Posted by: chartroose | March 26, 2008

Running With Scissors and the Current Memoir Hullabaloo


Augusten Burroughs, 2002, 319 p.

Since Running With Scissors has been dissected ad nauseum for quite a few years, I’m going to keep the review portion of this post short and sweet.  Here is my quickie review of R W S:

It was good. I recommend it. 

Augusten Burroughs and his publisher, St. Martin’s Press, were sued for defamation by the Turcottes, the dysfunctional family featured in Running With Scissors. The Turcottes were unable to disprove the veracity of Mr. Burroughs’ memoir, and the lawsuit was settled last August. Mr. Burroughs said that he felt vindicated, and called the settlement “a victory for all memoirists.” The words were barely out of his mouth before the fecal material really started to fly all over the place concerning memoirs and fabrication.

I read somewhere a couple of years ago that memoirs were becoming “the new fiction.” Now, in retrospect, I believe that truer words were never spoken. It seems like practically every other memoir that hits the bestseller lists these days is a total lie. In addition to James Frey’s mega-humiliation in 2006, several other fake memoir writers have recently been exposed.  Margaret B. Jones never belonged to a gang in Los Angeles, as she professed in Love and Consequences. She was raised by wealthy parents in Sherman Oaks and attended a tony private school. Mischa Defonesca wrote a book about being raised by wolves while she was in hiding during the Holocaust. She wasn’t even Jewish, and what idiot is going to believe that anyone is raised by wolves? Are we that stupid? According to a group of Australian journalists, Ishmael Beah’s bestseller, A Long Way Gone, about being forced to become a child soldier in Sierra Leone, is filled with inconsistencies regarding his parentage and the time he actually spent in the ranks.

A substantial portion of the reading public seems to think that memoirs are supposed to be truthful. Let me scoff at this misperception with a resounding guffaw: HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Anyone with two IQ points to rub together should’ve figured out long ago that memoirs, by their very definition, are not honest. They never were.

All memoirs are creative nonfiction. Every memoir is a lie because memories are subjective.  Our brains do strange things with our memories; as time passes, they become convoluted and a little blurred along the edges. They change to suit our purposes. Here’s an example: my paternal Grandfather was not a nice man.  He was a selfish, narcissistic philanderer. After his death, he suddenly became a saint in my Grandmother’s esteem. She developed “selective memory” concerning him, and only remembered the good things. So, knowing that memories are inaccurate, I always read memoirs with a healthy dose of skepticism. It would be dumb not to.

Anyway, back to the recent spate of lying memoirists and the lying publishers that publish them. They should be severely taken to task because these books are not even vaguely based on fact. It’s one thing to embellish being kissed passionately at your senior prom in the diary of your life. It’s another thing altogether to write that you walked into the gym with an AK-47 and blasted half your classmates into a million little pieces when you never even set foot in the city or the school where the alleged prom took place. We’ve been defrauded, and it’s a real bummer.

Perhaps we should file a class action lawsuit.



  1. Fabulous… I personally don’t get too caught up in the ‘truth’ of it all if it was fun to read. But this is a good reminder to be careful that just because I read it somewhere, doesn’t mean it’s true. THank you, Care

  2. Yep, Care, it’s better to be suspicious. I was just now reading about a woman who was scammed by a guy she met on the internet who gave her this huge sob story and bilked her out of thousands of dollars. I’m sure it happens all the time.

    People aren’t just fools, they’re damn fools!

  3. Like you, I’m willing to give a memoirist the right to get detailed about certain conversations (which no one would ever remember word for word), reflect a bit too much on setting and description (when we all know, they can’t really have remembered everything) but when they’re just writing fiction and passing it off as memoir, I get really annoyed.

    And I sometimes wonder if it isn’t because writers and publishers know that memoir will sell much more easily than fiction – just a theory.

  4. Verbivore, I think you’re right about memoirs selling better than fiction. I’ve heard that it’s true. Anything to make a buck. It’s too bad it’s the readers who have to pay!

  5. The allegation against Ishmael Beah isn’t that his memoir is “totally fabricated”, but that he exaggerates the extremity of the events he experienced.

  6. Hi rosabibi! I read that he lied about his parentage and was a child soldier for maybe a few months at most. So, it wasn’t totally “make-believe” but it was pretty close. I’ll have to change the wording a little bit. Thanks for pointing that out.

    That’s the problem, lying or even exaggerating a bit too much causes everything to snowball and become much bigger than it should be. It becomes like “the boy who cried wolf.” Nobody will ever believe a word you say about that subject, even if you really are telling the truth.

    Also, how much exaggeration is too much? Shouldn’t so called “memoirs” like his be called what they really are–fiction?

  7. I never finished “Running with Scissors.” Just didn’t care for it. However, I liked his brother’s memoir, “Look Me in the Eyes.” I don’t know how much of it is fiction, but it seems his autism may make him remember things better than most. I agree that it is unsettling to read a book that is supposedly non-fiction and find out later that it is blatantly untrue.

  8. I didn’t even know his brother wrote a book! I think RWS is kind of an acquired taste. There was this really graphic sexual part that kind of got to me, even though I’m pretty open about such things. I can see why he put it in there, though.

    You know, Framed, I think I’m going to lay off memoirs for a little while. I have enough to read anyway!

  9. […] More on memoir as creative fiction (regarding Running with Scissors)… […]

  10. […] tripathy (Asterix in Spain)94. Petunia (Love in the Time of Cholera)95. Stephen (Beyond Black)96. Chartroose (Running With Scissors)97. Tasses (Stealing Heaven by Elizabeth Scott)98. Tasses (The Looking Glass Wars by Frank […]

  11. […] reviews: Bookshelves of Doom | Bloody Hell, It’s a Book Barrage! (who is more elegant about the “memory is a lie” thing than I was) | | […]

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