“Running With Scissors”, an adaptation of the memoir with the same title by Augusten Burrough is a film that begins with the separation of Burrough’s parents and his mother’s quasi-narcissistic and psychotic dysfunction. Burroughs’ mother sends him off to live with her psychiatrist, whose life and practice is personified by psyco-analytic psychology. The film is a weird combination of Wes Anderson (though he’s not the director) and barbiturates, literally and figuratively. The narrative flows and is functional, but the reality of the characters only really makes sense when one applies the intrinsic determinism of radical psycho-analytic psychology and its tenacious demand for interpreting everything to find “new meaning”. What results is a strange tale of brokenness, loss, and the need for tangible and meaningful connections in the world in which we live.
Deirdre, Augusten’s mother, fantasizes about becoming a famous poet throughout the film, which reveals a greater neurosis and narcissism in her blending reality with fiction. Rarely if ever, does she appear fully grounded in the present or able to identify the needs of others above and beyond her own aspirations. The film hits its climatic arc when Deidre and her husband, Norman, get a divorce and Augusten is sent off to live with Deidre’s eccentric psychiatrist, Dr. Finch.
Dr. Finch fully embodies an extreme version of psyco-analytic psychology as a kind of life philosophy and consequently those around him seem to have adopted it as well. Dr. Finch treats Deirdre’s fantasy as a real or true extension of her “reality.” He tells her, for example, that she is a very talented poet and needs to work on her art. Deirdre soaks it in, integrating Dr. Finch’s encouragement into a full fledged pursuit towards her fantasy, which at the same time means letting go of the “guardianship” of her son. There are several other important characters to the film’s plot, however for the sake of brevity this post will remain focused on the four characters already mentioned: Augusten, his mother (Deidre), his father (Norman) and the psychiatrist, Dr Finch.
The client is ultimately Deidra, however her son Augusten receives a kind of passive therapy indirectly imposed by Dr. Finch. As Deidra delves deeper into her work as a poet she develops another relationship with a fellow poet from a women’s poetry group that Deidre leads. This group seems less of a supportive system and more of a place for Deidra to share her “expertise”. We, the audience are not given many clues about the kinds of specific counsel or tools that Dr. Finch is offering Deidre in their counseling sessions. But we can infer from the clear indicators throughout the film that Deidre is presently in therapy and Dr. Finch is aware of whatever progress or digressions that are taking place. What is puzzling is the somewhat ironic abstract commentary the film conveys about the utter uselessness of psycho-analytic psychology. The viewer may find his or her head cocked to one side while asking the question: what the hell is going on? This question is less of an obvious consequence of a narrative hobbling it’s way through Freudian symbolism and more of a poignant bullet-to-the-heart shot at how meaningless life is without boundaries, rules, and meaning.
Because of this, the number of crossed boundaries and ethical violations on behalf of Dr. Finch are numerous. The norm seems to be whatever works goes, which means the social pragmatism of Dr. Finch doesn’t even acknowledge the need for rules or ethics. The question with this film is not where did Dr. Finch cross the line? The question is, does Dr. Finch have any sort of ethical system to which he subscribes? The only time we see Dr. Finch contradict Deidre is early in the film. Deidre as was complaining about her ex-husband and speaking harshly about him in front of Augusten. Dr. Finch bluntly and directly confronted her and told her to not instill fear in her son. She listened and responded by stopping what she was doing. Unfortunately this particular scene does not give us much as to what exactly Dr. Finch wants in the moment. Perhaps keeping the situation calm and preventing anxiety was his main concern or maybe he believed Deidre was truly harming her son in that moment.
Despite our culture’s cynicism for rules, truth, and boundaries, this movie demonstrates why these things are important. Relationships are built on more than random isolated connections with people. Something else is needed for true connection to take place. People need an inner sense of where they begin and end, a kind of inner solidarity with who they are in the world. This need is intrinsic to relationship building, trust, and honesty. Take these things away and we enter a slippery slope of not challenging the false constructs of reality that are sometimes created in our minds and hearts. Take these things away from the counselor-client relationship and the very foundation for improvement, change, and inner growth becomes slippery and indiscernible. I am reminded by this film’s message that relationships require work, sacrifice, selflessness, and solidarity.
In conclusion, a perfunctory glance at the film reveals a biographical story which is jolting to our sensibilities. However, one only need to watch Augusten to see if his living situation is truly conducive to meaningful relationships and sustainable connections with others. What is helpful about the film is its contrast to what the audience would identify as stability, rest, and contentment. Yet, it cannot be assumed that clients come from backgrounds where stability, rules, and boundaries function by the same standards as the counselor. However, the film indirectly suggests that one of the greatest questions that a therapist can ask a client is: “What is your story”?