Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

ex libris

-- ex libris -- scissors with malice?

Ruthless with Scissors by Buzz Bissinger Vanity Fair January 2007 issue

In the summer of 2002, when Theresa Turcotte found out that Augusten Burroughs had written a book that was already a best-seller, she was happy for him. [...] Her curiosity piqued, she went in search of the book on the Internet. It was then that she got her first inkling that it contained enormous amounts of information about her family. She would ultimately discover that her parents, herself, and her four sisters and one brother, renamed the Finches, were actually a major focus of the book. And, she says, Burroughs had never told her he was writing it, despite his phone calls to her in the late 1990s.

The character based on Theresa is named Natalie, and in her first appearance she is described as a "ratty" 13-year-old. In the next reference she has "long, greasy stringy hair and dirty clothes." In the next five pages she is described "spilling crumbs down the front of her striped halter-top" from a tube of Pringles and wiping "her hands on her bare knees" and using the word "cunt." As she continued to read, Theresa says, she found it difficult to fathom the book's malice toward her and her family. It was filled with things that she believed were categorically false or had been wildly embellished. She also could not believe that Burroughs had revealed details about events in her life that had occurred 20 years earlier and had been horribly painful for her—so painful that she had spent years in therapy trying to overcome them and had never told her own daughter about them.

She continued to read that night, occasionally stopping because she simply could not bear to read anymore, she says, only to pick the book up again several minutes later. Sometimes she had to stop to run to the bathroom and vomit. "I have never vomited so much in my life," she says.

And it was only the beginning of what she says she would be forced to grapple with as a result of how Chris Robison, as she had known him before he changed his name to Augusten Xon Burroughs, had portrayed her in Running with Scissors. Only the beginning of the shame and humiliation and unwanted exposure and helpless outrage and sense of betrayal that, in roughly 35 hours of interviews with Vanity Fair, members of the real family that Burroughs wrote about say they experienced. The story they tell is just as disturbing and shocking as Burroughs's story, perhaps even more so. [...] The family has filed a lawsuit against Burroughs and the book's publisher, St. Martin's, for invasion of privacy and libel. The suit, filed in the summer of 2005 in Middlesex Superior Court in Massachusetts, charges that Burroughs and St. Martin's intentionally fictionalized the portrait of the family to make the book more sensational and therefore more marketable. The book, says the suit, "falsely portrays" the Turcotte family as an "unhygienic and mentally unstable cult engaged in bizarre, and, at times, criminal activity. In so doing, the author, with the full complicity of the publisher, literally has fabricated events that never happened and manufactured conversations that never occurred." Both Burroughs and St. Martin's, speaking through the publisher's general counsel, Paul Sleven, deny the allegations in the suit and refuse to comment on anything that the family said.

Burroughs claims he has roughly 20 notebooks in which he kept a journal of his experiences between the ages of 12 and 17 that back up his story, and he says he has continued to keep these journals with him. Family members confirm that Burroughs wrote constantly when they knew him. There is also an extensive public record regarding Dr. Turcotte, a highly controversial psychiatrist whose license to practice medicine was stripped in 1986 due to allegations of deeply disturbing behavior. Additionally, there is an author's note at the beginning of the book saying that "the names and other identifying characteristics of the persons included in this memoir have been changed." [...]

It's going to be interesting to see how this lawsuit works out. If Burroughs really exaggerated and changed things to the extent discussed, it's going to be difficult for him to win. A jury is going to hate him, with a certain amount of justification. That said, depending on how much of what he alleges can be documented -- although I would think the journal of a teenager who knew at the time that he was having certain mental issues would be of dubious use -- a jury may not be exceeding fond of the Turcottes as well. And there's also the issue that they do concede that a few events happened; the issue for them is that he invaded their privacy by making those events public. While a jury may feel the same way about things, that thread of American law seems to have fallen out of favor of late. It used to be valid to assert not that the allegations were false, but that the person making the allegations had no right to make those issues public. That seems no longer to be the case.

What really gets me is the quotes at the end of the article:

..."It is very painful," [Burroughs] said, his voice dropping, as if he too had been betrayed. "And it's also painful to have your childhood questioned, to have the experiences you went through, you talk about, questioned."

He used a tellingly dramatic anecdote to explain his feelings. "I used to have nightmares all through my 20s and 30s that I was in the [Turcotte] house again, in the TV room, but no one else was there—they were in the next rooms. [I] felt the worst panic that I have to get out of here. [I'd] wake up and I'd be like, 'Ah, it was just a dream.' And then they went away after I wrote the book. Now they're back. "[The suit] felt like 'Oh no. When am I going to get away from this family? When am I going to be able to get away from this childhood? When can I get out of the house?'"

It was a remarkable statement, given that it was Burroughs who chose to make his personal history public by writing Running with Scissors, not the family. Just as remarkable as when he looked at me with utter sincerity and said this of the family he had written about: "I hoped that they would recognize themselves and love it," he said. "I hoped [Theresa] most of all would love it." Then, once again came the low and wistful tone, the aggrieved memoirist: "But that's not what happened."

OK, now what even vaguely sane person would think that they could have liked how they were depicted in that book? Dr Turcotte is depicted in engaging in conduct just short of felony child abuse, and abetting and encouraging the same. Burroughs revealed personal things about them that nobody would have wanted revealed at all, let alone in that way. He deliberately held them up to public scorn and ridicule. What reasonable person could possibly have wanted that?

Posted by iain at 01:27 PM in category ex libris