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Discussion Module

The Burn Journals
by
Brent Runyon

Publishing Information: Knopf Books for Young Readers : New York, 2004
ISBN: 0375826211 / 1400096421 (PB)
Pages
: 384 p.
Ages: 14 & Up

Summary:
Brent Runyon was 14 years old when he set himself on fire. In this book, Runyon describes that suicide attempt and his recovery over the following year. He takes us into the burn unit of a children's hospital and through burn care and skin-grafting, then to a rehabilitation hospital for physical, occupational, and psychological therapy, and finally back home and to his return to high school. But more important than the literal journey is the journey into his own mind that Runyon takes us on. He shares his thoughts and hopes and fears with such unflinching honesty that we begin to fathom what it meant to him to want to die, and how it feels to struggle back toward normalcy. An extraordinary autobiography, The Burn Journals is a riveting exploration of teen anguish.

Shorter summary:
After a bad day at school, eighth grader Brent Runyon comes home, plays a little basketball with his brother, then goes inside, soaks his bathrobe in gasoline, and sets himself on fire. Thus begins the real-life odyssey of a 14-year-old boy struggling first to survive and then to retrieve a place in the universe.

Book Talk:
When the author writes "there's something kind of comforting about the smell" of the gasoline-soaked bathrobe he puts on prior to setting himself on fire, it's difficult not to cringe in fear. Also terrifying is that Runyon exhibits few symptoms of a textbook teenage depressive when he attempts suicide. He has friends, a loving family, and, though he gets into trouble occasionally, he seems to function fairly well in social situations. Runyon has his reasons for what he does, however, even though in retrospect they seem ridiculous. After he makes a quick series of poor choices during gym class one day, the school threatens to expel him. To the author's eighth-grade mind, death seems to be a more sufferable option than dealing with his parents' disappointment. Runyon's ability to re-create the outlook of a confused early adolescent and convey the unstable mix of remorse, anger, frustration and pride he experiences during his documented recovery make his book an illuminating read. By Vikas Turakhia

Subject Headings & Major Themes:

Biography & Autobiography
Death & Dying
Depression
Personal Memoirs
Rehabilitation
Suicide
Teenage Boys

Awards & Reviews:
New York Public Library's Books for the Teen Age, 2005
International Reading Association's Children's Award, 2005

Gr. 8-12. On the sixteenth page of this incisive memoir, eighth-grader Brent Runyon drenches his bathrobe with gasoline and ("Should I do it? Yes.") sets himself on fire. The burns cover 85 percent of his body and require six months of painful skin grafts and equally invasive mental-health rehabilitation. From the beginning, readers are immersed in the mind of 14-year-old Brent as he struggles to heal body and mind, his experiences given devastating immediacy in a first-person, present-tense voice that judders from uncensored teenage attitude and poignant anxiety (he worries about getting hard-ons during physical therapy) to little-boy sweetness. And throughout is anguish over his suicide attempt and its impact on his family: "I have this guilt feeling all over me, like oil on one of those birds in Alaska." Runyon has, perhaps, written the defining book of a new genre, one that gazes unflinchingly at boys on the emotional edge. Some excruciatingly painful moments notwithstanding, this can and should be read by young adults, as much for its literary merit as for its authentic perspective on what it means to attempt suicide, and, despite the resulting scars, be unable to remember why. Jennifer Mattson. Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
--Booklist (Starred Review)

This true story of a 14-year-old boy who tried to commit suicide by setting himself on fire certainly has the power to grab the attention of many young readers, despite its length. Formerly an excellent student, Brent suddenly begins to fail in school and pulls one too many pranks. Sure he'll be caught and expelled for impulsively setting a fire in a locker and unable to admit his guilt, he decides that it's best to die. The bulk of the narrative follows Brent through his treatment and recovery, his pain, pleasures, and frustrations, his family's love, and his relations with his friends. Rarely stated but always lurking below the surface is the question of why Brent set himself on fire, because he doesn't know himself. It's a fascinating journey through a teenager's mind, only lacking information about what happened to Brent after he returned to school. (Nonfiction. YA)
--Kirkus Reviews

"Engrossing from first page to last, this book based on Runyon's own adolescent experiences draws readers into the world of an eighth-grader whose life is irrevocably changed the day he deliberately sets himself on fire. Brent, after narrowly escaping death, wakes up in a hospital with 85% of his body severely burned and begins a slow, arduous path to recovery. Rather than analyzing reasons the patient wanted to kill himself, the first-person narrative remains focused on the immediate challenge of survival, incorporating meticulous details of Brent's day-to-day ordeals in the hospital and later in a rehabilitation center. Time, at first, is measured by Brent's fluctuating levels of discomfort and comfort, ranging from the excruciating pain of having bandages removed to the sheer bliss of tasting ice cream for the first time in several weeks. And his repentant apologies to his parents and to Craig, his brother, who discovers Brent immediately after the incident, are wrenching in their honesty ('I hope Craig can love me again'). When his wounds begin to heal, Brent's thoughts turn from the present to the future as he nervously makes plans to return home and re-enter society. Despite its dark subject matter, this powerful chronicle of Brent's journey to heal expresses hope, celebrates life and provides an opportunity to slip inside the skin of a survivor with a unique perspective. Ages 14-up.
--Publishers Weekly

