The Nature of Memory, with Augusten Burroughs
Augusten Burroughs was born Christopher Richter Robison in Pittsburgh, PA on October 23, 1965 and raised in Western Massachusetts. Augusten's parents struggled with alcoholism and mental illness and they separated when he was twelve. Augusten stopped attending school and his parents' longtime psychiatrist became his legal guardian. At seventeen, he moved to the Boston area and graduated from Control Data Institute with a diploma in Computer Programming and System's Analysis and Design but never worked in the technology industry. Instead he moved to San Francisco and at 19 became the youngest copywriter in the city. His work attracted national acclaim and in 1989 he was invited by Ogilvy & Mather, New York, to work on their flagship American Express account. Augusten found great success in the Manhattan advertising community, eventually working for many of the top agencies where he created global ad campaigns for worldwide brands. Almost eighteen years after accepting his first advertising job, Augusten left the industry to pursue a career as an author. Two years later, his 2002 memoir, Running with Scissors, became a publishing phenomenon, spending over three consecutive years on the NYT bestseller list. It was made into a movie starring Annette Bening and Alec Baldwin. All of Augusten's subsequent books — Dry, Magical Thinking, Possible Side Effects, A Wolf at the Table, You Better Not Cry & This is How — were instant NYT bestsellers. In 2013, Augusten married his literary agent and best friend, Christopher Schelling, received a Lambda Literary Award, and was honored with a Doctorate of Letters from the Savannah College of Art and Design. Augusten is also a self-taught gemologist with a special interest in jade. He collects and sells vintage and estate jewelry, photographs people, and recently directed his first music video. Augusten and his husband Christopher live in a 200 year old house in rural Connecticut with their three dogs.
Question: Is acute memory an affliction?
Augusten Burroughs: It’s a double-edged sword in the sense that it’s very vivid, so when I was writing "[A] Wolf at the Table," for example, my fingers were cold. It was like I was writing outside in the winter and my heart would be pounding and I would be scared. It was very real. Those memories come back and they come back in full force and it can be overwhelming so that’s one edge of the sword; that’s the side of the sword that cuts.
The other edge is that it is possible to access those memories. Those aren’t lost to me. I know some people who don’t have any memories really before the age of 12 and I’m astonished by that. I’ve often been asked “How can you remember a conversation you had when you were 10?” And I just find it fascinating that you can’t, 'cause I can remember being a baby. I can remember being not only 15 months old, where A Wolf at the Table begins, but I can remember being about 8 months old, so it’s--my brother, John Elder Robison, has Asperger's syndrome, and he’s become--and he’s an authority on the topic and he does a lot of lectures and he does a lot of work with people who are on the spectrum. So that’s autism, Asperger’s, and he’s found out something very interesting in his meetings with people who have--who are neuroatypical in that many of them have incredible childhood memories, very vivid childhood memories.
So my brother has wondered if perhaps Asperger’s, autism runs more deeply in the family than just within himself. His son was recently diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. They think he might have it. I don’t know that it’s a firm diagnosis but they’re thinking he’s looking like he might. Now if my nephew does have Asperger’s it’s sort of much lighter. It’s "Asperger’s Lite," because he’s very--he is very social but he’s a genius, an absolute genius, so my brother has wondered if perhaps there is some of that in me, if something in my brain is similar to what is in his brain and that’s why in fact we have this peculiar memory where our childhood is very accessible to us.
Question: Are memories ever truly accurate?
Augusten Burroughs: Memory is an interesting thing. The way that--my understanding of how memory works is when an event occurs the neurotransmitter basically tattoos the sort of neural fiber in a distinctive pattern and then that tattooed neural fiber is put away in a filing cabinet and that’s the memory.
Now when you go back and you open that file drawer and you pull out that tattooed neuron the act of pulling it out of the file drawer changes the shape of the tattoo so a new couple of lines to the tattoo are added and the memory is no longer pure; it’s now a little bit different. So then you put it back and you take it out again and each withdrawal of that memory alters the physical memory in our brain. In other words, it--each time you recall a memory it alters the actual memory.
The structure of the patterns of the neurotransmitters on the neuron in the brain is altered each time you access the memory so that when we have a memory from childhood.
For example, when I was 6 my father tripped over the Christmas tree and all the Christmas ornaments broke, and then you tell that story every year for the rest of your life. By the time you’re 30, you’re no longer recalling the original incident. You are now telling the story of the story of the story so it becomes like a game of Telephone. Now the way I wrote A Wolf at the Table and Running with Scissors is interesting because these were periods of my life where I didn’t want to think about so when I turned 18--after "Running with Scissors," when I turned 18, the first thing I did after my birthday was change my first, middle and last name and move to California. I was a new person. I didn’t have that childhood; it never happened.
Now although I had written these journals throughout that period of time, I didn’t read them. I didn’t throw them away but I didn’t read them. I kept them in a box and I just blocked it out of my head so that many years later when I came to write Running with Scissors and I read these journals those original memories that were created under enormous duress so they were very vivid came back in full force. And that’s why I was able to trust them because they were not memories that I had recycled and told and told and told and told again and warped in my head. They were very true and it was the same thing with A Wolf at the Table. So it’s fascinating how that works.
Recorded on: April 30, 2008.
Augusten Burroughs does not possess the blessing of forgetfulness.
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