“Running with Scissors” and “A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father” by Augustine Burroughs
As I watch students pick out biographies for class assignments, it always occurs to me that there are books you’d like better if you just knew what they were about. It seems that the same few subjects are always selected—Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana. Even when students choose Martin Luther King, Jr., I know it is because they already know a lot about his life from reading about him every year from fourth grade on.
I’ve asked your teachers if you can read memoirs when assigned biographies and, happily, the answer is yes. The hard thing about finding a memoir is that it won’t be cataloged with the biographies. It will be found wherever its subject is found. So a good book about a boy soldier in modern-day Sierra Leone is cataloged with books on Africa—and you’ll probably never find it. To get some of these good books into your hands, I thought I’d review some of my favorites. So I’ll start with one I just read, “A Wolf at the Table.”
Augustine Burroughs has written several memoirs, the most famous of which is “Running with Scissors,” which was made into a movie. “Running” is one of those crazy books that should make you weep for the terrible life of an emotionally and psychologically abused child, but that makes you laugh out loud as well. In it Burroughs discusses his childhood. His mentally ill mother hands him over to her (rather crazy) psychiatrist who adopts Burroughs. He describes his life in the doctor’s home as a mad house. The family never cleans anything and keeps a Christmas tree up all year. The wife of the psychiatrist is also a psychologically beaten woman who eats dog food as a snack. Though Burroughs is only thirteen years old, he is encouraged in a relationship with a man in his mid-thirties—a relationship that any normal person would regard as child abuse. The psychiatrist arbitrarily offers medication (drugs) to Augustine and makes predictions about the future through ‘Bible dipping” and reading the angles of his stool in the toilet.
Burroughs emerges worse for the wear. He has a second memoir “Dry” in which he discusses his alcoholism. “A Wolf at the Table” is Burroughs’ most recent best seller. Here he goes back in time from his other memoirs to remember his father, a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts. Professor Robison is psychologically cruel. He will never show Augustine affection, and in fact, seems to enjoy watching others suffer. Burroughs makes a ‘father’ out of clothes and pillows. His real father kills Augustine’s guinea pig and turns his dog into a violent attack animal that must be euthanized. He calls his son and tells him that he is going to kill him. The fact that Burroughs survived and remained sane, even funny, is a testimony to the human spirit.