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The Truth About Running With Scissors

Updated on November 13, 2012

A Look at the Memoir as "Creative Non-Fiction"

The human memory is a complicated, and at times, a mysterious thing. People remember past experiences from their life, revisiting the moments in their mind before locking the episodes back up in the depths of their brain to wait for another day when they’ll return to pay a visit again. Individuals remember significant occasions such as their graduation from high school, their wedding day, perhaps the day they signed the loan papers to purchase their first home. When a person thinks back on the events in their life they experience the intense sensations the particular memory they are revisiting provide; however, with time the human memory becomes muddled and elusive. The remembered event is no longer as crisp and fresh in the mind as it used to be. Sure, five years after graduation one may still remember walking across the stage to receive their diploma, they may remember the sense of pride they felt grasping the rolled piece of paper for the first time, but what about the rest of the events that happened at the ceremony? Can they account for each tiny detail such as the speech the valedictorian delivered, or how they worried that the person in front of them was blocking their face from the viewfinder of their parent’s camera? It would be a real feat to do so with perfect accuracy, yet that is what some critics suggest that memoirists be able to do to ensure their work is classified as true nonfiction.

Readers have long questioned the validity of memoirist claims, and this obsession has been feverishly renewed after a variety of internet sources exposed many instances of feigned memoirs such as Sickened: The True Story of a Lost Childhood by Julie Gregory which was revealed to have been fictionally constructed (FMS 1). Another memoir titled Sarah, wassupposedly written by J.T. LeRoy, and was discovered to have actually been completely dreamed up by Laura Albert (Feuer). Most famously, a website called exposed A Million Little Pieces by James Frey was fraudulent in January 2006. Augusten Burroughs, the author of several memoirs from the Northeast, has not escaped this intense scrutiny. His statements in Running with Scissors have been called into question since the book’s original publication in 2003.

The synopsis on the book’s back cover sums up the crazed scenes found within its pages the best as, “... the true story of a boy whose mother (a poet with delusions of Anne Sexton) gave him away to be raised by her unorthodox psychiatrist who bore a striking resemblance to Santa Claus. So at the age of twelve, Burroughs found himself amidst Victorian squalor living with the doctor’s bizarre family, and befriending a pedophile who resided in the backyard shed. The story of an outlaw childhood where rules were unheard of, and the Christmas tree stayed up all year-round, where Valium was consumed like candy, and if things got dull, an electroshock-therapy machine could provide entertainment. The funny, harrowing, and bestselling account of an ordinary boy’s survival under the most extraordinary circumstances.” From just the synopsis one can easily see how the validity of Burroughs’ claims might be questioned.

Criticshave certainly debated the author’s truthfulness, sometimes even implying Running with Scissors is actually a work of fiction by referring to Burroughs’ memoir as a novel. But, scholars haven’t yet agreed on how much or how little truth must be present in a work for it to be classified as a memoir, and subsequently, a work of nonfiction. To fully understand and appreciate Burroughs’ memoir about his traumatic childhood we must first understand to what extent creative allowances are tolerated in works classified as memoir. Since scholars have yet to provide a definitive answer I’ll investigate if it is more important for a work to be completely factual or to ring true. I will come up with my own standards as to what constitutes the validity of memoir and what things should be valued about the role of truth in memoir. Synthesizing the differing opinions of scholars about the need for evidence in support of memoirist’s claims, utilizing contradictory interviews with Burroughs and family members, examining the subjectivity of memory, as well as, the role of the memoir in academia will reveal that it is not always necessary for every aspect of the memoir to be completely accurate and factual.

