JACKI LYDEN, host:
In literature there are few mothers as monstrous as the one in the memoir Running With Scissors. Augusten Burroughs writes of his mother as a woman so cold and self-absorbed that she gives away her young son to her psychiatrist. Now a film version is about to be released in theaters, with Annette Bening as the mother. NPR correspondent Joseph Shapiro and producer Tracy Wahl went to find the real mother who inspired the story. They got a rare interview and discovered something about memory, truth and storytelling.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Before we get to how the son defines the mother, start with the way Margaret Robison defines herself. She's a writer. She uses words to describe her world and make sense of her life - in poetry.
Ms. MARGARET ROBISON (Writer): This is a small song so soft you can barely hear it. It doesn't want to disturb this nice quiet.
SHAPIRO: On a rainy day we found Margaret Robison at her home in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. It's a postcard-perfect town of flowers and bridges at the foothills of the Brookshire Mountains. Robison sits on her back porch, a favorite place for writing her poems.
Ms. ROBISON: You think the walls of the room hold these stories in silence and the ghosts muffle their moans.
SHAPIRO: Margaret Robison speaks with a small, soft voice, the result of a stroke. She sits in her wheelchair and looks out at the Deerfield River, pockmarked by rain.
Ms. ROBISON: I've lain a long time listening to the sound of my breathing, feeling the rise and fall of my belly in this great sea of silence. Silence, mother of all seas, hold me, hold me again.
SHAPIRO: Robison reaches for a small brass bell to signal her personal care attendant. She's cold. She wants him to bring her inside for a cup of tea. In her poems, Margaret Robison describes her recovery from stroke, and before that about the time she spent in a psychiatric hospital. But it's not her writing, it's her son's words, angry words, that have come to define her. Running With Scissors is one of the bestselling memoirs of all time. On NPR's Morning Edition four years ago, Augusten Burroughs read from it.
Mr. AUGUSTEN BURROUGHS (Author): My mother began to go crazy. Not crazy in a let's paint the kitchen bright red sort of way, but crazy in a gas oven, toothpaste sandwich, I am God sort of way.
SHAPIRO: This is the man Margaret Robison calls Chris. That's the name she gave her son at birth. He was 18 when he started calling himself Augusten Burroughs, before he moved to California, before he worked as an advertising copywriter, before his famous memoir.
Ms. ROBISON: First of all, Chris is Chris to me. Augusten Burroughs is a fiction to me. I know a little bit about Augusten Burroughs. I met him in San Francisco when Chris called me and asked me to come. And he was lost, he said. And I met Augusten Burroughs there, but Augusten Burroughs and Chris are not quite the same.
SHAPIRO: Robison's eyes burn, her gaze is intense. She's 70. Her left side is paralyzed. In her wheelchair, her body sags. Her hair is gray. Her house is like a tiny jewel box. It's two jumps from the front door to the back door. Every bit of wall space, every shelf is filled with religious icons and colorful artwork, some her own paintings. There are a few photos of her famous son as a playful child, as a serious adult. Robison says she hasn't seen him since the book came out, even though he lives in a nearby town. Sometimes he sends an e-mail.
SHAPIRO: Did you read his book?
Ms. ROBISON: I scanned it. Actually, he had read a lot of it to me. He didn't read the things he didn't want me to know about me.
SHAPIRO: There was a time when she was the only published author in the family. She says she's the one who gave her son the courage to try getting published. By his own account, he was an alcoholic back then. Robison says she typed up 200 of his poems with the one hand she could still use after her stroke, that she sent his poems off to publishers and got his first work into print.
Ms. ROBISON: You see, Chris and I used to be wonderful writing companions. We critiqued each other's work. At the time we were talking every day, maybe two or three times a day.
SHAPIRO: In Running With Scissors, Burroughs writes that he was just a kid when his mother gave him away to live with her very bizarre psychiatrist, and just 13 when he started having sex with a 33-year-old pedophile who also lived there. Burroughs says his mother paid no attention to him because she was too busy dreaming of one day becoming a famous poet and writer.
Since the people who bought that book, they're saying, oh, that's the woman who gave her son away to here psychiatrist. That's the self-absorbed egotistical mother who abandoned her son, right?
Ms. ROBISON: Some people will say that. Other, more perceptive people, will say other things.
SHAPIRO: What do you hope the perceptive people understand?
Ms. ROBISON: I'm not going to say a lot about Chris's book.
SHAPIRO: And you didn't have to invite us in here. And you knew we were going to ask you some of these questions...
Ms. ROBISON: Of course, of course.
SHAPIRO: But she will go as far as saying she was hurt by her son's words. Somebody else told the story of your life. Your son.
Ms. ROBISON: No, he didn't. It's not my story.
SHAPIRO: But Margaret Robison won't tell her story of that time. She won't say what did or didn't happen 30 odd years ago. There are more generous explanations, that she was struggling with her own mental illness, and that her son, by moving in with the doctor, could transfer to a better school. Still, Robison offers no defense, no mitigating circumstances for her conduct as a mother.
Ms. ROBISON: I have had had to forgive myself for many things, to forgive my son. I have worked a long time with forgiveness.
