|A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father
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Amazon Significant Seven, April 2008: When I started reading A Wolf at the Table, I thought I knew what to expect. Augusten Burroughs captures intense experience with an inexplicably cool remove, imparting a stillness and purity to emotions that would likely run amok in anyone else's hands. I love this quality of his writing, and it's present in full force in this memoir of a childhood spent in thrall to a predatory and deeply unpredictable father. What I wasn't prepared for was the suspense--the dread-filled, nearly sonorous waiting for the worst to happen. An artful sort of bait-and-switch happens in the telling: Burroughs brings you to the brink of a terrible catharsis more than once, but the break in tension never comes. It is profoundly sad, remarkably tender, and fueled by a sense of love and reverence that only a child knows. --Anne Bartholomew
Nominated for the 2009 Audiobook of the Year
“As a little boy, I had a dream that my father had taken me to the woods where there was a dead body. He buried it and told me I must never tell. It was the only thing we’d ever done together as father and son, and I promised not to tell. But unlike most dreams, the memory of this one never left me. And sometimes…I wasn’t altogether sure about one thing: was it just a dream?”
When Augusten Burroughs was small, his father was a shadowy presence in his life: a form on the stairs, a cough from the basement, a silent figure smoking a cigarette in the dark. As Augusten grew older, something sinister within his father began to unfurl. Something dark and secretive that could not be named.
Betrayal after shocking betrayal ensued, and Augusten’s childhood was over. The kind of father he wanted didn’t exist for him. This father was distant, aloof, uninterested…
And then the “games” began.
With A Wolf at the Table, Augusten Burroughs makes a quantum leap into untapped emotional terrain: the radical pendulum swing between love and hate, the unspeakably terrifying relationship between father and son. Told with scorching honesty and penetrating insight, it is a story for anyone who has ever longed for unconditional love from a parent. Though harrowing and brutal, A Wolf at the Table will ultimately leave you buoyed with the profound joy of simply being alive. It’s a memoir of stunning psychological cruelty and the redemptive power of hope.
- All The Better To Break Your Spirit, Son
We've read much about the dysfunction of Augusten Burroughs's life, starting with his 2002 memoir "Running With Scissors" in which he described the bizarre experience of living with his mother's psychiatrist during the tumult of his adolescence. Though he briefly touched upon his parents' broken marriage in that memoir, he takes a magnifying glass to it here in "A Wolf At The Table", a book centered around the severely strained and demoralizing relationship between Augusten and his father John G. Robison, a former professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
With broad beastly strokes, Burroughs paints a dark portrait of his father, an alcoholic who neglected him as well as treated him like an ultimate hindrance and burden. The problems with Burroughs's mother Margaret are revisited, her consistent escapes from the horror of their home and her constant warnings of "your father isn't safe to be around" creating an early stigma. The problems of his older brother John Elder Robison are also hinted at; Robison published his own memoir in 2007 about coping with Asperger's syndrome.
Burroughs's writes of wanting physical affection so badly from his father that he went to ridiculous measures to achieve it, all to no avail. At 6 years of age, he realizes that his father offers more affection towards the family dog Cream and in response fashions a canine get-up from construction paper. He even goes so far as to confiscate some of his father's clothes and stuffs them with towels to create a surrogate body for cuddling, his father so emotionally unavailable for even the simplest gestures of physical affection.
Augusten's blind love would soon turn to festering hatred, his wrath nursed by the death of his beloved pets due to his father's lack of compassion as well as his drunken malice. He even begins conjuring fantasies of violence and murder, one in particular where he kicks him off the edge of a high secluded cliff to his death. After a domestic dispute one fateful evening, his brother pulls him from the house in the dead of night and teaches him how to shoot a gun, telling him, "The fact is, you aren't safe in that house anymore. You have to be able to protect yourself because I won't be around."
Burroughs even describes his father's smile as "wrong" and addresses him as "Dead" instead of "Dad", a term that presages the nothingness of John's heart. John Robison's image becomes encompassingly nightmarish, made all the more sinister by the fact that he is not overtly violent; there is instead an unpredictable and calculating enmity that lurks just beneath the surface of his psoriasis-stricken shell. In the end there is no redeeming factor - while John lies emaciated and dying from complications from a past injury, he cannot (or will not) offer even one word to Augusten, utterly resigned to their estrangement. All of this torturous emotion experienced vicariously through Burroughs's story makes for a very bleak and grievous yet intensely absorbing read. It is, without a doubt, one of the best memoirs of 2008.
