Watch CBS News

Augusten Burroughs And The Art Of Memoir

At age 43, Augusten Burroughs has written five memoirs detailing every single painful part of his life, including the best-selling "Running with Scissors." 48 Hours' Erin Moriarty reads between the lines ... and talks to an author who has quite literally made a name for himself:

"I was born Christopher Richter Robison. But I changed it to Augusten Xon Burroughs when I was 18."

By 1985, the newly-christened Augusten Burroughs had begun a new life far from his family and hometown of Amherst, Mass.

"You know, I had a brutal childhood, and I wanted to be happy. I wanted to be happy."

So it might surprise you to learn that today, not only is Burroughs back in Amherst, but he is making his living by re-living every painful part of his past - by writing about it.

At 43 years old, Burroughs has already written five memoirs, detailing his adolescence, his life as an ad man, and his struggle with alcoholism.

"A Wolf at the Table" (MacMillan), about his father, is his latest.

"I find it ironic that you change your name to cut yourself off from your past, but you've been writing about your past, really, for most of your adulthood," said Moriarty.

"I began writing about my past after I realized that there was no escaping it," Burroughs said. "I wrote because I had to write. I wrote because I had to get it out."

And what a story he tells! The younger of two boys, Burroughs was a casualty of marital warfare waged by his father, an alcoholic college professor, and his mother, a writer.

In "Running with Scissors," his first memoir, Burroughs detailed life with his mother after his parents' divorce.

"My mother was mentally ill," he said. "She was a poet."

In the 2006 feature film based on his book, Annette Benning played his eccentric mother: A failed poet who dreams of having her work published by The New Yorker, and who becomes increasingly unstable.

"And I got lost in the shuffle," Burroughs said. "And I was spending more and more time at her psychiatrist's house. And I eventually moved into the psychiatrist's house and he became [my] legal guardian."

"At that point, Burroughs' life, as he tells it, went from bad … to bizarre.

"There were no rules," he said. "The doctor believed that when you were 13, you were a free person, capable of making your own decisions. So you know, school? Forget it."

There was the psychiatrist's wife who snacked on dog food, and their daughters who played some unconventional games.

There was also the doctor's patient (played in the film by Joseph Fiennes) who sexually abused Burroughs when he was 12.

"At that age, though, did you think of yourself as being abused by an adult?" Moriarty asked.

"Oh, no, no. I thought that this was 'attention' and there was a price, you know? But I was willing to pay it."

"Did he in some ways kind of replace your mom and dad? Did he become a parental figure?"

"Yeah, I think, absolutely. Because he was an adult focused on me."

Burroughs' deeply-affecting story of abuse and neglect was an instant hit in 2002, remaining on non-fiction bestseller lists for two years.

His success helped create a wave of memoirs.

"They generate millions upon millions of dollars," said Roy Peter Clark, who teaches writing at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. "And so there's a tremendous temptation, among authors, among agents, among publishers to make the story interesting as - sometimes as lurid as - possible."

And if the story isn't lurid enough, said Clark, some writers are willing to spice up the truth.

In a humiliating interview with Oprah Winfrey last year, writer James Frey was forced to admit he had embellished his past struggle with drugs in his bestselling "A Million Little Pieces."

"People are inventing conversations that they know didn't happen," Clark said. "They're taking several events and bringing them into a single moment, or they're making believe a character in their story is one character, when it is really a composite of several [people]."

Worse, said Clark, is that some memoirs turn out to be complete fiction.

In "Love and Consequences," Margaret Seltzer told the story of running drugs for a Los Angeles gang. It never happened.

And "Angel at the Fence" a Holocaust love story that was supposed to be released this February, was cancelled when it turned out to be made up.

Augusten Burroughs has also come under attack. After "Running with Scissors" was published, he was sued by members of the psychiatrist's family who accused him of exaggeration and fabrication.

"They did say that," Burroughs told Moriarty. "But it also settled, and it settled in my favor. Not one word of that memoir was changed."

Still, Burroughs did pay the family an undisclosed amount of money, and perhaps more telling he agreed to change the word "memoir" on the author's note to simply "book."

"But isn't that conceding a little bit that maybe not everything is exactly true?" Moriarty asked.

"Absolutely not. No. No. It is not. 'Running with Scissors' is a true story."

"Every little fact?"

"I did not make it up," he said. "You know, memoir is not court stenography. Memoir is not a video on YouTube. Memoir has a narrative. Memoirs, a good memoir, is a person's experience, their memory, and how that experience mattered to them, emotionally and psychologically."

He's certainly not going to end the controversy with "A Wolf at the Table," a devastating portrait of his dad.

"I didn't have a great father," Burroughs said. "I had a terrible father. I had a dangerous father. I had a homicidal father."

Burroughs calls his book a memoir, but he begins it with a terrifying scene of his father chasing him through a dark woods.

"And did that actually happen?" Moriarty asked.

"I don't know if it happened or not," Burroughs said.

"Why put it in there?"

"I put it in there for that very reason," he said. "If it didn't, it's something that he would have done, I mean, you know?"

"Yet, nowhere in the book is the reader warned that Burroughs may have dreamed up the whole scene.

"It seems like dishonesty to me,' Clark said. "It seems like deception."

Clark questions whether the book should be called a memoir at all.

"When I begin to doubt the authenticity of a particular scene in a particular memoir, then the entire memoir suddenly lacks authority for me," he told Moriarty. "And I think when readers begin to understand that a particular popular best-selling memoir is not an honest and direct version of the truth, then I think all memoirs (and by extension all non-fiction) comes into question."

But is Burroughs being dishonest or simply telling his story the way he remembers it? His view of his father is starkly different from that of his older brother John, who also wrote a memoir.

"I think my brother has probably more demons inside him from our childhood than I do," John Elder Robison told Moriarty "And the book is an expression of that."

There was no wolf at Robison's table, just an alcoholic father who in his later years tried to make amends.

"I saw him as a terrifying figure when he was drunk. But the thing for me, my experience of my dad drunk was always tempered by the memory of [him] taking me to drive the steam locomotive at the Museum in Philadelphia, and camping in the rainforest."

But the difference, says John Robison, may simply be explained by the fact that he is eight years older.

"I think that with my brother it's very clear, when you read the story, that my brother tells the tale of our father through the eyes of a frightened, five-, six-, eight-, ten-, 12-year-old. I tell my story through the eyes of a 16-, 18-, 21-year old."

But how do you explain how the two brothers, both at their father's side when he died, remember the event so differently?

Augusten believes his father snubbed him even at death: "He said to you, 'You were a good boy, you were a good son,'" Augusten told John. "And then he looked at me, and you could see him thinking, 'Oh, I should say something to that one, too.' And he didn't. Do you remember that?"

"You know, I was pretty sad, then," John Robinson replied.

As John remembers it, their father was simply too ill to speak.

"I remember it. But when I look at the pictures of that day, I feel that my father had lost the power of speech. And I don't know if I would interpret it the same way [as Augusten did]. But you know, if you were someone like my brother, who always saw him in a negative light because you never had good times, why wouldn't you think that?"

A memoir then, unlike an autobiography, isn't always about the truth, but perception: It is one person's unique view of the world.

And Burroughs says he still has plenty to say.

"I will always write about myself. When something happens to me, I write about it. It's how I process my life."

And so as he enters middle-age, Augusten Burroughs has not only returned to his past, he has become it.

"I'm living my mother's life and my father's life," he told Moriarty. "I was an alcoholic like my father, and turned out to be a writer like my mother. I am truly their child."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.