way. “You manufacture beauty with your mind,” Burroughs tells us, and clearly his woman knew how to do that.
In the beginning of This is How, Burroughs includes a quotation from Galileo: “All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered: the point is to discover them.” Here Augusten Burroughs reveals some of the truths he has discovered, and I for one am grateful that he has shared them with the rest of us.
A thumbs-up on This is How.