The memoir is a volatile subgenre of nonfiction writing; it is one that lacks a clear and distinct set of guidelines for its category, and is the subject of much scholarly debate. While some critics hail factual accounts backed by solidly documented evidence as the best route for success, others favor a bit of fabrication for the sake of the intended theme. Readers of the memoir, which the North American Encarta Dictionary defines as “a biography or an account of historical events, especially one written from personal knowledge,” should read with the knowledge kept in mind that the piece has been, at least in part, creatively altered. Carolyn Kraus says this must be the case in her essay “Proof of Life: Memoir, Truth, and Documentary Evidence” because of “the spotty, evolutionary nature of memory, the near impossibility of retrieving more than scraps of dialogue, and the failure of most lives to serve up to a narrative line” (Kraus 246). In her essay Kraus also maintains that within the genre of memoir some fictionalizing is never escapable, though she cautions readers of the difference between the deliberate acts of fabrication like Mrs. Albert and Mr. Frey passing off lies as nonfictional work, and the sort of problems that come from an imperfect memory. She says that the memoirist must be allowed to work with the material- the memories- they possess, sometimes “refining and coloring in the line drawings that memory provides” (Kraus 246).

Augusten Burroughs has proclaimed many times over that his memory is infallible, and has attempted to demonstrate his superb ability to accurately recall even the most trivial of things several times for the public. In a 2008 Publishers Weekly interview with Sara Nelson, Augusten Burroughs recited the opening scene of the Titanic movie perfectly in an effort to demonstrate how easily memories seemingly bounce into the author’s mind after years of rest. The New York Times published a critical essay, also in 2008, by Patricia Cohen titled, “A Son Peers at His Father and Finds a Sociopath,” which reported Burroughs’ claim that he has vivid memories from the time that he was only eight months old. But, the Titanic scene could have been rehearsed by Burroughs’ days or weeks prior to reciting it, and the memories of an eight month old baby are very near impossible to retain into one’s forties. In spite of his self-proclaimed astute memory, there are definite instances of Carolyn Kraus’s idea of “coloring in the line drawings” that the audience can find in the pages of Running with Scissors. The most obvious of these instances takes the form of dialogue, which can rarely be captured exactly as was orated.One example of this can be seen in an exchange between Augusten’s mother Deirdre and Dr. Finch, the psychiatrist treating her during one of her daily, hours-long visits.

“As spiritually evolved as I may indeed be,” Dr. Finch said, eyes twinkling with playfulness, “I’m still a human being. A male human being. I am still very much a man.”

My mother blew a cloud of smoke over her head. “You are a goddmn sonofabitch,” she said. She used her teasing voice, as opposed to her disturbing let’s go to the mall in blackface voice.

Finch laughed, his face reddening.

“That may be,” he continued. “Men are sons of bitches. That would make you a sonofabitch, Augusten.” He looked over at me.

“And you a bitch,” he said to my mother.

“I’m the biggest bitch in the world,” my mother said, crushing her cigarette out in the soil of the potted jade plant on the coffee table.

“That’s very healthy,” Finch said. “You need to be a bitch.”

My mother’s face tightened with pride and she raised her chin slightly. “Doctor, if being a bitch is healthy, then I am the healthiest damn woman on the face of the earth.”

Finch exploded in laughter, slapping his thighs (Burroughs 31).

As memorable as this exchange must have been for the twelve-year-old Augusten, there is no way that he would have the mental capacity to remember every word that the doctor and his mother said to one another in their lengthy exchange. The human brain will simply not allow it. Burroughs may have had a general notion of the ideas expressed by each of them, especially as this was one of the first few times he was sucked into their daily meetings; the general notion of the conversation provides the “line drawing” Kraus mentions. He then “refines” and “colors in the lines” with the graphic dialogue. Burroughs is able to take the framework his memory provided, and work with it to fill in the gaps his long-past event left out- the specific conversation.

In this particular example Burroughs has committed no real crime against the memoir. Every piece of dialogue should not be required to come with the disclaimer that the conversation hasn’t been reproduced exactly as it was spoken word for word. As previously mentioned, readers need to read the memoir with the notion kept in mind that at least some parts are going to be embellished. Dialogue is one of the main places those embellishments will appear. Unless one walks around with a tape recorder it’s a challenge for most people to remember the exact conversation they had only twenty minutes before; Burroughs is attempting to remember a conversation that took place twenty years ago. For the sake of the main idea Burroughs is attempting to convey, he takes a creative liberty: inserting the conversation so as to best capture his message. The message in this piece of his memoir is to illustrate how unorthodox a doctor that Dr. Finch is, and how unprofessionally he behaves with his patients. It also emphasizes the strange patient-doctor relationship that he and Deirdre embark on, and sets the stage for the bizarre events to come.

