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War of Words: Wounds from Running with Scissors Opened


I've heard about the lawsuit filed by the Turcottes, the family depicted in Augusten Burroughs' best-selling memoir Running with Scissors, on and off for years. Apparently it was settled out of court prior to the release of the film that was based on the memoir. Now, the Turcottes, depicted in the memoir as the Finches, have their say in the latest issue of Vanity Fair. Here's the article in a nutshell:

"The Turcottes say the betrayal they felt was monumental, given that in their estimation they had opened up their hearts to Burroughs in the 1970s and 1980s when he was lonely and afraid and suicidal, had loved him, had seen the seed of something brilliant in him, had laughed at the stories that came from his vivid imagination and his propensity to exaggerate, had given him money, and had provided him with the sense of connection that Burroughs himself, in a letter to a family member, had said he hungered for, only to read about themselves years later—in a book they say they knew nothing about—portrayed in a way they felt was cruel and remarkably malicious and false in close to two dozen instances."

Though the family bitches and moans about how humiliating their whole ordeal has been, I find it telling that even with the lawsuit settled they decide to drag it out in all its sorry detail.

ADDENDUM: To clarify, the family's suit against SONY has been settled. Their suit against the publisher may apparently still be pending.

Ruthless with Scissors [vanity fair]

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  1. Um, the latest issue of "Vanity Fair"??? I've had that one for months...I knew "Vanity" takes a long time to come out with new issues, but damn!

    Posted by: FanGirlHater | Feb 14, 2007 2:32:10 PM

  2. In any case, it's now online.

    Posted by: andy | Feb 14, 2007 2:33:44 PM

  3. I found this story compelling (it was in the January Vanity Fair, this could be an old link). When I read it, I was pretty sympathetic to the family in that many of the aspects of the story could plainly be shown to have been made up or misremembered by Burroughs. I'm sure a lot of it is true, too. But then I think if you're writing a memoir with made-up stuff to hammer home the points you're going for, you should call it a novel, and if you're going to protect people's identities, you should make an honest effort to do so instead of teasingly letting info slip out until they're very identifiable. The family is now so known they have no reason to shut up and go away to salvage their pride. It makes sense to me that they'd go ahead and allow the PR to try to help fuel their case. Though it does seem there's something amiss when the only people deserving of being sued are the ones with a mess of money.

    Posted by: Matthew Rettenmund | Feb 14, 2007 2:41:51 PM

  4. MATTHEW: I agree completely. I never knew any of this untiil just reading Andrew's post, but assuming it is true why did the author use their actual names and not aliases? If they did take him in and treat him like family, why did he disrespect them by writing a "Princess Diana-esque" tell all novel? Especially as "Running With Scissors is such a recognized writing, I would be personally offended and embarassed if someone I took in as the Turcottes wrote a novel about my family, even if parts of it were only true, and never once mentioned it to me or consulted with me for my approval - that's tantamount to a slap on the face. The general population does not know what is fact and what is fiction.

    Posted by: Cory | Feb 14, 2007 3:01:49 PM

  5. I'm totally in the family's corner. If you're going to write fiction, don't call it non-fiction. Period.

    Posted by: jjabely | Feb 14, 2007 3:15:49 PM

  6. Why shouldn't they speak out if they want to? The suit is a means of holding Burroughs accountable. The article is a means of repairing their reputation publicly. If I didn't know better, I'd think this post was about Jennifer Holiday.

    Posted by: 000000 | Feb 14, 2007 3:18:31 PM

  7. Cory, Burroughs DID use an alias. In the book, they are named Finch. The only reason anyone outside of Massachusetts has ever associated the Turcottes with this book is because they keep bitching about it to the press. And it's been widely reported that within the town they were long regarded as crazies before Burroughs published one word.

    JJABELY, Burroughs never called the book non-fiction. It's a memoir, not the same thing as a non-fiction book. There's a critical difference.

    Posted by: chrisb | Feb 14, 2007 3:28:28 PM

  8. I dont know how they can ever prove any of this. To him, that is what happened. If i were to write a memoir about my childhood, id write about how I had a neglectful father who I thought hated me because he was always away. If my dad were to write a memoir, he'd write about how he had to work all the time to support the family he loved so much. Its all about perception, and no perception is wrong.

