The title of Augusten Burroughs' new book, This Is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More, seems to promise a sendup of self-help culture. Who better to puncture the solipsism of the confessional memoirist than the author of such best-sellers as Running With Scissors, Dry and Magical Thinking?
Instead, This Is How, which was published May 8, is a humorless, entirely earnest effort to solve our problems with fatness, spinsterhood, lushery, etc. Perhaps he has run out of the heartbreaking, absurd, true stories that he exploited so successfully in his past memoirs, but here he assumes the role of a wise teacher who imparts solemn advice to his reader. Throughout the book, Burroughs implies that he's more insightful than the best-selling gurus that populate the shelves of the self-help section: "Affirmations are dishonest ... a form of self-betrayal based on bogus, side-of-the-cereal-box psychology." But really, Burroughs traffics in the same tired stuff.
Burroughs starts the book with an anecdote about being stuck in an elevator with an infuriatingly upbeat stranger. Burroughs was deeply depressed at the time, but the woman tells him that his problems can't possibly be as bad as the look on his face. She advises him to "try a smile on for size." Unsurprisingly, the author is incensed at this vapid creature.
It's a mildly funny story, certainly a relatable one, and it primes the reader for meatier fare for a sustained evisceration of the happiness industry. Burroughs does make a move in this direction, citing a BBC article about how self-help affirmations ("I'm good, I'm smart enough," etc.) actually make people with low self-esteem feel worse.
"Affirmations are the psychological equivalent of sprinkling baby powder on top of the turd your puppy has left on the carpet," Burroughs writes.
Unfortunately, this is about as deep a thought as you'll find in This Is How. It is also representative of the author's attempts at edgy humor, which mostly take the form of tired screeds and forced obscenity. This is too bad, because it's clear that Burroughs' talents lie in storytelling. His book only comes to life in the passages where he delves into his unique and rare set of memories. But rather than providing the details and narrative style that give shape to his earlier efforts, he invariably veers off into generic self-help jargon: "Real optimism is not the pep talk you give yourself. It is earned through the labor involved in emotional housekeeping." Emotional housekeeping?
Even worse is when this man, whose own unordinary life included such events as being given away by his mentally ill mother, at the age of 12, to her eccentric psychiatrist, wastes words on the dullest of vanities: "You must want to lose the weight and become that skinny person more than you want to eat, more than you want the comfort that food provides you." Oprah couldn't have said it any better, or any worse.
It is clear that Burroughs' struggles with a tumultuous youth and adolescence, with substance abuse and rocky relationships, have left him in a reflective place. But his tortured past doesn't seem to have lent him any particular clarity, and the reader is left to wallow in the processes by which he works through his confusion and pain. It would at least be reassuring to recognize another human trying to process life's difficulties if Burroughs wasn't so sure that he had come out on the other side armed with answers. But this graceless, arrogant book is mostly devoid of the humor that peppered his memoirs. This Is How may be honest, but it's ultimately boring and hamstrung by the thought that it transcends the kind of thing that it, in fact, exemplifies.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Hoodoo guru."