In Augusten Burroughs' latest memoir, A Wolf at the Table, he recounts a childhood of despair and uncertainty controlled by his father's erratic and often sadistic behavior.
Burroughs, author of the bestselling memoir Running With Scissors, was born Christopher Robison (he changed his name at 18), the younger son of John Robison, a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Christopher worships his father and lives for the moment when he returns from work. But Robison treats the family dogs with more affection and respect, causing his son in one instance to wear floppy ears and crawl across the floor during their nightly welcome ritual.
As Robison's psoriasis worsens, he works less and drinks more. His son often dines on raw hot dogs, since his older brother has fled and his mother is institutionalized.
The boy realizes that his father has two personalities, one for his family and one for the public: "Gone was the kind, open expression; now his face was a mirror again. His features were completely blank, his eyes absolutely dead."
What follows is a descent into what could be the darkest period of Burroughs' life. His mother returns but spends days locked in her room, typing away at her poetry. The boy helplessly watches his dog die as his father refuses to take it for treatment. The parents finally separate, but his father continues to terrorize them until the boy is adopted by his mother's therapist.
Later, as a 17-year-old living on his own, Burroughs cannot afford food. His father shows up with half a loaf of day-old bread, five slices of bologna and a dented can of juice. As his father drives away in his new Mercedes, Burroughs, fueled by his anger, makes a life-changing decision: "It wasn't food my father brought me. It was rocket fuel. I was going to make something of myself. Something big."
Meganne Fabrega is a book reviewer and freelance writer in Portsmouth, N.H.