    Posted by: Chris | Feb 14, 2007 3:32:26 PM

  9. CHRISB: I don't agree that there is a critical difference between a memoir and non-fiction. I think when a reader picks up someone's memoir or autobio, they are under the impression it's all true save for any misremembered tidbits here and there. Also, I'm pretty sure part of the reason the family is peeved is that the book has many clues as to who they really are; I think one is their physical location. But regardless, it's not fair to say they would have been wholly anonymous except for their own bitching. Not to knock the author, even; he's clearly talented and who knows? they might've been nightmares. But if so, then call them nightmares, name their names and back it up. Or do a roman a clef/novel/whathaveyou and fictionalize it. I think it's cleaner than what happened.

    Posted by: Matthew Rettenmund | Feb 14, 2007 3:37:18 PM

  10. ChrisB, the dictionary definition of a "memoir" is "a historical account or biography written from personal knowledge or special sources." It describes "non-fiction" as: "prose writing that is based on real events, and real people, such as biography or history."

    Kindly explain the difference. If it quacks like a duck, it's likely a duck.

    If you make up whole elements of a memoir - events that have no basisdd in fact - than it is not a memoir, much less non-fiction.

    Moreover, the law makes no distinction in terms of libel-in-non-fiction suits between memoirs and non-fiction, since both are presenting themselves to the public as "true."

    Obviously, Burroughs is deluded and a slimeball.

    Posted by: jjabely | Feb 14, 2007 3:39:40 PM

  11. Matthew, I don't know you, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the distinction between memoir and autobiography as clarified by Gore Vidal, not to mention numerous other literary giants, carries a bit more weight than the uninformed ramblings you've posted in the comments of a gay news blog. Call me crazy.

    Posted by: chrisb | Feb 14, 2007 3:46:32 PM

  12. JJABELY, did you just use to define an entire literary genre? Gosh, that's awfully precious.

    Posted by: chrisb | Feb 14, 2007 3:51:21 PM

  13. Agustin Burroughs just gives me the creeps. He seems like a narcissistic(sp?) prick!

    Posted by: Lito S | Feb 14, 2007 3:55:36 PM

  14. ChrisB. You can quote as many literary authors as you like - Gore Vidal amongst them - but the law recognizes no distinction between memoir and non-fiction. Period. Which is why Burroughs' representatives quickly settled this case.

    If they had not, Burroughs' memoir would have been held up against the real-life events that his memoir describes, and he and his publisher would have been found guilty of libel. It's pretty simple. Memoir and non-fiction equals "true." Maybe not to Gore Vidal, but it does to the PUBLIC.

    I do disagree with one thing in the article, however, that a memoirist has a "moral obligation" to let people know he's writing about them. Let's say, for example, that you were raped by a priest as a 14 year old and you're now an adult and writing a memoir about it. If it's all true, why do you have to alert the priest - or anyone, really?

    Posted by: jjabely | Feb 14, 2007 3:59:21 PM

  15. Is he allowed to write whatever he wants to? Yes, of course. And is Burroughs an extremely talented writer? Again, yes.

    But is it kind of slimey to write something that's basically fictitious and then relabel it a "memoir" because you know it'll get more attention that way? Even if that means claiming the people who raised you were sadistic, perverted freaks?

    You bet your ass it is.

    Posted by: Dan | Feb 14, 2007 4:15:05 PM

  16. This family is a bunch of whiners.

    Posted by: Joe | Feb 14, 2007 4:15:32 PM

  17. of course this continued RWS publicity has "NOTHING" to do with the fact that Burrough's younger brother just sold a book for a large sum about his growing up. oh no, "nothing" at all.

    also, i'm so sure, "NOTHING" to do with RWS coming out on DVD recently.

    Posted by: hughman | Feb 14, 2007 4:20:28 PM

  18. JJABELY, so the law has the final say in this matter? Interesting. I suppose you don't believe gays should be allowed to marry either? And in some states can be fired from their jobs simply because they're gay? Hey, that's what your precious law says.

    As with many, many other matters, the government and it's arbitrary laws are lagging behind when it comes to defining genres of literature.

    If the law had any actual bearing on the literary world, our libraries would be filled with half as many books.

    Posted by: chrisb | Feb 14, 2007 4:28:20 PM

  19. I put down the book since it reeked of magical realism to me. I love magical realist fiction, but I hate authors who write it while claiming to write a memoir.

