Is Augusten Burroughs A Rat Fink?

Last week I published an interview with Susan Winters Smith, a Massachusetts writer and former patient of Dr. Rodolph Turcotte, the controversial psychiatrist depicted as a crazed patriarch by Augusten Burroughs in his bestselling memoir Running With Scissors. I had been vaguely following the legal case brought against Burroughs and St. Martin’s Press by the six children of the Turcotte family (most of whom were also rudely depicted in the book). But I’ve always been more interested in the human side of this strange family’s story than the legal side. As a member of a rather crazy family myself, I guess I relate to them.

So I was excited to pick up the new issue of Vanity Fair, which contains the first in-depth interview (complete with photographs) with the Turcotte siblings, two of whom were played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Evan Rachel Wood in the movie, as well as two of the late doctor’s grandchildren (Dr. Turcotte died in 2000).

Buzz Bissinger’s article tells their side of the story, and it features a touching plea for understanding by Theresa Turcotte, who had been Burroughs’ best friend (she is “Natalie” in Running With Scissors). The Turcotte siblings come off well in this article; they grew up in a household that Bissinger rightly compares to the Addams Family, but they survived and learned and adapted until they became smart, responsible adults — just regular people, who raise children and go to work like the rest of us. The Turcottes don’t understand why their private lives were suddenly transformed into a bestselling book by the once-close friend and adopted sibling they’d always trusted, who they now believe betrayed them beyond explanation.

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. For instance, Running With Scissors charges that Dr. Turcotte left an electroshock machine for the kids to play with. Here’s Bissinger’s explanation of the Turcotte’s refutation:

In interviews, the six Turcotte children stated that it was not an electroshock machine that was kept under the stairs but, rather, an old Electrolux vacuum cleaner that was missing a wheel.

Huh? Why do we care where an electroshock machine was kept, and why do we care if an Electrolux vacuum cleaner is missing a wheel? The relevant question is whether or not the Doctor had left an electroshock machine in the house for the kids to play with, and since nobody answers the question directly the reader can only assume that Burroughs is telling the truth.

This is squirmy journalism, and the Turcotte children deserve better. The story becomes heartbreaking (in the book, in the movie, and in this article) when Theresa faces up to the sad truth that her father seems to have been complicit in her own sexual abuse at a young age (a former patient of the Doctor’s, 21 years older than Theresa, was eventually convicted of statutory rape, and it also appears that the Doctor solicited money from the former patient). Theresa does not deny this story in this article, but she describes absolute shock and betrayal at the way Augusten Burroughs (who she’d known as a clever kid named Christopher Robison) had heartlessly used and exposed her own painful private history. She now says of the Running With Scissors portrayal:

… this is not about me. It’s just not about me. I wish that you could just step back in history and see who I was back then. It’s not me. It just wasn’t my family and it wasn’t me.

But 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.

Vanity Fair misses their lead, because Augusten Burroughs is not the new James Frey, but he may be the new Truman Capote. He’s a rat fink with the sincerest smile in the world, the kind of person who’d call you up to solicit secrets and never tell you he’s putting them in a book that’s going to make him famous and rich while tearing your heart out for the world to see. That’s the case against Augusten Burroughs: he’s got bad manners and he was a terrible friend to people who cared about him. But he doesn’t appear to be a liar, at least not on the basis of the prosecution case Buzz Bissinger phones in here. The Turcotte siblings deserve better treatment.

14 Responses

  1. Terrible friendsTerrible
    Terrible friends

    Terrible friends are the norm. All of my friends are terrible people. Unfortunately, they write until they drop. Fucking writers.

    Everything is material.


    No exceptions. Not one.

    Whether you write well. Or whether you write badly.

    Still. Everything is material.

    Most writers have no reason to live.

    We’re awful, terrible, mean, horrid, rabid, disgusting, vile human beings.

    I am.

    Completely, utterly revolting.

    Everything is material. I will use it. As I see fit.

    Someone could get hurt. I know.

    I will use it anyway.

    Why. I don’t know why. I don’t care to know why. It only is.

    Someone will get hurt. They always do.

    I am far more interested in being a writer than in being a nice person. I have never met a nice person anyway. Even one who goes to work every day and raises his children just like everyone else.

    Phooey. I do not go to work unless it’s my work and my children were raised in a house filled with writers, photographers, artists, dancers, actors, and bartenders. They survived.

    It’s all material. Even if that’s ruthless and it is. It’s all material and if it isn’t material I’ll make it material and there’s not a damn thing — you the reader — can do about it. You, the reader, just aren’t that important. You want to be. You are facilitated to believe in your importance. It is an illusion. You are irrelevant.

    Whenever I hear it articulated — you can’t write it like that — I think you wanna bet I can’t. Watch me.

    People are so disturbed by sex. The moral police are everywhere. Everything is material.

    Kunitz was doing a poetry woorkshop at the 92nd Street YMCA and made the following comment about writing poetry but I thought that when he said it the meaning could aptly apply to poetry and the art of telling stories. They are not entirely dissimilar.

