PDA

View Full Version : The incident with the gun, my brother, our father, and me



johnrobison
04-25-2008, 10:59 PM
In my brother’s new book, A Wolf at the Table, there’s a scene where we have a family fight, and my brother runs into my room. He grabs my gun, hands it to me, and says, “Kill him!”

When a reporter asked me about that scene, I said: It wasn’t as big a deal to me as it was to my brother. I’m eight years older, so my perspective is a lot different. And it was, after all, only a BB gun.

To my enormous distress, people have seized bits of that statement and used it to suggest that the scene, or even the whole book, is exaggerated and made up. It’s not. My brother, my mother, and I all agree on the essential truth of the book. We certainly agree that my father was frighteningly mean when he was drunk. And in those years, he was drunk every night, whenever he was home.

The only time he was sober was when he was at school, so his colleagues and students saw a totally different side of him. Luckily, I too saw that side of him later in life, after he stopped drinking.

The fact that my little brother – a small child at the time – felt the need to grab a gun to defend us says a lot about how life was at that time.

Fights with drunks can get ugly.

The fact that it was a BB gun is irrelevant to the true emotional tale my brother relates: I was holding our father at gunpoint. The fact is, my brother was terrified and thought that was the defense of last resort. So he got it, and gave it to me, because he believed I was his defender. And it worked. Our father went downstairs and things simmered down.

My brother also writes that I warned my father, “I keep the rifle loaded,” which I did. How many of you were proud teenagers with BB guns and air rifles? How many kept them loaded, in case a grizzly bear came through the door? How many of you can remember feeling like that?

As much as I am troubled by the scary stories from my youth, I feel I should share the story of why it was “only” a BB gun. And why we did not have a “real gun” in the house.

I wrote in Look Me in the Eye about how I grew up around guns. Down at my grandparents in Georgia, most every farmer or landowner had guns. Mine were no exception. When we moved to Massachusetts, my grandfather sent my father a gun, too. He sent him a WWII surplus Springfield bolt action rifle. Luckily, he didn’t send shells.

The gun arrived about the time my brother turned three. My father fell into a black depression, and talked of suicide. I wrote about some of those incidents in Look Me in the Eye. Here’s one that didn’t make the book:

My father would get drunk, and sit the gun on the floor, aimed at the ceiling. He’d be in his chair, at the kitchen table, with the old black and white TV in the corner. He’d drink his sherry, rest his head on the end of the barrel, and cock the gun and pull the trigger. Time after time after time. Yesterday, our mother told me she remembered going to sleep to the click of the empty gun. Frightened, she gave it to a friend for safekeeping. I have it today.

So there you have it. That’s the reason there was only a BB gun in our house.

There are a number of other inaccuracies that are being reported. One reporter said, [A Wolf at the Table] claims Robison put a cigarette out on Burroughs' forehead. That’s wrong. That is in my book, in a chapter called The Nightmare Years. It's also described in my brother's 2003 memoir, Dry.

When I wrote that, my mother read it and said, I don’t remember that happening, but I just don’t know . . .

My first wife read it and said, Oh my, when you were seventeen years old you showed me a mark on your chest where he’d burned you with a cigarette. Don’t you remember? It was on you! Thirty some years later, spot has vanished and the memory has faded. Obviously people can have different and even contradictory memories of bad things. That’s how memory works.

After reading this story, I hope you will re-read the epilogue to Look Me in the Eye, where I made peace with my father at the end of his life. Because that’s how I want to remember him today. People do change, and the last half of my father’s life – after we’d left home and he was remarried - shows that.

In closing, let me just affirm I am very disturbed to see my words taken out of context and used to fan the flames of controversy when in fact there is no controversy. My brother and I don’t have any dispute about the content of our books. Augusten and I may interpret the meaning of childhood experiences differently, but we do not disagree about the underlying events themselves. And those are the facts.

Here's a link to my brother's book:
http://www.amazon.com/Wolf-Table-Memoir-My-Father/dp/0312342020/ref=pd_sim_b_img_6 (http://www.amazon.com/Wolf-Table-Memoir-My-Father/dp/0312342020/ref=pd_sim_b_img_6)

Will Lavender
04-25-2008, 11:16 PM
Illuminating post, John. Thanks for this.

I think we're in an age where memoirs are irrevocably cast in doubt -- which is funny because we live in an age of such vile untruth and exaggeration. I don't know whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it seems to be the case every time a memoir is published. Makes me glad I'm not in the field.

brutus
04-25-2008, 11:55 PM
m

pollykahl
04-27-2008, 10:50 PM
All this skepticism makes me very glad I saved letters and journals from my childhood on. It really fries my ass that a half dozen or so memoirs have turned out to be baloney compared to thousands that are credible, yet we all come under suspicion.

