Chronicler of every single moment of his life Augusten Burroughs is back with yet another memoir, this one titled A Wolf At the Table. Despite his marvelous success as an humorist and essayist, his latest 'oir hinges on the darker tales of his late father John Robison, a popular professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who by all accounts wasn't the kindest patriarch to his wife and children. That Robison is a complicated and troubled man isn't in dispute. What is up for debate in this Times piece are certain episodes of what Burroughs calls "stunning psychological cruelty." For example, the book claims Robison put a cigarette out on Burroughs' forehead. The surviving members of the Robison family also have divergent memories of a scene from A Wolf At the Table in which Burroughs defends himself and his brother John Elder Robison from their father with a BB gun. After the jump, the two sons and their mother relate three different versions of the same sad tale.
Since the senior Robison died in 2005, he won't have a chance to refute Burroughs' portrait with a memoir of his own like the rest of his family. The eldest Robison was a popular professor of philosophy, respected by his colleagues and students, who suffered from severe psoriasis. Like his son, he was an alcoholic. The darker side of Professor Robison comes out in a particularly trying moment from A Wolf At the Table, as described by the Times:
...Mr. Burroughs describes a fight between his drunken father and his brother that took place when Mr. Burroughs was 10. Certain that it would end in one of their deaths, he runs to his brother’s room, grabs a rifle and then shoves it into John Elder’s hand, screaming, “Kill him, kill him, kill him.” John Elder raises the gun and points it until his father walks away. The next day, John Elder, who had left home for good, returns to teach Augusten how to fire a gun on his own so he can protect himself.
Burroughs' story is undercut by John Elder Robison's version, a rendering complicated by his Asberger's Syndrome, which causes him to struggle with a lack of empathy, among other symptoms.
On the phone Mr. Robison said, “I didn’t see that same scene as a particularly monstrous event.” The rifle was a BB gun, he said. A teenager “looks at that scene and it’s almost comical,” he said. But to a child, “it’s menacing, and his big brother seems able to protect him.” John Elder acknowledges that because of Asperger’s it is often difficult for him to decipher emotions and meaning and says he think his father possibly shared some of his autistic traits. “Sometimes I can’t see the subtleties of behavior,” he said. “My brother is the opposite of that. He’s overdramatic.”
Their mother has no memory of the gun incident or her husband dousing his cigarette on his son's forehead. She plans on weighing in on the rest of her son's book in her own forthcoming memoir.
Chapter Ten of A Wolf At The Door [Augusten.com, PDF]