The incident with the gun, my brother, our father, and me

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, and also 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. So the evidence suggests that both my brother and I may have had cigarettes mashed out on us, and we've repressed the memories. Obviously people can have different and even contradictory memories of bad things. That’s how memory works. Saying we're in disagreement about those points is simply untrue.

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 order my brother's book:


Polly Kahl said…
Excellent job of handling that straight on and with dignity, John.

The mudslinging has already started about Augusten's book and it's not even out yet. It's hard to imagine what some people get out of unnecessary negativity, but I guess they have their reasons.

You are a class act.
Doreen Orion said…
As a shrink, I find it fascinating to see how we each remember similar incidents differently from our childhoods, due to the very nature of memory itself, our unique emotional makeups as well as the layering of subsequent experience.

You and Augusten have written memoirs, not exhaustively researched nonfiction. Impressions, feelings, subsequent growth and ability to look back are all part of memoirs and I think why so many of us are compelled to read them.

I don't understand what the controversy is here.

I also particularly loved the end of your book where you did reconcile with your father (not that this is necessary or even desireable for everyone) but it showed a different side of you, as well as the fact that people can change.
Jerry Waxler said…
When I teach memoir writing workshops, I make the case that there is no "right" or "wrong" - we're all stuck with our best representation of facts. Then to make my point, I ask, "Who here has ever disagreed with a sibling about a memory from childhood." Every single person nods, chuckles, or murmurs.

Jerry Waxler
Memory Writers Network
Polly Kahl said…
Just to clarify, by mudslinging, I was referring to a poor review Augusten's book got last week in a national magazine. I didn't refer to the magazine by name in my previous comment because I didn't want to draw more attention to it. Thanks.
Oh, John. Somehow I knew when I read that article yesterday that trouble would follow. Seems you and Augusten are in the sights (sites?) of many. I'm sure there are more battles to follow. Keep writing the truth. We'll read it.

Quiet woof.

Samwick said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lisa said…
Polly got it right. You are a class act.

As someone who grew up in a household where substance abuse, verbal and physical abuse and mental illness were part of the mix, I can relate to the sometimes vastly different memories that siblings and parents often have. We all remember or forget our own version of events and they are all true to each of us.

I also appreciate your clarification about the good relationship you had with your father in the later years of his life. My father was a recovering alcoholic for over twenty years before he died and I feel very fortunate that we were able to reconcile and have a great relationship for more than a decade. I think it's important that people understand that many families endure horrible events and difficulties, but that under the right circumstances there can be forgiveness and redemption and healing.
Veggiemomof2 said…
Ask 5 people to describe something, you'll get 5 different descriptions. That's why they say Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
I think that the media has latched on to the fact that since there are several bestselling memoirs out there that HAVE been proven fraudulent fabrications, it means the whole genre is suspect. Which is total crap. I think if you, Augusten, and your mom all agree on the essential facts, that should be more than enough to satisfy any naysayers.

And at least your father is dead so he won't try to sue like Dr. Finch's family did.

I also know from experience that the publishing industry itself is to blame for publishing some of those fake memoirs that have put the whole genre under scrutiny, since many agents and editors actively tell authors to change novels into memoirs to make them more marketable (I know this from personal experience).
John, just chiming in with support for all you do! Keep fighting the good fight, and please keep sharing your stories despite all this nonsense, because that's what it is. Hugs from Denver, Karen
Sandra Cormier said…
One must remember that perceived memories when one is young, and sees things in a completely different light, can seem much more dramatic than the real deal.

From what I can tell, your brother used his journals to help him remember many of his early experiences, and he maintained the immediacy of his emotions at the time.

I read Running With Scissors immediately after Look Me in the Eye, and immediately noticed the difference in perception.

However, since I knew you were both raised differently and you perceive things differently, I understood and believed both accounts of your parents' relationship.

Not everyone can look at things with a wider point of view, and you're always going to get varying reactions to your stories.
Daily said…
john i love you and need a big brother just like you. i love how well you articulate yourself, you make things easy to understand.

i completely do not understand why people try to make so much trouble, other than, perhaps they are attempting to make a name for themselves?

"haters" will always confuse me. what is the point in questioning someone's life story? seriously, what would be the point?

we all know that hearts speak to other hearts. meaning, like with your book "look me in the eye" is about your life story and asperger's. i don't have asperger's but i identify with your book as much as i've always identified with augusten's.

b/c hearts speak to other hearts.

