How to Make Self-Help Sexy: Risk and Writing in Augusten Burroughs’ ‘This is How’
Acclaimed funny-guy and memoirist Augusten Burroughs’ latest book, This is How: Help For the Self, Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude, and More, for Young and Old Alike (St. Martin’s Press) is, as the title implies, an eclectic, entertaining, and refreshingly bitchy self-help book. Separated into numerous “How-To” chapters– “How to Ride an Elevator”, “How to Feel Like Shit”, “How to be Confident”, “How to Fail”, “How to Remain Unhealed”, “How to End Your Life”, “How to be a Good Mental Patient”, “How to Make Yourself Uncomfortable (And Why You Should)”, and many more, the book is swift, brilliant, and fairly vast in its reach.
The back cover of This Is How claims that it’s “the book [Burroughs] was born to write.” At first this seems, well, arrogant– Augusten Burroughs was born to write a book telling us all how we should live? Alright, jerk, I thought, tell me how. Then I read the book just waiting for him to mess up. And, of course, in moments he did. This is How is flawed as a self-help book, but in a sort of sexy way. The earnestness, the risk, the compelling successes and occasional fail: it’s a ride, entertaining in ways that your regular self-help book can’t begin to achieve.
What the title failed to explicitly note is that Burroughs’ book is not your regular self-help book– it’s more of an advanced study in getting one’s crap together, intended not just for the mildly bewildered but for the truly, totally “fucked”. A few chapters in, Burroughs reveals that he isn’t writing to a general audience. When he tries to—by giving weight loss advice, for example, or dating advice—he fails. He isn’t talking from his gut, he’s talking to the mildly bewildered, the casually neurotic. When he speaks from his gut—and you can almost hear the man’s fingers on the keys, sharp and nimble and knowing as he lays his truths on the page—he speaks straight to those of us who are where he’s been.
Review after review call his position “tough love”. For the hobbyist self-improver, perhaps it is. For those of us who have lived on the razor edge of survival and come to speak back its truths, we know: Burroughs isn’t taking a hard line on issues such as drinking, desire, sorrow, and need. The line is just damn hard. To cross it, you have to be harder.
The pivotal point of a self-help book—whether it sinks or swims—lies in the authenticity and authority of the author. Usually that authority is carried as much, if not more, by the “expert” credentials of the author as it is by the power and cleanliness of the prose. In Burroughs case, his authority builds on the precedence of his memoirs– which is similar to saying, the wildly screwed-up events of his life. This is a refreshing relief from expert advice.
The earnestness of Burroughs’ writing reveals how genuinely he offers his hard-won wisdom. At times, This is How is uncomfortably earnest–several times I recoiled a little, thinking jeez, Augusten, cover that up. But, writers split a lot of hairs to balance their passionate reasons for writing more widely palatable narratives, which frequently means less passionate ones. There’s a mean, self-flagellating little edge to us writers—a ruthlessness towards our egos, our personal lives, our passions, and our most intimate reasons for writing—that comes across repeatedly in workshops and retreats: “kill your darlings”, “the shameless ego of the first person narrative”. Sometimes this means that we don’t vomit all over the page. But it also means that we take less risk, particularly the sort of risks required to compellingly talk someone through the impulse to suicide based on our own personal experiences. Burroughs took those risks and many more, and even though I did not always agree with his advice, I came away from his book with immense respect for him as an author and as a person. This is How reminds me that, as an author and a person myself, I aspire to be as courageous and honest.
There are dangerous things in This Is How: a critique of the “helplessness” premise of 12 step groups (anyone who’s been in an addiction recovery group knows just how taboo this is), the advocacy of completely and cleanly abandoning a failing life and starting a new one as an alternative to suicide. These are not things that experts say, but these are things that many of us who have crossed through deeply shadowed terrain in our own lives know to be true. Hats off to Burroughs near his mid-century mark, for having built the platform that allowed him to share with grace and authority these secret and difficult truths.
For readers not yet sure if they’d like to read This Is How, I suggest that at the very least, you read the last five chapters: “How to be Sick”, “How to Lose Someone You Love”, “How to Let a Child Die”, “How to Change the World By Yourself”, and “This Is Why”. Burroughs does not falter here; he moves through issues of illness, loss, and mortality with an authenticity and confidence that only immense and intimate trials-by-fire could forge. He does not joke; he is gentle, honest, and exquisitely calming. These chapters provide a small, still place in life to contemplate the impossible, ultimate, and inevitable losses that we all face. There are not many of such places, particularly not those created for us by someone as recognizably in-expert as we are. These little chapters are deep, deeply moving, and inspiring. I left them feeling stronger, calmer, and a little less alone, which is the greatest gift any book can give.
This Is How
By Augusten Burroughs
St. Martin’s Press
Hardcover, 9780312563554, 240 pp.