The second issue that the role of truth in memoir raises is the subjectivity of memory. Discrepancies often arise because multiple people do not remember an event happening in the same way. For example, Augusten Burroughs’ mother is quoted as saying, “I should say we have different memories,” in Patricia Cohen’s article in The New York Times (Cohen 2). In the same article Burroughs’ brother, John Elder, agrees that he and his brother have different memories and Burroughs’ often reads too much into a given situation. Elder says, “Sometimes I can’t see the subtleties of behavior. My brother is the opposite of that. He’s overdramatic” (Cohen 2). In an investigative report in Vanity Fair, Buzz Bissinger wrote extensively about the truthfulness of Augusten Burroughs’ memoir, interviewing all six Turcotte children, the family of the psychiatrist with whom he allegedly stayed with from the time he was twelve.

Theresa Turcotte, whose character name in the book was Natalie, recounts Augusten’s obsession with fame he had from a very early age, and the shock she felt at the “malice” which he directed towards her family with his “categorically false” and “wildly embellished” allegations. The Turcotte children filed a lawsuit against Burrough’s and his publisher in 2005 saying that he and St. Martin's purposely fictionalized the likeness of the family to make the book “more sensational and therefore more marketable.” Bissinger goes on to report that the suit the Turcottes filed says that the book falsely portrays the Turcotte family as an “unhygienic and mentally unstable cult engaged in bizarre, and, at times, criminal activity. In so doing, the author, with the full complicity of the publisher, literally has fabricated events that never happened and manufactured conversations that never occurred" (Bissinger 2). In his trademark overdramatic fashion, Burroughs stood by the accusations in his book saying, "This is my story. It's not my mother's story and it's not the family's story, and they may remember things differently and they may choose to not remember certain things, but I will never forget what happened to me, ever, and I have the scars from it and I wanted to rip those scars off of me" (Bissinger 3). In August of 2007 the lawsuit between the Turcotte’s and Burroughs was settled.

The conditions of the settlement included changing the language on the acknowledgments page, a financial settlement of an undisclosed amount, and Mr. Burroughs and his publisher, St. Martin's Press, agreed to call the work a ''book'' instead of a ''memoir'' in the author's note (Cohen 2). The stipulations of the settlement, critics say, speak to the unreliability of Augusten Burroughs as a narrator. His false allegations about and against the Turcotte family, and the events which he reported in his book make Burroughs’ memoir untrustworthy. The many discrepancies between Augusten Burroughs, his mother, his brother, and the Turcotte family illustrate another problem in the genre of the memoir: the subjectivity of memory.

Every experience in life is unique to the person experiencing it. If a police officer asked ten different witnesses to recount the events leading up to a robbery they would receive ten completely different stories because all experiences are subjective. No two memories will be identical, even when it’s of the same event. What one person remembers as the truth may be complete fallacies or vicious lies in another’s eyes, as could be the case with Running with Scissors. This idea is exemplified in the following excerpt, where Burroughs details his version of how he and Natalie tear down the roof of the kitchen, an event he claims can be proven because it appears in his journals.

“The kitchen ceiling was too low. It was crushing us. It was the source of our misery in life. “I hate it,” said Natalie.

“What?” I said, wondering if she meant the ceiling, if she was feeling it too...

“I hate my life,” Natalie said.

“I hate the ceiling,” I said...

“Let’s get rid of it then,” Natalie said suddenly, looking around.

“Rid of what?”

“Let’s take down the ceiling.”

... And that’s how it happened that an hour later, sometime after midnight, Natalie and I were beating at the ceiling with rocks we’d pulled from Agnes’s old flower/

discarded-kitchen-appliance garden. We stood there with our rocks raised up over our heads and we smacked them against the ceiling and it came down in great chunks. Hairy chunks.” (Burroughs 144).