Bottom line: Burroughs's memoir can read like a work of fiction at times, the author such a great storyteller that one begins to doubt the validity of his accounts. With all the other strangely fascinating memoirs Burroughs has published thus far, his one work of fiction (Sellevision) pales in comparison to the painful complexities of his real life. Judging by what's happened to him so far in his now 43 years and counting, I'm sure there are still a wealth of perversely enthralling true stories he has yet to tell. ...more info
This is more of a horror novel than a memoir. The specificity in the detail - and rememberances - of the young Augusten paint a vivid portrait of a child desperate to be loved, and of a father who is truly sociopathic by nature. In their own ways, each of these two lead characters die each day seeking what they know that can't have in life. It's a powerful read - I read it one day....more info
- Misses the Mark
Let me preface my remarks by saying that I am a big fan of Augusten Burroughs' other works, and also that I am reviewing the audiobook version of this book. Other reviewers (and the author himself) have noted that this book is a major departure from the style of his other memoirs. Unfortunately, Burroughs' efforts at drama are not nearly as elegant or developed as his efforts at humor.
This book should have been about a boy who overcomes emotional abandonment and neglect to become a healthy whole person. Instead it is an overly wrought melodrama that often hints at a horror that is never actually shown.
Burroughs does an excellent job of creating a world through a child's eyes, with a characteristically immature sense of entitlement, self-importance and drama. As adults, we understand (and remember) such feelings and can relate to the narrator's emotional distress at the small tragedies of childhood: the death of a pet, feeling misunderstood and unloved by parents. The problem with this book is that the author can not seem to decide, in adulthood, which events were true horrors and which were just unfortunate circumstances. This confusion dilutes the potential emotional impact of his story.
The audiobook version is read by the author (as usual), but with extra melodramatic inflection. In case the reader is too dense or emotionally dead to understand, Burroughs intones, wails and gargles through prose that is pretty heavy-handed to start with. Less scenery chewing would have been a lot more effective.
On the other hand, the audiobook version includes original music that is wonderfully evocative. According to an afterward by Burroughs, the songs were written for the book, after the composers had read it. Patti Smith is still tops....more info
- Not what I thought it would be
I love anything Augusten. Running with Scissors is still my favorite book. I think I am the only one disappointed in A Wolf at the Table. I felt throughout the book he was an annoying kid and a whiner to the end. I think I would have had more compassion if he would have covered more of exactly what his father did except ignore him. Obviously there is more to it, I needed to read it, feel it, feel for the guy. I only felt it at the end in the room with the robes, when he realized what a real father's love is.
His suggestions to his brother to kill his father, then to his father to push his mother off the bridge makes me wonder if Augusten is all there himself. I was very disappointed in the book. Although a small thin book it took me a long while to get through it waiting for the impact his other books brought me, this gave me none. I didn't care for it at all....more info
- A little slow, a little dull
After reading positive reviews, I was looking forward to this book. But I wasn't entertained or informed (two things I like in books).
Instead I found a book that moved too slowly, with details that I didn't find relevant or important to the reader such as supermarket expeditions, septic systems installed etc. (obviously to the author they had greater relevance, but I was bored reading them). The story didn't seem to flow very well, and because of this, I found myself skim reading over some paragraphs in order to find something more interesting in the tale.
As memoirs go, its not a great one..............more info
- A Wolf At the Table
I laughed, I cried, I shuddered! This portrait of the father, after reading some of the other books by AB, continued to amaze me. People are so resiliant. To be able to chronicle this experience in the way he has is such a huge talent. I love AB. He certainly deserved better. I hope he is well....more info
- Not your typical Burroughs Book
If you looking for the same acerbic and self-mocking humor that made you enjoy the other Burroughs book DO NOT READ this book. Burroughs includes a handful of humorous jokes in this book, but by and large it is a meditation on the deep-seated hatred he has for his biological father. As he remembers it he never had a real father son relationship with his father. Never played catch with and clearly never got any advice from his father. Augusten is able to paint an almost inhumane picture of the very man that helped spawn him.
The first 100 pages are rather slow and the episodes reveal the common theme that Augusten's father was not ever a father and was more a sociopathic alcoholic than an adult qualified to have children. The second half of the book is written better with more details on the impact his father had on his life. The anecdotes are more telling and Augusten's pain comes through lucidly. One can't help but think Augusten wants the reader to feel sorry for him. The other books, while they are humorous, the anecdotes are depressing and when you think back to his previous books you can't help but think, Augusten's terribly childhood, especially his lack of relationship with his alcoholic father naturally lead him to his own reckless lifestyle.
