Book: A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father
Author: Augusten Burroughs
Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir
Why Did I Read This Book: Because I quite like Augusten Burroughs. Full stop.
Availability: Published by Picador, you can get a copy here:
Comments: I put off reading this book because there was a mild, teeny-tiny literary kerfuffle when A Wolf at the Table was released. Some critics took exception to a scene in the book wherein there is a violent outburst between Burroughs’ father and his older brother. Burroughs remembers bringing his brother a gun and begging him to kill their father. Some people felt this scene was created from whole cloth, and brought up some evidence to back their belief. Evidently, Burroughs exaggerated some scenes from his book Dry. He admits to making up a terminally ill woman who was doing her best to die sober. It raised all the usual thorny subjects about memoirs, the name James Frey was invoked and it was disheartening.
Then Augusten Burrough’s older brother, who wrote his own book about his life with Asperger’s, explained it for everyone. You see, the fight did happen. The conflict was real. And little Augusten did come to him with a gun – a pellet or bb gun, and begged him to shoot their father. In the eyes of a child, it was a life or death conflict and Augusten was telling truth as he understood it as the child who experienced the trauma. Other issues of veracity came up with the book, but all of them are issues I understand and can explain myself, so I am unsure why critics didn’t clue in. Maybe they all had really good childhoods.
I think that the debacles many avid readers experienced with J.T. Leroy and James Frey have caused a lot of people to reject the idea of a subjective truth. We want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth without remembering that a robotic recitation of objective truth can at some times be impossible and that the subjective truth is often all that matters when you are reading about a person’s life. I hope this desire to force all memoirs to come from a place of universal knowledge and total recall ends soon. Regardless, the brouhaha, even though it was resolved, made me put off reading this book longer than I should have. I guess I feared that there might be some tiny part of the book that would not seem subjectively true to me and I love Augusten Burroughs. I felt it risky to read this book lest I find some egregious fault with him.
That certainly was not the case, as it turned out. This book was utterly true to me even down to the smallest details. Like the rotting deck. The sick animals that never got treatment. The alienation and loneliness punctuated by violent and psychotic melodrama. All of this is true to me because even now, as an adult, I know that things that seemed like a threat when I was a child were probably no more than tense minutes, but the child who perceived it all is still in me and resents the everloving hell out of anyone who dares suggest that it wasn’t that bad or that I am misremembering. I should have read this book and responded to it much sooner.
Because I often respond very personally to the books I discuss here, it probably won’t be a surprise to regular readers if I do it again. I feel very comfortable talking about the time when I went psychotic and had to go to inpatient lockdown. I openly discuss my prescription pill addiction that almost destroyed my marriage and could have cost me my life had I not been very lucky. I talk about my life as an adult with a candor that I worry will hamstring me terribly should I ever again need a day job. But I find it very difficult to speak in detail about my childhood.
Mostly, I have a hard time discussing it because nothing ever changed much and it is a topic that can get boring – human misery is a jail and not much happens in day-to-day life in jail. I also tended to block a lot of things, living in my mind and I can’t recall what it felt like to be a child alone and without recourse the way many writers can. I also think much of my childhood is still humiliating to me so I prefer not to recall it in lots of detail. But mostly, I don’t talk about it because I have some half-brothers out there somewhere. We know we all exist but beyond that we know nothing much about each other, and if they ever Google me and find my book reviews, I don’t want the first things they find out about me to be the graphic details of the depths of my loathing for our late father.
But unless I simply say, “Hey read this book because I say so!” I don’t know if I can discuss this book unless the memory of my own father is invoked because while the details are different, the emotions and reactions Burroughs revealed in this book were dangerously close to some of my own.
Augusten Burroughs’ father John was a college professor who seemed well-liked by his peers. However, his family knew a far different man. He terrorized his wife. He terrorized his son. He treated family pets with a psychopathic disregard for their pain. He didn’t like his son even talking in his presence. He turned his son’s life into a living hell, likely exacerbated the mental illness his wife suffered from, and generally behaved in a predictably unpredictable manner. The only thing one could expect when reading this book was that John would continually do things that seem unthinkable and sickeningly bizarre to people who are unfamiliar with abusive sociopaths.
My father wore the same mask that Augusten Burroughs’ father wore. I recall reading critics who felt that Burroughs was stretching the truth about the description of his father. John had severe psoriasis that caused his skin to be red and flaky, making him bleed through his clothes. He had a mouth full of rotting teeth. His overall appearance to Augusten was repellent and fearsome, but some wondered how it was a man who looked so terrible could hold a job in academia, as if academia doesn’t harbor some very strange physical specimens. I can recall too the extremity of my own father’s appearance and that never once cost him a job or hindered his work life.
Indeed, it seems impossible to anyone who has never known a sociopath that they could be so dreadful in action or even appearance yet thrive and paint a picture of themselves that utterly defies what those close to them understand about them. Burroughs explains this mask very well.
