Saturday, June 9, 2007


from The Observer
drawings by marguerita

Augusten Burroughs on teeth
Bestselling author of Running With Scissors

I made it through the first seven years of my life without ever realising that women used their teeth just exactly like men and dogs. Teeth were just a flash of white behind the shaped, fragrant red lips. The toothpaste my mother used was called Pearl Drops, and that's how I saw her teeth - as pretty pearls she stored in her mouth. Something valuable and rare with no practical purpose except perhaps to reflect light back on to the painted lips and make them gleam further.

My mother had been raised in the southern United States by her Latin-instructor mother, an old woman at 29. My mother spent her adolescence in white gloves, nylons, layers of concealer, make-up, finishing powder on her face.

It wasn't simply that I never saw my mother use her teeth, it was rather that she never consumed anything that required them. My mother preferred soft foods - creamy bananas, a certain boiled-wheat cereal, jam, tomatoes. My mother always chewed with her mouth closed. The food was brought to her lips on the spoon and the spoon gently pierced the bow and slipped in, then out, just as fast, glistening, spotless.

I have thought about the party now for over 30 years. In some ways, I still carry the shock of the revelation with me. Because my father was a professor at the university, most of my parents' friends were fellow academics. It was at a party held by an English professor and his wife. I remember almost nothing of the party, least of all why I, as a seven-year-old child, had been invited in the first place.

What I do recall is that there was a meal. The wife of the English professor sat at a crowded dinner table and I was seated directly across from her. There must have been wine and conversation. There must have been music.

Probably, somebody had Joni Mitchell on the record player, or maybe Simon and Garfunkel. That's what you played in 1972. There would have been cork coasters for the wine glasses. A teak salad bowl. Ashtrays on the dinner table. And because these were Amherst College professors, it's likely the furniture was Danish Modern. But I remember none of it. I only remember Nancy Bickering, my mother's friend and the wife of the English professor, opening her mouth around the roasted thigh of a chicken, peeling her lips back, possibly to protect her lipstick, and then biting into the flesh of the bird and, with her teeth, ripping free the meat.

I remember that she chewed. I remember seeing her lips on the rim of a wine glass, I remember her throat tighten to accept the liquid. And then the flash of her teeth again, as she went back to the bird for more of its meat. Her teeth, so white and sharp and useful, a true tool, both tore the flesh from the bone and then clipped it into a manageable size.

At no point did she have meat hanging from her mouth. She was accomplished in the use of her teeth. I was mesmerised. I had never seen anything even remotely like this display.

My mother was the only lady I knew and I couldn't imagine such a brazen display of teeth at the table, such a flashing of primal skill. I stared in awe, ignoring all the food on my plate, as at last the bone of the bird's leg was revealed, pink and glistening.

At last she turned to me and shrieked, 'Stop staring at me. Stop watching me eat.'

I'd felt invisible until this moment and free to watch her as I watched the television at home. I was just as shocked and horrified as if my own television had scolded me and told me to turn away from it.

Only now do I see that I'd made her feel self-conscious. I'd probably made her feel fat. But I was only watching in wonder, as I'd never before seen a woman with an appetite and the ability to satisfy it so thoroughly.

· Burroughs' latest book, Possible Side Effects, is published by St Martin's Press

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