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BOOKS Life's a witch in Augusten Burroughs' new memoir
by Tony Peregrin
2019-10-30

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After reading Augusten Burroughs' new tome Toil & Trouble some readers might have a "Witch, please?!" reaction to the memoirist's big reveal that he is a practicing witch.

In Toil & Trouble, Burroughs writes about discovering his abilities at age 9 on a bus ride home from school. Staring at the blur of trees flashing by his window, he suddenly became filled with anxiety, followed by a certainty that something terrible had happened to his grandmother. In fact, earlier that day, his "Amah" had been in a car accident, his mother reveals, breaking a rib and puncturing a lung. His ability to "know things he shouldn't have known," is because he is a witch, his mother informs him, a descendant from a long line of witches hailing back to the days of the early U.S. colonies.

It was "simultaneously the most confusing and the most comforting thing anyone had ever said to me," writes Burroughs—the openly gay New York Times best-selling author of Running with Scissors and Lust & Wonder—in the new memoir released Oct 1.

Toil & Trouble—the title references the cauldron speech in Macbeth—is a penetrating and, yes, haunting memoir, illuminating new details about the writer's complicated relationship with his mother, and his journey to understand and harness his unconventional powers. For Burroughs, the craft is less about potions and wands and more about developing a heightened focus to generate desired outcomes—like when he casts a series of spells to nudge his husband ( and longtime literary agent ) Christopher Schelling into buying their dream home in rural Connecticut.

Windy City Times: As an openly gay man, I have always thought members of our community possessed a special ability or power—one that allows us to manifest a better life as a survival technique.

Augusten Burroughs: I actually think that a lot of people probably do have a special power, if you want to call it that. Maybe they're not aware of it, or they might name it something else, a woman's intuition or a sixth sense or a funny feeling. But I think that anybody who is isolated or persecuted as a child or has been told 'Who you are is defective and wrong' absolutely develops a special power. You develop a powerful resiliency. I think it can, if it doesn't break you, it can teach you to trust your own inner voice and that's a powerful thing.

WCT: When your mother sent you to live with her psychiatrist, Dr. Finch, and his outlandishly dysfunctional household ( Running with Scissors )—did you use witchcraft to cope?

AB: I did. It absolutely helped me. It helped me feel less isolated. It helped me to withdraw into myself and it helped me to sense when something awful was about to happen so that I could be prepared or clear out of a way. It helped to the extent that I knew what to ask of it, if that makes any sense.

WCT: Were you hesitant about revealing to the public that you are a witch?

AB: I was never going to write about it. It's so off the table that when journalists would ask me if there was anything about myself about which I wouldn't write—I would always answer "no," truthfully, or so I thought. I'd always said that I'd write about anything—there's nothing that's off the table. Well, except for this thing. I mean, I never, ever told anyone. I mean I just did not talk about it.

My mother made the point very early on that this is the most natural thing in the world, but that people have absolutely no understanding of it and that I'd be a joke if I talked about it.

WCT: I heard you actually destroyed your laptop pounding out the Toil & Trouble manuscript, so this must have been a narrative you were ready to release to the world on some level.

AB: I was working on my novel and it was not going anywhere, and it was absolutely out of the blue that I started writing Toil & Trouble. I mean literally one minute I was working on the novel, not having any fun or it was not working, and then boom, I just started writing it and I wrote fast and furiously without stopping. And we're talking about days, I didn't write this in years, I wrote it in days. My arms were just destroyed, I ruined my laptop keyboard. Gone. Threw it away.

WCT: How did your publisher react to the witchy subject matter?

AB: Jennifer has been my publisher for my whole career. I mean, I've never worked with anybody else. I thought there's a really a good chance that she's going to really be like, "Ah, no." But instead she absolutely loved it, and she loved it more than she loved Running with Scissors, which was her favorite. She just was absolutely insane over it and was, like, "This explains everything about you. Oh my God, this explains everything."

WCT: There are a couple of spells that are included in the book, and I'm wondering if crafting spells comes naturally to you because you are a writer?

AB: They do, yeah, and I love them. I mean, they're not necessary, but I love them and I enjoy writing them.

WCT: Why aren't spells necessary?

AB: Because it's not about the words, it's about the focus. It's about the mind and incredible amounts of energy directed in a very, very singular direction to a very specific outcome without any doubt whatsoever and with no wavering. You've got to be able to visualize something with absolute perfect clarity. It doesn't dissolve and waiver. Spells can be helpful if they help you focus, but that's not where the magic comes from. It doesn't come from the words; it comes from the mind.

WCT: I wish it were possible for you to craft a spell to try and influence the current administration.

AB: I wish. I wish I could. I don't know. I don't really think that I have control over people. What I have experienced is being able to add weight, sort of like adding molecular weight to a decision, or when I'm close to somebody, maybe to reshape some of their thinking about things. But if I could, I would be like Samantha on Bewitched, wrinkle my nose and….

WCT: The world could really use a little Samantha Stephens right about now.

AB: I've had enough horrible things happen to me in my life that I've learned that often some hideous, horrible thing will, in fact, turn out to have been the key that unlocks a door of magnificence. It could be some sort of cultural correction where we have this just insane creature babbling and foaming at the mouth and delusional…it's so dramatic and so dramatically catastrophic that it could have like a bounce effect and result in an incredible turnaround. I mean— people taking stuff for granted, not voting, not thinking about corruption, not caring, not getting involved in any way, that's over. Those days are gone.. People are woke in ways they never even knew they were asleep. And that's a good thing. That's a really good thing.


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