Which witch is which?

  • by Jim Piechota
  • Tuesday November 12, 2019
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'Toil & Trouble' author Augusten Burroughs.
'Toil & Trouble' author Augusten Burroughs.

Toil & Trouble by Augusten Burroughs; St. Martins Press, $28

In a literary career grounded on divulging the most intimate pieces of his private life (familial dysfunction, alcoholism and recovery, self-awareness as a gay man), prolific writer Augusten Burroughs reveals yet another fascinating aspect about himself in " Toil & Trouble." Wait for it: he's a witch, and he holds a firm belief and allegiance to all things magical and mystical.

The author describes himself as a descendant from a long line of witches as an accidental second-born son. A premonition about his grandmother's death while on a bumpy schoolbus ride when Burroughs was eight confirmed the suspicion that he possessed a particular "gift" and was different in many ways. As told to him by his beloved mother, this gift was bestowed upon him by a lineage partially emanating from Lancaster, England.

His mother taught him about ancient Enochian magick and the vast differences between high and low versions of rituals and the "chaos" variety he employed at 25 after having just relocated to Manhattan from San Francisco that "took the ceremonial robe off magick and put it in jeans."

There are casual mentions of "Bewitched" episodes with Endora or "amazing" Uncle Arthur as "a big queen doing magick on my favorite show," and a real estate agent with a big personality who is also a witch. The author is neurotic about physical aspects of his life, but comes across as supremely perceptive and intuitive when it comes to feelings about people, places, and finding other witches. "Witchcraft is not supernatural," he writes, "it is hypernatural." But the book becomes a bit too shallow when it comes to describing the true occult nature of the author's present life.

Besides the distracting haphazardness of its loose structure, the true trouble with this book is that with such an intense, devilishly inviting opening chapter, we are left wanting more about Burroughs' history and how he kept being a witch such a secret for most of his life. Why divulge it now? The vignettes he shares incorporate his witchy magick mind in instances where introspective thought is required or during moments of anxiety, but how is it incorporated into the everyday?

Instead, there are chapters and stories upon stories about his insomnia, his early school years, life with husband Christopher, a lifelong love of fire, the couple's move to rural Connecticut, and the eccentric characters who infiltrate their bucolic country homestead. Their arborist, diagnosing the numerous issues with their "Game of Crone's Slime Vagina Tree," meanders in and out of their backyard, as do frustrations with country living and a serious medical illness that threatens their placidity.

Burroughs fans will delight at the frequency with which the author incorporates aspects of his former memoirs into this collection of personal essays; he is in fine form with regard to memoirist themes. Others who select this book for the occult theme may be disappointed to discover an uneven balance between the author's mundane daily life and his witchery.