I Contradict Myself

If you read my review of the Augusten Burroughs’ book Running With Scissors, you know I’m conflicted about it. I feel differently about the prequel A Wolf at the Table–the story of his frightening father.

a wwolf at the table

In this book Burroughs captures my attention up front by saying that for years he couldn’t remember much from his childhood about his father. When it all starts coming back, it’s almost too much to bear.

He also presents himself as a sympathetic character, one that I feel a deep empathy for. One of the ways he does this is by showing how his father treated one of their dogs–and how it bothered Augusten.

They had three dogs, and Burroughs loved them all. The two larger dogs were allowed inside the house by the father. The smallest, “a little black elkhound with a curlicue tail” named Grover, was not allowed in the house. The reason was that the father, for no apparent reason, considered him an “outdoor dog.” Grover “practically never left the deck where he slept, pressed against the sliding glass doors.” Burroughs writes: “Like there was a special breed of dog that might die if exposed to a sofa.” This upsets Burroughs (and me). The last two paragraphs in this passage are especially poignant:

Even on the coldest winter night when Grover was no more than a black, furry mound curled into himself and pressed up against the house, my father wouldn’t let him in.

Sometimes, I let bad thoughts linger. Like, if my father made Grover sleep outside in the cold, what stopped him from locking me out there, too? He had two sons; what if he decided to make the younger one the “outside” son?

And, in a way, that is exactly what does happen to Burroughs.

One of the strongest threads in this book is the secret that Burroughs’ father shared with him. The question is: did it happen or not? But it’s Burroughs asking the question this time, not the reader.

If you look up reviews you will see that some critics don’t like this book. They might miss the humor they found in Running with Scissors. But this book has real heart. Some readers say that Burroughs couldn’t possibly remember the mobile above his crib. I don’t know what they are talking about because I remember a vivid event from when I was still in a crib–less than two years old. I remember my room in detail, especially the shadows and lights and special objects like my music box.

In reading reviews of this book, I noticed that Burroughs’ brother, who has Asperger’s, says he has trouble reading behavior in other people and that he believes their father had some of his own “autistic traits.” This is a controversial subject because many of us love people who have Asperger’s or are autistic. Their condition doesn’t make them cruel to children or animals.

If you had a very difficult parent, this book might break your heart.



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

36 responses to “I Contradict Myself

  1. Once again, I am intrigued! Another book goes on the list of “to be read.”

  2. This sounds wonderful – actually never heard of this one!

  3. My parents were/are awesome, but I know I would have a difficult time reading this, Luanne. Great review!
    I hope your tummy settled down after the exciting news earlier in the week. 🙂

    • Jill, it has because I have been working so much lately that I don’t even have time to think ;). Thank you so much–have a wonderful weekend (once you get through Thursday and Friday ;)).

  4. Luanne, I think I might have trouble reading this book! But, as always, your reviews are thorough, insightful and I imagine some people could “get over” the cruelty! Not as sensitive as you and I are! 🙂

    • You might be right, Hollis, that some people wouldn’t be as bothered by this stuff, although I suspect a lot of blog readers here would be. But I know that I am an HSP (highly sensitive person) so I take this stuff to heart. Thanks for your sweet comment xo.

  5. Just reading what YOU wrote about it breaks my heart. I hate to see people or animals treated cruelly. I can’t watch movies with torture or executions, I don’t like war or holocaust shows, and I hate seeing abuse of any kind. And yet I consider myself a realist. Go figure! I feel so sorry for the victims, I could just cry. I bet it was a really good book but I’d have a hard time reading it. I’m a wimp, I know.

    • I don’t even know why I torture myself by reading books where real people (and animals) have undergone such hardships, but I keep reading them! And it keeps upsetting me. I’m sorry for upsetting you, Anneli!

  6. This book is fifth in my pile. I’m not moving it up! No! I refuse! Well….maybe…lol 🙂

  7. I think that I too would have trouble with this book.

    But one of your comments struck me — why do folks criticize other people’s memories? I too have memories — including my first one — of being in my crib (throwing up, actually). It is my first clear memory. Just because one person has no similar memory doesn’t mean no one does. People are so myopic sometimes.

    • Elyse, you picked up on an important point: yeah, why do they? It seems ridiculous and yet the internet is full of people criticizing other people because of what they themselves don’t understand. What an awful memory–throwing up! Were you sick? Do you know?

  8. My reading list keeps getting longer, Luanne. I love how you compared and contrasted the books by Burroughs. Clever title, my friend.

    • Rudri, thanks for the title compliment ;)! Haha, I feel like my memoir shelf grows on me; I keep finding more and more memoirs I’ve read and haven’t written about yet!

  9. I may have to read this. I liked Running with Scissors. Currently reading a memoir by a young man who was sexually abused as a child. It’s not particularly well-written, but raw and brave. I may have to read something fluffy before I start another memoir.

    • Oh that’s so hard to read: the sexual abuse of children. I understand about the writing–in a case like that it’s the authenticity of the traumatic experience. Yes, do yourself a favor and read fluffy in between!

  10. I’m intrigued by the comment that he doesn’t remember much about his father. The more I read about trauma in childhood, the more I see this as a common thread. I guess you have to remember to heal but holy cow, when I read stuff like this it makes me think repression isn’t all that bad.

