New Year. New Journey. By Augusten Burroughs
It’s hard for me to believe that my first book was published over twenty years ago! The name of my first book was Sellevision and it was a satirical novel based in the world of a fictional home shopping channel on TV. Sellevision sold only a handful of copies, but I didn’t care: I couldn’t believe I was actually an author. With a published book. My dream had come true.
Even more thrilling was the fact that my publisher bought another book from me, but this one was a memoir.
My editor loved the manuscript of my “unusual” childhood, Running with Scissors, and so did lots of other people at St. Martin’s Press. But the unspoken message was clear: “We love it, we’re excited to publish it, but the rest of the world might not be so enthusiastic about it.” After all, in 2002, memoirs about gay boys and their troubled childhoods were not exactly topping the bestseller lists. And it would be a year until the first lesbian sex scene appeared on television. So while my publisher loved the book, expectations were low. The initial printing for Running with Scissors was small; the hope was that the memoir might do well in Boston because the story takes place in Massachusetts, and perhaps also in San Francisco, which was then considered the LGBTQ-capitol of America.
Running with Scissors became a publishing phenomenon and I was fully blindsided by the overwhelming media attention. This was before social media, so instead of being all over Facebook, twitter, and TikTok, my image was plastered all over magazines and newspapers. I couldn’t leave my New York City apartment without being recognized.
It was exciting and surreal and I just kept going. Dry was released just a year after Running with Scissors, and that’s when Running with Scissors became even bigger in paperback.
Year after year I published book after book; memoirs, story collections based on random events in my life, a collection of stories detailing my disastrous holiday history, a dark and menacing memoir about my sociopathic father.
My book tours were huge. And I was always absolutely astonished by the one thing people seemed to tell me again and again and again: “Thank you for writing _____________” because it changed my life.” Whether it was a sexual abuse survivor who connected with the abuse I experienced in Running with Scissors or an alcoholic/addict who could relate to my own journey of recovery that I detailed in Dry, the one comment I heard over and over was, “your writing has helped me.”
When people told me my book had “helped” them, I thanked them for sharing that with me. But I silently felt a little bit awkward, even slightly guilty. Because I hadn’t written any book trying to help anybody else. I wrote every book in order to fix myself. I’d been writing since I was a little kid and writing was the only way I was able to survive all the adversity I faced as a child and later as an adult. I was just lucky that the “paper trail” left behind by my writing was deemed by some to be worth reading.
I was just so amazed that my books had apparently helped people, comforted them, and in some cases even “saved” them from something far worse than what they had already experienced.
What if, I wondered, I wrote a book specifically designed to be helpful?
Because the truth was, I was way less messed-up as a person than you’d expect, given what I had experienced: childhood sexual abuse, parental abandonment, one parent with severe mental illness and another with severe alcoholism, endless bullying at school that became so bad, I dropped out of school after the 4th grade, my own alcoholism as a young adult, the death from AIDS of my first boyfriend, extreme social isolation from my own undiagnosed spectrum disorder, PTSD from my childhood and the list went on and on.
When your childhood is hijacked by a lunatic psychiatrist who dresses like Santa and performs “toilet bowl readings” to divine the fate of the family, the last thing you are inclined to do to recover from such an experience is seek out a therapist. I knew if I wanted to recover from everything I experienced as a child and then as a young adult, I was going to have to fix myself. And that’s exactly what I did. I fixed myself through writing.
Through writing, I was able to revisit the past and locate the origins of problematic behaviors I was engaged in as an adult; I was able to uncover truths about myself that I never could have reached on my own. I was able to create radical personal transformation through writing.
I had, in effect, become my own therapist.
I had wisdom to share. After all, a person cannot make as many mistakes as I have made in my life without learning a thing or two or three or twelve.
So, I wrote a book for people who needed help and wanted to help themselves, and for people who hadn’t been able to find the answers they were looking for anywhere else.
But I made a mistake: I called the book: This Is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More. For Young and Old Alike.
I wanted to differentiate my self-help book from all those other treacly self-help books. I had written, I felt, a self-help book for the person who wouldn’t be caught dead reading a self-help book.
And it backfired. People assumed from the title that I had written a satire, a parody of the genre.
It became my first book (well, aside from my first novel) not to debut as a New York Times bestseller.
It seemed to be the last thing anyone ever expected me to write. And once they read the reviews and learned, oh no, he’s serious, this isn’t a parody, most of my readers took a pass. It was my “shut up and sing” Dixie Chicks moment.
Then the book went into paperback and as such, became about half the price it was as a hardcover.
People started reading it. And over the years, it has become my bestselling book.
Almost every day, somebody reaches out to me through social media, email or old-fashioned snail mail and tells me, “This book changed my life.” They also tell me, “This book saved my life.”
Because in the book, I wrote for the first time about my own experience as a teenager contemplating my own suicide, planning it down to the last detail and then having a realization that saved my life, and has since saved the lives of many readers.
