Skip to main content

Confounding Fathers: Augusten Burroughs profile

By the time I call American memoirist Augusten Burroughs, I’ve already heard nine hours of his measured voice. The iTunes audiobook of A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father is read by the author in his vaguely Southern accent and includes music by alterna-divas Patti Smith and Ingrid Michaelson (known for soundtracking Grey’s Anatomy). “That was an intense experience,” Burroughs admits, “because I realised I can’t read this in my normal speaking voice. People will hear my voice and they’ll think ‘Here comes the joke.’ So I had to speak in the lower register and much slower. I wanted it to be different, for it to feel like a movie for the ears.”

Looking at his relationship with a distant and difficult father, A Wolf at the Table is a departure from Burroughs’ trademark black humour. The wisecracking teen trapped in the odd Finch family of Running With Scissors is gone and even the survivor’s humour of his struggle with alcoholism in Dry has evaporated. “I’ve been asked a lot ‘Why isn’t Wolf funny?’ The ironic thing is that reviewers would have liked the book much more and yet it would have been a fake memoir, because I wasn’t funny. I just did not have that defence mechanism yet.”

Not everyone shares Burroughs’ humour. In 2007 the real-life Finches sued him for misrepresenting their psychiatrist father, taking exception to scenes such as Dr Finch reading the future in his faeces. “I was the interloper,” Burroughs explains “but this was their father so of course they’re not going to see the humour and I think they believed and revered in the man as though he were a god. And I didn’t.”

Burroughs’ own father was more elusive. In Wolf, Burroughs seeks his father’s love by dressing up as the family puppy and meeting him at the door to attain the affection his father regularly bestowed on the family dog but denied his sons. “It just so happened that I was able to make a career on what is essentially something you would see a therapist to overcome,” Burroughs jokes grimly.

Burroughs’ latest book is anything but a good father’s day gift. “My father at heart was a sociopath. There was something flawed in my father’s brain – he lacked empathy. And when you combine a drug that inhibits (which would be alcohol) with a lack of empathy, you end up with someone who’s actually homicidal.”

Memories for his latest book were triggered by Burroughs’ new home, less than five miles from his childhood house which “on a very visceral level magnified the memory of growing-up with my father.”

His brother John Robison Edler, who features in Wolf was diagnosed with Aspergers and has written his own book about coping with the condition. “What my brother has found is that people who are on the spectrum [between Aspergers and autism] often have very, very vivid memories that extend deep, deep into childhood. I know my brother’s the same way – he can remember teaching me to walk.”

Burroughs himself has “an adult-form of Attention Deficit Disorder - Type I which is inactivity which is a cousin of Aspergers”, which gives the recall that creates raw details characteristic of his memoirs.

Burroughs' life has created good memoir material. He left school as a teen and changed his name from Chris Robison at 18. With no formal training he landed a job copywriting for an ad agency. His drinking problem came with this success. Dry documents his slow struggle to sobriety and many reformed alcoholics cite it as an inspiration. “It’s like having green eyes – it’s something I can take absolutely no credit for, because I did not set out to write a book that helped people. The only way I could stay sober and function was to write.”

After the controversy surrounding Running With Scissors, Burroughs’ work is under critical scrutiny. “At my level it’s impossible for a book to be reviewed as a book – I’m reviewed with the book. John Waters gave me some wonderful advice… He sat me down and said ‘Read good reviews twice, read bad reviews twice and never read either of them again after that’.”

After recording most of his life in his memoirs, Burroughs has almost exhausted the form. He’s looking forward to working more with Ingrid Michaelson “to do a 180 with my career”. He’s tight-lipped about exactly what this turn will be, but hints at a novel. “Fiction for me is an absolute adventure, because I don’t know what’s going to happen one moment to the next and it’s purely my sub-conscious stitching it together. So I’m going to do novels and never give another interview. I’m going to be the ultimate recluse and just lock myself away. Because I mean what else is there to say? What the fuck else is there to say?”

An edited version of this article appeared in the Big Issue, no 311.