    Burroughs is a good storyteller, but to claim this is a memoir is a bitter little nonsense.

    I reluctantly went to see the movie with some friends, and walked out.

    Real life is more interesting than this.

    Posted by: alan | Feb 14, 2007 4:35:38 PM

  20. ChrisB. The law is actually pretty easy going in these matters - except when you outright lie under the guise of "truth." Why do you think James Fray took such a pounding?

    Try this on. Let's say that I wanted to write something about you. A biography of you. I gather up as much information as a I can, and though I suspect some of it might be incorrect, I let it go to print - complete with the statement that you like to be double-fisted and pissed on. Let's assume this isn't true (for the sake of argument).

    Would you be so easy-going about the distinction between memoir and non-fiction in this instance? Would you sue? Likely you would (in the case that you do not, for example, like to be double-fisted and pissed on) (I use this crude example to make a point, since it's comparable to what Burroughs did).

    Sometimes just stepping into other people's shoes can make things a lot clearer. How would you feel if someone outright lied about you in a memoir or bio?

    At the same time, if I decided to write a fictional bio of you - I changed your name, and all identifying things about you - and labeled the book as fiction, you could try to sue me, but you wouldn't win, since fiction is "made up." Even the case against "Primary Colors," a thinly fictionlized novel about Clinton's campaign, lost in court, because the law recognizes fiction as "made up" and memoir or non-fiction as "true."

    As to your mention of gay rights, I assume you mention this because you're emotionally worked up, or because you're trying to wedge in another issue in order to distract from the fact that you - for some strange reason - cannot admit that if someone published a memoir stating that you enjoyed being double-fisted and pissed on, you wouldn't be mad, and maybe, just maybe, moved to file suit.

    Posted by: jjabely | Feb 14, 2007 4:43:32 PM

  21. Double-fisted and pissed on?

    Wow, I suppose being too stupid to understand the difference between memoir and autobiography is easily accompanied by the maturity of a second-grader. Thanks for making my point for me and reminding me why I don't bother arguing literary principles with lesser minded folks.

    Posted by: chrisb | Feb 14, 2007 4:55:38 PM

  22. HUGHMAN: I agree with you; I doubt this has nothing to do with those things, but I don't see how it affects the argument. I'm pretty sure they want money. I think they're plainly asking for it.

    CHRISB: I don't understand where the vitriol comes from; I just disagreed with you, politely. Even though I like Gore Vidal, no opinion he's ever uttered is any more important than mine or yours or the next person's, I'm in no way uninformed, and your entire line of argument in this thread is disproportionately smug. I mean, you're attacking my comments AND this mere gay news blog, and yet here you are, bitching about them, and on it, respectively. Why are you so invested in the argument, as if anyone who disagrees with you even slightly is your polar opposite and the winner gets listed in the history books as smartest person ever born?

    Augusten Burroughs writes a memoir. Teri Hatcher writes an autobiography. Mrs. McGreevey writes a tell-all. Very different books, slightly different categorizations (for literary and marketing purposes), same expectation: True stuff inside. Just the way I see it. Happy Valentine's Day.

    Posted by: Matthew Rettenmund | Feb 14, 2007 4:59:04 PM

  23. ChrisB. I apologize for offending your delicate sensitivities.

    But you still haven't answered my basic question. I'll re-pose it in a G-rated fashion:

    Wouldn't you be mad if someone outright lied about you in a memoir? And then it became a best-seller? And written about in "People?" And sold to Hollywood? And everyone believed horrible things about you?

    Or would you state - as you basically do above - "Gosh, I wouldn't care at all, because it's not non-fiction, after all, and I, for one, make a critical distinction between memoir and non-fiction. Just like Gore Vidal does."

    So which is it, ChrisB? If someone published inflammatory lies about you in a successfully published memoir, wouldn't you be angry? Answer honestly, if you can at this point.

    Posted by: jjabely | Feb 14, 2007 5:05:37 PM

  24. CHRISB: You had me up until you made it personal. What is that about? Why make this discussion personal and start slamming people? Is it because they have valid points you can't argue and as a last recourse you have to slam someone via the internet? How sad for you...

    Posted by: Cory | Feb 14, 2007 5:31:37 PM

  25. Honestly, if anything, I would be pissed that I didnt get any of the money.

    Posted by: Kit | Feb 14, 2007 5:35:02 PM

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