where the writers are
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.  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 order my brother's book: