Thursday, December 21, 2006

Running With Lawyers


I finally got around to reading writer Buzz Bissinger's self-proclaimed "scandal" piece about Augusten Burroughs, and how the family he wrote about in his best-selling memoir, "Running With Scissors," is now suing him for defamation. I don't know if it's because I'm in the midst of having some personal essays of my own published, or if it's my background in journalism and communications law, but I cannot even begin to tell you how disgusted I am by this whole sour-grapes/money-grubbing case. (I'm going to try to keep this as brief as possible, but you can read the VF piece here and what I'm about to say will make a lot more sense.)

I think Vanity Fair's pull-quote ironically -- and most unintentionally -- sums up the whole dispute:

Burroughs "missed the best part of living with us, which was that we were family."

Yet reading the book vs. what other family members say, the discrepancies sound exactly like the kind of arguments you would hear at a family reunion -- "That's not how that happened!" "We moved there long before Grandma died!" "Let me tell the story, you don't know what you're talking about!" -- and only bolster Burroughs' contention that he wrote the story exactly how he remembered it.

For starters, Burroughs began his book with the following disclaimer: "The names and other identifying characteristics of the persons included in this memoir have been changed." Despite the fact that by reading the book you would have no idea who this family was (it takes place in the 1970s and early '80s) and that they didn't even know about the book until well after it was a huge success, they're now claiming emotional distress and defamation of character. But you have to ask yourself exactly who is defaming who. Burroughs never names anyone in the Turcotte family (that's their real name), yet they're the ones now running around telling everyone "We're the Finches! We're the Finches!" If the book had brought them so much unwanted attention and humiliation among their peers (a pivotal claim in libel), why hadn't they even heard about it? (Another reason it would be difficult to trace the book back to them is because Augusten Burroughs isn't the author's real name either.) The book came out several years ago -- so why did they suddenly decide to file suit when a major motion picture was being made about the book? On the other hand, by running around telling the world that Burroughs fabricated the book, he is being immeasurably defamed in front of his peers and the world (I wouldn't have read the article if I hadn't figured where there's smoke there must be fire). Even if these claims are never proven, the lingering effects of James Frey Syndrome will likely persist.


If you take the time to read the Vanity Fair article, you will quickly see that this is really about a group of women whose feelings have been hurt. However strange they may or may not have been, they were there for him when he was a boy and sometimes it smarts to hear another person remember things differently than you did. But as you go through this unnecessarily long piece, it becomes readily apparent that everything they take exception to did in fact happen (and the family doesn't even deny it!). Their dad was a notorious eccentric who did allow patients to live with the family. Augusten's own brother witnessed the turd analysis sessions, and Dr. "Finch" did have his license revoked. The statutory rape incident did happen and there was a mysterious "sunlight" in the kitchen (the Turcottes disagree with Burroughs on how it got there, but again, is this the making of a serial fabulist?). Several of the women are offended by descriptions of themselves as children as unkempt or chubby -- but is this grounds for a lawsuit?

Everyone -- including Augusten Burroughs -- has a right to tell their story as they remember it. Theresa, the youngest and Burroughs' closest friend in the family, comes across as a woman who misses her old buddy -- and is willing to say or do just about anything to join in for her 15 minutes of "fame." If she weren't suing for millions of dollars, it would be almost comical how she can't stop bragging about how she was the one who said the phrase "running with scissors" to Augusten, on the phone one night -- and was most likely his inspiration. ("I made up the book title! I made up the book title!") And for people who wish to god this horrible thing would go away they sure didn't shy away from a big photo shoot in Vanity Fair ... and to have explicit details of their current lives made public (where they live, their occupations, etc.).

I could go on and on, but what really makes me sad and angry is that ultimately this lawsuit will succeed to some degree -- and it's our country that has condoned this form of legalized extortion. Burroughs could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars defending himself in court -- knowing full well that he did nothing wrong. Or he could "settle" for a considerably smaller amount to make this all go away. As the Turcottes are learning, these days it pays to be running with lawyers.

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