The tension between “actual” memory and our translation of that memory into words is not, despite the public’s perennially fresh outrage, a new problem, nor one that has an easy answer. Every memoir depends on a loose cognitive partnership between notoriously sketchy processes: the subjectivity of memory itself, the spotty and biased power of recall, the translation of images into language. Memory is chaotic, nonsequential, and spotty; marketable narrative is easy, clean, and quick. You might say, in fact, that a certain low-grade lying basically defines the genre, and always has, all the way back to the very first memoirist: Saint Augustine, the fourth-century bishop of Hippo, who confessed, in his Confessions, that he was recording “not the events themselves … but words conceived from the images of those events.” (When I asked Burroughs if he got his first name from the memoiring saint, he said that if he had he “should be taken out back and shot in the fucking head. That would just be so horribly pretentious.”)
All of this is, by now, a very familiar can of worms to Augusten Burroughs. “We’re a binge culture,” he says. “The media will get on one topic and stay on that topic forever. I’m going to be asked about the veracity of my memoirs and the state of memoir when I’m 65. It will never, ever stop.” Still, he’s happy to make his position clear. He insists that Running With Scissors preceded the memoir boom—and that now, after a publishing craze brought on largely by his own success, the genre has spun out of control. “It’s just exactly like fucking puppy-mill puppies,” he says. “All of a sudden a dog will win Westminster and it will become the ‘It’ dog and you’ll see it in New York everywhere and it’ll be in all the pet stores, and what happens is you start off with a really solid, good breed—poodle is a perfect example. Very stable dogs, very good with children, very smart, the smartest breed. Very loyal. And then they get bred, and they get inbred, and they get inbred, and the genetics become weaker and weaker and you get hip dysplasia. Until what you end up with can’t even be called a poodle. That’s kind of what’s happened with memoir.”
“It doesn’t make me angry. It makes me feel incredulous. 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.’ ”
Burroughs says he rarely reads other memoirs, but when he does he expects the truth. “I find the privileged white girl writing about gangland morally corrupt,” he says. “I have a problem with that. I would feel manipulated. JT LeRoy? I would feel really violated. People sort of think now, not ‘Do I have a story to tell?’ but ‘Can I think of a story I could write and call a memoir?’ And it’s unfortunate because it becomes the focus in the media, and as a result I think there are a lot of incredible stories that may get overlooked because of the big memoir scandals. I mean, how would Bastard Out of Carolina do today, you know?”
(Bastard Out of Carolina, just for the record, is a novel.)
Burroughs responds to charges of fakery with a denial so bulletproof it almost feels suspicious in itself—it suggests either supreme heroic conviction or a deep, possibly even unconscious, self-deception. He insists, always, that he’s telling the absolute truth, even about the details of events that happened 30 years ago. And the bedrock of this defense is always his bionic memory, in which he seems to have total faith.
“I guess it’s unusual,” he says. “My brother thinks it’s because I have a little Asperger’s like him, and it’s an Aspergian trait. It’s an incredible benefit when I’m writing about my past. But it’s also a disadvantage in that it’s incredibly vivid.”
At the center of the skepticism about Burroughs’s credibility, even among his admirers, is his work’s relentlessly scenic quality. He never recounts dialogue in general terms or describes incidents vaguely. Even the most banal exchanges are quoted verbatim. In the new book, instead of summarizing a 30-year-old conversation with his mother, Burroughs re-creates it, word by word, gesture by gesture, to a degree that seems humanly impossible.
When I ask him how this works, he is open and adamant.
“Did I get every syllable right?” he says. “No, probably not. But that’s the gist of it. That’s how she spoke. Those are her inflections. And if it’s not exactly word for word, it’s certainly nobody else, and it’s certainly not my words in her mouth. Was there sun streaming in that day, the actual day that she told me about her marriage? Was the sun at a 47-degree angle? How the fuck would I know? But that’s my memory of that period with my mother painting, when the sun was low in the sky like that. I took a sky from one of hundreds of days that were all the same. But that’s the painting. I have it downstairs in my house. That’s the smell, that turpentine smell. If it wasn’t Tosca on the stereo it was La Traviata.