Augusten Burroughs has faith in memory and memoir
By Kristen A. Lee
NEW YORK ó On the book tour for “A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father,” Augusten Burroughs is ready for the skeptics.
The “Running With Scissors” author is the first to broach the subject, mockingly referring to himself as a “fake memoirist.”
“As one of the leading fake memoirists,” he said. “I constantly get asked how do you remember scenes and dialogue from when you were 15 or 13? And I’m amazed by that question, because I think, ‘Well, how can you not?’ ”
In person, Burroughs, 42, who was born Christopher Robison, speaks in the disarmingly frank and funny voice in which he writes. If he’s also slightly defensive, that’s understandable. The media coverage of his latest memoir, “A Wolf at the Table,” has been skeptical, if not suspicious, about its accuracy.
“It would be easier for me, certainly, to have written ‘A Wolf at the Table’ and called it a novel and avoided all these questions, but I will never do that, ever,” Burroughs says. “I have to write what I have to write, even if it’s harder, you know. Even if it’s tougher and makes my job tougher and I have to answer the same questions and defend myself endlessly, I’ll do it.”
The book is a departure in almost every way from “Running With Scissors,” the uproarious account of his bizarre adolescence, which made Burroughs a best-selling author and a celebrity.
In “A Wolf at the Table,” Burroughs’ trademark brand of off-color humor is gone. There’s nothing funny about his story of living with a father he describes as a sociopath given to alcohol-fueled homicidal rages. According to Burroughs, his father threatened to kill him and once even tried to crash his car into a telephone pole with his young son in the passenger seat.
“Alcohol as a drug disinhibits,” Burroughs says. “So when you are addicted to a drug that disinhibits you and you’re sociopath, that’s a very dangerous combination. And I think that made my father homicidal throughout my childhood.”
In 2002, when “Running With Scissors” was published, those allegations would probably have drawn little scrutiny. But then the family portrayed in “Running with Scissors” filed a lawsuit, claiming that many of the most memorable scenes from the memoir were either embellished or invented altogether.
The case against Burroughs was settled last year. Under the terms, which were not disclosed, Burroughs changed language in the acknowledgment, but as he points out, “Not one word of that memoir was changed. It remains a memoir.”
The questions raised by the lawsuit have colored the reception of “A Wolf at the Table.”
In one magazine article, a reporter tested Burroughs’ powers of recall by quizzing him about details of his past. A newspaper reporter sought to verify details of the memoir through interviews with Burroughs’ mother and his father’s former colleagues.
“I think it’s been good that the media has sort of rooted out, like truffle hogs, the fake memoirists,” Burroughs says. “And those of us who are not, who are actually just trying to tell our truths, need to stand up and continue to write memoir and not be intimidated and pushed into the closet, so to speak.
To address questions about his unusual ability to recall scenes and dialogue from his early childhood, Burroughs cites one theory favored by his brother, John Elder Robison. Robison believes that Burroughs has a very mild form of Asperger’s syndrome, a type of autism. (Robison has the condition himself and has written his own memoir about it, titled “Look Me in the Eye: My Life With Asperger’s.”)But despite Burroughs’ confidence in his own memory, he acknowledges that his father’s life and behavior defy easy explanations.
His father was an alcoholic and lived for many years in great pain brought on by severe psoriasis and arthritis. His skin was so raw that Burroughs recalls that he would sometimes bleed through his clothes.
Later in his life, Burroughs’ father was a devoted and loving husband to his second wife. “My father was two people,” Burroughs says. He expects his father’s second wife would probably read the book with sadness and some shock.”You know, when you write about family, or a family, you risk hurting people’s feelings,” Burroughs says. “You risk offending people, the people you’re writing about. The only reason it’s worth it is to get to your truth. And we all have a right to our stories.”
He dismisses criticism that his father isn’t alive to tell his own side of that story.
“My father wouldn’t defend himself anyway,” Burroughs says. “My father had never read any of my books so he wouldn’t have read this one.” With that, a little bitterness creeps into Burroughs’ voice. “Yeah, my father never gave me anything.”
After five books about his life, Burroughs’ readers know by now that his story ultimately has a happy ending. He lives with his partner, Dennis, next door to his brother and a nephew, whom Burroughs calls a “genius.” His family also includes two beloved French bulldogs: Bentley and Cow.Burroughs’ next project is a collection of holiday stories from his own life. He’s also at work on a second novel. (His first novel, “Sellevision,” was about a fictional home shopping network.) He won’t reveal the subject of his new book, but predicts that his fans will be surprised.
As for “A Wolf at the Table,” Burroughs said that writing the book did not allow him to purge those bad memories of his childhood completely. Recently, he got a tattoo on his forearm that reads, in Latin: “The scar remains.”
Even Burroughs, a champion of memoir, acknowledges that the genre has other limitations as well.”This book in no way is a complete picture of my father ó it’s just the tip of the iceberg, and that’s every memoir,” Burroughs says. “When you actually finish the book, you realize it’s just a fraction ó it’s a little fraction of what you had intended. But hopefully if it’s well done, it gives the reader a real sense and flavor of what you experienced.”
“But,” he adds. “You can never tell the whole story of a life.”