A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father

A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father

by Augusten Burroughs


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312428273
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 03/31/2009
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 285,996
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Augusten Burroughs is the New York Times bestselling author of Possible Side Effects, Magical Thinking, Dry, Running with Scissors, and Sellevision. His work has been published in more than twenty-five countries. He lives in New York City and Amherst, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Sitting in my high chair, I held a saltine cracker up to my eye and peered through one of the tiny holes, astonished that I could see so much through such a small opening. Everything on the other side of the kitchen seemed nearer when viewed through this little window.

The cracker was huge, larger than my hand. And through this pinprick hole I could see the world.

I brought the cracker to my lips, nibbled off the corners, and mashed the rest into a dry, salty dust. I clapped, enchanted.

The hem of my mother’s skirt. A wicker lantern that hangs from the ceiling, painting the walls with sliding, breathing shadows. A wooden spoon and the hollow knock as it strikes the interior of a simmering pot. My high chair’s cool metal tray and the backs of my legs stuck to the seat. My mother twisting the telephone cord around her fingers, my mouth on the cord, the deeply satisfying sensation of biting the tight, springy loops.

I was one and a half years old.

These fragments are all that remain of my early childhood. There are no words, just sounds: my mother’s breathy humming in my ear, her voice the most familiar thing to me, more known than my own hand. My hand still surprises me at all times; the lines and creases, the way the webbing between my fingers glows red if I hold up my hand to block the sun. My mother’s voice is my home and when I am surrounded by her sounds, I sleep.

The thickly slippery feel of my bottle’s rubber nipple inside my mouth. The shocking, sudden emptiness that fills me when it’s pulled away.

My first whole memory is this: I am on the floor. I am in a room. High above me is my crib, my homebox, my goodcage, but it’s up, up, up. High in the air, resting upon stilts. There is a door with a knob like a faceted glass jewel. I have never touched it but I reach for it every time I am lifted.

Above my head is a fist of brightness that stings my eyes. The brightness hangs from a black line.

I am wet-faced and shrieking. I am alone in the awake-pit with the terrible bright above my head. I need: my mother, my silky yellow blanket, to be lifted, to be placed back in my box. I am crying but my mother doesn’t come to pick me up and this makes me mad and afraid and mad again, so I cry harder.

On the other side of the door, he is laughing. He is my brother. He’s like me but he’s not me. We’re linked somehow and he’s home but he’s not home, like my mother and her voice.

Opposite this door against the wall, there is a dresser with drawers that my mother can open but I cannot, no matter how hard I pull. The scent of baby powder and Desitin stains the air near the dresser. These smells make me want to pee. I don’t want to be wet so I stand far away from the dresser.

This is my first whole memory—locked alone in my room with my brother on the other side of the door, laughing.

There is another memory, later. I am in the basement sitting on a mountain of clothing. The washer and dryer are living pets; friendly with rumbling bellies. My mother feeds them clothing. She is lifting away pieces of my mountain, placing them into the mouth of the washer. Gradually, my mountain becomes smaller until I can feel the cool of the cellar floor beneath me.

A form on the wooden stairs. The steps themselves smell sweet and I like to lick them but they are coarse and salty; they don’t taste as they smell and this always puzzles me and I lick again, to make sure. The thing on the stairs has no face, no voice. It descends, passes before me. I am silent, curious. I don’t know what it is but it lives here, too. It is like a shadow, but thick, somehow important. Sometimes it makes a loud noise and I cover my ears. And sometimes it goes away.

“Did my father live with us at the farmhouse in Hadley?”

I was in my twenties when I called my mother and asked this question. The farmhouse—white clapboard with black shutters and a slate roof—sat in a brief grassy pasture at the foot of a low mountain range. I could remember looking at it from the car, reaching my fingers out the window to pluck it from the field because it appeared so tiny. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t grab it, because it was just right there.

“Well, of course your father lived with us at the farmhouse. He was teaching at the university. Why would you ask that?”

“Because I can remember you, and I can remember my brother. And I can remember crawling around under the bushes at the red house next door.”

“You remember Mrs. Barstow’s bushes?” my mother asked in surprise. “But you weren’t even two years old.”

“I can remember. And the way the bushes felt, how they were very sharp. And there was a little path behind them, against the house. I could crawl under the branches and the dirt was so firm, it was like a floor.”