I will never forget how exciting it was to see a stack of my first little book, Sellevision, on the table of a Barnes & Noble. The thrill lasted for about four minutes. And it never returned.
As a young child, I had wanted only one thing: to be famous. After Running with Scissors made me famous (writer famous, anyway) I saw that it wasn’t what I wanted.
The best part of my career as a #1 bestselling author was the book tour, where I met my readers face to face and they shared so openly with me their own experiences, struggles and triumphs.
The fact that my books helped people became the only thing that I cared about.
In 2018, Town & Country magazine approached me to see if I might be interested in writing about luxury psychiatric and addiction treatment centers. I didn’t even have to think about it: OBVIOUSLY, YES.
Between the two of them, my mother and father had spent time in at least six psychiatric hospitals during my childhood. I was raised by a psychiatrist who considered his house to be his own private psychiatric hospital and I had even sung You Light Up My Life for the patients of the Northampton State Hospital.
I chose to write about three facilities: two of them were iconic, classic institutions: Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, Connecticut, and Austin Riggs in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
As my third choice I selected a wildcard: the world’s most exclusive, secretive, special-ops, undercover, location-unknown facility: Privé-Swiss.
The founder, Heidi Kunzli, had never given an interview or allowed a journalist into the facility. When Town & Country informed me that Heidi had agreed to be interviewed, I was thrilled. I would visit the two classic, world-class facilities first then visit the mysterious, Privé-Swiss last. My expectation was, this Privé-Swiss place will provide the sarcastic humor of the piece; I can poke a little fun at the spoiled rich people who go there. Meeting the founder herself was incredibly exciting. I imagined her with a shellacked blond chignon pulled tight, a five-carat diamond stud in each ear.
Silver Hill and Austin Riggs were no less impressive than I expected them to be. In fact, I left both facilities thinking, if you’re lucky enough to have the resources, either of these facilities would be among the best choice you could make.
Then I followed the directions to the location -which I was never to share- of Privé-Swiss and here I met its founder, Heidi Kunzli. She did not have a blond chignon and a five-carat diamond in each ear. She had dark, shoulder-length hair and was dressed in black. She did not have intelligent eyes: she had brilliant eyes.
Heidi, it turned out, invented the concept of “luxury private treatment” back in California in 2001 with her revolutionary retreat, Beau Monde.
I felt an automatic, profound connection to Heidi as she spoke and told me about her early days as an addiction counselor, when she was visiting clients in their homes in some of Hartford’s worst neighborhoods. When Heidi spoke of changing lives, her eyes glistened with emotion. The intensity of her voice when she said, “Helping people is the only, only thing that matters,” I knew I met a kindred spirit.
The terms I had agreed to in order to interview Heidi required me to spend 24 hours at Privé-Swiss and experience it as a client would.
It was an extraordinary experience. Yes, it was cushy. I had my own private chef (at least for 24 hours). But it was also unlike anything else because it was entirely one-on-one. And Heidi employed the best of the best therapists and wellness practitioners.
This place was off the charts. The only flaw? You had to be financially comfortable enough to afford it. But if you could afford it, it was the best treatment center in the world; on an entirely different plane than everything else.
Heidi explained to me that she made a choice when she opened Privé-Swiss to cater to industry leaders, heads of state, people in positions of high power so that when they, themselves were transformed, they could bring their learning with them back to their lives. Heidi told me, I know of several companies who expanded access to mental health for their employees because their CEO stayed here.
I stayed in touch with Heidi after my stay. We became pen-pals, then friends. The better I got to know her, the more similar we were at the very core. Helping people, changing their lives; this had become the most important thing to me.
It had always been the most important thing for Heidi.
One day we had lunch. “What’s next for you? Another book?”
Funny she should ask. The night before, I had done some writing. Which is another way of saying, I had done some soul searching. And I realized, I wanted a different life than the one I had. But I wanted one that was seemingly impossible. Because what I wanted was to transform lives, like Heidi got to do every single day. Only, I would like to transform lives by teaching people exactly how they could transform their own life through writing. I wanted to show people how they could learn to write in such a way that radical personal change occurred.
But Heidi didn’t wait for me to answer. Instead, she continued, “because I have something on my mind that I need to discuss with you. I have acquired a beautiful antique country estate that I am in the process of renovating. And I think it would be incredible if it could be based on your writing techniques. A collaboration between Privé-Swiss and Augusten Burroughs.”
I remember that I glanced down at my phone to unlock it, pulled up the document I had written the night before and slid my phone over to her, bumping it against her salad plate. “Funny you should say that,” I said. “Take a look at what I wrote last night.”
She read the words I had written. Then she looked up at me with such sincerity that it was startling. “Do you mean this? Are you serious? Is this real?”
I told her, “Yes.” I told her, “My dream is to do exactly what you just described.”
And this summer, the dream Heidi and I both share will open its doors. I am so excited to introduce you to Five Foxes.
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