War of Words: Wounds from Running with Scissors Opened

Scissors

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]

Comments

  1. says

    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.

  2. Cory says

    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.

  3. 000000 says

    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.

  4. says

    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.

  5. Chris says

    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.

  6. says

    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.

  7. jjabely says

    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.

  8. says

    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.

  9. jjabely says

    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?

  10. Dan says

    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.

  11. hughman says

    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.

  12. says

    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.

  13. alan says

    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.

  14. jjabely says

    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.

  15. says

    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.

  16. says

    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.

  17. jjabely says

    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.

  18. Cory says

    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…

  19. Cory says

    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

    Wow boy, you have some very serious issues. Angry much???

  20. Rob says

    I don’t think it’s “telling” that someone has chosen to settle a lawsuit. That decision has more to do with anticipated lawyer bills than with the merits of their case.

    After all, BOTH sides have to agree to settle in order for it to happen, so would that mean that both sides feel they have no merit? Unlikely.

  21. jjabely says

    Maybe not, Rob, but keep in mind that the movie was about to open, prints were shipped, and it’s a hell of a lot less expensive for a movie company to settle a suit than to abruptly pull a release and likely lose their entire multi-million dollar investment in both the movie and the expensive ad campaign that was already well underway.

  22. jjabely says

    But really, the actual book, movie, and real-life people here are not what I think we’re truly discussing, but this: would you be angry if someone wrote a memoir that including horrible lies about you, and which everyone believed to be true?

    I love Andy’s blog, but his feeling that objecting to something like this is akin to “bitching and morning”…well, we’ll agree to disagree on this one.

    Happy VD everyone! :)

  23. Scan says

    That Vanity Fair article was horrible. Neither the writer nor the family bring up the fact that they let Augusten/Christopher be molested by the adopted “son”. Also, no one brought up the alleged rape of his mother by Dr. Finch/Turcotte. A main facet of the article was that Burroughs “missed the point, that we were a family”. I got that point, they were just a creepy, freaky family. Why not interview any of their old neighbors? I’d love to hear those stories!

  24. RJ says

    Wow, I had never heard of this author or his book before but after reading that Vanity Fair article, it seems to me the author Burroughs is rather delusional. He wrote about this awful family and the nightmares he had about them but thought they would love the way they were portrayed? Um, yeah.

  25. Sam says

    Folks. Keep in mind that the family is saying one thing completely different from Burroughs. I love how everyone says he lied based on their version…Oh, and he hasn’t settled…Sony settled regarding the movie, of which they own the rights. One more thing. This story was one or two Vanity Fairs ago.

  26. Wayne says

    The Turcottes ARE insane, and the house in the film is just about as bad as what they lived in when Augusten was living with them. I have cousins who lived right down the street from them and we visited several times each year. They were known throughout the community as the “Addams Family” and as kids we would dare each other to run up to the front door or try and go in through in open window…it was that freaky and wierd. The Turcottes want money (which is what they wanted/needed in the book/film too) and this is their new way of getting it. They fail to mention that Augusten was a minor when he lived with them, that their son slept with him, as well as attempts by their daughter, that drugs were all over the house…it’s one side of the story, just as Augusten’s story is only one-sided.

  27. Wayne says

    The Turcottes ARE insane, and the house in the film is just about as bad as what they lived in when Augusten was living with them. I have cousins who lived right down the street from them and we visited several times each year. They were known throughout the community as the “Addams Family” and as kids we would dare each other to run up to the front door or try and go in through in open window…it was that freaky and wierd. The Turcottes want money (which is what they wanted/needed in the book/film too) and this is their new way of getting it. They fail to mention that Augusten was a minor when he lived with them, that their son slept with him, as well as attempts by their daughter, that drugs were all over the house…it’s one side of the story, just as Augusten’s story is only one-sided.

