RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
NPR's Lynn Neary has the story.
LYNN NEARY: Memoirs, says Lee Gutkind, have to be true. But, says Gutkind - a professor at Arizona State University and a specialist in creative nonfiction - you can't apply journalistic standards to a memoir. There's a difference between facts and a truth.
P: The truth is what you feel and what you see, but it's your own personal truth and it is not necessarily factually accurate. And it's not necessarily the truth that other people have possessed, and other people discussed. It's your story; that's what a memoir is.
NEARY: Here's a truth: Augusten Burroughs is a stranger to Margaret Robison. The fact is, she knew her son as Chris Robison, and she has fond, warm memories of him. But the book he wrote under the name Augusten Burroughs hurt her deeply. These days, the two don't talk to each other, and Burroughs doesn't want to talk about his mother's memoir, either. He did speak about her a few years back, in an interview with Terry Gross on FRESH AIR.
MONTAGNE: My mother, you know, was always very exuberant. You know - she would paint and if she wasn't painting, she would be writing. And if she wasn't writing, she would spend hours and hours doing a pen-and-ink illustration and - or she'd be talking on the phone. She had, you know, lots of friends. She's a very, very exuberant, big, big person, you know. She sort of filled her life with a lot of projects and interests.
NEARY: But, Burroughs went on to say, there were many times when the light left her eyes, and she got a look that meant that exuberant mother was gone - replaced by a woman with a serious mental illness, trapped in a bad marriage.
MONTAGNE: She had a very difficult marriage with my father, who was a heavy drinker - very, very heavy alcoholic - and a professor. And they sought couples counseling with a psychiatrist.
NEARY: In her own memoir, Margaret Robison gets a chance to explain her side of the story. But Robison, whose speech has been affected by a stroke, is emphatic that her book is not a response to her son's.
MONTAGNE: That was not why I wrote the book. I began my book long before Chris began his.
NEARY: Margaret Robison says she wanted to write the book so she could have a better understanding of her life. Raised by an overly critical mother in a small, Southern town, she had dreams of being an artist. But in those days, women were expected to marry, so she did. It was a marriage that went bad, but she stayed in it because she felt she had to.
MONTAGNE: John said he would kill himself if I left him, and I think I believed that. I was also afraid that he might hurt us because he could be very violent. I cared about him; I didn't want him to kill himself.
NEARY: Robison says the psychiatrist - who seems like an irresponsible quack in Burrough's memoir - was, at least in the beginning, a stabilizing force in her life.
MONTAGNE: Well, I think he actually saved my family's life. He saw my husband's anger. He saw the possibility that he could kill himself or some of us, and no one had ever seen that before.
NEARY: Robison's memoir describes her psychotic breakdowns and the time she spent in mental hospitals, as well as her eventual realization that the psychiatrist was doing more harm than good. Her older son, John Elder Robison, left home at the age of 16 to escape the chaos of his family. But he also remembers that in the beginning, the psychiatrist helped them.
MONTAGNE: Dr. Turcotte, before he like, spiraled into his own nuttiness, Dr. Turcotte was a brilliant guy. My mother says that, and I say that. We agree.
NEARY: Diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome as an adult, John Elder Robison says he used to be ashamed to talk about his childhood. Now, he's written his own memoir - and a new book on living with Asperger's, called "Be Different." He says his brother's book changed the way he thought about his own life.
MONTAGNE: When my brother published that book, and people began to read it - and they would say things like oh, you know, I'm just like, so impressed that you grew up in those difficult circumstances and yet you're as successful as you are - I came to realize that our stories could be inspirational, and not shameful and humiliating.
NEARY: John Elder Robison says the memories in each of the books about his family may vary here and there on certain details. But he doesn't think that's really important. For example, he has a vivid memory of his father burning his little brother on the forehead with a cigarette.
MONTAGNE: So here we have me remembering my brother getting burned on the forehead. We have my first wife remembering me as a teenager, having a cigarette burn on my chest. And we have my mother not remembering at all. But my mother, as she says in her book, was in a state of pretty severe disconnection from reality much of the time, through mental illness. So does that mean that that story's about me? Is it about my brother? Did both of us get burned with cigarettes? I don't know that it's possible to know. No matter what, it's an ugly tale.
NEARY: It is an ugly tale; that is a fact. And it is also the truth that emerges from all three of these memoirs. Three different writers take the same set of circumstances, and each comes up with a different story. Augusten Burroughs changes his name, and applies a comic genius to tell a tale that millions want to read. John Elder Robison discovers that he has something to teach young people struggling with Asperger's. And Margaret Robison finds her salvation in the very act of writing it all down.
MONTAGNE: Writing was what helped me regain my sanity and leave the hospital the first time. From then on, writing was my essential way of dealing with life.
NEARY: Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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