SHAPIRO: The family of the psychiatrist says Burroughs made up events to make the book more shocking and more marketable. They've sued him. Margaret Robison says that's something she wouldn't do.
Ms. ROBISON: First of all, he's my son. And I love him with all my heart.
SHAPIRO: Then she says something even more unexpected.
Ms. ROBISON: That book of Chris's offered me the opportunity to grow spiritually in a way that nothing had offered me before. I'm grateful for that book. Well, I'm grateful for the opportunity that it gave me to grow spiritually.
SHAPIRO: She's decided there's no point to rehash the past. Instead, she speaks of hope for reconciliation.
Ms. ROBISON: I love my family. The most important things in my life are peace and harmony. I've come to joy and celebrate that and wish that for my son.
SHAPIRO: At this intense moment in our conversation, the mood is suddenly broken. The front door swings open. It's a friend.
Ms. MARY JEAN DEVLIN (Neighbor): Hi, sweetheart.
Ms. ROBISON: Hi, Mary.
SHAPIRO: Mary Jean Devlin's come to visit.
Ms. DEVLIN: Well, you look elegant for the radio.
SHAPIRO: You might expect the woman as described in Running With Scissors would be reclusive and isolated, someone with no friends. It turns out that's not the case at all. She's got longtime friends, mostly women, some men. They're fiercely loyal. Some know she's the mother in Running With Scissors, some don't. It doesn't matter to them. The Margaret Robison they describe is warm, generous and wise. Debbie Yaffee has known Robison for years, but she heard about Running With Scissors only recently.
Ms. DEBBIE YAFFEE (Friend of Ms. Robison): I read that book and I just was broiling. I was broiling. I was so angry that, you know, that he would do this - just this lopsided view making her look so terrible.
SHAPIRO: She said that to her friend Margaret.
Ms. YAFFEE: She just like laughed because she's like, well, that's just, you know, her son. And she truly, truly had no sense of upset, anger, oh, he's nasty. Nothing.
SHAPIRO: We talk outside in front of Robison's gray weather-beaten plank house, past the bamboo wind chimes at the end of the long wheelchair ramp, its railing wrapped with bright blue morning glory. There, at the street, is a wood box on a pole. It's the poetry box. Every day there's one of Robison's poems tacked up inside the glass frame for anyone who passes by to read.
Ms. KATHLEEN O'ROURKE (Neighbor): I look for them. I read them several times.
SHAPIRO: Kathleen O'Rourke discovered the poetry box on her walks into town. Under the box there's a drawer with pencil and paper. One day she left a note.
Ms. O'ROURKE: I was a fan. And I wrote a comment.
SHAPIRO: What did you write?
Ms. O'ROURKE: I love having poetry to read on my walk. And I'll make sure I bring my glasses every time.
SHAPIRO: O'Rourke and Robison became friends. O'Rourke's a nurse and she teaches students getting certified as nurse aides. She reads them Robison's poems about her stroke and about being rushed to the hospital.
Ms. O'ROURKE: (Reading) It was your face that mattered there in the emergency room, not the faces of doctors with their crisp white jackets and personal stethoscopes, cold against the heart.
SHAPIRO: Nurse aids work for little pay and get little respect.
Ms. O'ROURKE: (Reading) After the paramedics left, I lay stripped of clothes and cold in a flimsy hospital gown, teeth chattering from shock. Your face beside my bed was acknowledgement of my fear.
SHAPIRO: O'Rourke says Robison's poetry connects these nurse aids to their patients.
Ms. O'ROURKE: Often they don't feel capable because they don't know all this emergency, emergency stuff that the paramedics and the nurses and the doctors know. And they think they're not important. And Margaret's poem points out how important that person is that takes your hand, that looks at you amid the flurry that's going on around your body.
SHAPIRO: The next morning we went back up the wheelchair ramp to Margaret Robison's house.
Ms. ROBISON: You said yesterday, and I don't remember your words - probably I don't want to remember them - well, what about, you know, people thinking that your this hideous woman?
SHAPIRO: It's been bugging her that I questioned whether she'd really found peace and forgiveness or was just in denial about her hurt.
Ms. ROBISON: I can do nothing about what people think or feel or interpret, and that's not my job - not to get all involved in defending myself. My job is to live my life.
SHAPIRO: There are moments when Margaret Robison's peace seems fragile. Running With Scissors makes fun of her as a writer, yet she gave the filmmakers permission to use some of her poetry. She says she has no intention of seeing the movie unless her son comes to take her. She seems proud of his success.
Ms. ROBISON: At this point, Running With Scissors, the book and the movie, are a great part of Chris's life. But it's part of his life. It's not a part of my life. That book really touches me very little. My focus is my, you know, on my spiritual growth and largely through poetry. And that is what my life is about. That plus, certainly, to do everything I can to hold my family in love.
SHAPIRO: We tried to interview Augusten Burroughs. An agent for the writer responded right away. He wanted to know if Margaret Robison was cooperating with our story. We said yes. Despite our repeated attempts, we never got an interview with Augusten Burroughs.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
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LYDEN: To hear more of Margaret Robison's poetry, go to our Web site, npr.org. That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. From NPR News, I'm Jacki Lyden.
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