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Daddy
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Daddy
Dearest

Augusten_burroughs

Augusten Burroughs takes a long, cold look at his father in his new memoir A Wolf at the Table.

One of the most successful gay writers working today, Augusten Burroughs has made a career out of exposing his family's and his own dysfunction with sharp wit and a taste for the absurd that belie the pain of growing up amid unchecked mental illness. But after two memoirs and two essay collections, what more could he have to tell? Quite a bit, it turns out. Set during Burroughs's childhood in the years leading up to his parents' divorce, his latest memoir, A Wolf at the Table, is the kind of read that grabs you by the neck and won't let go until the last page. Readers looking for a reprise of Running With Scissors are in for a surprise: This tale is as harrowing and cathartic as a Stephen King novel.

Why did you choose to tell this story now? It's always been a story I wanted to tell, partly because of my father's denial of his behavior--the way he called me and made threats to kill me, then denied it had happened. I really wanted to reveal him. Fans who have read my books feel my mother is this enormous driving force in my life, but my father was really the rocket fuel. Right after he died, about three years ago, I started writing this book. It was like something inside me was unlocked and set free.

Had you been in touch with your father? We'd been in touch but hadn't mended our relationship. He knew about my success as a writer but had no idea what I wrote about.

Are you in touch with your mother? As far as I know she still lives in a small town in Massachusetts and still writes her poetry. I don't talk to her.

How did writing about such a harrowing time in your childhood affect you? Around the time I started this book my beloved French bulldog became paralyzed and I had to move into the basement of my house because he couldn't climb stairs. So I was down there 24 hours a day. My father's brother sent me up a huge box of family documents and photographs, new images I'd never seen growing up. I entered this peculiar state. I was working very long hours down there. I live in the woods, sort of like in the book, and I would have insomnia at night and I would cry. The whole thing was a real horror.

It sounds like an exorcism. I think what I exorcised was my father's basement smile out of the center of my chest. I was able to take my dark, mildew-smelling father and drag him into the sun.

As a child you worried a lot about growing up to be like your father. What are your similarities? I feel more different from my father than like him. Thankfully, my herniated disks are fixed. I knew I looked like him when I had them and was all bent over, and I hated it. When I was drinking I worried that I too was a sociopath. I can't overemphasize how much that scared me.

Has being gay shaped your sensibility as a writer? I don't think so. I never struggled with it or thought about it. It's something that tends to come up when you hit puberty, but my attendance at junior high and high school was brief and very sporadic. My parents didn't seem to have any issue with gayness. I had no religious upbringing whatsoever, so I had no concept of it being a sin.

But your father's utter rejection of you, and your search for ways to recover from that and to force your father to acknowledge you -- that's a very powerful gay archetype. When you spell it all out like that, it's there. But I really don't think about my triumphs as a gay man.

So are you a post-gay man? [Laughs] If I'd been exactly like I was but had more traditional parents, I would have had more time to focus on my sexuality and might have found a refuge in gay culture. But the fact was, I was living under surreal circumstances. My issues were more survival-oriented. There was always a crisis. That's why I think being gay is no big deal. It was not an identity I strove for. I liked being with guys, and that was the extent of it.

Has the way you write been affected by all the skepticism about truth in memoirs, or the Turcotte family's 2005 lawsuit over Running With Scissors, which you settled last summer?Nothing has changed the way I write since I was 13. I had all these journals I'd kept from when I was growing up that I carted around in boxes when I moved. But I never peeked at them. I didn't want to see this boy in the process of being ruined at 13 years old. When I read them, I found out I haven't changed that much.

What's your take on the recent scandal over Margaret Seltzer, who wrote a memoir based on a false identity as a half-white, half-Native American gangbanger in South Central Los Angeles? It seems like it would take a lot of energy to keep up that front. Like JT LeRoy -- why would you want to disguise yourself and then take on all the practical issues of working with your publisher at the same time?

You say on your website that fame is your alcohol replacement and you feed on it. What do you mean by that? That's totally tongue-in-cheek.

Isn't fame balm for your wounds? I'll tell you what's balm: people reading my books. I mostly meet them at book signings, where we have 30 to 60 seconds to talk. People will say, "Thank you for writing this book. I had the exact same childhood." Knowing that other people experienced these things has humanized me in many ways.

You had three dogs as a child, and you have two French bulldogs now. What's most important to you about them? I love giving them a great life. I'm fascinated by the interspecies intimacy -- how they prefer physical affection and closeness with me over their other favorite thing, food. It was devastating when Bentley became paralyzed. I moved downstairs, covered the bed with plastic, and kept him immobile by holding him between my legs for two months. Just when he got better, it happened again -- another disc rupture. This was a baby I used to carry in my hands. I just took care of him, day and night. Now he walks like he's a drunk, and his legs give out when he runs, but he's happy.

Have you and your partner thought about having kids? I think I would probably be good at it. But Dennis doesn't want to have kids, and I don't want them enough to get over that hurdle. Writing is a selfish thing. I don't want to be like my mother--type, type, type. Growing up without any parenting, it's kind of presumptuous to think I can do it.

Is there anything else you want people to know about your life? When I was growing up I worried a lot -- Am I going to be broken because I don't have a father? What I've learned is that you can repair yourself later. You can get the things you need. That's what I would say to younger people living in a situation similar to mine. It's profoundly terrifying when a parent is mentally ill, or an alcoholic, or missing something that makes you human, but it's possible for you to be OK anyway.

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