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. This memoir is not filled with laughs, just sadness, fear, and bewilderment.
City Pages: 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?
Augusten Burroughs: It's really the latter. My previous books occurred chronologically later in time than Wolf. It was really only at the age of 12, 13, and 14 that my sense of humor--which I've had all my life--was sharpened. It was sharpened out of necessity, from my living circumstances being utterly overwhelming, upsetting, and stressful.
My mind automatically performed a psychological triage. 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. So it's a more vulnerable book, it's a more earnest book. As a result it's far more brutal and harrowing than anything I've ever written.
CP: Were there any memories too hard to confront? Stories too heartbreaking to include?
AB: No, I don't edit myself in terms of being “too” anything. I will edit myself if I feel like I've covered the material already. But I've never written about my father to this extent. I've mentioned in passing that he had psoriasis, and I've mentioned in passing that he was an alcoholic. But I've never completed a portrait of him as a sociopath. I mean, I don't say that in the book because no 8-year-old is going to know the word “sociopath” to diagnose their own father. The adult reader will be able to put 2 and 2 together hopefully, and come to the conclusion, rightfully so, that this man was an actual sociopath.
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 didn'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. Since that time though it has absolutely exploded. Unfortunately there have been a number of writers who have published sort of fake memoirs. You’re right; the lawsuit certainly brought attention my way, but the lawsuit was settled in my favor. Not one word of Running with Scissors was changed, 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 the book. I just heard from 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:You've now published five autobiographical works. That's a lot by any standard. Do you ever wonder when you'll run out of true stories to write?
AB: Absolutely not. I could continue this into my 60s and 70s. I've lived an enormous life, and I've lived many different lives compressed into one relatively young life. I think too that it's not only even so much what I've experienced, but how closely I've paid attention. Having said that, I love fiction. It's exciting not knowing what's going to happen next. It's exciting to create a world and populate it with ideas and people that are interesting. I don't have a formula for my career. I really have to follow the book. I have to follow what book is going to come out. It's almost, in a way, like giving birth to a kid. Maybe you hope for one that's especially talented at music, and you give birth to one that's good with his hands. Which is great. So, at least I can't, really predict or conjure a specific text. I know I visit fiction because I'm already working on an idea. But I don't know when that will be, and I don't know what will come in the meantime.
CP:Will you also return to memoir?AB: I'll always write about myself and my experiences, that's just something I'll always do. But it remains to be seen if I choose to publish. I mean, there are huge facets of my life that I've never even mentioned to anybody, in the media or anywhere. I have missing years nobody seems to notice. If you think about Running With Scissors
, the next book is Dry
. Most people see the chronology, but I think only one person asked me what happened in the years between, because there are quite a few years. So, there are other examples of stories, if you will, big, big, big life episodes that I could write about.
CP: Why haven't you written about them yet?
AB:There's always a reason. Probably the main reason is, like I said, you have to write the book that's in your chest at the time.
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. And I don't think about it. I don't think about impossibilities.
See Augusten Burrough discuss A Wolf at the Table Friday at 7 p.m. at Coffman Union Theater, 300 Washington Ave. SE, Minneapolis, 612.624.4696.