In 1991, fourteen-year-old Brent Runyon came home from school, doused his bathrobe in gasoline, put it on, and lit a match.
He suffered third-degree burns over 85% of his body and spent the next year recovering in hospitals and rehab facilities. During that year of physical recovery, Runyon began to question what he’d done, undertaking the complicated journey from near-death back to high school, and from suicide back to the emotional mainstream of life.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.75(d)|
|Age Range:||14 Years|
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Read an Excerpt
When seventh period is finally over, I run to my locker and put all my books inside. I won’t need them anymore. I grab my lock-picking set and a spare Ace of Spades that I have lying around.
At the end of the hallway, I can see Stephen talking to Megan, the girl we both have a crush on. I walk up to them and say hi. She smiles at me and I try to smile back. He looks a little suspicious.
I don’t really want to say anything, I don’t want to tell them what I’m going to do. I hand him the Ace of Spades and say, “Good-bye,” and I walk away. I hope they’ll be happy together.
I see my friend Jake at his locker and give him the lock-picking set. “Use them wisely,” I say, and head toward the bus.
Laura walks with me down D hall. She says, “Hey, I heard you set that fire in gym class.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to set myself on fire.” She stops at her locker, and I keep walking.
On the bus ride home, I sit by myself. I lean my head against the cold glass window and try not to think about all the stupid things I’ve done, all the bad things I’ve done, and all the pain I’ve caused everyone.
My brother is playing basketball outside the house when I get home. He’s shooting free throws.
I rebound the ball for him and throw it back. I don’t want to take any shots. I tell him the whole story, about what I did and what they’re going to do to me. I don’t tell him what I’m going to do to myself.
When I’m done talking, he says, “That sucks,” and I go inside the house. I don’t have to write a note anymore. Craig knows everything.
I walk out to the shed to get the gas can. I bring it inside to the bathroom at the top of the stairs because that’s the room with the most locks. I go back downstairs and get the matches from the kitchen.
I take off all my clothes and put on the pair of red boxers with glow-in-the-dark lips that my mom bought for me at the mall last weekend. I bring my bathrobe into the shower and I pour the gasoline all over it. The gas can is only about a quarter full, but it seems like enough.
I step into the bathtub and I put the bathrobe over my shoulders. It’s wet and heavy, but there’s something kind of comforting about the smell, like going on a long car trip. I hold the box of matches out in front of me in my left hand.
I take out a strike-anywhere match and hold it against the box.
Should I do it?
Yes. Do it.
I strike the match, but it doesn’t light. Try again.
I light the match. Nothing happens. I bring it closer to my wrist and then it goes up, all over me, eating through me everywhere. I can’t breathe. I’m screaming, “Craig! Craig!”
I fall down. I’m going to die. I’m going to find out what death is like. I’m going to know. But nothing’s happening.
This hurts too much. I need to stop it. I need to get up. I stand. I don’t know how I stand, but I do, and I turn on the shower. I’m breathing water and smoke. I unlock the door and open it. My hand is all black. I walk out. There’s Craig with Rusty, our dog, next to him. They have the same expression on their faces.
Craig yells something and runs downstairs. I think he’s calling 911. I’m following him. He hands me the phone and runs off. There’s a woman on the phone asking me questions. I try to tell her what’s happened, but my voice sounds choked and brittle. There’s something wrong with my voice.
The woman on the phone says the fire trucks and ambulances are on their way. Somehow she knows my address. Craig is gone now, gone to get Mom, and Rusty is hiding somewhere. Smoke is coming from the bathroom upstairs and I can see that the whole room has turned black. I look down and see my flesh is charred and flaking and the glow-in-the-dark boxer shorts are burnt into my skin.
The woman on the phone says everything is going to be all right, and I believe her. She has a nice voice. She keeps asking me if I’m still on fire and I say, “I don’t think so.”
I’m walking around the kitchen, waiting for the ambulance to come. I can see my reflection in the microwave. Where’s my hair? Where did my hair go? Is that my face?
We used to put marshmallows in the microwave. We used to watch them get bigger and bigger and then shrink down.
“Oh God, just tell them to get here, just tell them to get here, okay?”
She says, “It’s okay. They’re coming. They’re almost there.”
“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay, that’s okay.”
I can hear the sirens in the distance now.
I say, “I want to lie down. I’m going to lie down.” It hurts to talk. I think there’s something wrong in my throat.
“You can’t lie down.”
“But I have to.”
“Okay, you can lie down.”
The men are here. The firemen are here. They’re putting me on a plastic sheet. They say I’m going to be okay. One of them puts something over my face. That feels good. That feels so good. The cold air feels so good going into my lungs.
What are they talking about? What are they saying? They’re giving me a shot. They say it’s going to make the pain go away. Make the pain go away.
I’m looking at the faces of all the men who are gathered around me. Their eyes are so blue and so clear.
I turn my head and see Craig in the front hall. He’s yelling and punching the walls. He’s angry.
