July 16, 2008 | Comments ()

By Miscellaneous | Books | July 16, 2008 |


A Wolf at the Table, the new memoir by Augusten Burroughs, is a puzzling work that left me conflicted, unsure what to feel about it. On the one hand, it is an engrossing read: the prose is simple and unadorned while the pacing is fast, so I was able to read the book over the course of a few hours. On the other hand, I found myself doubting the overall veracity of the work, which made me question the value of the memoir as a whole.

Is A Wolf at the Table more fiction than fact? If so, does embellishment remove the value of the piece? What exactly is the value of this memoir, anyway? Something so depressing has little entertainment value; does A Wolf at the Table provide its readers with a means to better living? Perhaps. Clearly, the memoir has value for the author, whose writing enabled him to work through some painful memories of his father. But does catharsis for the author equal catharsis for the reader? That remains to be seen.

A Wolf at the Table recounts the years prior to those featured in Running With Scissors, Burroughs’ memoir of his teenage years with a crazy mother living with her equally crazy psychiatrist and his bizarre family. A Wolf at the Table explains his how mother came to lose her mind: namely, John Robison, Burroughs’ father. According to Burroughs, “my father was two men—one he presented to the outside world, and one, far darker, that was always there, behind the face everybody else saw.”

The tale Burroughs tells is certainly compelling. Burroughs relates how Robison repeatedly rejected his younger son; Burroughs became so starved for his father’s love and attention that he stole Robison’s clothing and stuffed it with pillows, making a replacement with which he could cuddle and sleep. Burroughs also tells of his father’s alcoholism and consequent sadism, how his father allowed a pet guinea pig to slowly starve to death in Augusten’s absence, how he ignored a growing tumor in the mouth of a pet dog, until it too slowly suffered and died. Animals were not the only victims of Robison’s inner darkness: Burroughs relates hearing Robison rape his mother; another time, he witnessed his father nearly killing Burroughs’ older brother, John Elder (who, for his part, told The New York Times that he “didn’t see that same scene as a particularly monstrous event”).

As one might guess from John Elder’s demurral, not all of what Burroughs writes sits well with the reader. He begins A Wolf at the Table with memories from his very early childhood, and he asserts he can remember scenes from the time he was one and a half years old. (I mean, really? C’mon.) For another, Augusten Burroughs isn’t even Augusten Burroughs - he’s Christopher Robison. Nevertheless, Burroughs depicts his parents calling his childhood self Augusten, even though Burroughs didn’t change his name to his now-famous moniker until he was eighteen, well after the events in A Wolf at the Table ended. This is a minor quibble, and a choice the author probably made in the interest of continuity, but readers who want to separate fact from fiction might find this a troubling point.

However, these issues are nothing compared to the troubling claims made by his mother, who told The New York Times in April that the scene in which Burroughs describes the poor dog slowly dying from a tumor is simply “not true,” before quickly adding, “I should say we have different memories.” In the same article, John Elder is quoted as describing Augusten as “overdramatic” and therefore “the meaning of the incidents is different.” Of course, John Elder suffers from Asperger’s, so his point of view isn’t exactly reliable, either.

These contradictions all lead one to wonder if it really matters if Burroughs has relayed the truth exactly as it happened. Some will be bothered by the possibility that certain events have been exaggerated; others, who accept that memory is fallible and subjective, won’t mind. Regardless of the accuracy of the events depicted, I can say with conviction that A Wolf at the Table is a moving piece of work, and I’m not ashamed to admit that Burroughs had me in tears by the end.

These final chapters proved that A Wolf at the Table does have value for the reader, and it lies in the certainty that we are not our parents, and we are not doomed to repeat their mistakes. We need not be chained to our past, but are instead capable of breaking the cycle of suffering that once defined us. If Burroughs embellished certain scenes to better relay that message, then so be it. As long as you don’t mind the possibility that some elements have been dramatized, those who undertake A Wolf at the Table will indeed experience a rather satisfying catharsis by the end.


Jennifer McKeown reads way too much and blogs about her experiences over at Bibliolatry.

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Possible Magical Thinking

A Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burroughs / Jennifer McKeown

Books | July 16, 2008 | Comments ()




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