Theresa Turcotte, or Natalie, agrees that the ceiling was indeed torn down while Augusten lived there. In her version of the truth, however, she maintains that a person with carpentry experience tore it down as part of a remodeling project on the kitchen (Bissinger 6). Another example of this subjectivity can be seen in the selection from Running with Scissors where Augusten recalls his mother’s reason for giving him away to live with the psychiatrist:

Three days after my return, my mother came into the kitchen where I was cooking a package of bacon in a cast-iron skillet.

“You’ve been spending a lot of time at the Finches’ house,” she said.

“Mmm hmm.” I said, not feeling the need to remind her that she was the reason I was spending so much time at the Finch house.

“I think it’s good for you to be around a lot of people like that.”

This was true, I supposed. I did like that there was always someone awake at that house; there was always somebody hanging around who was ready for fun.

“And I’m just so emotionally drained right now. Struggling in my own battle to truly find myself, once and for all.”

“Yeah,” I said, flipping the bacon strips with a fork.

“And of course my relationship with Fern is very stressful and consuming.”

“Can you hand me some paper towels?”

“It’s just very difficult for me to be the parent you need,” she said, handing me a wad of paper towels.

“Mmm hmm.”

“So after discussing this with the doctor, we both feel that this is really the best option.” She flashed a document in my face.

“What’s that?”

“It’s good news. The doctor has agreed to become your legal guardian.”

... “So basically, you’re giving me away to your shrink?” I said...

A couple of signatures later and Dr. Finch was no longer just my mother’s psychiatrist.

He was my father. (Burroughs 138).

From this passage it’s clear that Augusten believes his mother’s motives for granting the doctor legal guardianship of him is because she is utterly incapable of taking care of him because of her own search for her true self. He paints her as a delusional writer who is monstrously self-centered, which the Turcotte’s say isn’t true at all. Court documents show Augusten was a few days short of turning fifteen when he joined the Turcotte/Finch family, not twelve as he claims in his memoir. Barbara Turcotte, or Hope in the book, says that the reason the doctor took custody of Augusten was because of schooling problems; Burroughs constant absenteeism and the hopes that he could attend the better schools in Northampton were the two major factors in his mother’s and the doctor’s decision. Documents also show that months after Augusten transferred schools his mother and the doctor were both present at a conference to discuss his chronic absences. In his interview with Vanity Fair Burroughs does, in fact, concede that the school issue was one of the reasons for his mother’s giving him up (Bissinger 6).

Both of these examples provide evidence of the subjectivity of memory, that two different people may remember the same event in a completely different way. Normal differences in memories abound frequently within memoir, but are not as severe as the differences illustrated here. For example, Theresa might have remembered the hole-in-the-ceiling event, and thought that it took place in the living room instead of the kitchen. The details related to the event are what pose normal problems in the subjective memory, not the entire event itself. If one person, Augusten Burroughs, says that he remembers an occurrence a certain way, the reason his mother gave him away for instance, and multiple other people report the incident happening in another very different way that usually points to fabrication and not subjective memory. In the case of his mother transferring custody of Burroughs, the author has made an error and is not just victim to a faulty memory. Since court documents are readily available, Burroughs should have double-checked his facts, especially since he was publishing his story in a genre where personal narratives are supposed to be true. Burroughs has a duty to his readers to reassure them that he is a reliable narrator and establish a relationship of trust. One way to do this would have been to take the extra time to make sure that his facts were correct, like the ones such as how old he was when he went to live with the doctor because it sets a tone for the book. If Burroughs did check the court documents and saw that he was erring about his age and still chose to publish his memoir knowing he was wrong, then that opens the door for deliberate falsification, even if it was done for the sake of the story. Deliberately changing vital facts for the improvement of the story does not belong in memoir. Some events are too important to embellish or change, as is the reason for his mom transferring custody since that’s a major premise of the book. The age of Burroughs at the time of the events is also something that needs to remain true to fact because age plays a major role in how people see Burroughs’s development, particularly when the difference in reported age and actual age is as major as twelve- a preteen, and fifteen- almost an young adult. In sum, while the audience of the memoir needs to keep in mind that they are only receiving one person’s version of events, and that particular version is probably not the ultimate truth, memoirists have an obligation to consult documents that are available to them to make sure they are portraying important occurrences accurately.