    • One of the problems with not looking at the trauma face on is that we don’t realize how much it controls our lives. We are like robots powered by unhealed scars. Another problem is that we don’t know when it can blindside us and that can be dangerous. And repression can be harmful to loved ones, too, especially if by repressing we deny their realities. At least that’s how I feel tonight!

  11. Yes, I see what you mean Luanne. Goodness, what a difficult book this would be to read. As you know my daughter has Asperger’s Syndrome and she loves animals over humans in a lot of cases. Cruelty to animals in any form is an alien concept to those with ASD and has lead to much misunderstanding. Animals/pets play a vital role in those with ASD offering unconditional love, no demands and a safe, warm, loving and yes, tactile love and acceptance. If I were to read this book I would have to read it with an extremely open mind but I don’t know if I could do that since the issue of Asperger’s is so close to my heart. Still, another great review and so interesting the way it follows on from ‘Scissors’.
    I hope you have a great weekend Luanne…I’ve so enjoyed our ‘chats’ here this week and once again and I hope you are basking in the glow of your well deserved success…woo hoo 🙂

    • Sherri, you are one of the peope I was thinking about when I wrote this post. I thought what Burroughs’ brother said was very odd and interesting and dangerous. On last week’s post, thepoetswife commented with some info about the brother and said he wrote a memoir that she thinks is even better. I HAVE to check it out. She wrote this: “This is an article about John Robison: http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/199055231.html
      And this is his blog: http://jerobison.blogspot.com.au/ ” John Robison is Burroughs’ brother because Burroughs changed his name from Chris Robison.
      I was thinking that from my experience many people with Asperger’s or autism relate better to pets than to humans (well, so do I!), so what you say makes a lot of sense. Note that the brother was not particularly making his comment about the father’s behavior with animals, but making a very general comment.
      This book also isn’t a book about Asperger’s, and I don’t know that anybody really knows what was the father’s issue, although by some accounts he was a very popular college professor.
      Thank you so much for your very very sweet comments! Have a lovely weekend!

      • Luanne, I’m finally getting back to you after spending the weekend away with my boys, so apologies for the delay, I’ve only just come back here to reply. Thank you so much for sending me these links, which I’ve just read. I find this fascinating, I really didn’t know about John Robinson, although upon taking a look at his blog I was intrigued to see that he has recently resigned from Autism Speaks. I recently shared a post on Facebook about some of the problematic issues with this particular organisation and their stand on eugenics, amongst other things. But that’s a whole other subject!
        I notice that John Robinson’s memoir is about his son who also has Asperger’s. So I wonder if their father also did? There is more evidence that it seems to run in families (I’m convinced that my children’s father has it but he is undiagnosed) but it does seem that in this father’s case, he had other issues. My ex has a lot of strange issues but one thing he does is absolutely adore all animals. For instance, when his parents died, years apart, he didn’t cry but he was devastated when his black lab Monty died. But then so was I….as you say, I think a lot of us find it easier to love our pets than some humans!
        I will be reading more of John Robinson’s blog thanks to you and can’t wait to read your further thoughts about his writing…thanks again Luanne!

  12. Mom

    As I recall, Running with Scissors creeped me out big-time. But I think I would “enjoy” this. That’s not the right word…maybe I would find meaning in reading it. It’s raining, I may need to visit Amazon for this one. I have no idea why I am drawn to such dark writing some times. Maybe I think I’ll figure out the “why” behind such behaviors and actions if I see enough of it.
    Thanks Luanne!

    • I can’t figure that out about myself either, Mom. I get so upset reading about bad things that happened to real people and then I keep reading the same sort of books! It’s not schadenfreude because they make me cry. But there is something so positive in seeing how the writer has been able to redeem his or her negative past and create something beautiful.

  13. Hmmmm – this one’s not for me, but I love being exposed to so many options that I wouldn’t otherwise consider!

  14. I would cry about the misbehaviors and cruelty but if I had time, would read this one. I have read, “Running with Scissors,” and wrote on another comments area, of how I felt about the movie. It is a picture of a definitely dysfunctional but fascinating family. This is heart-breaking to feel outcast, like the dog, Grover. Such a book would bring me to tears, but I don’t run from those kind of books, starting back in elementary with “Black Beauty” and later, in high school with “Love Story.” This was a great and finely tuned review, Luanne!

    • Black Beauty is one of the best books ever and so good for teaching empathy and compassion to children. I used to teach it some quarters in children’s literature as an example of a 19th century classic in children’s lit. What a wonderful book.
      Poor Grover :(.

      • I know and to think the author felt like he, at any minute, might become outcast, too. I cannot imagine why this father chose the littlest of dogs, either! My brother and sister in law have (always had) big dogs, Golden Retriever (#3) and a Newfoundland (#2). Now, they take care of one of my Mom’s dogs, a dachshund mix with beagle. The first thing they did, living in the North close to Lake Erie, was buy a couple of doggie sweaters for “Bella.” They were so worried the little dog would go out with the big dogs and get frozen, not realizing they were quite capable of handling the cold.

        • Little dogs look so cute in sweaters! Cats, on the other hand, do not like sweaters haha. My daughter put one on my son’s cat a few years ago and the cat didn’t forgive her for about two years!

      • I am so glad to hear of your teaching and loving “Black Beauty.” My original response was to go off on a tangent about your final, “Poor Grover,” comment…

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