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.
UPDATE: MORE LINKS ON THE STORY
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