Running from Lawyers

I haven’t seen the film Running With Scissors. But this trailer looks similar to the book.

I’ve read the book.

Augusten Burroughs’ memoir Running with Scissors is the weirdest one I’ve read. According to this story, Burroughs had a horrific childhood. His father was a terrible alcoholic, and his troubled mother abandoned him to her psychiatrist. But it gets worse. The psychiatrist was wildly inappropriate and his household was in chaos. Burroughs was molested by the psychiatrist’s son.

What I found most disturbing, though, was Burroughs’ light rendering of this tale of his childhood.

The reviews mainly focus on this humor and how it makes such a dark tale palatable. Sometimes I found myself being taken in by this humor, but most of the time I felt odd being complicit (by reading) in making light of what Burroughs went through. It’s his choice to coat the events in that tone, but it demeans the events for other people who have gone through similar situations.

Running with Scissors

So what did I learn from reading this memoir? That you need protect yourself from being sued as much as you possibly can.  Because he was. Sued. By the family that raised him (Turcotte in real life; Finch in the book).

This article tells how the lawsuit was eventually settled.

Author Augusten Burroughs and publisher St. Martin’s Press agreed to call the work a “book” instead of “memoirs,” in the author’s note — though it still will be described as a memoir on the cover and elsewhere — and to change the acknowledgments page in future editions to say that the Turcotte family’s memories of events he describes “are different than my own.” It will also express regret for “any unintentional harm” to them.

Here’s an article in Vanity Fair telling the point of view of the psychiatrist’s family.

In this article, you can meet Burroughs’ mother.

The more I read about this case, the more I am uncertain who to believe. The story seems fantastical to me, but what if it all really happened?

The Turcottes say Burroughs made up many events (including the name Augusten Burroughs as his real name was Chris Robison)–and that he embellished most of the rest.

I am not going to presume to be a judge and jury. All I can do is take the book on the book’s own merits. For me the tone wasn’t right for a memoir with the events and characterizations that are included in this book. But if you can get past it being a memoir and think of it as fiction, it seems more like a John Irving novel, like The World According to Garp (RIP Robin Williams).  And I love John Irving novels.

Maybe I’ll watch the movie. Should I?





Filed under Book Review, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

59 responses to “Running from Lawyers

  1. Hmmm, interesting idea that the tone would be acceptable if it were considered fiction. I can see how that would make a difference!

    • To me it makes a big difference because some of the stuff in this book is so surreal that I am not sure he can have remembered it as it actually happened. I’m not denying the reality, but I think it’s tweaked at least from his child’s perspective. That said, I think the book is about a whole bunch of narcissist socialpaths all in one place!

  2. I have this book, and I thought it was fiction. It never occured to me that it was a memoir! I didn’t finish it however. I probably came across something in the first few chapters that offended me and put it aside, never to be resumed. I think anyone who writes a memoir runs the risk of being sued. The only precautions a memoir writer can take is to change names, and have a disclosure at the start of the book outlining that the book is a compilation of events as THEY saw it.

    • Faith, I think it’s hysterical that you assumed it was fiction because that is how it reads! No wonder!!! Really really good point about how the “book is a compilation of events as THEY saw it.” In fact, I think that that is what is going on in Burroughs book–it’s how he saw it. Period.

  3. I read the articles and I’m not sure who to believe. Obviously everyone was a bit unconventional (and that’s not the right word) at the time including the writer. I can also see how people view things differently especially if they are troubled. I would be hurt and angry if I was portrayed so negatively (and this is not just a little negative either) by someone I thought was a friend. I haven’t read the book and it doesn’t sound like something I would enjoy.

    • It’s a disturbing book on many levels, Kate. I agree about being hurt by a book like that. And the thing is that Burroughs himself does not come across as a sweet person who is victimized by some serious sociopaths. The reader has to wonder about him, too.

  4. What a great post, Luanne! I absolutely loved this book, but also felt disturbed at many points. If everything Burroughs wrote was real… that was one horrific childhood. At other points of the book, I felt like Burroughs wandered off a bit into the world of fiction, but how can one really say (since we don’t know the truth about any writer’s experiences)? I am very excited to go read the information from the psychiatrist’s family point of view + to meet Burroughs’ mother. Very interesting post!

