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  • Written by Brent Runyon
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  • The Burn Journals
  • Written by Brent Runyon
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Written by Brent RunyonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Brent Runyon


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: October 11, 2005
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-307-27695-7
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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I don’t want to get out of bed.I’m so stupid.I did so many things wrong.I don’t know what to do.I’m going to be in so much trouble.What am I going to do?I’m completely screwed.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.In the tradition of Running with Scissors and Girl, Interrupted, The Burn Journals is a truly remarkable book about teenage despair and recovery.


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.

From the Hardcover edition.
Brent Runyon

About Brent Runyon

Brent Runyon - The Burn Journals

Photo © Judith Haut

"The second hardest thing to do in life is to change from a child into an adult. There are so many ways to mess up. So many ways to get lost. It's like crossing the ocean in a rowboat."--Brent Runyon

I took a job as a newspaper reporter a few months ago to help pay the bills. The other reason I took the job is that I get to do the police briefs, the section of the paper that details all of the crime and arrests in the small town I live in.

I’ve always loved that section of the paper. Especially here in this town. For years, I’ve been opening up to that section first, because there’s always something special in there.

A tan work glove was reported stolen from a 55-year-old man's unlocked car on Spinnaker Lane, at 9:32 AM. The man told police his GPS was moved but not stolen. A neighbor said his unlocked car was also rifled through, some change had been stolen, and a tan work glove was left on his seat.


An Alderberry Lane, man was arrested at 7:10 PM after neighbors reported he was threatening to kill them with a phone book.


Police were dispatched to Lakeview Avenue for a report of an uncontrollable teenage boy at 9:42 PM. The teen was reportedly refusing to follow directions, yelling, and screaming at his mother.

Maybe it’s just me, but I love the idea of the teenage boy who is so uncontrollable his parents have to call the cops to get him to calm down.

Not because it would be fun to be in that situation, but because I think we’ve probably all been in that situation–at least on one side of it. Most of us, I’m guessing, don’t get to the point where we call the cops.

Imagine if we did?

Dispatcher: 911, what is your emergency?
Parent: Yeah, hi, I have an uncontrollable teenage boy on my hands out here on Lakeview.
Dispatcher: What is the teenager doing?
Parent: Not following directions. Yelling and screaming. Acting in a generally uncontrollable ways.
Dispatcher: I’ve already dispatched a unit. Hold tight.

I mean, I get calling the cops if your car has been stolen or someone breaks into your house, but for a missing work glove? A phone book? An uncontrollable teenager?

But people do it all the time. And I mean, all the time. In a big city, probably, that stuff never gets into the police briefs because there are cars being stolen and homes broken into and worse.

And that’s part of the reason I took this job in this town for this newspaper. I love that I get to write about this stuff, because in a way, it makes the town seem small and quiet and normal.

There are still houses getting broken into, and the occasional car stolen, and every once in awhile there’s a murder.

But it’s still the kind of place where a tan work glove is stolen from an unlocked car, the police show up to write a report, and it makes it into the local newspaper.
Praise | Awards


“[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

“A fascinating account of the mending of a body and mind, told with the simple and honest sensibility of someone too young to have endured so much.” —Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha

"Runyon has, perhaps, written the defining book of a new genre, one that gazes...unflinchingly at boys on the emotional edge ." -Booklist (starred review)

"A taut, chilling account of the author's attempt to commit suicide...a must-read for teenagers struggling with self-doubt."-The Denver Post

“An excruciating, brilliant book...WOW.” —A.M. Homes, author of Things You Should Know


WINNER New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age
NOMINEE 2007 Missouri Gateway Readers Award
WINNER 2006 Pennyslvania Young Readers Choice Master List
WINNER 2007 Rhode Island Teen Book Master List
WINNER 2006 Texas TAYSHAS High School Reading List
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

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.

About the Guide

To fourteen-year-old Brent Runyon, life has become a haze of small failures. He hates himself for liking the same girl his best friend likes. His recent suicide attempts–sliced wrists, handfuls of pills, hangings–have left him very much alive and feeling stupid. And now the threat of disciplinary action by the principal looms large, ever since Brent set a school locker on fire just for the hell of it. There seems to be no choice but to do something from which he can’t turn back, something that will amend for all the bad things he’s done, all the pain he’s caused everyone. After seventh period one day, he says good-bye to a few friends, takes the bus home, chats with his brother in their driveway, then steps into the shower, puts on a gasoline-doused bathrobe, and lights a match.

The Burn Journals chronicles Brent’s harrowing recovery, from the fragmented reality of his months spent in the burn unit of a Washington, D.C., children’s hospital, to the tedium of full-time physical and psychological rehabilitation, and finally to his unsettling return home, where his old life awaits him, both gratifyingly familiar and terrifyingly foreign. Written in the dispassionate style of a young teen barely able to grasp his own complex web of emotions, this memoir offers an explicit, honest, and painfully unsentimental portrait of remorse and hope. As Brent struggles to convey to his parents–and to himself–his reasons for wanting to die, he slowly pieces together a tenuous but viable blueprint for wanting to live again.

About the Author

Brent Runyon is a regular contributor to public radio programs including This American Life. He lives on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Discussion Guides

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?

Suggested Readings

Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Holy Hunger; Augusten Burroughs, Running with Scissors; Frank Conroy, Stop-Time; Nick Flynn, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City; Lucy Grealy, Autobiography of a Face; Kay Redfield Jamison, Night Falls Fast; Mary Karr, Cherry; Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted; Brad Land, Goat; J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye; Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon; William Styron, Darkness Visible; Miriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness.

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