Novelist Pat Conroy once observed, “A bad childhood is a constantly renewable resource.” No one knows the truth of that better than Augusten Burroughs. Since the 2002 release of his best-selling memoir, Running with Scissors, America’s favorite boy-raised-by-wolves has been mining his chaotic past with equal parts horror and humor. To recap: At 12, Burroughs fled the emotional hell of a cold and cruel father and caring but ditzy mother for the “safety” of his mother’s lunatic shrink, his Valium-gobbling patients and the pedophile next door. A fourth-grade dropout, Burroughs overcame childhood sexual abuse, earned his GED, and at 19 became a New York advertising wunderkind.
In Dry, his subsequent memoir about his advertising years, and the autobiographical collections Magical Thinking and Possible Side Effects, Burroughs continued his reconnaissance into the no man’s land of his past.
Through this brutal guerrilla war of self-reclamation, Burroughs has long circled but never actually captured his chief adversary. He rectifies the oversight in A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father. Despite its humorous, self-effacing marketing tag (“His first memoir in five years”), this may be Burroughs’ darkest journey yet.
Much of his new memoir takes place before the Running with Scissors days when young Augusten and his poet mother coexisted with his volatile father John Robison, a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Burroughs was deeply in need of his father’s affection, yet at every turn he was harshly rebuffed. Deprived even of touch (what Burroughs calls “the Arms”) from his distant dad, he fashioned a scarecrow-like father surrogate to sleep beside. The craziness culminates when his father calls and threatens to kill his son.
What little peace Burroughs ultimately achieves at his father’s bedside comes more as a unilateral cease-fire. Perhaps the best closure he could expect is the realization that this bright apple has in fact fallen far from the tree.
Jay MacDonald writes from Austin.