    • I hope you enjoy those ,Caitlin! I thought that the viewpoint of the mother was fascinating! Some people are better as non-parents than as parents, that is for sure!!!!!!! Yes, there is something about his book that feels fictional. I’ve read his book about his father, A Wolf at the Table, and I didn’t get that feeling at all. In fact, I liked that book more.

  5. This would be sort of like a roman a clef, where a scandalous story is embellished and retold. I used humor, dark humor, a lot to cope with my past. It resulted in developing sarcasm, which even today, confusing some people.

    • One of the differences between your book I read and Burroughs is that your book has a sincere feel to it. His does not. I wish I could be more specific and point to passages, but it’s just an impression I’m left with.

  6. Who knows what really happened? Not me.

  7. Weird, is right.I don’t know what to think, except that if it was true, it’s too bad that he was made to “eat his words.”

  8. I haven’t read this particular work or the seen the movie.

    But yes to being sued. People can sue for anything, but that doesn’t mean it will guarantee a court win.

    • Thank you, Rudri! That’s what my husband always tells me–that people can sue for anything!! It’s where we find the line of caution but not paranoia, I guess? BTW, when I said run from lawyers, I didn’t mean you ;)!! xo

  9. Weighing in on a book I haven’t read or the linked articles but want to reply about the tone of the book. I’m with Ms. Nicholls. I’ve got some strange stuff in my kidhood that I’ve dealt with using humour. Even as a child I was the family defuser, a mechanism that is as common as acting out or pretending nothing is wrong. It doesn’t mean you don’t recognize how warped stuff was, it’s a mental (pun intended) coping mechanism.

    • Yes, I understand and that is always an entertaining option for readers–humorous memoirs which often spring from real pain. But the humor in this book isn’t like that for me (and Burroughs is no Robin Williams–it’s not comedic). Everything about it is a little off. And I think the main thing that feels off to me is Burroughs himself. He certainly is no sweet young thing who was victimized. He seems a little shady himself.

  10. I remember picking this book up in the book store and sitting down with it. After a few minutes of skimming through, I remembered “A Million Little Pieces” and put it back on the shelf. Who knows what is the truth, but I will definitely take a pass on the movie.

    • Interesting that you mention that book. I realize that people who have grown up in horrific circumstances can feel validated by the telling of a tale like this, but maybe I am also a little gunshy about a book like this because I remember the book Sybil. Do you remember that book? Then it turns out that not only was it a “pack of lies” but that the people who were supposed to be helping the woman were sociopaths–like the therapist–and the woman who wrote the book.

  11. Luanne, this book looks fascinating to me! I love that these people are so strange. The little box outside where the mother posts a daily poem. Like a shrine, so it came as no surprise she had her walls plastered with religious things inside the house. Well, I have never seen the movie. I suppose it is more grim. I find that movies give me the feeling of not being able to escape, where I can always put a book down. (If things are too intense.) As far as lawsuits, I say go for it. Lawyers are our friends. This poor man is a product of an extremely dysfunctional upbringing. And I think he probably should have kept some of the trash to himself.

    But your blog still makes me want to read it!!! 🙂

    • Oh, they are REALLY strange. Reading their story is like watching a train wreck, for sure. I loved that article about his mother! She comes off much more benign than in the book, but then she’s older now and mellowed ;). He had an incredibly dysfunctional upbringing, but you start to wonder as you read this book and even some interviews of him, etc. if he’s trustworthy. But it’s a fascinating book either way–just think of it as a John Irving novel!

  12. Some of us had fantastical childhoods, even surreal at times. We mostly wait until our those who were so bizarre are dead before submitting such a manuscript for publication. I’m not being facetious.
    Perhaps it is this reason that I love his work. If we can’t tell the strange and painful stories with humor, then we can’t really move on. At least, that’s what I’ve come to believe. It wouldn’t do any good to be horrified, it was horrifying enough without the spin.
    I love his books, (and his movies) although A Wolf at the Table sits on my shelf in the yet to be read pile.
    Yes, you should see the movie!