    “The ideal is not even to care whether there’s an audience. The first task of the poet is to create the person who will write those poems. What you try to do with your life is transform it. And in poetry, the transformation of the life means that what you are concerned with is making a legend out of your life. And one’s whole life, all the years you spend in writing your poem, are years in which you are constructing that legend about yourself, which is not confession, and which is not autobiography. And if you create that legend about yourself, which is meaningful both to yourself and to others, people will want to read what you have to say. Because we’re hungry for those secret truths about experience, which nobody else gives us, except through the medium of art.” — Stanley Kunitz

    Everything and everyone is material. There are no exceptions.

  2. Educated Cult LeadersWhat’s
    Educated Cult Leaders

    What’s interesting to me about Turcotte is that he represents a type – the educated version of the religious cult leader (a la Waco) – a powerful, charismatic person who surrounds himself (it’s always a man) with weak-minded people and helpless children and practices his crackpot ‘theories’ – which usually include illegal sex in some form.

    One could include Leary and Gestalt guru Fritz Perls. The scenario is always the same.

    Has anyone done a study of the personality type who ends up like Turcotte? They are smart, educated, egomanical, controlling — what else?

  3. Dan — was Fritz Perls also
    Dan — was Fritz Perls also accused of bad practices? I hadn’t heard that — please provide details if you have any. Interestingly, I compared Rodolph Turcotte to Fritz Perls in last week’s interview with Susan Winters Smith, but I was referring to their common approach to psychology, not to any alleged problems.

  4. I really like that quote from
    I really like that quote from Kunitz, man! It speaks to me big-time.

    Thomas Wolfe pissed off the residents of Asheville, NC when he published Look Homeward, Angel in 1929. Most of the characters in that novel were based on real people from Wolfe’s hometown. Some of them even sent him death threats. He didn’t feel safe in returning to Asheville until 1937.

    By the way, when Running With Scissors first came out, I thought it was written by the son of William S. Burroughs, with scissors being a reference to the cut-up technique. How did Christopher Robinson become Augustus Burroughs?

  5. Levi -Perls often had sex
    Levi –

    Perls often had sex with patients, usually married women but also young girls (not underage that I know of). As soon as he could he established his own operation in a former motel and surrounded himself with disciples. He claimed to have an MD from a university in Europe, never verifed, and could never legally practice medicine in the US. He touted a PhD from a California diploma mill.

    There is no evidence that he ever had training in any form of medicine or psychotherapy.

    Remember Bruno Bettelheim? He ruined many lives and families with his crackpot theories on autism (blaming the mother). Interesting bio of him states that he had no training — worked as a lumber salesman in pre-war Europe – claimed that his papers had been lost. Interestingly, Bettelheim also had an ‘institute’ where children lived in and went to ‘therapy.’ Several women have come forward to say that he molested them in their beds as kids.

    R.D. Laing is a whole other story (he died in an asylum).

    What’s to be learned here? Stick with conventional, credentialed therapists. Write poetry. Be careful who you screw. I dunno!

  6. You are all hereby invited to
    You are all hereby invited to visit Dr. Bill’s Night Moves Therapy Compound. All we require to begin registration are the routing numbers to your bank accounts.

    Attend such workshops as Bulk Marriage Ceremony, Removing a Door From Its Hinges, Freakout Sessions, and More!

    Please bring no luggage or food. We supply the robes, bread, water, and anti-venom.

  7. So what would your legend be?
    So what would your legend be? White guilt?

    Fortunately I, the unimportant reader, can choose which “legends” contribute anything meaningful to my otherwise unimportant life.

    Roland Barthes’s “Morte d’ Author” may or may not be your cup of tea, but I think of it and chuckle every single time you unconsciously (and consciously) try to give meaning to your previous “works” in the above screed.

    “Sing your life,
    any fool can think of
    words that rhyme.
    Many others do,
    why don’t you?
    Do you want to?”

  8. Do you know what you are? You
    Do you know what you are?
    You are what you is
    You is what you am
    A cow don’t make ham…
    You ain’t what you’re not
    So see what you got
    You are what you is
    An’ that’s all it ’tis

    -Frank Zappa

  9. Turcotte vs a TraitorI knew
    Turcotte vs a Traitor

    I knew Rodolph Turcotte fairly well and met most of his family during the mid 1990’s. The good doctor was about as eccentric as one can be without being either locked up or run out of town. Although I have never met Burroughs much of what he describes in his book jibes perfectly with things Turcotte openly shared with me when relating his and his family’s history. However, until someone tells me exactly what purpose is served by ‘Scissors’ I find Burroughs a disgusting exploiter.

    Turcotte freely admitted his thirteen year-old daughter had sex with an older former patient and certain events Turcotte shared with me about that relationship proved to me that the Doctor was irresponsible as a parent and probably could have been indicted and convicted as an accomplice to the whole sad affair. In fact, the perpetrator was convicted and jailed for his actions. At times I found Turcotte to be bizarre and irresponsible.

