When Augusten Burroughs published his first memoir, Running with Scissors, in 2002, he made readers laugh and question how anybody could have survived a traumatic childhood filled with statutory rape, prescription drugs, and a bizarre psychiatrist. When he returned with his second memoir, Dry, he again took a horrible chapter of his life (his uncontrollable alcoholism) and made the tragic and absurd funny and enlightening. That is not the case with A Wolf at the Table, his latest memoir. Burroughs outlines his demonic father's twisted behavior toward his family in a tome filled not with laughs, just sadness, fear, and bewilderment.
CP: A Wolf at the Table is much less funny than your other memoirs. Did you set out to write a more serious book, or did the subject matter simply not present opportunities for humor?
AB: It's really the latter. My previous books occurred chronologically later in time than Wolf. It was really only at the ages of 12 through 14 that my sense of humor—which I've had all my life—was sharpened out of necessity, from my living circumstances being utterly overwhelming, upsetting, and stressful. So, it was either: cave under the enormous weight of my adolescence, or find humor in the absurdity of the situation. I think that's really when the lens was ground during my adolescence, and that lens is how I would come to see everything in my life later. Humor was certainly a life raft for me early on, and later in life it was a way to avoid devastating pain or really challenging circumstances. Wolf takes place when I'm much, much younger and I didn't have the sophisticated defense mechanism wired into my brain yet. As a result it's far more brutal and harrowing than anything I've ever written.
CP: You've been sued for libel, and some journalists are already raising questions about A Wolf at the Table. Did you wait to publish this until after your father died to avoid potential libel accusations and a lawsuit?
AB: No, I didn't begin writing it until after he died because he maintained a psychological influence over me. I was expecting to be devastated by grief, repressed grief, when he died, but I wasn't. What I felt was relief, and that's when I began writing. The controversy surrounding memoirs is a separate issue. Memoir has really exploded in popularity. When I wrote Running with Scissors that was not the case. The lawsuit certainly brought attention my way, but it was settled in my favor. Not one word of that book was changed. The family agreed in the end that it was a memoir. My brother has issued a statement attesting to the veracity of this book. I just heard from my father's brother and his wife; they as well say that this is an accurate portrait of my father. I will never be bullied by the media or told what I should or shouldn't do by anybody. The best way to deal with a storm is to fly directly into the center of it. I have absolutely nothing to hide.
CP: Given all the success that has come to you from writing about your dysfunctional and unusual life, would you give it all back to have a more normal and stable childhood?
AB: No, because I don't really know what that is, and what the result of that would be. I don't have any regrets. I certainly have holes and inadequacies that are a direct result of how I was raised. But I'm also really strong, and I wouldn't trade that strength for anything, even if it meant I could reverse-engineer my life and have a happy childhood. That's theoretical to me, what a happy childhood is. It's an unanswerable question because it's an impossibility. I don't think about it. I don't think about impossibilities.
Burroughs reads from A Wolf at the Table Friday at the University of Minnesota Coffman Union Theater.
Fri., May 16, 7 p.m., 2008