    • He definitely didn’t wait to publish until they were gone ;). Other than the psychiatrist. I agree about the place of humor in dealing with awful things, but I don’t really like his tone or the way he presents things. I don’t find him a likable or trustworthy character. Reading the book for me was like peering inside a can of sociopathic sardines, if that makes any sense at all. Very disorienting.
      By the way, I LOVE A Wolf at the Table. His tone is different and he is a lot more believable in this book. In fact, I was considering this morning whether to do a review of it soon or wait longer.
      OK, gonna try to see the movie, although I still don’t have Netflix, if you can believe that. But I can see if Amazon Prime has it?

  13. All I can say is that my youngest brother and I have a completely different perspective of our parents and our childhood, then my middle brother. Luanne, I believe that each person develops armor and protection, when they feel there has been damage done, whether inner confidence or outwardly abuse. We still do things carefully, not to offend my artistic brother. I have a few times used him in my examples to my children, when they wonder why this child is more particular than the others. I guess, like robin Williams being depressed and one of my friends hearing voices, I would trust this book. I enjoyed it, like you, because it makes light of things, doesn’t explain why but how things happened to him. I liked the movie, it is well acted, but I was a little disconnected to the characters. The mother’s acting so unique was hard to portray. The personal and intimate situations are ‘glossed over.’ I think that this person may be someone who has Asperger’s Syndrome or is ‘special’ in some ways, since it has been awhile since I read this I am going on a professor in my special education master’s coursework’s opinion. Hope you have a wonderful Labor Day weekend, just stopped by to comment and drive before the traffic gets bad. We worked half a day today… (4 nine’s and then Fridays are 1/2 day) Smiles, Robin

    • My next review, I think, is going to be the prequel “A Wolf at the Table.” Who do you think has Asperger’s?
      Enjoy your weekend, Robin! xo

      • The author, John Elder Robison (at age 39 felt he might) and possibly an expert, have thought he had Asperger’s Syndrome. There is such a wide spectrum of characteristics, it would be hard for me to say. I have felt one of my good friends has elements of A.S. My professor at OSU, (a Master’s degree course professor in Special Education), named Robison, as a possible one who grew up with his brain wired like A.S.

        • That’s so interesting, Robin. I do wonder how many older people were never diagnosed since it wasn’t something diagnosed often when we were kids.

  14. Mmmm no I won’t be watching the movie and I have to echo Jill’s comment and say that I thought of “A Million Little Pieces” while I read this and I didn’t like the book and everything else that followed, so probably won’t pick up this book…from a psychological point of view I find it fascinating how memory is not only unreliable but malleable, shaped and formed as they are by perception, feedback and emotion. As usual a great post Luanne 🙂

    • I think I’m going to see the movie, although I might have to buy it on Amazon prime unless I get Netflix! I want to see how they handled it. Next week I’ll review the prequel, A Wolf at the Table. I feel very differently about that book. There is some new study out about memory, I think, and how it’s a creative process. Which is really interesting. I do think that there is a core truth in actions that occur, but nobody ever remembers them accurately.

  15. Wow, what a book…after reading the links in your post I too don’t know who to believe but I certainly wouldn’t want to be mixed up in that kind of drama.
    Happy Labor Day Weekend, Luanne,. 🙂

  16. Thanks for the follow! As for this memoir, I couldn’t handle the creepiness and closed it less than 1/3 way thru. Pretty sure the film will have to be even creepier. Who cares if it’s true or not? It’s just plain CREEPY!! =D

    • Hah, thanks for that very definite opinion! I figure that is a rhetorical question, but I’ll take it anyway. I suppose people who care if it’s true might have had rough childhoods and it helps them somehow. And also people who care about the integrity of the memoir genre might care. But the book is CREEPY, yes. 😉

  17. Luanne I think for me It would lose me if the tone was lighthearted for such a dark topic. You are brave to keep reading. Thanks I don’t think I will put it on my wish list of uplifting life stories.