Gr 8 Up-One February day in 1991, Runyon came home from eighth grade, had a snack, soaked his full-length bathrobe in gasoline, and set himself on fire. He intended to kill himself. Everything shortly after is written in short bursts as the author takes readers in and out of his various states of consciousness: the helicopter ride; the parade of nurses, doctors, therapists, and orderlies at Children's Hospital in Washington, DC, and the regimented details of his care divided among them; and the pain of the burns on 85 percent of his body. The entries lengthen and the story builds like a novel as the author takes readers along as co-patients. The dialogue between Runyon and his nurses, parents, and especially his hapless psychotherapists is natural and believable, and his inner dialogue is flip, often funny, and sometimes raw. The details of the surgery, therapy, and painstaking care that go into healing burns are fascinating, and are likely to grip teens with a taste for gore or melodrama. Runyon's brave willingness to relive this horrifying year in unflinching detail is perhaps even more fascinating, as is the slowly unfolding mystery of the sadness that made a smart, popular, funny, loving boy try to take his own life. Depression, regret, and rebirth are the themes that tie the narrative together, and the subtle tension among the three is beautifully related, offering no neat resolution. The authentically adolescent voice of the journals will engage even those reluctant to read such a dark story.-Johanna Lewis, New York Public Library Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
--School Library Journal

Runyon tells the shocking true story of his fourteenth year. He was depressed, had attempted and failed to commit suicide several times, and ultimately set himself on fire. Runyon begins his story just before that tragic event, giving the readers some background into his mental state but never revealing that he could go so far to hurt himself. The author tells of the afternoon when he went into the bathroom, soaked his bathrobe with gasoline, and lit a match. He continues the story from his walk out of the bathroom, to the horrified face of his brother who called 911, to his trip to the hospital and the subsequent surgeries, procedures, pain, and therapy over the next year. Runyon burned 85 percent of his body and nearly died, and readers are given all the grisly details of the boy's physical and emotional recovery in a very matter-of-fact fashion. There are high points, however. Runyon received phone calls, autographs, and visits from celebrities such as Magic Johnson, Jay Leno, and Dennis Miller. He developed a special relationship with the nurses and hospital staff and grew closer to his parents, and eventually, his brother. This book is an unbelievable story of survival, for the simple fact that it really happened and because it was something that Runyon brought upon himself. His is a cautionary tale to beat all cautionary tales. VOYA CODES: 3Q 4P J S (Readable without serious defects; Broad general YA appeal; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). Ages12 to 18. Review by Kimberly L. Paone.
--
VOYA: Voice of Youth Advocates

Discussion Questions and Ideas:

  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. 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?
  3. 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. Are these passages intended to cast blame on 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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 ... 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?
  6. 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?
  7. 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?
  8. 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?
  9. 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?
  10. 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?
  11. When Brent is given permission to forgo his plastic face mask when he goes back to school, why does he hesitate?
  12. Which of Brent's caregivers makes the most lasting difference in his recovery process? Why?
  13. The passages that describe Brent's burn care routine in the hospital are graphic, even grisly. What role do they play in the memoir?
  14. 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?

Related Websites:
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry - www.aacap.org

American Association of Suicidolgy - www.suicidology.org

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention - www.afsp.org

The Burn Journals - http://www.burnjournals.com/

The Burn Journals:' To the Brink of Suicide and Back - http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2006/03/22/brentrunyon/?rsssource=1

The Coalition for Kids in Danger - www.kidsandfire.net

Read-a-Likes:
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, 1951
A Child Called It: One Child's Courage to Survive by Dave Pelzer, 1995
Girl, Interrupted
by Susanna Kaysen, 1993
The Language of Goldfish, by Zibby O'Neal, 1980
Out of the Fire by Deborah Froese, 2001
Peeling the Onion by Wendy Orr, 1993
Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, 2002

About the Author:
Despite the trauma of his attempted suicide, Brent Runyon graduated from high school with his class. After graduating from college, Brent worked in radio and created several autobiographical pieces. His first radio piece, 'Fire and Ice Cream,' was about his trip out of the hospital with Tina, his favorite nurse. A second piece, called 'The Burn Journals,' was an early version of the opening scenes in this book. Brent's hope in writing this book was that, by setting down the thoughts and emotions of that time with total honesty and precision, he could explain - if only to himself - the hows and whys of his depression and his recovery, and finally put it to rest. Brent Runyon lives on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.   He is currently working on a fiction book.   Pictures and more about the author are available at http://www.burnjournals.com/content.html

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