And my mom is here, and she’s smiling and saying she loves me, and her eyes, which are green like my eyes, are the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
Reading Group Guide
“The Burn Journals describes a particular kind of youthful male desolation better than it has ever been described before, by anyone.” –Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading and discussion of Brent Runyon’s The Burn Journals, the provocative, raw, and unsparing account of Runyon’s long journey back to teenage life after a botched suicide attempt leaves him physically and emotionally shattered.
1. This memoir is unique in that Runyon chooses not to annotate his account from an adult perspective but rather to let his fourteen-year-old voice stand alone. How does this lack of analysis and retrospective insight shape the narrative? What effect does the detached, primitive, sometimes belligerent nature of this teenage voice have on the story?
2. Brent’s description of his mother’s eyes moments after the disaster–“her eyes . . . are the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen” [p. 18]–echoes studies on newborns’ reactions to their mothers’ eyes moments after birth. To what extent is Brent’s suicide an attempt to revert to an infantile state in which he will be unconditionally loved? Are all suicides overtures toward rebirth?
3. How does Brent’s nebulous adolescent understanding of his own sexuality play into his depression? Do his thwarted attempts at intimacy with women and girls read as comical or disturbing? Does he mature in this area over the course of the memoir?
4. Brent recounts several episodes that seem to suggest a lack of sensitivity on the part of his parents to his violent tendencies, even after his release from rehab. In one, his father employs Brent’s reluctant help in bludgeoning a possum to death. In another, his father buys Brent boxing gloves and allows Brent to knock him to the ground. In a third, Brent ponders his childhood practice of mutilating toys, a habit obviously unnoticed by his parents: “Poor Papa Smurf. . . . Sometimes we used to light a can of Lysol and spray him with fire. . . . We also tore the arms off of Cobra Commander and put his head in a vise. We took Duke, from G.I. Joe, and twisted him around until his spine snapped. . . . And then we set them on fire too. Why did we do that?” [p. 288] Are these passages intended to impugn Brent’s parents on some level? Or are they meant simply to pinpoint Brent’s growing awareness of violence and its ramifications? Why do you think he includes them?
5. Brent struggles to find a means to articulate his sorrow and regret over the disaster to his family. Yet when presented with family therapy specifically tailored to facilitating this kind of dialogue, Brent becomes reticent, unyielding, and sarcastic. Why?
6. Brent writes of his burn treatments: “There are two kinds of people in this world. People that have to lie on their stomachs for ten days straight and people that don’t. And the lucky bastards that don’t have to lie on their stomachs for ten motherfucking days are the ones that get to skate through life like they have their own personal Zamboni smoothing the way for them” [p. 82]. How much responsibility does Brent accept for his injury? To what extent does he blame fate?
7. Brent’s mantra, “I hate myself,” continues well after the fire. How much of this can be attributed to the normal pains of adolescence? What are the signs that his self-loathing is abating or shifting by the time he returns to school?
8. Some of the memoir’s most excruciating dialogues occur in the context of psychological evaluation. In the presence of a family therapist, Brent has a bizarre argument with his mother over whether five or ten minutes of silence have passed [p. 136]. During a session with two psychologists, Brent accuses one of the doctors of saying “scarcastic” instead of “sarcastic” [p. 216]. Do these episodes suggest true madness, or does Brent purposefully warp his ostensible grasp on reality in order to get attention? What sort of agony do you think therapy sessions like those Brent describes can invoke for a teenage boy?
9. In Darkness Visible, his memoir of mental illness, William Styron writes, “Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self–to the mediating intellect–as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.” Does The Burn Journals succeed in rendering Runyon’s depression comprehensible to readers? Is this book an appropriate cautionary or helpful tale for depressed teenagers to read?
10. One reviewer wrote of The Burn Journals: “[Brent] isn’t spared the sight of the pain felt by his family and friends, as he would have been had he died. In accepting the burden of the anguish he caused them, he finds healing and a new depth to his relationships” [“The Burn Journals A Gripping Must-Read” by Karyn Saemann, The Capital Times, November 5, 2004]. Is this an accurate assessment? If so, what evidence is there of Brent’s healing? Which relationships are deepened and renewed?
11. When Brent’s parents ask him if he is involved in the occult, Brent is overwhelmed and hurt by their ignorance of him. “They know nothing about me. Nothing at all. . . . Why don’t they love me? Why don’t they take care of me? Why don’t they act like I’m their son? . . . I can’t believe how little they know me” [p. 192]. Does Brent ever convey this sense of betrayal to them? Does this issue of misinterpretation reach a denouement?
12. When Brent is given permission to forgo his plastic face mask when he goes back to school, why does he hesitate?
13. Which of Brent’s caregivers makes the most lasting difference in his recovery process? Why?
14. The passages that describe Brent’s burn care routine in the hospital are graphic, even grisly. What role do they play in the memoir?
15. When a nurse suggests that Brent ought to be grateful for his lapses in memory after the fire, Brent’s mental response is, “I don’t want to forget anything. I don’t care if they are terrible memories. They’re mine” [p. 86]. To what extent is Brent’s journey out of darkness a process of reclamation? What societal forces could cause an upper-middle-class white teenager to feel disenfranchised or in need of reclaiming what is rightfully his?