I want to be upfront. I love Augusten Burroughs. I fell in love with him when I first read Running with Scissors, and every time I have picked up anything he has written, I have that warm feeling knowing I will delight in the scrumptious experience that is associated with reading his work.
Shortly after creating the Origins Podcast in 2019, I discovered that Augusten was going to have a new book coming out, and I contacted him to ask if he might come by the studio and do a podcast if his book tour passed nearby. To my great happiness, he said he would love to come by and would send me a prepublication copy of the book so I might prepare.
So it was that I received Toil and Trouble: A Memoire, and discovered to my surprise that it was a memoir describing his, and his mother’s experiences as witches. I read the book carefully and tried to decide what to do. The dilemma was somewhat similar to that I faced when I wrote The Physics of Star Trek. I didn’t want to write a book that would simply say “This won’t work” over and over again. Similarly, I didn’t want to offer blanket denials of Augusten’s claims. Instead, I decided I would try and use the opportunity to discuss science and skepticism and apply those ideas to various examples in the book.
After we finished the podcast, we weren’t sure when the right time to release it would be. I didn’t want to cast any negative shadows on the book during its initial release, and I wanted to time it appropriately after we had amassed a catalog of podcasts with scientists and artists that would give some perspective on the discussion we had.
When we thought about a holiday edition podcast the dialogue with Augusten came to mind. I confess I had forgotten the details and was a little worried. I needn’t have worried, however. I had forgotten how much fun it was, and how much fun any conversation with Augusten can be. Moreover, he comes at almost all ideas and experiences with the characteristics of a scientist. He is realistic, skeptical, and willing to be wrong. It is so refreshing.
We began the podcast by once again discussing his dysfunctional childhood, which he covers so beautifully in a number of his books. It is a fascinating dive into issues of mental illness, and victimhood, the latter of which he happily demonstrates is in the eye of the beholder. But the purpose of this discussion is to put in context the discovery, when he was a young boy, that he was a witch. A discovery revealed by his mother, who told him that he came from a long of witches after he has an experience that he would describe as a sort of remote sensing, associated with an accident his grandmother had. From there we discuss more modern examples.
I truly enjoyed listening to Augusten again in the podcast, which presents, in my mind, a good example of how to have a difficult but respectful conversation, and how science and skepticism can and should be applied to wishful thinking—something that Augusten would certainly agree with. As Richard Feynman once said, after all: The easiest person to fool is yourself. Throughout, Augusten is charming and enjoyable, and listening to him describe his own experiences is alone worth the listen.
I hope you enjoy this part 1 of our Holiday Podcast. Part 2 will be released after Xmas, and is a special holiday edition of Science Matters, where I discuss wishful thinking associated with a scientific development that dominated much of the media earlier this month. I hope you enjoy both, complementary discussions.
As always, an ad-free video version of this podcast is also available to paid Critical Mass subscribers. Your subscriptions support the non-profit Origins Project Foundation, which produces the podcast. The audio version is available free on the Critical Mass site and on all podcast sites, and the video version will also be available on the Origins Project Youtube channel as well.