Monday, September 10, 2007

Running with Scissors

Never take candy from strangers. Never swim a half hour after eating. Never run with scissors. All good advice from Mom. And, in the case of the last, advice author Augusten Burroughs should have taken to heart.

Burroughs, the author of several nonfiction books including Dry and Magical Thinking, just settled a lawsuit brought against him and his publisher over what he wrote in Running with Scissors: A Memoir.

Running with Scissors, which was also made into a movie, recounts the story of Burroughs's life with the Turcotte family when he was younger. The head of the Turcotte family was Burroughs's mother's therapist, and the therapist was made Burroughs's legal guardian so that the teen could stay with them and attend schools in Northampton.

In the book, Burroughs calls the family the Finches and alleges them of outrageous behavior (electroshock therapy, deviant sexual behaviors, and so on). I use the word "alleges" because the family felt otherwise. They sued Burroughs and his publisher, St. Martin's, for defamation, invasion of privacy, and emotional distress. (Hey, remember all those?) The Turcottes demanded $2 million because they claimed the book was mostly fiction laden with sensationalism to drive sales and also that their family was easily recognized as the fictionally named Finch family, despite the fact that the book begins with an author's note claiming that the names and identifying details of characters have been changed.

The author and his publisher settled with the family and now have to start calling Running with Scissors a "book" rather than a "memoir" in the author's note and also have to include a disclaimer in future editions that the book is based on Burroughs's memories and not those of the Turcotte/Finch family. But St. Martin's seems pretty triumphant that they were able to settle and claim that this is evidence that the book is accurate.

So Burroughs and St. Martin's defended the book as "entirely accurate." However, in a statement released earlier, Burroughs said that the book was "loosely based" on his experiences. So which is it? Accurate or not? Truth or a memoirist's interpretation of his memories?

Memoirs are an increasingly popular genre, and since very few people spend their entire lives in total isolation, by necessity memoirs also include accounts of experiences with other people. But the very nature of memoir is open to a lot of error: unlike biographies and even autobiographies, memoirs are based for the most part entirely upon the author's memories and recollections as opposed to being based on research, interviews, and other facts. The human memory is a highly fallible and changeable thing. As years pass, our recollections of incidents and people become fuzzy. We may blend incidents together, forget what happened, reinvent the truth--all in all, it's definitely not a black and white world. So a degree of relativity enters the truth-telling in the world of memoir, which is all degrees of gray. Students of literature understand this, and while some memoirists strive to be as accurate as possible, others are okay with bending the truth a little to suit creative literary conventions and devices. But the thing is, do readers understand the nuances and varying degrees of accuracy involved in memoir? Or do they believe that everything they read is substantiated fact as opposed to author memory? I think this is where the problems begin.

And in the case of the Turcottes, the problem is that their memories and the memories of the memoirist not only contradict each other but also that the memoirist has painted them in such a negative light and made them so easily identifiable that it could ruin their reputations. According to an interview with the Turcottes in Vanity Fair, several of the Turcottes have suffered emotional, mental, or in some cases physical distress over what Burroughs wrote. While the Turcottes do admit that their father was eccentric and that their family did have some unconventional experiences while growing up, they deny a lot of the experiences that Burroughs claims they experienced together. They also claim that he distorted and exaggerated the amount of time he lived with them. Burroughs claims now that what he wrote is true and that he kept extensive journals during his childhood and teenage years about his experiences. But some of the other stuff he says seems shady and he seemingly implies that not everything is as it seems. I recommend that you read the Vanity Fair article I linked to above. It's illuminating if nothing else.

So when it comes to writing, especially something with a creative bent that's so highly personal, where do we draw the line? Or are there any lines that need to be drawn? Wouldn't a simple disclaimer saying that the experiences within are the recollections of the author that aren't necessarily supported by anyone else, or does the author have a greater responsibility to his subjects and his publisher to do more? Some memoirists send the manuscript pages involving other people to those people, to make them aware that they're being written about. In the case of the Turcottes, they claim that they didn't even know Burroughs was writing about them until after the book was published and achieved bestseller status.

The memoir issue affects me rather personally as I sometimes write memoir pieces. For my senior honors thesis, I wrote a memoir about my mother and myself and how my mother's Cuban background influenced me, etc. Several other family members figured into the memoir. While my mother was very pleased with the project, her sister, who also read it, made a comment to me about how her behavior wasn't the way I'd described it in a certain section of the manuscript. My defense was that the way I described her behavior was the way I perceived things to be true. I'm sure that if I saw myself described by another writer I'd potentially find what I believed to be an inaccuracy in his description. But to the writer, his description probably rings true with the way he sees me.

