Book Review: ‘Toil & Trouble,’ by Augusten Burroughs

When I was 21, I read Augusten Burroughs’ memoir, Dry, about the gay ad-agent-turned-writer’s recovery from alcoholism. My eyes blurred with tears as I turned the last page; I was less than a year into my own recovery, and I had never before identified so deeply with a writer — or, for that matter, with another man. I swiftly took to my computer to email Burroughs — “I’m gay and sober and a writer, too!” — making sure to attach a picture. He responded days later with a heartfelt message of appreciation. Plus he said I was cute.

Over the summer, I met Burroughs at the annual BookExpo in New York. He was there promoting his latest memoir, Toil & Trouble, set to debut in October. I was able to score an advanced copy of his book and, as he signed the title page, deliver him a letter about our shared history. He smiled and said “thank you,” and then his handlers shuffled me along.

In Toil & Trouble, Burroughs comes out as — ready for it? — a witch. His evidence, drawn from his personal history and details about his lineage, is compelling, as is his vast knowledge of the history of witchcraft in the U.S.

He also has some intriguing things to say about various theories regarding coincidence and synchronicity. Burroughs has experienced an extraordinary amount of coincidences in his life, spanning back to his early childhood. He delves deeply into these memories to explain how and why they happened — reasons that mostly pertain to his witchy-ness. You’ll have to read the book to get the gist, but I will say that his threads of thought are easy to follow and quite persuasive.

Burroughs’ anecdotes about his move, along with his husband, from Manhattan to an historic home in the Middle of Nowhere, Connecticut, are equally captivating, and also very funny. However, a few of these lengthy chapters were meandering and felt disconnected from what I began to wonder was the central purpose of this memoir: to convince not only the reader of his identity as a bona fide witch, but to convince himself as well.

By the end of the book, I was sold on Burroughs’ ability to tap into a higher frequency of awareness in order to effect change/conjure magick (this is the proper spelling of the word, he writes). However, I’ve always thought of “witch” as merely a label, like “shaman” or even “empath,” for one who possesses an exceptional amount of intuition. Gifted people such as these often seem privy to complex universal truths, and capable of aiding in the manifestation of specific outcomes.

So maybe Burroughs really is a witch. Maybe he’s a shaman. Or maybe he’s just a man who has mastered The Secret.

Toil & Trouble is a departure for Burroughs; in his memoirs he typically turns the gaze on his neuroses, but not necessarily on his — for lack of a better word — spirituality. His effort to put this aspect of his humanity into words was, overall, a successful one. But I’m more intrigued to see where he takes us next. (Perhaps an historic novel about witches?) Interestingly, I found the last few chapters of Toil & Trouble the most intriguing. One storyline in particular, about his husband’s health, left me wanting much more.

Definitely pick this one up. It’s the perfect autumn read. In the meantime, check out a couple of Burroughs’ previous works, particularly Lust & Wonder and Dry. And if you haven’t read Running with Scissors yet, well, what the hell are you waiting for?

Originally published at on July 8, 2019.

Hairstylist turned writer. Married to a dude. Dad to a cat. Proud survivor of Christian fundamentalism, codependent mothering, and the ’90s.

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