It is not yet summer in New York. Bryant Park at lunch hour is at peace with itself. Under a canopy of trees sits Augusten Burroughs, one of America’s most successful writers, the poster boy of the dysfunctional family. People stop by on recognizing him. He signs autographs. He smiles.
He is wearing jeans torn at the knees, a leather jacket, dirty brown round-necked T-shirt, dark glasses, cap; he could be the cliché rebel. You expect him to start with half a dozen expletives. Perhaps even throw a chair or two at a passer-by.
But he doesn’t throw a chair, or even a tantrum. Augusten Xon Burroughs has discovered the salvation of the memoir. He was a homeless alcoholic, sexually abused as a child and turned to drugs as an adult. His books have rescued him; writing them has been a catharsis, perhaps their perch on best seller lists has mellowed him.Dysfunctional family
After all, familes don’t come more dysfunctional than his. “My father,” he begins, “lacked something that makes us all human. He came out of the factory with some crucial components missing. He was homicidal. My mother, a failed poet, was suicidal. My father was two people — a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, and a roaring alcoholic at home.”
His brother John Robison (Augusten was born Chris Robison), author of Look Me in the Eye, has Asperger’s syndrome, and Augusten has been in and out of rehab. He doesn’t actually say all this has been a blessing but he has got five best-sellers out of this situation. His latest novel, A Wolf At The Table is enjoying its fifth week on the New York Times bestsellers list. Perhaps it is no coincidence that he took the name of the first western writer to pen Confessions, St Augustine, whose work ran into 13 volumes.
Augusten’s best-known work, Running With Scissors, was made into a movie starring Alec Baldwin, Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes and Annette Benning. That was about the 14-year-old Augusten who is given away to his mother’s psychiatrist and the horrible things he sees and learns in his new home. He is repeatedly raped by an older man, and the psychiatrist (Dr. Finch in the book, Dr. Turcotte in real life) tells the future by studying his excrement on a table in the backyard. The family eats dog biscuits.Autobiography is to be trusted only when it reveals something disgraceful, wrote George Orwell. What Augusten reveals is reprehensible, shocking, outrageous, scandalous. Orwell might have approved.No love
“With no love from either my father or mother, I depended on a guinea pig named Ernie for a relationship. Then one day I came back home and my father had done something horrible to it. I can’t mention what. Even today at the age of 43, I wake up in a sweat when I think about it. ‘Have you seen what’s happened to Ernie?’ my father asked when I came home, his teeth (he never visited a dentist) yellow with black spots on them.”
If they make movies about the adult Augusten, the writer could play himself. The square jaw, the cultivated stubble, the piercing, intense blue eyes are captivating. The voice is well modulated and has the easy cadences of a trained speaker.
For a man who has plumbed the depths of depraved humanity, Augusten appears remarkably well adjusted.
“I survived because resilience is a human quality. Children especially are resilient. You can beat them and they will keep coming back for more. I was like that. Writing about the experiences helped too,” he says. “So did alcohol. When I became an alcoholic myself (he wrote about it in Dry), had a heart problem and thought I was going to die, I thought that was fine. Regardless of what people say, alcohol is a great help. You don’t worry. My only concern was that I would die without recording all this.”Rich vein
Augusten’s first book was Sellevision, a satirical novel about a television home-shopping network. Possible Side Effects was about a book tour.
He struck a rich vein once he began writing about his family, especially his parents. “Having good parents is like having a hammock under the heart,” he says, “You know that you can ‘go home for the weekend’, both literally and metaphorically. There is a confidence.”
How did his parents view his writing? “My mother thought I should have written about a brilliant childhood where my father was a professor and my mother a poet, and all of us lived happily together,” he smiles. “On his deathbed, my father turned to my brother and said, ‘You have been a good boy.’ Then he turned to me. He had nothing to say. I didn’t mind that so much.”
Augusten Burroughs recommends a writer. “Read Elizabeth Berg,” he says. “She writes about love and relationships and man and woman. So does John Updike. The difference is that John Updike has a penis. So people tend to be patronising about Berg. ‘There is a hairbrush on the cover of one of her books,’ someone complained recently. But big, muscled men read her and then walk up to her and say, ‘You have written our lives.’ So now her book readings are attended by big, muscled men.”
More people walk up to Augusten to shake his hand or take pictures with him, and he obliges without a murmur. “Run with Scissors,” he writes in one young fan’s book, suggesting a course of action that might not find favour with the latter’s parents.
Bad life can lead to good literature. The reverse does not happen. “Hope you don’t get so well-adjusted that the books dry up,” I say, as we wind up. “No worries about that, mate,” Augusten responds. Perhaps that is good news.
7 months ago