A Wolf at the Table: a Memoir of My Father might very well be the most terrifying non-fiction book I have ever read. Burroughs takes the reader on a journey through some of his earliest childhood memories, painting a picture of what his father was really like. In short, his father was, in my opinion, a monster.
The book starts out with a very young Augusten and his mother fleeing the house, and hiding out in hotels, because they weren’t “safe” at home with his father. Which means that some of the earliest memories he has of his father are equated with “not safe”.
This is for good reason. Not only is his father an alcoholic, he is also manipulative, sometimes violent, and definitely dangerous. The word “sociopath” comes to mind. Augusten has reoccurring nightmares that involve his father chasing him at night through the woods that surrounded their house.
In these dreams, Augusten is certain that his father means to kill him, and thinks that it might be because his dad killed someone and buried the body in the woods. As an adult, Burroughs wonders how much of this nightmare was real, and how much was a dream? Could this have happened? His exploration into that fragmented possible memory is where this book about his father comes from.
What is certain is that his father was a monster. Young Augusten witnessed his father verbally abuse his mother (and overheard him physically abuse her some nights as well). He would often wake up to find his father standing menacingly over him as he was asleep in bed. One of their dogs used to protect Augusten (until his father somehow got the dog on his side).
This is a man who would willingly and intentionally let pets die from neglect. He was also neglecting Augusten, refusing to give him any affection or attention at all whatsoever. There are painful stories in this book about how badly young Augusten just wanted his father to love him, only to be shunned over and over again.
What makes this even more sad is that his father did not treat his older brother the same way. In fact, when Augusten and his mother have to flee the house again (and again) because they are “not safe from your father”, the older brother does not have to run away with them. Somehow, he is safe, but Augusten is not. It is heartbreaking to read how much young Augusten just wanted his father to love him, and to be denied that love, intentionally, by his horrible father.
I could never understand why his mother decided to return to his father at all, but she did. His mother was never very psychologically stable to begin with (as readers of Running With Scissors may recall), and I can see where living with Augusten’s father would push her over the edge.
At one point, Augusten’s mother goes away to get some mental help for herself, leaving Augusten home, alone, for days on end with his father. The man mumbles words of gibberish to himself, while sharpening knives. He drinks for hours, and leaves Augusten to starve and hope that his mother will return home soon. Absolutely terrifying.
Do not expect to find any of Burroughs sarcastic wit in this book. This one is deadly serious, but just as achingly honest as his other books. In A Wolf at the Table we have some snapshots of what it is like to grow up with a dad who is insane, and mean, and brutal, but can appear to be perfectly normal to outsiders when he wants to.