Several years ago, a woman who lived three houses down the street from me lent me a copy of Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. This is what happens when English teachers live down the street from one another. She didn’t belong to our neighborhood book club, which was hosted at one of the houses between our two houses, because she didn’t usually do those kinds of joiner things, but I was all about drinking wine and talking about books, so I had joined.
As soon as I finished Fadiman’s book, I picked up the book for our next book club meeting, George Howe Colt’s The Big House, another memoir. Some of you already know where this is going. About two or three pages into the book, everything seemed very familiar, as though I already knew this family. A quick Google search confirmed: Colt and Fadiman were married to each other. That I read the books back-to-back was a bizarre coincidence never to repeat itself.
Somehow, I found myself reading Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian, by John Elder Robinson, on my phone while working through a paper copy of Running With Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs, before bed each night.
So here I am, reading along in both and thinking, “This is so fucking weird. They both grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, where I grew up. They had bad, bad childhoods in Amherst, where I had a bad, bad childhood. Is Amherst just the scene of miserable childhoods?” Because these dudes have different last names, it took awhile for me to realize they are brothers.
Another reason, perhaps, is that these guys present radically different perspectives on their childhoods. Now, maybe Robinson’s Asperger’s colors the way he perceives things, but he isn’t all that pissed about his childhood. He acknowledges that his father is a drunk and his mother is a lunatic, but he also credits them with helping him as he grew up. Burroughs, on the other hand, rakes his horrendous parents over the coals, hilariously and painfully.
Did their age difference have something to do with it? Or perhaps it’s because Robinson is writing a book about Asperger’s, not crazy mothers? Or is one telling only part of the truth? But then, memoir is always only part of the truth. You leave things out when you don’t want to hurt people, you arrange things to be artistically coherent, and you meld together two days for the sake of brevity. I take no issue with this, and my rule as a memoirist is always tell the absolute, ugliest truth about myself, but feel free to spare any others by leaving stuff out or to run it through a writerly lens. If memoirs were just factual, they’d be boring as hell. I intend to preface any books I ever publish with that disclaimer. Nothing I tell is untrue, but if Henry David Thoreau could meld two years into one to give Walden a strong structure, I’m allowed a little leeway, as well, as long as I’m never trying to make someone else look worse or to make myself look better. Does that make sense? I value honesty, not naked facts, which seems to be much the way Burroughs approached his book. I have absolutely no doubt that the doctor’s turds were removed and set out to dry, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Burroughs had to fictionalize some of the dialogue around it or edit out some detail that would make Hope look pathetic.
Anyway, both books were excellent. I learned a lot from Be Different. It’s a wonderful way to learn the perspective of someone on the spectrum. I laughed a lot with Running With Scissors. And cringed regularly.
Anyone want to recommend any other family-tie book pairings I could try out?