Book Review: The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon

Category: Academic | Writing
While in 11th grade at University Prep High School, for Reader's Workshop I read "The Burn Journals" by Brent Runyon. Read the book review.

Fans of Thirteen Reasons Why, Running with Scissors, and Girl, Interrupted will be entranced by this remarkable true story of teenage despair and recovery.

“[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

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.

My Thoughts…

The Journey Back

A 14-year-old boy, rebellion, fire, depression, guilt, suicide, and recovery!

The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon is one of many great books about teenage despair and recovery. It is graphic for its reality alone. The language is bad in places, punctuating Brent’s anger and frustration. Some explicit sexual references exist, mainly as Brent’s adolescent fantasies, but young boys would probably relate to it. This book is about 14-year-old Brent, who makes a suicidal attempt by drenching his bathrobe in gasoline and setting himself on fire. It also discusses the long year he spent in hospitals and rehabilitation facilities recovering from the tragedy-“From near death back to high school, and from suicide back to the emotional mainstream of life.”

Although this is Runyon’s first book, Runyon has had experiences with publishing short novel pieces that still explain his life experience, such as “Fire and Ice Cream” which is about his trip out of the hospital with Tina, his favorite nurse; the early edition of The Burn Journals published in September of 2004. In this book, Brent gives great detail to contribute to giving the readers an understanding of what it means to attempt to kill yourself and struggle back to “the norm.”

Brent was an extremely intelligent young man in a Gifted and Talented program. After convincing his parents to remove him from that program, everything went downhill. Brent’s grades begin to drop, and classmates view him as a joker. Being the jokester he was, there were various states of rebellion that Brent went through before he attempted suicide. They were all very minor rebellious acts, but they pushed him to the limit. Before Brent tried to kill himself, he’d done something that could have endangered the lives of other students. He’d set a whole pack of matches on fire, trying to impress his friends, and when the fire got out of hand, he threw it into a locker with a T-shirt in it and locked it, trying to put it out. After the incident, while everyone was trying to find the culprit, Brent was feeling really guilty and decided to set himself on fire. That’s where his suicidal state took off.

In this book, Runyon goes through many issues, including depression. Of his depression, Brent writes, ‘It’s like a black cloud hanging over my head, like in cartoons when it’s only raining on the one guy and it follows him around wherever he goes, even indoors. That guy is me … I’ve got to think of a way to kill myself that I can’t turn back from.’ I feel that while Brent was cruising towards a very serious state of depression there could have been other ways for him to prevent his tragic suicide attempt. While reading this, my main question was “Why did he try to kill himself over something so minor?” As I continued to read, I learned that this was not his first suicidal attempt. He tried slitting his wrist, hanging himself, and taking 20 Advil pills. Every time he tried to kill himself, it seemed as if they were all because he thought he was letting down or disappointing his parents by stealing school supplies, failing science, and setting a school fire. Each time he tried, he covered up the undertaking or didn’t follow through. While trying to hang himself, he would just stand up when he started to lose consciousness, and he’d never cut his wrist deep enough. Come to find out, in an interview with Publisher Weekly, Brent Runyon explained that “Setting myself on fire made no more sense to me than it did to them.” This depicts the types of mistakes you can make in your adolescent years.

After the fire, while he was in the hospital, Brent had me thinking that he just hadn’t had enough, or that he just didn’t want to suffer through all of this pain: “If they unplug me, I’ll die. If they unplug me, I’ll die. I could die. Maybe I should ask them to unplug me.” As I continued to read, I realized that he had enough, and just wanted to get better: “But I don’t want to die anymore.” Maybe his other thoughts of any other suicidal acts have stopped!

Throughout his 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.” says Brent. Brent’s guilt takes place at various times in this book. Guilt took place before he set himself on fire, which only influenced him even more towards suicide. Of this early guilt, Brent writes, “I did so many things wrong, I can’t even believe it. I shouldn’t have taken the matches…I shouldn’t have lit that match…I’m so stupid” In this quote, Brent is feeling a very strong sense of guilt because he set a fire, only for the humor of it. Guilt takes place in the middle of the book, also, especially while he is in the hospital. In this state of guilt, Brent writes, “…I didn’t want them to be mad and me because they both wanted me to be so smart and I’m sorry I couldn’t be what you wanted.” In this section of the book, Brent is having a conversation with his parents. He asks them if have they ever wanted to kill themselves, and he is repetitiously saying how he’s sorry he did it and he’s not what they wanted him to be. It seems to me, that as I near the end of the book, and he nears the end of his recovery, his guilt is slightly simmering down to a normal, minimal level. I guess it’s because he’s home now, and nobody’s pressuring him about the situation. Hey, wouldn’t you feel better too if you were now back with family and friends after a year or more in hospitals and rehabilitation facilities? Think about it.

All in all, I view this book as a really great book to read for children and adults. It is inspiring that Brent Runyon is now sharing the lessons that he learned through his own tragedy. Who better to understand the angst of anyone’s mind than someone who has been there, and lived through that? The author’s hope in writing the book is that he will specifically explain the ‘hows and whys of his depression and his recovery … and finally put it to rest.’ Has it been put to rest, or is “The Burn Journals” just the beginning? You won’t know ‘til you read the book!

Desiree' M. Slaughter

Desiree' M. Slaughter

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