I thought of the few times we’d gone to the university together and how he’d taken me around and introduced me to his colleagues. He’d seemed like such a dad that I’d wondered what was wrong with me to always feel so suspicious of him. I remembered thinking how, in the light of day out in the world, my father was just like anybody’s father. But as soon as I was alone with him again, Dad was gone and dead was there in his place.
Even if Burroughs recalls some of the details of his life with his father through the lenses of a child or an unreliable narrator, this bafflement of a child who wonders why the clerk at the supermarket gets a charming, polite dad but the kid gets a nasty, bitter, cruel dad reads utterly true to me.
Burroughs also conveys very well the shrill, brittle tendency that children emotionally abandoned by parents experience, that horrific need for kindness and concern that, if left unchecked, can result in us becoming pests to those who give us crumbs of kindness.
I was just not accustomed to large, grown people asking me if I wanted to share in what they were doing. The moment had been thrilling. I had to run away, because there existed the very real danger that I would run to him, leap right up into his arms, and smother him with kisses, like some icky girl. Fleeing had been an act of self-preservation, not shyness in this case.
I think, in some ways, this passage explains why I am a hermit. Because even as an adult with a happy marriage, I feel a strange chasm in me that I know will never be filled. I often think I keep people at an arm’s length because I fear I will show too much need or will reveal too much about myself via thoughtless enthusiasm. You can recover from a terrible childhood, but no matter how much therapy you receive, no matter how much you genuinely change, there is a fine web of emotional distress that covers you from head to toe and which shows itself at odd and sometimes embarrassing moments.
This entire book is filled with quotes that were statements full of “aha!” for me because they had kernels of truth to them about my own condition and the contents of my mind.
…I never smiled when I was alone. Why would I?
Very few unhappy children smile much unless they have a parent whom such smiles placated. Nothing annoyed my father worse than the sight of me smiling and I grew into an adult who never smiled much until I began to shake off the emotional detritus my father left behind.
People believe in God because they can’t face being alone. It didn’t scare me to think of being alone in the world. It scared me that I wasn’t.
It was a comfort to read this particular bit. I always wondered why, in a family of believers, I ended up an atheist. I suspect this may be as good an explanation as any. I like being alone, my husband’s company being the main exception. Aloneness suits me. I used to feel sick when my father came home from work as his presence meant walking on eggshells, it meant being unable to make noise, it meant not being able even to chew in a manner that he found acceptable. I spent all my time in my room when I was a child, reading, staying out of the way. It became a habit, all the reading and all the quiet. Now I can be alone with no worries of my mental peace being interrupted. I think God or god or deity of any kind would disturb my hard won solitude.
The prospect of a family vacation created extreme anxiety in Augusten, an anxiety that rings all too familiar to me.
I developed a rank, metallic taste in my mouth, always the precursor to illness. My throat felt raw, like I’d been howling. And my joints ached, skin tender to the touch.
Sickness was how my body responded to anxiety.
Oh god, do I ever know what this means. I came to understand that I am not a hypochondriac, which is what I thought I was for many years. I finally now understand that the crushing anxiety that plagued me as a little girl and which still plagues me now knows more than I do. It knows when I can handle situations and when I cannot. So when I cannot cope, my anxiety thoughtfully makes me sick. Severe headaches, stomach cramps, body aches, general malaise. Anxiety shuts me down. It happens less and less as I get older but as Mr. Everything can attest, it still happens. The force of anxiety cannot be ignored. It can give you fevers. It can make your throat so sore you feel like you have strep. It protects you, in an abusive, sick way. I think once I no longer get sick when I feel upset, I will know the claws of the past no longer are running themselves down my skin.
There is an anger so powerful that the fist must go through the wall. It is not humanly possible to contain or manage this kind of anger.
Yet there is a kind of anger that goes beyond even this. Where you are lifted so high by your fury that for an instant you hover, suspended; the fist does not go through the wall. You hold your breath and wait, you hang, you float. This is where I found myself and I laughed.
And I continued to laugh.
And again, anyone who has seen me collapse laughing when things have gotten as bad as they can get may now know why. Because you get to the point to where not even the catharsis of violence will save you. All you can do is laugh the howling laugh of the damned. That Augusten Burroughs knows this, I think, leaves me with little doubt that he experienced everything in this book, filtered through the eyes of a frightened child, the haze of an alcoholic adult, and the gaze of a man who has hopefully transcended the past.
I think this is a fine book but I have no idea if you should read it or not. If you don’t know what I know, maybe it won’t be worth it to you. Because I think, at its heart, this is less a memoir for me than a book of kinship, a description of what it is like to be small and terrified, held in thrall to a mentally ill and at times despicable parent, to never feel peace, to watch creatures you love die (or in my case disappear entirely without a trace) and have nothing you can do about any of it. I felt a great connection with Burroughs, as if finally there might be a person on this planet who could hear the story of my own life and nod and not pepper me with questions as they tried to understand how a man can be a monster to his family and a kind, a polite family man to strangers.