Thankfully many of the anecdotes in this book are new to paper, but the book is just so depressing. ...more info
- Dark, painful, but rewarding
Augusten Burroughs has written some funny books. Prominent among them is his autobiographical RUNNING WITH SCISSORS, about growing up with an older brother with Asperger Syndrome, a mother with mental illness who retreated from conflict, and a father who was an alcoholic. Burroughs managed to mine that potentially horrific set of circumstances for nuggets of skewed humor. In A WOLF AT THE TABLE, he gives up the struggle to find amusement there and tells it like it was. The result is gripping, depressing and at times truly scary.
The wolf is Burroughs's dad, a man who battled the demons of booze, demons that in the author's skilled treatment often come to terrifying life. The flawed patriarch abused his wife and children, forcing them all to exist within his life-despising mental morass. As a small child who had a right to expect a modicum of love from his parents, Burroughs simply learned to retreat and expect very little from Daddy --- no hugs, almost no touching, no walks, no talks, no kind words. His father, a college professor, sat and drank, demanding utmost quiet while he did so. The second son became an invalid who hid from the world. Incident after incident infused his young spirit with hopes, then dashed them.
One day Burroughs's father took him to the University, to his classroom. The boy, seeing some space on the blackboard, began to scribble. He informed Burroughs with a smile, "That was a bad idea." Burroughs became used to feeling a chill in the air when his father smiled: "there was nothing happy in that smile."
Burroughs begins the memoir with a scene in which he is being hunted by a ravening presence: "if my father caught me, he would cut my neck." The child in his pajamas races, blundering through the woods, trying to elude "the jabbing slash from his flashlight." Nightmare? Or fact? Later, we are told, he sees a telltale pine needle in his father's hair.
As time passes, Burroughs's brother becomes an increasing burden to the family, exhibiting wildly anti-social behavior and only occasionally acting in a sane way to try to help his younger sibling survive the horror. At one point, his method was to teach the boy how to shoot a rifle, telling him, "You have to be able to protect yourself because I won't be around."
So where was the mother in this family drama? Passive, mentally unstable, far too weak to combat her cold, often enraged husband, she was probably unfit to raise children, even in the happiest of circumstances. She married someone who was promising, a rising star among men, who was studying for the ministry. Not long after their wedding, the star fell. The man of God lost his faith, dropped out of his studies and began to worship the seductive satan of alcohol. He later developed psoriatic arthritis, which compounded his misery and his hatred of all things life-affirming and comforting to others. Over the long years of Burroughs's lost childhood, his father became paranoid and his mother the trembling prey for his fits of anger. At best, he was a control freak and she was his cowering lackey.
A few times she ran away, taking her confused son with her. For a little while there would be an unsettled peace, in a motel room, with the only parent who touched him and confided in him. Then she would be taken away, institutionalized, and return home in a zombie state, all the heavy tranquilizers still unable to suppress her need to scream occasionally. The deaths of two family dogs underscore the evil that roamed the house. One was ignored when it was clearly sick, and despite Burroughs's childish alerts, it died without succor. The other was finally put out of its misery after it turned savagely aggressive.
More than once, from an early age, Burroughs had fantasies of killing his father. But he could not, he realized, because his father hadn't whipped and tortured him --- "all he was guilty of was not wanting me."
No matter how "normal" one's childhood, there are moments when a child simply cannot comprehend the actions and thoughts that emanate from the grownup realm. Mistakes are made in the "best" of homes. This book chronicles one long, depressing, harrowing series of life-ruining mistakes. That its author pulled through is a small miracle of resilience. Burroughs sets up no signposts along this perilous route. He simply re-walks his childhood path, every harrowing step of the way, and we walk a few steps behind, putting our feet, often reluctantly, in his small footsteps.
A WOLF AT THE TABLE is being hailed as a masterpiece created by a remarkable talent, and all the praise is fully deserved. Though a difficult read, you will find something of yourself in it.
--- Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott
- wolf at the table
this book was really good. showed the life of a boy and his relationship with his father. amazing how a parent can mess up a childs life and the child becomes an adult and the feelings never go away from chuldhood. ...more info
- What Readers Have Been Waiting For
After reading and falling in love with all of Mr. Augusten Burroughs works, I was pleasantly surprised by his memoir. While the dark intellectual humor is what Mr. Burroughs is best known for, this work is full of raw human emotion that sets a different ton to the authors style. This read will not be the same as his previous works, it is gloomy and heartbreaking, but non the less a beautiful novel that will give the reader an even greater appreciation for Mr. Burroughs and his outlandish yet remarkable life. ...more info
- I am so going to get slammed BUT
I do not believe that this book is a memoir. If this book is a memoir then he and James Fray should get together and compare notes. If you do not understand you need only to read the first chapter and see that their is NO WAY possible that this man remembers so vividly at 1 1/2 years old the details he has written. This book is an embellishment about his life. I believe as many other reviews that after reading this book I question the authors honesty. I did before everyone blast me enjoy Running with Scissors very much. It was a great read it however is not a memoir. There are many people in this world that grow up in disfunctional families and do not make it their goal to profit off it. ...more info
- A Wolf at the Table
Everything I've read by Augusten Burroughs is fantastic! This is a great novel and very sad in places when his father continously refuses to give Augusten any attention or love. It is also very funny in places....more info
- A Wolf at the Table
While his was definately a disfunctional family - I found Augusten to be a bit too whiney and overly dramatic. Wouldn't recommend the book at least in audio form where his deliverly left me unsympathic - just annoyed. I did however enjoy some of the music....more info
- A child's view
I have read all of Mr. Burroughs previous books and have enjoyed all of them, with the exception of the ridiculous Running with Scissors. A Wolf at the Table is a real departure for Burroughs and it is executed with moments of sheer brilliance. The most powerful strategy he employs in this text is his use of his childhood perspective. His phrasing and consistent childhood point of view keeps the reader edgy and reminds us of our own fears and insecurities as children. The world looks so very different from this side of adulthood. There were numerous moments where his style and insight was so precise that I had to remind myself that he was looking back on these issues, not writing them at the time they happened. Truly, that is a skill.
The epilogue of this book where Burroughs feels (but does not experience) the real intense love that a father can have for a son overpowers the reader almost as much as it overpowered him at the time he experienced it.
There is no neat resolution. One ends this memoir feeling that Burroughs has no good use for his father's memory. One cannot blame him if he doesn't. However, the book is not a nihilistic work, but a plea. If anything the perceptive reader will put this text down feeling a deep sense of responsibility. We all have obligations to those we love, and those who love us. After finishing A Wolf at the Table, I hope that I always meet them.
- I just discovered Burroughs...
and I can't get enough of him. This book does not have the humor of Running with Scissors but his writing style is incredibly engaging, and the story, haunting....more info
- Almost to close to the soul
The saying "a perfect childhood is a waste of time" points to the lack of learning of such an unlikely upbringing: No wonder Augusten has become such an awesome writer!!
Our mind suppresses bad memories, unless we dig deep. Augusten's learning and ability to dig deep (amazing recollection of early childhood) is almost to close for comfort if you have been brought up with similar, ahum, challenges. It ripped me; it pushed all my buttons, made me so angry, so sad, so scared, so alive within my own past. It was a great experience to read, absorb and subsequently move on!!
I hope that other readers "enjoy" the same and BIG Thank you to Augusten for sharing himself so courageously with us!!
- Haunting and completely engaging
I decided to read this book because I was pulled in by Running with Scissors by this author. I cannot say that I loved the other book but I could not put it down. I considered it to be like a train wreck. You know you should stop looking but you just can't help yourself. So, here I am again...becoming completely engaged with Augusten and his life.
Whereas Running with Scissors was like a train wreck, this book pulls at your heartstrings. This book is written with the innocence of childhood. Full of complete love and adoration for a man who refuses even the slightest glance for his poor son who only wanted to be held. Augusten would fight "the arms" and try to get past them to get to his father. He would ask questions and do everything he could for his father. His father however, refused to reciprocate this love. The most Augusten ever received from his father was an automatic "very much I love you too" at bedtime.
Though childhood innocence can protect a boy from many hurts in life, this innocence does not last forever. Unfortunately, Augusten learned too soon that something was wrong or "missing" from his father. Innocence was replaced by fear, fear replaced by terror, and terror replaced by desperation. All he ever wanted was love, compassion, approval.
Though Augusten's father had his own share of childhood pain and torture, the cycle must be broken at some point. This man was not strong enough to do so. The "games" repeat themselves and become more sadistic.
Finishing this book I could not help but stare at the picture of Augusten Burroughs on the back cover. His eyes seemed to pierce through me and I marveled at how this man, who survived so much, could have made something so wonderful of himself. There is something in this man that helped him survive. Could it have truly been a half loaf of bread, five slices of bologna, and a can of fruit punch that pushed him to make something of himself? Was it the love he lifted from a complete stranger that was the catalyst? Either way, Augusten Burroughs has a way with words. He pulls you in and forces you to run, terrified, through the woods with him. His sadness for the "outside" dog transcends the pages and becomes your sadness. His fears of becoming his father become your fears. This is a man who grabs hold of your spirit, emotions, your soul and he refuses to let you go. You are with him and he is with you...always.