John, you are a man of honor and integrity. The only opinions that matter are those of the people whom you respect.

I think anybody who followed the lawsuit filed by Dr. Finch's family against Augusten in any detail could see it was an opportunistic attempt to extort money from him. I didn't find their version of events credible at all. They didn't dispute the gist of the events, only minute details (Poo Bear pooping or not, the shock-therapy machine, etc). That shows me that what Augusten wrote was true. I think the Finches (their real name escapes me now) saw what happened to James Frey and saw it an an opportunity to make some money. (And given the real Dr. Finch's well-documented history of extortion, fraud, and theft, tt seems to make a lot of sense that his children are cut of the same cloth as he was.)

Blessings to Augusten and John for having integrity.
John Elder: Augusten's latest release is the ONLY spring title on my TBR pile. Really looking forward to reading it. RUNNING is one of my personal faves.

The bigger, more popular, more successful you get, the more jealousy rears its ugly head - and that's all this carping is about - they're just mad cause Augusten succeeded and they didn't.

End of story.

I say: Ignore them! Don't let the bastards get you (or your brother) down.
Holly Kennedy said…
Wonderful post, John.
I've ordered my copy of your brother's new book and I'm looking forward to reading it.

A supportive 'woof' from Canada.
Chris Eldin said…
A beautiful and dignified post. I agree with what everyone has already said.

Kudos to you and your brother for having the courage to muddle through bad memories and try to heal.

I will be buying his book when we get home in June.
The Anti-Wife said…
The media jumps on anything that smells remotely like a story. When there isn't one, they create it. I wouldn't worry about the press. They'll be off to their next "controversy" soon. They only pick on you and Augusten because of your success.
Erica Orloff said…
I can only quote Tolstoy:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Only you and your brother know the truth of your childhood with an alcholic, just as every child of an alcoholic or an abusive person knows their truth in their own way. The reality is most alcoholic families, most dysfunctional families, have a vested interest in keep the world at bay, in keep the "truth" their intimate little secret.

Your post is eloquent and I think you are a very grace-filled person to handle the controversy the way you do.
Hey John.

I have 3 kids on the spectrum. At ages 9, 11 & 13, they really do percieve (and thus remember) things differently. I teach them that who they are is the sum of all their experiences, thoughts and feelings. Their memories have been and will forever be engraved in their hearts, no matter how the other two remember these things.

I appreciate the dignified way you have defended yourself and your brother today.

Drama Mama said…
Well done, John. I got the book this morning. I finished it when I got home from work.

I devoured every last word.

Quite a family you have there, Robison.
The Muse said…

I, too, am so proud of the dignified way that you have addressed this issue.

Your response is honest, insightful, and eloquent. Indeed, memory is selective; and how we choose to assimilate the facts has more to do with our attitude and point of view. Perception is an ACTIVE process of interpreting and filtering external information to mirror our internal paradigm of reality. The mind will always choose the simplest model of reality to fit all of the supporting evidence. Therefore, your brother's experience is very REAL to him. The specific details may vary slightly or sometimes conflict because of your individual perspectives.


I absolutely love your quote from Tolstoy:

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

What a brilliant observation of this controversy...
John Robison said…
Thanks so much to all of you for your support . . . and now, I'm back to brain plasticity . . .

D. T. said…
Thank you so much for commenting on my blog post. That means a lot! Keep up the great work, too. You brothers are a force to be reckoned with! You have so much to be proud of.
Mary Witzl said…
I can't imagine that I will ever write a memoir about my family, but if I did, this sort of discrepancy would absolutely come up. My sisters and I live on different continents, but on the rare occasions we meet and discuss the events of our childhood, we invariably remember things differently and we often have to agree to disagree. In writing a memoir, all you can do is present yourself and the events of your life as you remember them -- not necessarily casting yourself in the best possible light. I'm generally inclined to believe what I've read when the author has made herself look less than perfect.
It's an amazing life story - all of it - whether told by your or your brother's perspective. That you are both able to so eloquently express your pasts is an amazing feat not lost on me. Kudos and blessings!

And, congrats on your new status as an honorary graduate. :)
Molly said…
With all the stories from his life your brother has written, there are people out there who are only just now realizing he tells them exactly as he experienced it at the time? That's at the heart of his genius. To him it was a gun, period, and in his story, that's what matters.
When I read either of you write about the other, I love the way the 2 of you genuinely like and respect each other.

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