  18. Hi Luanne, have you read the book by Burrough’s brother, John Robison? The title is “Look me in the eye: my life with Asperger’s”. Burroughs does refer to his brother John in his book, as the “poster child” for Asperger’s, but of course in those days it was not diagnosed. Robison’s account of the family is rather different, but from memory does not contradict his brother’s. His condition presupposes that he is telling the truth. In any case, I prefer Robison’s book, and I think you would too.

    • Oh dear, I have to read his book! I didn’t know he had one out! I am writing a review for tomorrow about Burroughs’ A Wolf at the Table and am mentioning the Asperger’s connection in there. But I didn’t know about the book. Thanks for the tip!

  19. I had to return to this post Luanne after initially reading and ‘liking’ a few days ago it as I wanted to take the time to read the articles you linked to. I’ve now done that and I can honestly say that I don’t know what to believe but I haven’t read the book or watched the movie so I can’t comment fairly. I am intrigued by your review of it though and your thoughts on this sticky issue of running the risk of being sued as a memoirist. As I continue on with my memoir, I know I will have to change some names but obviously my book is nothing like this one!! I also know that what I write is 100% the truth but there will be some troubling things in there written about people who I haven’t had any contact with for over 35 years and I don’t even know if they are alive or not. The main person I’m writing about, and who the story is primarilly about, died young, my then husband and so it’s very much his story as well.
    Back to this review – I’m not sure if I would want to read this book or not from what I’ve read here to be honest as it doesn’t seem as if anything of much good has come out of the telling of it. Apart from the mother, whose interview I read with great interest. She seems to be more at peace than anyone. I’m not sure I like the sound of the author though. He sounds very shifty to me. I might watch the movie though – just to see what all the fuss is about. Meaning, I was amazed to read in the article that his book went on to be a best seller. And you wouldn’t even call it a memoir! Still, they do say that life is stranger than fiction. Who really knows…

    • Re Burroughs: tomorrow I am reviewing his memoir about his father. I have a totally different take on that book and on Burroughs himself. So be sure to stop by ;).
      Re your memoir: I love how you leave a little trail of breadcrumbs to your memoir with the teeny bits you divulge. As far as being legally vulnerable, I think that as my friend Rudri above says, anybody can sue anybody for anything. But can they prevail? We have to be as honest as we can be in our memoirs, divulging what we care to divulge, and hope we don’t hurt any innocent people in the process. I’ve read that it’s good to let your characters read the manuscript ahead of time, preferably while you’re in the same room or house with them. I can’t imagine doing that! Maybe that would work for siblings, your children, or a spouse. But parents or uncles or cousins or friends? I’ve tried to interest a couple of friends from the “old days” in helping me out with memories, but they weren’t able to do so. Now that I’m completely off topic. Changing names could help, although I’m not sure how many we can change before a publisher would balk. Also, the idea of combining characters might be a good one, although I haven’t yet been able to do so (too tied to the way it was)–this could work well for friends or boyfriends . . . .

      • Thanks so much Luanne, really appreciate your feedback. I’m fascinated now to read your next review of Burrough’s other book…
        Also for the great info…yes, I hadn’t thought of combining characters and I can see that it might work for friends or boyfriends. I wouldn’t have to change too many names…and of course you are absolutely right about not wanting to hurt anyone. Love our chats Luanne, you give me so much to think about…

        • Sherri, I transferred some info from thepoetswife above to my reply to you on the other post, but it’s right above. It looks like Burroughs’ brother has written 3 books. I’m going to ask her which one to start with, but they look like something you might want to check into. One of his books is even subtitled “my life with asperger’s”!!!
          I believe Mary Karr combined characters of friends in The Liar’s Club.

          • Yes, hi again Luanne, I just read your other comment with thepoetswife info and replied. The book I referred to over there is his latest, I think, is Raising Cubby, about his son also with Asperger’s. But yes, I definitely want to read them all now. Let me know which to start with! Oh boy, I really need to get an Ereader…birthday coming up!!!!!!!
            The Liar’s Club is one I want to read too after your review. I’m learning so much over here!

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