“I’m amazed that you can remember that far back,” she said. “Though, I myself can also remember certain things from when I was very little. Sometimes, I just stare at the wall and I’ll see Daddy strolling through his pecan orchard before he had to sell it. The way he would crack a nut in his bare hands, then toss those shells over his shoulder and wink like he was Cary Grant.”

“So he was there?” I pressed her.

“Was who where?” she said, distracted now. And I could picture her sitting at her small kitchen table, eyes trained on the river and the bridge above it that were just outside her window, the phone all but forgotten in her hand, the mouthpiece drifting away from her lips. “Yes, he was there.” And then her voice was clear and bright, as though she’d blinked and realized she was speaking on the phone. “So, you don’t remember your father there at all?”

“Just . . . no, not really. Just a little bit of something on the stairs leading to the basement with the washer and dryer and then this vague sense of him that kind of permeated everything.”

“Well, he was there,” she assured me.

I tried to recall something of him from that time; his face, his hands, his memorable flesh. But there was nothing. Trying to remember was like plowing snow, packing it into a bank. Dense whiteness.

I could remember the pasture in front of the house and standing among rows of corn as tall as trees. I could remember the smell of the sun on my arms and squatting down to select pebbles from the driveway.

I could remember how it felt to rise and rise and rise, higher than I’d ever gone before as my trembling legs continued to unfold and suddenly, I was standing and this astounded me and I burst out laughing from the pure joy of it. Just as I threatened to fall on my face, my leg swung forward and landed, and so fast it seemed to happen automatically, my other leg swung forward and I did it again—my first step!—before tumbling forward onto my outstretched hands.

But I could remember nothing of my father.

Until years later, and then I could not forget him no matter how hard I tried.

Copyright © 2008 by Island Road, LLC. All rights reserved.

Reading Group Guide

About this Guide

The following author biography and list of questions about A Wolf at the Table are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach A Wolf at the Table.

Discussion Questions

1. What do you make of the brief but chilling scene that opens A Wolf at the Table? How does it affect your expectations for the story that follows? If you've read Burroughs' other books, did the first pages of his new memoir shock or intrigue you? Why? How is this book a departure from his previous ones?

2. Why do you think Burroughs tells much of the memoir from the perspective of a little boy? What are the advantages and disadvantages to this approach?

3. Could the "Wolf" of the book's title be read as a metaphor that extends beyond the father? For example, can memories become more real and terrifying than the incidents or people that inspire them?

4. Compare and contrast Burroughs' portrait of his father with his portrayal of his mother in Running with Scissors.

5. In chapter two, how is Augusten's destruction of the violin a manifestation of his rage at his father? Where else in the book is Augusten's anger with his parents displaced onto something or someone else? Might Augusten's hypochondria (page 170) or his later problem with drinking (chapter eighteen) be examples of this? Why?

6. Consider Burroughs' website, www.augusten.com, where he writes about and posts videos of his dogs Bentley and Cow. Does A Wolf at the Table predict or explain his intense relationships with animals?

7. On page 31, Burroughs writes that he "felt very close to his father examining his things" because "in a way, he was his things." How can people become their "things"? What objects do you associate with those who were or are important to you in your own life?

8. How do you interpret the mother's story in chapter seven about her marriage to Augusten's father? What does her story reveal about her as well as her marriage? Does her story shed any light on the father's behavior? If you've read Running with Scissors, does his portrayal of the mother in that book complement or conflict with your understanding of the parents' marriage and Burroughs' childhood in this book?

9. On page 107, Burroughs writes: "I realized that my father was two men – one he presented to the outsideworld, and one, far darker, that was always there, behind the face everybody else saw." Do you think Augusten's father is a sociopath? Do you think his father is capable of murder? Why?

10. Do Augusten's feelings about his father truly evolve and change by the close of the book?

Customer Reviews

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Wolf at the Table 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 167 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A Wolf At The Table is the follow-up Memoir to Running with Scissors. A Wolf At The Table tells the story of another type of child abuse. It tells the story of emotional abuse and the effects of it on the adult child and is a great example why a parent should not stay in an abusive relationship for the sake of the children. A Wolf At The Table is a must read!
Mannadonn More than 1 year ago
I decided to read this book because I was pulled in by Running with Scissors by this author. I cannot say that I loved the other book but I could not put it down. I considered it to be like a train wreck. You know you should stop looking but you just can¿t help yourself. So, here I am again¿becoming completely engaged with Augusten and his life.

