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.
This was one of my picks for the #AntiBullyReads readathon we've been having this week over on Booktube. Burroughs is one of my favorite non-fiction writers and this memoir seemed like a no-brainer for the subject.
The tears this one pulled out of me! Burroughs' words brought some of my own memories, intentionally dormant for so long, right up to the surface for me to relive. Though his descriptions weren't scene-for-scene exact to mine (obviously), much of what he shares rang very familiar to me. Even where the experiences were vastly different, I still felt for him and understood his longing to get through to and connect with his father. I could definitely relate when he describes his father as seeming two-faced, nice to the outside world, but something he clicked off once behind closed doors. I was especially touched when Burroughs talks about his "experiment": as a little boy, he walked around with a clipboard tallying up the number of times his father said "Go Away" in comparison to the number of times Augusten heard "Come Here" so he could show his father just how little time they spent together. He also talks about constructing a "fake dad" out of pillows stuffed into some of his father's old clothes, even going so far as to scent the clothes with the smell of his father -- a mixture of pine tar, Old Spice, and Eucerin lotion.
In Mexico my mother wore thin-soled sandals and looked over her shoulder. She watched me through large, dark sunglasses and said, "We had to get away from your father. He's not safe to be around right now." This is my first clear memory of my father: I am in Mexico, I am five, and he is not safe to be around. I could not fathom what this meant. The things I knew that weren't safe included furious dogs, putting a fork in the toaster, rushing water. How was he like these things?
I also related to Burroughs' experiences with being teased at school. He describes being painfully shy and being teased for having soft facial features that some said made him look feminine (I was sometimes teased for having sharp, more masculine like features for a girl). He also says that he was bullied some for "being odd" but also stood up for others who were being bullied but maybe didn't know how to speak up for themselves.
I feel like I'm repeating myself a bit with all this relatable stuff, but that's largely what made it such a powerful yet painful read for me. I had to stop a number of times to get through it. For instance, when Burroughs describes how he struggled to have a social life in school -- it wasn't just the kids who steered clear of him, the parents of those children made it worse by saying, in various ways, "yeah that family is bizarre, stay away from them" rather than trying to rise above the rumors and try to get to know people for who they really were, clearly not caring or empathizing for the children who suffered from their immaturity. Burroughs finds a childhood best friend in Greg, but even Greg refuses to step foot inside Augusten's home because even Greg's parents are feeding him with "those people are weird, be careful, stay out of the house". So their friendship exists within the boundaries of school and the woods behind Augusten's house, where they play the exact same games that I and my bestie played out in the woods near where I grew up -- gathering plants and playing "apothecary shop", where they make up cures for ailments, gathering rocks and smashing them open to look for diamonds and gemstones, panning for gold in creeks and rivers, even catching pollywogs! -- those were all the same games we played! Loved that connection!
I was stunned and am still confused as to how his father could have turned the family dog against Augusten and his mother, and was so saddened to hear of the time Augusten's mother confesses to being raped by his drunken father.
So yeah, not an easy read in the least but so moving and one I will always be glad I read, though I may not be able to pick it up again for a number of years yet -- I'll need time for the memories to blur again.