There's also still a lot of social denial about childhood abuse, so anyone who writes about childhood abuse is treated with more skepticism. One out of every four kids is sexually abused in our country, and other forms of abuse have similar statistics. If there was any other problem touching the lives of our children to that degree, such as cancer for example, everyone would be up in arms. But since the epidemic involves a distasteful subject, we'd rather pretend it's not happening. Reading some of the reviews of your brother's books over the years, both on Amazon and in the press, it's always looked to me like his writing has pushed some buttons that just don't want to be pushed. Unfortunately, that's to be expected due to the subject matter.

John, the more your books veer into emotional subjects, the more you'll have these kinds of reactions too. It's bound to happen as your writing and personal growth both evolve to include more emotional content.

You've got good stuff to say, so I say ignore the naysayers and go for it.

Jongfan
04-27-2008, 11:15 PM
I wonder if people who had the luxury of growing up without incident just can't grasp the concept that others live different lives. I remember reading Running With Scissors and thinking "how the hell did this kid grow up to live a successful life?" I thought of A Child Called It and instantly felt the similarities. I've read both John's and Augusten's book and still am in awe that you both have such a gift and talent to write while sharing such personal aspects of your lives. I give you both much credit for becoming who you are in spite of what you've both been through.

Never put down your pens.

Horseshoes
04-28-2008, 07:27 AM
I will re-read your epilogue, for you and your dad.
Think the book's on the eye-level shelf, left side, in the den. Gotta go.
Great post.

jerrywaxler
04-29-2008, 01:16 AM
There are some wonderful benefits to opening yourself up to the public. You have the potential for teaching, entertaining, and letting people get to know you.

But there is also this downside. Magazines are filled with controversies and attacks designed to sell papers at the expense of some public figure. You probably never expected to be on the receiving end. I know I don't expect it, but if I write enough, perhaps I'll rise up enough in the public eye for some reporter to think he or she can increase his readership by attacking me. Strange world.

Jerry

Claudia Gray
04-29-2008, 02:05 AM
For what it's worth, when I read this story in the Times, I did not take your statement to mean that your brother was exaggerating or inventing. To me, it seemed clear that you were describing a difference in perspective, not a difference in the fundamentals of the situation. OTOH, I can see how people might take it out of context, and I realize how distressing that must be for you. Keep speaking, and I am sure you and your brother's voices will drown out the naysayers.

IceCreamEmpress
04-29-2008, 06:10 AM
For what it's worth, when I read this story in the Times, I did not take your statement to mean that your brother was exaggerating or inventing. To me, it seemed clear that you were describing a difference in perspective, not a difference in the fundamentals of the situation.

Yes, me too.


OTOH, I can see how people might take it out of context, and I realize how distressing that must be for you. Keep speaking, and I am sure you and your brother's voices will drown out the naysayers.

Agreed. Thanks for sharing this with us here.

Susan B
04-29-2008, 05:58 PM
For what it's worth, when I read this story in the Times, I did not take your statement to mean that your brother was exaggerating or inventing. To me, it seemed clear that you were describing a difference in perspective, not a difference in the fundamentals of the situation.

I had the same reaction. What a shame this is being used to fuel controversy.

Thank you for the wise and honest post, John!

It absolutely stuns me that people think the trauma to a child is somehow less because the weapon was "only" a BB gun! Never mind that the child's much-loved older brother is involved in a violent fight with an intoxicated, abusive father!

Why do people have such inability to understand the perspective of a child? Even adults who suffered from abuse and neglect sometimes fall prey to that, feeling the need to minimize their own suffering.

I'm a psychologist, and I can't tell you how often I have heard therapy clients who were victims of family violence or sexual abuse say things like "It wasn't really abuse..." and then describe beatings with a belt, or sexual molestation that wasn't so bad because it "only" involved inappropriate touching rather than rape.

In some ways, perhaps this controversy may help illuminate this issue. And it does also speak to the possibility of change and forgiveness, since you and your father reconciled later in his life.

By the way, I really enjoyed your book, John, and I have recommended it to clients. (Was a little late in reading it, since I was caught up in doing final edits for my own book.)

All the best,

Susan B (ie, Blair)

johnrobison
04-30-2008, 03:57 PM
Thanks for your support. I think my statement worked. Whatever controversy there may have been seems to have faded away.

It was truly an instance where certain members of the media were trying to create an issue where none existed.

Woof!

SHBueche
05-10-2008, 04:18 AM
Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your book, Augusten's book, and look forward to reading his most recent book.