I've read a handful of child abuse accounts, but that didn't make Augusten Burroughs' Running With Scissors (2003, Atlantic Books, 304 pages) any more palatable. It's the sort of book that I hope will never become palatable to me -- yet that I go on reading anyway, because I don't want to be someone who assumes that bad things go away the moment I stop seeing them.
For a number of reasons, everything I read and watch gets pushed through a detailed assessment of how appropriate it would be for various audiences, mostly broken down by age. Between these pages lie stories that make me think, "This is no book for a child." A moment later, I'm jarred anew by the realisation that this is no life for a child, yet there it is: it happened, and here the grown Burroughs is to tell the tale. Given away at age 12 to a psychiatrist who appears -- pardon the expression -- loonier than anyone he's treating. Left to cope alone with the most frightening manifestations of his mother's severe mental illness. Allowed, while still legally a child, to be in a physical relationship with a man nearly 20 years older. What are they thinking? a voice yells with every chest-aching turn of the page. Don't they know that's statutory rape? Why doesn't she get help from someone who will help her get better? I know she's ill and that's not her fault, but how can she do this to her own child?
This one gets louder and louder with each passing chapter: Is there anybody -- just one person -- in this story who looks out for this boy? Who will give to him without expecting return? For whom he is priority number one?
I made it to the end and found that said person never turned up. It colours the world grey and powdery, bitter like dust in your mouth from walking around a construction site, to know that this evil happens constantly in the lives of too many small, vulnerable people. Yet, even with mouth dry, eyes streaming and heart wrenched, I knew this wasn't the last such book I'd read.
Reading helps me to understand, and that helps me to help. I have no illusions of myself as some magical healer, toting an all-purpose bandage for emotional wounds of all shapes and sizes. In fact, the more I see of just how much ugly this world is capable of, the poorer-equipped I feel to fight it. It isn't fun feeling helpless, but I think that's the key to being of any help at all. My colleagues who've been in helping professions for way longer tell me this is true. Clients come to us broken. We so crudely insult them if we give them the false promise that we, or anyone, will fix it. On the other side of that, though, is this great honour: that we get to walk alongside them while they discover the beauty that can radiate through the cracks. That, if we allow it, we are shown in the process the brokenness that is inherent in us, every one. And there, at our weakest, we find strength from beyond these broken selves.