Whereas Running with Scissors was like a train wreck, this book pulls at your heartstrings. This book is written with the innocence of childhood. Full of complete love and adoration for a man who refuses even the slightest glance for his poor son who only wanted to be held. Augusten would fight ¿the arms¿ and try to get past them to get to his father. He would ask questions and do everything he could for his father. His father however, refused to reciprocate this love. The most Augusten ever received from his father was an automatic ¿very much I love you too¿ at bedtime.

Though childhood innocence can protect a boy from many hurts in life, this innocence does not last forever. Unfortunately, Augusten learned too soon that something was wrong or ¿missing¿ from his father. Innocence was replaced by fear, fear replaced by terror, and terror replaced by desperation. All he ever wanted was love, compassion, approval.

Though Augusten¿s father had his own share of childhood pain and torture, the cycle must be broken at some point. This man was not strong enough to do so. The ¿games¿ repeat themselves and become more sadistic.

Finishing this book I could not help but stare at the picture of Augusten Burroughs on the back cover. His eyes seemed to pierce through me and I marveled at how this man, who survived so much, could have made something so wonderful of himself. There is something in this man that helped him survive. Could it have truly been a half loaf of bread, five slices of bologna, and a can of fruit punch that pushed him to make something of himself? Was it the love he lifted from a complete stranger that was the catalyst? Either way, Augusten Burroughs has a way with words. He pulls you in and forces you to run, terrified, through the woods with him. His sadness for the ¿outside¿ dog transcends the pages and becomes your sadness. His fears of becoming his father become your fears. This is a man who grabs hold of your spirit, emotions, your soul and he refuses to let you go. You are with him and he is with you¿always.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Having read all of Augusten Burroughs' books, I was hesitant to read 'Wolf at the Table' after I saw some of the negative reviews. But I stand corrected. I think readers who didn't like this book were expecting more 'Scissors' and funny-disturbing stuff, and 'Wolf at the Table' is simply disturbing - and heart-felt at once. I loved this book. He is stunningly honest, and his detailing of events through the lens of his child self is poignant and gripping. It really makes you realize the importance of being a good parent and how much influence, good and bad, you can have on your child.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is absolutley flawless. It's the first Burroughs book I've ever read and I cannot wait to read more. The ending (don't worry, I won't say exactly what happened) had me crying until 20 minutes after I had finished reading it. The imagery in the book is amazing; it's as if I was actually there with him, experiencing everything. Overall, this book was fantastic and I suggest everyone should read it.
jmepitt More than 1 year ago
I did not care for this book very much. I thought Running With Scissors was much better in terms of writing and overall entertainment. This story sort of rambled on through the rather terrible childhood of the author. At the end of it all, I felt pretty depressed and confused about the overall message of the work... if there was one. It took me quite some time to get through this book, as it did not read comfortably. Looking back, the story was rather repetitive and anticlimactic. It's hard to write a negative review considering the author is relating the very personal tale of his unfortunate childhood... but I just didn't care for it.
crowCC More than 1 year ago
I almost stopped reading your book, I wish that I could have raised you. I am 48 years old,and your story touched my heart. I only wish I could take away your pain. Your parents were so messed up. As a mother I would have held you as much as you needed. As for your father... crazy bastard, Good luck to you, much love, Connie.
Adaptoid More than 1 year ago
A friend recommended this book before I was familiar with Burroughs' other work. While I truly enjoy his stories, vaguely similar to David Sedaris, I would rarely consider placing one in my 'favorites' category. This memoir, however, is brilliant and disturbing on a level I find difficult to describe. I can think of very few books I've read that truly alter my emotions in such a horrible way. Don't get me wrong, this is the goal of any great horror story, but this one is set in actual events. I highly recommend, along with 'Running with Scissors.'
Larry99 More than 1 year ago
Well, they sure aren't here. In his latest memoir, Burroughs shows us what it was like to have a father in his life who was not a father. Sad, thought provoking, touching. And not many jokes.
EB23 More than 1 year ago
Whether these events truly happened or not (and I don't have any reason to doubt it), Burroughs writes in his raw, smack-slap, way. More believable than Running with Scissors. Burroughs does not strike me as a likeable fellow but I can relate with his pathos.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoy Burroughs writing, but this has been one of my favorite by far. He's younger in this book than the others that I've read and as usual, it's touching, frightening and still he finds a way to make you laugh.
