Aug 1, 2009

The Burn Journals

by Brent Runyon

I first found out about The Burn Journals on Can I Borrow Your Book? many months ago. At the time I thought it sounded like a good book, but what a horrifying subject: a fourteen-year-old boy suffering from depression attempts suicide by lighting himself on fire. The book, based on his journals, chronicles his long recovery in hospitals and rehab centers, re-adjustment to home again and facing going back to school. Reading the details of his care in the burn ward was full of wonders for me- I had no idea what was involved in burn care, it's amazing what they do. His recovery was remarkable, considering he had third-degree burns over eighty-five percent of his body. Pouring gasoline over yourself and lighting a match seems so drastic, I could not shake the question: why? why did he do it? (It was not his first suicide attempt; he had tried sleeping pills, cutting his wrists, hanging, contemplated jumping off bridges, etc) I kept expecting some revelation to come near the end of the book, some monumental confrontation with his family, some revelation of a deed that had wracked him with guilt, but it never surfaced. It was just wretchedly sad. Through it all, he seemed such an ordinary kid. The book feels so vividly honest: his constant thoughts about girls, need to feel noticed, to make people laugh, dismissive of his parents, denial of his feelings... I don't usually enjoy reading books written in the present tense, they tend to feel awkward to me, but this one read so smoothly, it was like listening in on someone's thoughts. It made me feel despondent how ordinary his family appeared, and yet they were all suffering silently, in some way, and distant from each other. I felt frustrated that there was no real resolution at the end- yes, he recovered physically, and was stable enough to return home, and go back to school- but there were still huge unanswered questions. I read in someone else's review that in the afterward the author talked about how he still struggled with depression even years later, and was finally seeking help with medication and therapy, but the edition I read didn't include this material. I would have liked to read that part, too.

Note to sensitive readers: there's lots of swear words in this book, and his constant thoughts about s-x and touching girls' bodies. I guess that's what goes through the mind of a teen boy, and for some reason I didn't find it as offensive as I usually would. Maybe because it felt so honest.

Rating: 3/5                  374 pages, 2004

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  1. I always wonder how people manage to shape the stories of their depression/other mental illness into a story for memoirs like this. I don't understand how anything can be resolved, when it's a story of ongoing mental illness. This one sounds brutal - not sure I'd be able to read it.

  2. You're right. How can it have a resolution when it's an ongoing process in his life? I guess I'm too used to reading memoirs written at the end of someone's life, looking back, or novels for that matter, all neatly wrapped up. Life isn't like that...

    I should say this book is more a snapshot of what that recovery time was like for him. It is a hard read.

  3. These types of stories break my heart, because I always look at the child and think "that is someone's son or daughter" and "what if that happened to my kids?". How terrible would it be to see your baby suffering and not be able to do anything about it? I would close the book scared to death that the suicide attempt would happen again! I bet you felt wrung out after you finished!

  4. Wow, what a heartbreaking book. It may be well written, but I just don't think it's something I want to read about.

  5. Sandy Nawrot- Yes, I did. Feel wrung out. There's another book I've seen reviews on about a mother whose small child goes missing- I think that one would be so close to home- fear what if it happened to me? -I can't face reading it.

    Bermudaonion- I know what you mean. I almost didn't pick it up, but once I did, it was hard to put down.


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