Finally, the role of memoir in academia is changing, and Running with Scissors is now being used by teachers of nonfiction as part of their lesson plans.

The point is, these college readers are connecting with their material in an intense way. They are identifying with parts of Burroughs’ memoir and making strong connections to events in their own lives. Running with Scissors, even with its bizarre characters and scenes, translates to the youth of America in ways that other memoirs can’t because it encompasses a bit of everything- shock and fear, drugs and alcohol addiction, wrestling with sexual identity, parent-child conflict, rebellion, and hopeful aspirations for the future- and it’s presented in a sensational new way. Running with Scissors allows and encourages students to be engaged with their material, which Miriam Marty Clark says doesn’t happen all too often. So, when students have such a strong connection to the object of their studies it doesn’t matter if every single bit of text and allegation is backed up by documented fact. The story rings true to these students, and therefore, impacts them in a profound way. That’s what a great memoir does, and that’s what a great memoirist is able to do- take their story and weave it into a piece that moves people. That is what Augusten Burroughs has done with his book, Running with Scissors.

Admittedly, there are facts that can be disputed in Running with Scissors, but that goes for any memoir. As previously stated, in memoir some embellishment is necessary, and authors must be allowed to experiment with the framework of their memories sometimes “refining and coloring in the line drawings that memory provides” (Kraus 246). It is only when the memoirist crosses the line and begins to purposefully falsify events in their story that creative embellishments become a problem. Making up wild affairs that never happened is fiction, and has no place in memoir. There has to be underlying truth to a memoirist’s claims. No one should expect a conversation to be captured word for word as it was spoken, that in itself is unrealistic, but the fact that the conversation took place is what’s important. The narrative needs to maintain its obligation to be based on truth.

Creative Non-Fiction?

Do you think authors should have to prove their claims in memoirs if questioned?

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    • rebelogilbert profile image

      Gilbert Arevalo 11 months ago from Hacienda Heights, California

      Reading your article about memoirs captivated me with interest. You made an excellent point that personal memoirs should have concrete documentation. Often times, memoirs are considered creative nonfiction. Publishers want to sell books, and it's easy for fiction to sneak into the pages of a popular biography or memoir. Everyone remembers incidents differently as you pointed out. Long as the memoir writer doesn't have to go to court, I guess he's okay.

    • orderedchaos profile image

      Brittany 5 years ago from Kansas City, MO

      B. Leekley-

      Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to comment and share, I appreciate it, and I'm so glad you found this piece interesting. In one of my college classes we read excerpts from Root and Steinberg- I probably still have the printouts in a folder somewhere at home.

      The symbol suggestion you gave that would precede dramatizations of experiences is definitely something to consider. I think that would eliminate some of the criticisms of this genre.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 5 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      Up, Useful, Interesting, and shared with followers and on social networking sites. This is an excellent essay that gives readers lots to think about.

      About 7 years ago I took a creative nonfiction class. We used the textbook THE FOURTH GENRE: CONTEMPORARY WRITERS OF / ON CREATIVE NONFICTION by Root and Steinberg. It has good examples of memoir and articles by writers telling how they went about writing those memoirs. It's an interesting field to write in and to write about.

      I'm working on a historical novel that is not a memoir because I remember almost nothing of what happened even though I was there, an active participant.

      I wonder if a memoir should precede dialogue and dramatic scenes that are not from photographic memory with a symbol, perhaps ~!~, that means DRAMATIZATION THAT ACCURATELY DEPICTS THE SORT OF EXPERIENCES I HAD?

      Yes, memory is not reliable. I remembered how brilliant I was in college until I saw my grade transcripts and saw a lot more Bs than As.

    • orderedchaos profile image

      Brittany 5 years ago from Kansas City, MO

      Thank you for the comment Denise! I'm glad you enjoyed this piece and want to share it!

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 5 years ago from North Carolina

      Held my attention throughout this piece and I found it fascinating. I'm very familiar with the memoir through the movie, but did not read the book. You have done an outstanding job in your dissecting and presentation of Burroughs memoir. I applaud you in the thorough undertaking. I don't think you left any stone unturned. Rated way up and across except funny. I'll be sharing this one-I highly recommend it to all.