Dripping_Quill More than 1 year ago
A Wolf At the Table is an autobiography written by Augusten Burroughs. Burroughs writes about his experiences with his father that chill the reader to the bone. I felt like I was running away from an unseen stranger throughout the entire novel. I give it five stars, because most books cannot achieve to be real, terrifying, and heartbreaking at the same time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am a huge fan and loved the book - read it in just a few hours. After reading the book it's clear why the author struggled with drugs & alchohol in his personal life. I'm sure this was a very difficult book for him to write and I know it took a lot of courage. Now I hope he's FREE. And I thought MY family was dysfunctional!
TimBazzett on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Reading Augusten Burroughs could become habit-forming. A WOLF AT THE TABLE is the second of his books I've read this week. This one is certainly much darker than RUNNING WITH SCISSORS, largely without the hilarity and humor that marked that book. It's easy to see why when one begins to understand the tragedy of the relationship - or lack of one - between Burroughs and his father, John Robison, who was an alcoholic and dangerously depressed and disturbed. And yet his father was able to function for many years as a philosophy prof at UM-Amherst, where he wore "a mask" of normality, as Burroughs came to understand many years later. There is little here about Burroughs later life and his gay assignations and relationships - a conscious decision on the author's part, I'm sure. Because this book was meant to be all about his father - his dark silent drinking, his sudden inexplicable rages, his occasional brutality and violence toward his wife and sons. But mostly I think Burroughs was simply trying to figure it all out, perhaps to expiate the demons and understand the recurring nightmares that haunted him for decades after he left home. Judging from the structure of the book, it seems he wrote most of the book while his father was still living, but waited to finish and published it only after his father's death.This is a sad story, perhaps even a tragic one. But I think it's a better one that RwS, written with an intense and yearning honesty, resulting I think in a kind of redemptive self-discovery for Burroughs. The last couple of chapters dealing with his father's demise and its aftermath are wrenching enough to break your heart. I hope this book did rid Burroughs of his doubts, demons and nightmares. No one deserves a childhood like the one he endured.
bleached on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A sad memoir of a boy suffering from the rejection of his father. Then mental abuse this boy faces is a terrible tragedy that no child should suffer through. As it ruins his family he is forced to watch his world around him burn and ignore him.
Jennifyr on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I usually love Augusten Burroughs, but I found that this book was lacking in something. I bought it recently and started reading it, and was on the third or fourth chapter before realizing that it all sounded familiar and I had read it before. I find it less gripping and interesting than his usual novels, with nothing standing out so much, and apparently, easily forgettable. Some parts are hard to believe, especially those with him remembering parts of his very very early childhood. I feel for young Augusten, but I think his memoirs about his later life are much more interesting. Still, he is a good writer, and even his worst is still very good in my personal opinion.
ABookVacation on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I liked this book a lot. My only qualm is that, yet another book has a book jacket that sucks you in, and then barely, it ever, deals with what's on the jacket. I wanted to know about the murder/dream of the woods. Figures it doesn't deliver.
ilive2read on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I found this one of the saddest books I've ever read. It is as well written and as compelling as his other books. My caution is - if you have any issues with your father that are unresolved have a therapist on call while you read! I finished reading it one evening and found myself sobbing and unable to get to sleep for a long time.
coolmama on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Another brilliant tale of his highly dysfunctional family by Augusten. This poor guy's mother was nuts, and now we find out in the "prequel" to Running with Scissors that his drunk father, a professor at Amherst was emotionally abusive to his son (but had a different relationship with his older son) . Amazing that Augusten survived his crazy family life and became such a functional human being.
jenniferthomp75 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Although I'm usually a fan of Burroughs' work, this book left me with a bad feeling. His memoir about his father and, specifically, how awful his father was as a human being, wasn't very interesting. The entire time I was reading the book, all I could think was "what is he trying to do with this book?" Is he trying to make the reader feel sorry for him? Is he trying to get the reader to agree with him about how awful his father was?The book just felt like one big "woe is me." Not recommended.
