By Galina Espinoza
September 23, 2002 12:00 PM

Wherever he moved, Augusten Burroughs took along the dusty box that held his childhood journals. “I didn’t want to open them,” he says, “but I couldn’t bring myself to throw them out.”

His reluctance is understandable. Born Christopher Robison, Burroughs spent his childhood in a Dickensian horror story of madness, abandonment and sexual molestation. Desperate to escape, he changed his name at 18—Augusten Burroughs, he felt, “sounded writerly”—and spent his 20s lost in drugs and alcohol. “The past,” says Burroughs, 36, “was the thing that just crippled me.”

Not anymore. Encouraged by a literary agent intrigued by his childhood tales, Burroughs began mining the journals for material. The result: Running with Scissors, a darkly funny memoir that has hit No. 5 on the New York Times bestseller list—and helped Burroughs reclaim his life. “The pain,” he says, “is finally gone.”

Playing his ordeal for laughs surely helped. “The book,” in the words of NPR contributor David Rakoff, who was so taken by Scissors he wrote a cover blurb for it, is “very, very horrible—and very, very funny.” As Burroughs describes it, his torment began when he was 13. By that time his older brother John had fled home and his parents had divorced, so that Burroughs was living alone with his mother, Margaret Robison (Deirdre in the book), who had a history of manic depression and psychosis.

With Burroughs’s father essentially out of the picture, Margaret signed over guardianship of her son to her psychiatrist Dr. Rodolph Harvey Turcotte (the book’s Dr. Finch), who shared a ramshackle pink Victorian in Northampton, Mass., with his wife, some of their six kids and an ever-changing and chaotic cast of live-in patients. The house, Burroughs writes, “smelled like wet dog and something else. Fried eggs? And it was such a mess…. I found the burlap a fascinating and original wall treatment.” But he and the Turcotte kids soon bonded—after a fashion. “We were young. We were bored,” he writes. “And the old electroshock therapy machine was just under the stairs.”

Turcotte, who claimed he could divine the future by examining his own excrement and designated one room of his office as a “masturbatorium,” also orchestrated a fake suicide attempt to help Burroughs get out of school and allowed a sexual relationship between the boy and a 3 3-year-old man who was his patient. Still, bizarre as life was, Burroughs says, at the time “I didn’t question why [the Turcottes] were like that, because in some way I knew I needed them.”

Not everybody remembers events the way Burroughs does. Although Turcotte, who lost his medical license in 1986, died in 2000, a source close to his family says they are pondering legal action. “There’s a kernel of truth” to Scissors, the source says, but “[Burroughs] could have written the same story and not hurt anyone.”

Margaret Robison, 67 and confined to a wheelchair since a 1989 stroke, admits that she “was not a stable influence” on her son but takes issue with parts of the book, including the scene where Augusten catches her en flagrante with another woman. “The character,” insists Margaret, “is not me.” (His father, John Robison, 67, retired head of the philosophy department at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, declined to be interviewed.)

Burroughs’s life began to change when he was 17, after he moved into his own apartment and earned his GED. Two years later he landed a copywriting job, going on to create ad campaigns for clients like AT&T and Beck’s beer. But success didn’t help. “My brother was tortured for many years,” says Augusten’s brother John, now 45 and the owner of a Springfield, Mass., car dealership. “He’d get drunk every night and call me up and be mean.”

After spending some time in rehab around age 30, Burroughs wrote Sellevision, a novel that, he says, “made me feel for the first time that I was actually me.” Now a full-time writer, Burroughs has little contact with his parents and says staying in touch with the Turcottes is “just too difficult.”

As Burroughs savors his critical and financial success, his home life has been transformed as well thanks to his partner of two years, graphic designer Dennis Pilsits, 47, who shares a Manhattan apartment with him. ” ‘Dinner is ready,’ “says Burroughs, “are the most unusual words to me. To have such security is amazing.”

Galina Espinoza

Lynda Wright in New York City