Burroughs says he never read the Vanity Fair article—in general, he avoids reading his press—but that it doesn’t bother him. “It didn’t have the impact they thought it would,” he says. “No one mentioned it to me. Only reporters. It didn’t build. It was like a nothing. There was nothing there.” I ask if he’d mind, given that we’re at Vanity Fair’s unofficial headquarters, responding to the article’s main points. He agrees.
I run through the accusations one by one: that Burroughs fudged the book’s timeline; that he never saw a 6-year-old nicknamed “Poo Bear” poop under the family piano; that there was no masturbatorium; that a shock-therapy machine the kids played with was actually an old vacuum cleaner missing a wheel; that Burroughs and one of the children did not tear down the kitchen ceiling. He responds, vehemently, to every charge.
“Well, no, that’s not true at all,” he says. “God no, I lived with them far longer. A year and a half, they said that? That’s weird. … It was not an old vac—I know a shock-therapy machine from an old vacuum cleaner, for God’s sake! That’s weird, that’s just a weird comment … Why would they deny that he has a masturbatorium? How does that harm them? If he were alive, he’d be the first person to tell you where it was. He’d sit right here and say of course it was my masturbatorium. So it’s just weird to me … Wow. Wow! I’m flabbergasted. Wow.”
His voice begins to fill the little restaurant.
As I watch Burroughs react, my polygraph needle begins to tremble again. Outraged denial is, of course, a reasonable response for an honest writer accused of lying. But is it even remotely possible that, after a well-publicized two-year trial in which his career and reputation hung in the balance, these allegations would come as a surprise to him? Can he possibly be “flabbergasted” by anything I’ve said?
I ask him if these accusations came up in court. He says he doesn’t remember. A minute later he says he thinks they probably did.
Soon he is borderline shouting about how ridiculous it would be for a writer seeking mainstream fame to describe not only a gay sexual relationship between a man and a young boy but “anal penetration!”
The new diners at the table next to us, a pair of quiet young gentlemen in nice sweaters, pause momentarily from their conversation about a Paris Review party.
I ask Burroughs if all of this makes him angry.
“It doesn’t make me angry,” he says. “It makes me feel incredulous. It’s a very arbitrary list of things. They’re reaching, grasping at straws. What it comes down to is they’re trying to portray me as a liar and say, ‘No, it wasn’t sunny that day, it was rainy. He lied. We want our money.’ ”
Does it ever make him doubt, even for a second, his account of things—or wonder if he might have just misunderstood as a kid?
“Oh, God, no,” he says. “How can I explain this? It’s not like writing about high school and talking about what yard line the cheerleaders stood at. High school for the most part is unexceptional. These were absolutely extraordinary circumstances. I mean, the terror of my mother going psychotic the way she did, being unable to raise me, and then the wildness of living in this house—it burns into your brain. If you had been on the Titanic when it sank, I promise you, I bet you every penny I have, you would know exactly what you were wearing, exactly who was standing next to you, what they were wearing, exactly what people were saying. You would know precisely which side of the lifeboat you climbed into, you would remember if you took your life jacket off or if you left it on, you would remember exactly how that ship sank. You just would. But if you took the Titanic and it didn’t sink, how much would you really remember? So it doesn’t make me second-guess my recollection of it. I don’t see how I could be wrong. It isn’t. It isn’t. I bet my life on it. I bet my life on it.”
The maître d’ comes over and asks him to lower his voice.
“I did not sit down and cleverly think of a story that I thought would be gripping and make me lots of money and famous,” he continues. “I sit down and I go back and I write the stories from my life. It is that simple. All the rest of it I leave to other people to talk about and debate.”
We do not order dessert.