In the best-selling memoir Running with Scissors, Augusten Burroughs told the story of his bizarre and occasionally brutal upbringing as the son of a mentally ill mother and an alcoholic father. When the book hit the best-seller lists, it not only established Burroughs as a well-known writer, but it also paved the way for the rest of his family to tell their own versions of the story. His older brother, John Elder Robison, wrote about their childhood in his memoir Look Me in the Eye, and now their mother, Margaret Robison, has added to this family saga with her memoir, The Long Journey Home. Taken together, the three books raise interesting questions about truth, memory and the much-maligned genre of the memoir.
Memoirs have to be true, says Lee Gutkind, a professor at Arizona State University and a specialist in creative nonfiction. But you can't apply journalistic standards to a memoir — there's a difference between facts and the truth.
"It's your story, that's what a memoir is," Gutkind says.
"It's your own personal truth, and it is not necessarily factually accurate, and it's not necessarily the truth that other people have possessed."
For the Robison family, one truth is that Augusten Burroughs is a stranger to Margaret Robison. The fact is, she knew her son as Chris Robison, and she has fond, warm memories of him. But the book he wrote, under the name Augusten Burroughs, hurt her deeply and the two no longer speak. Burroughs doesn't want to talk about his mother's memoir, either, but he did speak about her several years ago in an interview on Fresh Air:
"My mother was always very exuberant," he told Terry Gross. "She would paint, and if she wasn't painting, she would be writing, and if she wasn't writing, she would spend hours and hours doing a pen and ink illustration. Or she would be talking on the phone — she had lots of friends. [She was] a very, very exuberant, big, big person. She filled her life with a lot of projects and interests."
However, Burroughs went on to say there were many times when the light left her eyes and she would get a look that meant that the exuberant mother was gone, replaced by a woman with a serious mental illness, trapped in a bad marriage.
"She had a very difficult marriage with my father, who was a ... very, very heavy alcoholic," Burroughs says. "And they sought couples counseling with a psychiatrist."
Because of his family's dysfunction, Burroughs spent much of his teenage years living with that psychiatrist, Rodolph Turcotte, who he says was like a cult leader. Turcotte's extremely permissive household was filled with his biological and adopted children, as well as several of his patients. During those years, Burroughs had an affair with a much older man, faked an attempt at suicide and dropped out of school. He turned these experiences and more into a dark comedy in his memoir, and he lays much of the blame for what happened on his mother.
Now, her own memoir gives Margaret Robison a chance to explain her side of the story. But Robison is emphatic that her book is not a response to her son's. In fact, she says she began it long before his was published.
Robison says she wanted to write the book so she could have a better understanding of her life. Raised by an overly critical mother in a small Southern town, she had dreams of being an artist. But in those days, women were expected to marry, so she did. Her husband, John G. Robison, was the head of the philosophy department at the University of Massachusetts. Even though the marriage soured, she stayed in it because she felt she had to.
"John said he would kill himself if I left him, and I think I believed that," Robison says. "I was also afraid he might hurt us, because he could be very violent. I cared about him; I didn't want him to kill himself."
Robison says Turcotte — who seems like an irresponsible quack in Burroughs' memoir — was, at least in the beginning, a stabilizing force in her life. "I think he actually saved my family's life," she says. "He saw my husband's anger. He saw the possibility that he could kill himself or some of us. No one had ever seen that before."
Robison's memoir describes her psychotic breakdowns and the time she spent in mental hospitals, as well as her eventual realization that the psychiatrist was doing more harm than good. Although her oldest son, John Elder Robison, left home at age 16 to escape the chaos in his family, he still credits the psychiatrist with initially providing great help.
"Dr. Turcotte, before he spiraled into his own nuttiness, was a brilliant guy. My mother says that, I say that, we agree," he says.
Diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome as an adult, John Elder Robison says he used to be ashamed to talk about his childhood. Now he has written his own memoir and a new book on living with Asperger's called Be Different. He says it was his brother's book that changed the way he thought about his own life.
"When my brother published that book and people began to read it and they would say things like, 'Oh, I'm just so impressed that you grew up in those difficult circumstances and yet you're as successful as you are,' I came to realize that our stories could be inspirational and not shameful and humiliating," he says.
John Elder Robison admits that the memories in each of the books about his family vary on certain details, but he argues that the inconsistencies don't detract from the bigger picture. He cites one example of a vivid memory that everyone in the family remembers in a different way: John Elder Robison remembers his father burning his little brother on the forehead. John Elder Robison's wife says it was actually John who got burned — on his chest. And Margaret Robison doesn't remember the incident at all.
"But my mother, as she says in her book, was in a state of pretty severe disconnection from reality much of the time from mental illness," he says. "So does that mean that story is about me? Is it about my brother? Did both of us get burned with cigarettes? ... No matter what, it's an ugly tale."
And the ugly nature of their story is at least one truth that all three memoirists can agree on. From their different perspectives, the three Robisons took the same set of circumstances and told their own versions of the story. While Burroughs changed his name and applied a comic genius to tell a tale that millions want to read, John Elder Robison discovered that he had something to teach young people struggling with Asperger's. And in her forthcoming memoir, Margaret Robison found her salvation in the very act of writing it all down.
"Writing was what helped me regain my sanity and leave the hospital the first time — from then on, writing was my essential way of dealing with life," she says.
Memoirs have been much maligned of late because they are all about memory. But while they may be notoriously unreliable vehicles for facts, they are endlessly fascinating sources of speculation about what really is the truth.