yourotherleft on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Augusten Burroughs' father never loved him. Apparently, not even one little bit. As a child, Augusten's enthusiastic greetings were stalled by his fathers ever-interfering Arms. When young Augusten decides to keep a "scientific" tally of how many times his father says "not now" or "go away" versus how many times he says "come here," the results are so overwhelmingly negative that Augusten is ashamed to say he even tried to measure such a thing. Not only was his father astonishingly unloving, he was also, as Augusten realized not too far into his young life, remarkably unlovable. Father had a sadistic streak that made simple things like owning pets or asking to get an ice cream cone exercises in terror. One after the other Burroughs chronicles his most horrific memories of a father who was profoundly disturbed and wonders if he will grow up to be like the monster that struck terror into anyone who could see past the surprisingly normal face he projected to the outside world.If I were to give in to my first impression, I would have to say that, above all, this book is depressing. Probably the most depressing thing I've read all year, maybe the most depressing thing I've read in a few years. As the book moved into its second hundred pages I was reading it with the trepidation of the easily scared watching a horror movie (Oh nooo, don't leave the guinea pig behind with him! Don't ask to get an ice cream cone! Don't put those cookies in the shopping cart - it can only end badly!). After reading this book, there is surely no doubt in my mind that Burroughs' father was totally unhinged and reprehensible in nearly every way.So, that's my initial reaction. This book is too depressing to be enjoyed. Why would any happiness seeking human being ever want to read something so utterly dispiriting?On second look, though, it occurred to me that, whenever I could seperate myself from the unfortunate happenings inherent in this book, Augusten Burroughs is really a great writer. Despite its more depressing properties, I never once thought that I wanted to lay this book down and not finish it. From the very start, this book has a touch of brilliance. Burroughs brings to life his early childhood memories in a perfectly clear and surreal manner in which those memories tend to linger. They're filled with smells, textures, in almost photographic glimpses in which memories from such a young age seem to manifest themselves. Burroughs puts into words the essence of his childish enthusiasm for loving his father and the crushing and shameful disappointment he felt when he realized his advances never seemed to penetrate his father's, at best, indifference toward him. He pinpoints the exact moments when he began to understand, and in some measure accept, the most difficult truths about his father. He captures that tension between desperately wanting to be loved and fiercely hating the same person he can't help hoping will love him unconditionally. He insightfully contemplates what a father should be and whether he did or did not turn out to posess the worst qualities of his own father. Now that I think about it, it may be because Burroughs' writing is so skillful that this book is so hard to read. We see and feel exactly what Burroughs intends for us to see and feel through his narrative. We come to know the youngster Burroughs was, to understand his deepest desires and to be just as disappointed, angry, and fearful as he once was. A Wolf at the Table is a painful, difficult read, but it is also a sort of cathartic masterwork of a very talented writer.
brakketh on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed this book in places though not as much as some of his previous work. As always an easy and enjoyable read though I think I found the child like stories a little dull after a while. Burrough's construction of the character of his father was definitely the high point of the novel for me.
LisatheLibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed Burroughs previous works. This is not as light-hearted as his other books, but just as compelling and horrific. This is a dark book -- if you haven't read his book "Running with Scissors", then read that first and then this one. They are essentially book-ends about his years as a child growing up, not just about his life, but his evolution as a writer as well.
shmuffin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A dark twisted recount of a disturbed childhood with a sociopath father who refuses to show interest or affection in his youngest son. It's a moving story that is horrifying to imagine being real. A must read that will cause any father to pick up sons or daughters and kiss them over and over.
meditatinglibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I listened to the audiobook of this, which was quite an experience. Burroughs reads his own painful and amazingly well-written and insightful book about his father and Augusten's relationship (mainly not) with him. He uses a few sound effects and several songs written by current singer/songwriters after reading the book to add to the listening experience. An interesting and engaging production; also disturbing and painful in places.
agirlandherbooks on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Absent is the humor of Burroughs's previous books; this is a harrowing, damning tale of the cold, vicious man who was his father. That he survived is a testimony to his enduring spirit. Difficult to read.