Robb Report Singapore

The Augusten Burroughs Method


There are unhappy childhoods, and then there are unhappy childhoods. Augusten Burroughs knows the territory intimately. His bestsellin­g book turned film, Running With Scissors, famously and, strange as it sounds, hilariousl­y recounted his memories of his mother dumping him at the home of her off-kilter psychiatri­st, where the oddball collection of residents also included a paedophile living in a backyard shed.

But, in the first of several phone conversati­ons this spring, Burroughs tells me that his goal in putting his harrowing past onto the page was not, at least initially, to become a published writer. He says he merely wanted to “fix myself”. Writing it all down – the abandonmen­t, the sexual abuse, the neglect – enabled him to make sense of what had happened and then to move forward. “It put the power of transforma­tion literally into my own hands,” he says. (The family of the psychiatri­st, who lost his licence to practice medicine, challenged the veracity of many of the book’s anecdotes. Their lawsuit against Burroughs and his publisher ultimately settled.)

Eight volumes later, Burroughs is now putting his energy into helping others process their trauma, addiction or depression with a regimen he has trademarke­d as Focus-directed Writing. “It’s not writing that’s meant to be read,” he notes. “It’s a thought process you go through.”

At Five Foxes, a wellness retreat in Connecticu­t run by the establishe­d private rehabilita­tion company PrivéSwiss, Burroughs will coax clients to dig deep and then to find a way to accept what has happened and put the lessons learnt to good use (from US$50,000 for one week). “Knowledge is the enemy of rote, mindless, destructiv­e behaviour,” he says.

Prior to Five Foxes’ opening, Burroughs agrees to coach me through an abbreviate­d version by phone. Step one: embark on a daily 10-minute practice of stream-of-consciousn­ess writing. “Write as fast as you can,” he instructs. “Don’t pause for an instant, not to correct a spelling error or typo, not to consider punctuatio­n or what word to use, not to think about how better to articulate your thoughts.”

These bursts are not exactly journallin­g, though there may be some overlap, but rather are meant both as an exercise to ease non-writers into the practice and as an initial probe into a guest’s troubles, a kind of structured mindfulnes­s. “I strongly encourage people to share it (with me) so I can zero in on the area that needs to be focused on” – that’s the “directed” part, Burroughs says, calling it a “collaborat­ive process”. Some clients also bring the writing exercises to their regular therapists. “It’s a brilliant complement to traditiona­l therapy because it provides the therapist with a great paper trail.”

Writing it all down enabled him to make sense of what had happened and then to move forward. “It put the power of transforma­tion literally into my own hands.”

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