Sometime last year in the waning days of the Borders brick and mortar bookstore, I was perusing the sales of leftover books and stumbled upon a copy of A Wolf At The Table in the checkout line. Published in 2008 and touted as a memoir by the New York Times best selling author, Augusten Burroughs, I did not recognize the name. I think what caught my attention were the bent tines of the gleaming red fork on the black book cover and I presumed it was a horror novel, which I happened to be in the mood for at the time. I studied the book closely, undecided if it was a work of fiction or not and it wasn’t until I opened the interior flap that I recognized Running with Scissors from the published books list. I had never read anything by Burroughs before, so I decided to buy the book and began reading it once I got home.
The book terrified me. I couldn’t put it down and I consistently struggled to remind myself that the book was not a fictional tale of suspense, but rather the memory of a man’s childhood in the shadow of a drunken father. The images of the father with bad teeth who was possibly homicidal, sharpening knives in the kitchen, manipulating the control of the dog and sitting in the dark of the basement giggling in the middle of the night was enough to keep me awake. From the opening pages, Burroughs begins by recounting the memory of the kitchen, sitting in a high chair and peering through the tiny holes of a saltine cracker, his mother and the sounds.
“Sitting in my high chair, I held a saltine cracker up to my eye and peered through one of the tiny holes, astonished that I could see so much through suh a small opening. Everything on the other side of the kitchen seemed nearer when viewed through the little window…My mother twisting the telephone cord around her fingers…these fragments are all that remain of my early childhood.”
That is until the memories of the vague presence of his father begin to resurface and Burroghs recounts his terrifying ordeals living with this man. Written after the death of his father, this most likely was the instigating factor that fueled these fearsome memories to resurface.
“But I could remember nothing of my father. Until years later, and then I could not forget him no matter how hard I tried.”
Anyone who has grown up in a dysfunctional home or with an abusive family member could understand repressing memories far better than I ever could. Understandably, this book was naturally a way for Burroughs to relinquish these repressed memories and perhaps find some kind of a peace with his father.
I was still cautious, though, while reading this because as a writer, I also use words and imagery to draw my readers in and I recognized the temptation for Burroughs to embellish his memories, to tweak a few minor details. I do not doubt that Burroughs wrote as truthfully as possible and presented theses experiences from the perspective a young boy who was robbed of any kind of normal childhood.
“In a way, if I wasn’t having a happy childhood right now, I could have one later.”
Recently, I was reminded of the book again and as I searched the book reviews online, I was perplexed by the strong and negative reactions to the book simply because it “lacked humor” which leads me to believe that the point of the book was missed.