    But…there is no valid reason for Burroughs to have trashed this family as he has done…except for profit and the sick glee of seeing them suffer. If he feels somehow fulfilled by publishing the tawdry details of his own sex life, fine; leave other people out of it. In my opinion Burroughs is gossip-mongering monster and his publisher is just as guilty of the crime of character assassination as he is.

    I do not expect the family to admit the truthfulness of Burrough’s tale, partially because his apparent fabrications and distortions give them a way to establish his dishonesty and thus shroud themselves in the victim’s cloak but also because who they are now and how they live now is what truly matters. They did not volunteer for birth into the Turcotte zoo.

    For all the criticisms of Turcotte heard around the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, many justified, there is one compelling fact that Burroughs and his publisher seem to have mislaid: Rodolph Turcotte practiced psychiatry for decades and he returned scores of profoundly troubled people to productive lives…in all his years in practice he lost not one patient to suicide. In some bizarre way, and he was nothing if not bizarre, Turcotte was a genius. We should all be so nuts.

    Turcotte is dead, as is his adopted brother who served as a catholic priest for thirty-five years and for who for twenty years teamed with Turcotte to save many troubled students at U Mass. I also knew this priest well and found him a holy, intelligent and genuinely remarkable man. Thousands mourned his passing two years ago. It does seem odd, does it not, that Burroughs did not publish his bile until after the two men he so completely vilifies have died. A decent man who lived what Burroughs claims to have experienced and who had even a tiny shred of decency in him would welcome the normalization of the Turcottes’ lives and leave them unmolested by global publicity in their life course…perhaps that is the key to understanding Burroughs…he has no decency in him. The funny thing is, both Turcotte and Fr. Joe Quigley would forgive him, without any hesitation.

    Turcotte’s attitudes and general approach to life were not my cup of tea and we parted ways with no small measure of tension. I last saw him by chance when he was wandering around a courthouse parking lot a hundred miles from Northampton putting leaflets on car windshields inviting people to attend a rally to support repeal of U.S. drug laws. He had become involved in this cause because one of his patient/friends was hiding his son…the young man was facing felony drug charges in the mid-west for dealing crack cocaine…but of course Turcotte saw this creep as the victim of unfair laws. I feel very strongly that there was a battle being waged between two women to determine who would be the keeper of his legacy and Turcotte delighted in watching these two people go at each other. He was perversely fascinated and entertained by other people’s anger. “Well, Miss A really went at Miss B today, screamed at her for an hour in the office, called her a selfish bitch. Wonderful, just wonderful…such anger…it is so healing, you know!”

    To call Rodolph Turcotte complex is akin to describing the pyramids as interesting. But to trash his family five years after his death is purely evil. Is it insensitive of me to wonder how things might have turned out for Burroughs had the Turcotte family not welcomed him into there chaotic but sheltering world? No good deed goes unpunished!

  10. Thanks for this, gadfly.
    Thanks for this, gadfly. Your summary seems very reasonable to me.

  11. I wondered when the gadfly
    I wondered when the gadfly was going to emerge. He certainly could write his own book on Dr. Turcotte, and it would be as unique as his relationship with the Doc. Like all of the many stories and books that have been written, and may be written about the colorful Doctor T, it would of course be framed in the gadfly’s own parameters of perspective and prejudice. What is the truth about the Doctor? Each reader will decide for herself. Gadfly, let’s do lunch.

  12. This is absolutely
    This is absolutely ridiculous. I’m sorry, but Augusten Burroughs did not fabricate his story. I’m sure not all quotations are 100% accurate and word-for-word, but I’m sure all the main facts are there and true. If the Turcotte family is embarrassed, they shouldn’t have brought it up. I would never have known who the real Finches are if they hadn’t brought up a law suit. They brought it on themselves, sorry. Burroughs can write whatever he wants as long as he isn’t lying & denying and so far we have no proof that he is.

  13. Also, this was his family and
    Also, this was his family and his life and his growing up. He can’t help it if they were there — that was the doing of his own crappo parents and with the agreement of the fictional Finch family. It is sad that bad things happened to people, but if the Doctor raised the people he tried to raise, then they should be aware that there no reason to be ashamed of someone having harmed you when you are too young to know any better. If the man wanted to write a memoir, he either had to include these people or pull a James Frey and make everything up. On a couple of reads of this and his second book, I think he treated them the way he treats himself — just puts it out there and doesn’t make sweeping judgments. I can’t imagine why he shouldn’t have written a book if that’s what he needed/wanted to do and I can’t imagine who would populate the book if not the people from his actual growing up!

  14. Burroughs was an angry little boy who hated his father, so he took it out on the man in his life that was a father figure. His mother was a lesbian crackpot, and he became the stereotypical angry gay boy.
    No family is normal. Seems he got off on explain how he was throat fucked, which is another fabrications, as no 13 year old boy can take a throat fucking without choking and dying like he explained the did, when looking at “the triangle”

    He’s an opportunist and sensationalized everything.

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