January 12, 2006

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The Burn Journals, By Brent Runyon (Vintage Books, 2005; first published in 2004)

B

Teenagers are not like other people.

Their brains work differently — they overreact to molehills and don’t see the looming shadow of mountains. It’s a fog I can clearly remember coming out of around 16, when the Big Horrible Things of my early teen years suddenly seemed more like regular-sized problems.

Brent Runyon almost didn’t get to come out of his fog. Destructive impulses at 14 got him in mild teenage trouble (stealing school supplies, a small fire set accidentally in the school gym locker room). Destructive impulses led him to attempt suicide, a couple of times with no consequence and once with dramatic life-changing results. Afraid his parents would be upset about his latest brush with discipline, Runyon came home from school, undressed, put on a robe, doused the robe with gasoline and lit himself on fire.

You may remember that particular incident and at least one event during his rehabilitation from pieces he read on This American Life. The details of this attempted suicide and Runyon’s slow recovery (including a “date” with one of the nurses from the burn unit) appear in The Burn Journals, which is written in an inner monologue format. After the fire, his thoughts first appear in blinks, as though he comes out of unconsciousness only long enough to realize “there’s a balloon and a room” or to experience the pain of what he thinks are people tearing away his skin. When he comes to know what has happened, he begins to understand the pain he’s inflicted on himself and what a long road he has to travel to get back to anything like normal.

Told with the immediacy and the honestly of a teenager’s thoughts, The Burn Journals gives a gripping portrayal of depression, especially the particularly painful depression of a teenager. Runyon wisely tells the story in his teenage voice, full of an unfocused rage, a sadness even he doesn’t understand and an intellectual immaturity that doesn’t try to explain away his teenage thoughts. Not an easy read, The Burn Journals does give voice to the boy teenage experience, which frequently seems to get brushed aside by the girl side of that age.

— Amy Diaz