But this is different than making up substantial portions of a book that purports to be based on real-life experiences. That's where I feel that the issues arise, especially when many general readers aren't aware of the gray area surrounding memoir. What do you think? Should there be rules surrounding memoirs? Should they all carry disclaimers? Should the publisher be held responsible in instances like Burroughs's? Is the publisher responsible for fact-checking something like a memoir, or does that rest solely upon the author? I'd love to hear your thoughts, so please do share.

I've found some more links for further reading about the story.
From the Boston Globe
From Publishers Weekly
From the LA Times
From USA Today
NPR's interview with Burroughs's mother including a comment written by someone who allegedly knew her
From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
The Book Standard interview with Augusten Burroughs
Bookslut interview with Augusten Burroughs where he describes how a person can research the identity of the Finch family
Washington Post article
Entertainment Weekly


Anonymous said...

In your analysis of Mr. Burroughs' memoir and its veracity you are wrong on several counts. Mr. Burroughs wound up living with the Turcottes against his wishes. His mother and the good Dr. decided it would be in his "best interest" to start boarding with the Turcottes so his mother could pursue her therapy with Dr. Turcotte and write poerty unimpeded by the responsibilities of caring for her son. Outside of the region of Massachusetts where the story is based, nobody had any clues as to the true identity of the family Mr. Burroguhs describes. Locally, everyone knew who he was writing about. Why? Because they and their father already had a well-developed reputation for outrageous and disreputable behavior. Mr. Burroughs did not have to do any creative fictionalizing to reveal their true identities. All articles subsequent to the lawsuit point out the fact the RWS is now called a "book" as opposed to a "memior." Nobody seems to see the ridiculousness of this distinction. Of course its a book. That's what it is - a BOOK. This is the what the family's is touting as its big VICTORY? By their own agreement, the "book" still is labeled a memoir on the cover and will continued to be marketed as such. Mr. Burroughs has never waivered in his claims that the book is truthful and accurate. He has NEVER said, as is being widely reported, that the now "book" is "loosely-based" on his life. Its his LIFE. Period. If you can find those words in ANY interview he has done, whether in print or on video, please produce it. You won't find them becasue he never said them. And yet every news item wrongly attributes this statement to him. Many of the seminal events described in Mr. Burroughs memoir were never challenged or denied by the family. And yet the most egregious of these, such as his sexual abuse at the hands of an in-house pedophile and the callous handover of her son to strangers by his mother are blithely overlooked. Mr. Burroughs, who suffered REAL abuse and abandonment, is the one being called on to apologize and placate this bunch of, dysfunctional and disillusioned misfits. Nowhere has it been reported that several members of the family responsible for bringing the suit were NOT EVEN LIVING IN THE HOUSE during the years described. I think its safe to say that the events that happened to Mr. Burroughs are quite memorable and most of us could recall such events in pretty good detail. Mr. Burroughs has not "bent the truth to suit creative literary conventions." He has told the story as it happened to him and the Turcottes didn't want it getting out. Which, of course, is why they ultimately decided to agree to be featured in a major magazine with a double page spread of them in all their grief. Because they were so torn up about their identities being revealed and their privacy being violated. The Vanity Fair article is completely one-sided and consists mostly of whining about minor details that are insignificant, such as the fact that Mr. Burroughs refers to the Turcotte baby as POO Bear instead of POOH Bear. This kind of thinking merits a lawsuit?? Also, why does Mr. Burroughs have any obligation to inform the family he's going to publish a book about HIS childhood experiences, experiences we now know to be controversial and upsetting? What do you think they're going to say? They wanted to hide what really happened and might have sued to prevent its publication. I beleive at that point we're in free speech territory. This was an important story that needed to be told and he has every right to tell it. Mr. Burroughs did not make up "substantial portions," or any portions of his "book." That's why we have James Frey. Now, there's a liar for you.

Raquel said...

Greetings, Anonymous:

You said: "I think its safe to say that the events that happened to Mr. Burroughs are quite memorable and most of us could recall such events in pretty good detail."

I'd be interested to know if you in fact knew Mr. Burroughs during the time when all this was written, since you say that "most of us could recall such events in pretty good detail." Do you mean by this that you knew him and the family during the time in which this memoir was set? I'm just curious who the "us" refers to, because I don't know that the average casual reader would have any other outside knowledge of the Turcotte family or of Mr. Burroughs and the details of what went on behind closed doors. As for other sources of information on the topic, I'd love to see any sources you know of relating to the story that would shed more light into the matter, as I'm sure my readers would as well.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Christopher Cocca said...

I really enjoyed this post, Raquel. Very pertinent as I keep finding the lines of fiction and nonfiction constantly blurring all around us and in my own work. This post is great food for thought and praxis.