Much Ado About Memoirs

Today’s NYT profile of Augusten Burroughs and his new memoir (the “prequel,” in a way, to his mega bestselling memoir, Running with Scissors) says it lacks the humor of his previous books. This one, focusing on his father, is a “chilling and terrifying depiction of a soulless sociopath…more Stephen King than David Sedaris.”

A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father

by Augusten Burroughs

  • Hardcover: $24.95
  • Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (April 29, 2008)
  • ISBN-10: 0312342020
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312342029

Reflecting the NYT policy, in the wake of the the embarrassment brought on by fake memoirist, Margaret B. Jones, to “always include reporting from other sources…to verify the most important facts,” the article goes on to quote others who knew Burrough’s father, John Robison (Burroughs changed his name from Christopher Robison. His father died in 2005). Some regarded him as the kindly and “almost motherly” chairman of the philosophy department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The NYT even seeks out Burroughs’s mother, Margaret Robison, who is writing her own memoir. She corroborates one passage, but of another, says, “We have different memories.” Burroughs’s brother, John Elder Robison, who wrote his own bestselling memoir Look Me in the Eye, is also quoted. He backs up Burroughs’s story, but says that some of what he writes is through the filter of a young boy’s exaggerated memory.

The San Francisco Chronicle finds the melodrama of the story overwhelming;

His father was quite possibly a very dangerous man and the events that Burroughs includes clearly make for a sad, lonely, confusing, scary childhood.

But what is unclear is why we should want to read about it.

The Chronicle also raises the specter of fake memoirs, but does not attempt to verify events in the book. Instead, the reviewer says readers must “assume that this book, as Burroughs has said of his other memoirs, is how he remembered events, not what may actually have been.”

It seems the fake memoirist issue will lurk behind all the reviews. Entertainment Weekly‘s 4/18 review begins “How many lurid memoirs can a writer get away with before we suspect he’s full of baloney?” EW disingenuously states that “There is no one to challenge his version of events in Wolf, as his father is dead.” The Times has proven otherwise.

We all know how tricky memory can be. How far do we need to go in questioning authors’ memories of events? Margaret B. Jones completely fabricated her “memoirs.” Jonathan Frey knowingly changed events to make them more dramatic. These are quite different situations from someone writing what they honestly remember. Burroughs may remember some things differently than his brother, but the basic outlines of the story agree. That should be enough verification.

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