|05: August 10, 2008
And Nothing But the Truth…Sorta (Part 3)
last I slunk out of the dank depths of my lightless, vermin-infested,
copiously-stocked-with-supermarket-wine cave to update this site, I was mewling
and whining in my inimitable fashion about David Sedaris and the damage he had
wrought upon all memoirists.
Well, in terms of damage wrought, today’s subject--Augusten Burroughs--is
the Sichuan Earthquake to Sedaris’s Hurricane Katrina, the ebola virus
to Sedaris’s bird flu, the Frank Drebin to
Sedaris’s Inspector Clouseau.
Before proceeding with this vivisection, I should reiterate the admission made
in an earlier post that the only thing I have read by Augusten Burroughs is his
pseudonym. And let’s get this out of the way right up front: “Augusten
Burroughs” is one crackerjack pseudonym. You can tell just by the sound of it
that a humanoid named “Augusten Burroughs” could polish his toilet bowl with
the Josh Mugginses of the world while casually slicing open huge royalty checks
with his free hand.
His prodigious pseudonym-composing talents aside, here’s the problem with
Like David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs apparently uses the real events and
people of his life as jumping-off points for uproarious flights of fancy that
can only be described as fiction, and then tries to pass them off as “memoir.”
In at least one case, he did this so egregiously and in a manner so hurtful to
the real-life people that he was writing about that he provoked a lawsuit.
This suit was not, as one might suppose, a mere libel suit. If it were,
the case might have been allowed to go to court where the plaintiffs almost
surely would have lost (as nearly everyone who sues for libel does), and
the whole tawdry mess would have become nothing more than a shallow pothole
in the road between Burroughs’s home and his local ATM. Instead, the plaintiffs?a
family that felt falsely portrayed in Burroughs’s signature hit Running With Scissors opted for the novel approach of suing him for $2 million for “defamation,
invasion of privacy, emotional distress, and fraud.” Oh, and libel too.
account of the out of court settlement:
Burroughs defended his work as "entirely accurate", but agreed to
call the work a "book" (instead of "memoir") in the
author's note, to alter the acknowledgments page in future editions to
recognize the Turcotte family's conflicting memories of described events, and
express regret for "any unintentional harm" to the Turcotte family.
Burroughs felt vindicated by the settlement. "I'm not at all sorry that I
wrote [the book]. And you know, the suit settled-- it settled in my favor. I
didn't change a word of the memoir, not one word of it. It's still a memoir,
it's marketed as a memoir, [the Turcottes] agreed one hundred percent that it
is a memoir."
I’m fairly sure that that last statement would come as something of a shock to
the Turcottes, based on what they told Vanity Fair about the case. But don’t take my word for it: check out the story
Upon settling the Running With Scissors case in August 2007, Burroughs stated, "I consider this not only
a personal victory but a victory for all memoirists. I still maintain that
the book is an entirely accurate memoir, and that it was not fictionalized
or sensationalized in any way. I did not embellish or invent elements.
We had a very strong case because I had the truth on my side."
Let’s review: Burroughs managed to enrage and sicken (literally sicken)
a whole tribe of his subjects--whose real names had not even been used
in his book--to such an extent that they were willing to out themselves
to the world in exchange for the opportunity to sue him. Burroughs (and/or
his publisher) paid that family a substantial sum of money to go away.
Thus, a precedent has been set whereby any persons, no matter how carefully
their identities are concealed, can sue any memoirist--and not for nearly-impossible-to-prove
libel, but simply for hurt feelings over the way they have been portrayed
in a book--and reasonably expect to extract from that memoirist a huge
chunk of his life's savings.
Personal note from a brother memoirist to Augusten Burroughs: Please, please
don’t win any more victories for us.
The size of the payout to the aggrieved family is not disclosed in any source that I could
find, but given that they sued for $2 million, it seems
reasonable to assume that they settled for around half that sum. Not a big
problem for the likes of Burroughs, but personally I don’t have a million
dollars laying around that I can cough up whenever some personage wakes up one
day and decides that her feelings are hurt by what I wrote about a
familiar-seeming but differently-named personage in paragraph 3 of page 173 of
one of my memoirs.
Oh, to heck with it: I’m classifying my next memoir as fiction. The whole genre
has gotten too sleazy even for someone of my ilk.
That’s it--I’ve had it for this month. I’ll be simpering in my cave in
the unlikely event thatanyone wants me, and will return in a few weeks
with the fourth and final installment of this Roast-the-Lying-Memoirist
series, in which I skewer that vile, selfish, suppurating, prevaricating
and pompous heathen Josh Muggins.
“…And then they came for me, and there was no one left to object.”