  28. Wayne says

    The Turcottes ARE insane, and the house in the film is just about as bad as what they lived in when Augusten was living with them. I have cousins who lived right down the street from them and we visited several times each year. They were known throughout the community as the “Addams Family” and as kids we would dare each other to run up to the front door or try and go in through in open window…it was that freaky and wierd. The Turcottes want money (which is what they wanted/needed in the book/film too) and this is their new way of getting it. They fail to mention that Augusten was a minor when he lived with them, that their son slept with him, as well as attempts by their daughter, that drugs were all over the house…it’s one side of the story, just as Augusten’s story is only one-sided.

  29. thomas says

    I agree with Chris B. I do not consider there to be implicit in the mémoire genre a “pact” to represent reality objectively. Although we couldn’t necessarily go so far as to say that Burroughs’s text is “auto-fiction,” I don’t think the text needs to be categorized as such for us to understand that a mémoire is the product of a psychological stance different from that of an autobiography.

  30. Foul Well says

    How do you know the book was a lie? Are we just taking this crazy family’s word for it? It seems like the father–the head of this crazy family was pretty cracked. Who knows what all he got up to.

  31. stewart says

    (I Googled,here are some knowledgeable opinions on the controversy, and their links):

    …….”It’s an interesting article, but Vanity Fair blows
    the cover headline. Is Augusten Burroughs the Next James Frey?
    it asks, which means somebody’s asleep at the wheel,
    because Bissinger’s article doesn’t even make a clear case that Burroughs fabricated most of the important details in the story. The refutations are surprisingly weak, and Bissinger seems to be stretching his evidence.

    …”There is no doubt that Dr. Turcotte was a troublesome presence in Northampton until his death, in 2000. He had distinct notions about psychiatry, including allowing patients to live in the Turcotte house at times. He also had distinct notions about the free will of children, the right of young adolescents to make their own choices.His license to practice medicine was revoked by the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine for “gross misconduct,” which included allowing a male patient, Jonathan Frey,
    to assume guardianship of Theresa when she was 13;
    not becoming properly suspicious after there was abundant evidence
    that they had been having sexual relations; and soliciting money from
    Frey in the form of requests for “loans.”
    (It was Frey who was convicted, in 1982, of the statutory rape of Theresa.)

    …”John Robison, Burroughs’s older brother, has been a vigorous advocate for him,
    attesting to the truth of what Burroughs has written. In an interview with The Boston
    Globe last March, Robison said that he had witnessed some of the more sensational scenes described in the book the predatory behavior of the former patient of Dr. Turcotte’s who, according to the book, had an affair with Burroughs.
    “Anyone who reads the available public record about Turcotte will conclude that my brother’s book is eminently believable,” Robison told the Globe. ”

    ALSO…”The facts in the statutory rape case stand, and Theresa seems to be describing her feelings about Burroughs’s book rather than refuting any facts.
    We hear that Burroughs got the chronology wrong, that the child called Poo Bear
    was actually called Pooh Bear, that the kids never broke apart a ceiling in the kitchen. But we don’t hear clear refutations of the toilet divinations, the dog food chewing, the constant streams of ants in the kitchen sink,
    or (disturbingly) the other adult-teenager sex that Dr. Turcotte allowed to go on between his children and his patients, which included a relationship young Burroughs had with a much older patient as well.

    AND… “Although I’d only been in town a couple of years, I’d heard about Rodolph Turcotte. At one time he’d been the head of psychiatry at Northampton State Hospital, but he’d had his psychiatrist’s license taken away after sending his teenage daughter to live with an adult client. The man was subsequently convicted of
    statutory rape.”
    > http://www.litkicks.com/BeatPages/msg.jsp?what=TurcottesTwo
    > http://www.masslive.com/hampfrankplus/republican/index.ssf?/base/news-0/1123228273226020.xml&coll=1

    …As stated by someone else in Comments,
    none of the family members dispute that(her) rape, or even MENTION Burroughs own story of a similiar molestation by an adult member of the household…

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