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.