December 06, 2004 12:00 PM

What if I had blown that match out?’ I was 14, and it’s still the thing I keep coming back to,” says Brent Runyon, now 28. He could have blown out the match, taken off his gasoline-soaked bathrobe and joined his brother shooting hoops at their Falls Church, Va., home. Instead, hidden in an upstairs bathroom, he ignited his robe and felt the flames beginning to eat at his flesh. Almost immediately he realized that he wanted to live: Turning on the shower, he tried to undo what he had done. “My whole life,” says Runyon, who suffered burns over 85 percent of his body, “was shaped by those decisions.”

Now a writer and radio producer, Runyon chronicles his suicide attempt and year of recovery in an intimate memoir, The Burn Journals. Published by Knopf for young readers in the hope that his story will resonate with those touched by depression, it is strong stuff: The author spares no detail about his physical pain or about the effect of his suicide attempt on his parents—Linda, now 57, a kindergarten teacher, and Don, 59, a college administrator at Old Dominion in Virginia—and his brother Craig, 31. “It was the defining event in all our lives, not just his,” says Craig, an editor at The Washington Post. “It shaped our family extremely.”

These days the Runyons are close; Brent, who lives on Cape Cod, Mass., with public-radio producer Christina Egloff, sees Craig and their parents often, and they can discuss their shared trauma. But their openness is hard won: “One of the things the surgeon said to us early on was that sometimes a crisis like this destroys the family,” says Don. “But this pulled all of us together.”

In 1991 Runyon had seemed to his parents like a normal, if sometimes moody, eighth grader. “He didn’t show the characteristics of suicidal people,” Linda says. “He played basketball, he had a lot of friends, the phone was always ringing.” Beneath it all, though, he was an introspective sort who loved art and music, while “they all watched football,” Runyon says.

The downward spiral began in eighth grade. A bright student, Runyon began to be “more interested in talking to friends at the lab table” than in school-work, and he began failing classes and acting out—stealing a teacher’s stash of pens and pads and being grounded when he was caught. He staged cry-for-help suicide attempts—swallowing handfuls of Advil, which merely put him to sleep, and cutting at his wrists before he went to bed one night. Somehow his family missed the signals. “They were interested in my life,” Runyon says now, “but I don’t think they had an understanding of what was happening to me.”

It was a threatened expulsion for setting a minor fire at school that drove Runyon to soak his robe in gasoline and climb into his tub on Feb. 4, 1991. Rushed to the burn unit at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., he hovered near death. “I was just praying that he would live for another hour and, sometimes, another day,” says Don. The realization that he had tried to kill himself left his parents “stunned,” says Linda. “We asked, ‘How could we not have seen this?’ ”

Runyon spent a year enduring excruciating burn care (“The pain feels like it goes on forever—like it’s the ocean and I’m crossing it in a rowboat”) and undergoing skin-graft surgeries. The emotional healing came in fits and starts: The family entered therapy while he was still in the hospital, but Brent refused to open up.

It was through filmmaking that Runyon began to sort through his past; at Ithaca College in 1997 the media-studies major made a video “about setting myself on fire, starting to ask those questions, ‘Why did this happen?’ ” he remembers. When he showed it to his parents, “we sobbed,” says Don.

Sitting down to write The Burn Journals—which sprung from two essays about his near suicide aired by NPR in 2000 and 2002—meant going yet more deeply into that nightmarish place. “It was terrible,” says Brent. “It was really reliving the whole experience.”

And now? In many ways, says the author, he’s a different person from the boy who struck the match. While 70 percent of teens who attempt suicide repeat the gesture, Runyon is convinced that he won’t. To the contrary: “What I truly wish could happen with this book would be that it could somehow travel back in time,” he says. “Then I would read it and not set myself on fire.”

Allison Adato. Tom Duffy in Cape Cod

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