Take your facts and shove 'em

  • 13 December 2006
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There was yet another extraordinary blast of outrage this week in the American press over a book that was supposed to be non-fiction. The new issue of Vanity Fair takes a deep swipe at Augusten Burroughs, who wrote the bestselling book Running with Scissors.


It is described by its publishers as “a memoir”, which is supposed to give it a degree of validity. Further validity is given by the fact that it has just been released by Sony as a major motion picture. With so much “validity” at stake, it was not surprising that the book and film would come under a media microscope. In Running with Scissors, Burroughs writes of his early family life with his parents and their seek-and-destroy arguments. When his parents separate, his mother abandons Burroughs in the hopes of becoming a famous poet. That's clue number 10,000 to a series of deranged minds in a deranged American upbringing. At the age of 12, Burroughs is sent to live with his mother's psychiatrist, as well as some of the doctor's patients. At the psychiatrist's home, children do as they want. They sleep late, they wreck the house, they miss school, they embark on wild sexual adventures, they have parties for their breakdowns and they are given pills for all their ills. Burroughs writes explicitly – and often beautifully – of that peculiar American childhood that can only be understood through distortion. However, Vanity Fair now says that Running with Scissors contains only one or two strands of fact. Worse still, it seems, is that these facts have been wildly embellished. “If you take those facts away you don't have much of a book,” says the reporter, Buzz Bissinger. Bissinger interviews the Turcottes, the real-life western-Massachusetts clan with whom Burroughs lived as a teenager, and reveals that the family is suing the author for defamation. “They took him in and did their best and he turned around and wrote about them in the most vile way possible,” Bissinger said in an interview with the Boston Globe. “It's totally gratuitous.” Gratuitous indeed.

One other author who got a hiding from the media for “gratuitous embellishment” last year was James Frey, who wrote A Million Little Pieces. Frey was exposed for his lies on thesmokinggun.com after they couldn't find his mugshot for a running gag on the internet site. It was then that Frey's life unravelled at his feet. True, he had brought a lot of it on himself. He had exaggerated his misdemeanors, exploited the facts of some tragic deaths, allowed Oprah Winfrey to celebrate him in her book club, sold a couple of million books on the strength of her nomination, stuck his chin out against talk-show host Larry King, even brought his mother onto live TV to defend him, but ultimately ended up ruined and abandoned on every internet site but his own. What few people talked about at the time was the gleeful hypocrisy with which the media went at Frey. And now they are foaming at the mouth for Burroughs too. What is at question here is the notion of “fact”. The American media seems to think that fact is an unquestionable thing, that fact is solid, that fact is only told one way. If you call something a memoir then it must be absolutely true. It must be written with an A to Z sweep.

There can be no coloured lenses. But there lies an extraordinary hypocrisy behind this, given the politics of the nation for the past six years. “Facts” were the things that sent American troops to Iraq. The “fact” was that Colin Powell held up a photograph. The “fact” was that it was a photo of a chemical tanker. The “fact”, therefore, was that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. And then the “fact” was that Bush and his regime had to go fight for “freedom”. But facts are mercenary bastards. They can be manipulated, distorted, packed up in whatever cardboard box you want and shipped out of the orphanage. Facts are facile, mobile things, especially in the wrong hands. This week, when Burroughs hit the headlines and echoes of Frey came back, nobody on television was calling George Bush an outright liar. Very few media outlets were humiliating him with the assertion that he perceives truth as a tactic, which he plainly does. Not many were prepared to pull him asunder for his acrobatic simplicities. And there still wasn't a whole lot of questioning of what those lies will mean for the next two years while he's still in power. Frey may have lied. Burroughs may have exaggerated. But ultimately, theirs is not a series of falsehoods where life and death are at stake. They wrote stories that were ultimately designed to entertain. That they misled people is their own cross to bear. George Bush and his regime, on the other hand, are responsible for many thousands of deaths. Some organisations claim it's now over 600,000. That's not a fact but it has the texture of sadness. It amounts to six Hiroshimas. It can never be said enough. And that's a fact. Or at least fact enough.