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Augusten Burroughs' Mother Speaks Out

Every bit of wall space in Margaret Robison's home is covered with religious icons and colorful artwork -- some her own paintings.
Every bit of wall space in Margaret Robison's home is covered with religious icons and colorful artwork -- some her own paintings.

On a rainy day, Margaret Robison sits in her wheelchair on the tiny porch behind her house. It's her favorite place for writing poetry.

The covered balcony hangs in the trees, like a diving board over the Deerfield River. Robison lives in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains, in Shelburne Falls, Mass. From her porch she looks out at the river, pockmarked by rain, and across the water to big green hills covered in clouds.

"When I write on the porch, I never know what's going to attract my attention," she says. "Maybe it's gong to be one leaf. Or I notice an apple beginning to turn red. Or a duck floats by. I never know. A cloud changes shape."

A Son Named Chris

Robison defines herself as a writer. She's a poet who uses words to describe her world and to make sense of her life. In her poems, she's described her stroke and recovery from it and the time she spent in a psychiatric institution. But the words of her son, memoirist Augusten Burroughs, cast her in a harsh light.

There have been few mothers as monstrous as the one in his memoir Running with Scissors. In it, Robison is described as so cold and self-absorbed that she gives away her young son to her psychiatrist.

Robison calls her son Chris, the name she gave him at birth. He was 18 when he started calling himself Augusten Burroughs.

"First of all, Chris is Chris to me. Augusten Burroughs is a fiction to me," says Robison. "I know a little bit about Augusten Burroughs. I met him in San Francisco. When Chris called me and asked me to come. And he was lost, he said. I met Augusten Burroughs there. But Augusten Burroughs and Chris are not quite the same."

In Running with Scissors, Burroughs writes that he was "just a kid" when his mother sent him away to live with the psychiatrist. He was 13 when he started having sex with a 33-year-old pedophile who was loosely attached to the family. Burroughs says his mother paid no attention to him because she was too busy dreaming of becoming a famous poet and writer.

'He's My Son'

Robison won't say what did — or didn't — happen 30 years ago. There are more generous explanations: That she was struggling with her own mental illness and that her son, by moving in with the doctor, could transfer to a better school. Still, Robison offers no defense or mitigating circumstances for her conduct as a mother.

"I've had to forgive myself for many things," she says. "To forgive my son. I have worked a long time with forgiveness."

The family of the psychiatrist sued Burroughs, accusing him of making up events to make his book more marketable. Robison says that's something she wouldn't do.

"First of all, he's my son," she explains, "And I love him with all my heart."

A Chance to Grow Spiritually

Then she says something even more unexpected.

"That book of Chris's offered me the opportunity to grow spiritually in a way that nothing had offered me before," she says. "I'm grateful for that book. I'm grateful for the opportunity that it gave me to grow spiritually."

She says she's decided there's no point to rehash the past. Instead, she speaks of hope for reconciliation.

"I love my family. The most important things in my life are peace and harmony. I've come to joy and celebrate that and wish that for my son."

Robison says she hasn't seen Burroughs since the book came out, even though he lives nearby.

The Artist's Residence

There was a time when Robison was the only published author in her family. She says that she's the one who gave her son the courage to pursue publishing his work. In another memoir, Dry he tells of his battle with alcoholism. Robison says she typed 200 of his poems with the one hand she could still use after her stroke. She sent the poems to publishers and got his first work in print.

"You see, Chris and I used to be wonderful writing companions. We critiqued each others' work," she says. "At the time we were talking everyday, maybe two or three times a day."

Margaret Robison is 70. Her left side is paralyzed and in her wheelchair, her body sags. Her hair is gray but her eyes burn and her gaze remains intense.

She lives in a tiny house where every bit of wall space and every shelf is filled with religious icons and colorful artwork. Her postcards of flowers, art and personal heroes such as Emily Dickinson and Frida Kahlo are lined up precisely.

There are a few photos of her famous son, too, as a playful child and as a serious adult.

Robison is surrounded by a circle of supportive friends who are fiercely loyal to her. Some know she's the mother in "Running with Scissors," but it doesn't matter to them. The Margaret Robison they describe is warm, generous and wise. They say she's a woman at peace.

Debbie Yaffee's has known Robison for years but read Running With Scissors only after seeing a story in the newspaper about it.

"I read that book and I just was broiling," she says. "I was broiling. I was so angry that he would do this. Just [presenting] this lopsided view making her look so terrible."

She told Robison how angry she felt, and then was surprised by her friend's reaction.

"She just like laughed. She was like, that's just her son," Yaffee says. "And she truly, truly had no sense of upset, anger — oh, he's nasty. Nothing,"

The Poetry Box

Robison has met many of her friends through her poetry. Outside of her home sits a wooden box on a pole which Robison calls her poetry box. Every day, one of Robison's poems is posted inside for anyone passing by to read.

Kathleen O'Rourke discovered the poetry box on her walks into town.

"I don't miss a poem," she says. "I look for them. I read them several times."

Under the box, there's a drawer with paper and pencil. One day O'Rourke left a note which said: "I love having poetry to read on my walk and I'll make sure I bring my glasses every time."

O'Rourke, a nurse, teaches students who are getting certified as nurse aides at the local community college. She reads them Robison's poems about her stroke and about being rushed to the hospital. O'Rourke says such Robison poems as "After the Seizure" and "Margaret From Kenya Is Washing My Body" tells the aides that their work is important.

"Often they don't feel capable because they don't know all this emergency-emergency stuff that the paramedics and nurses and doctors know," O'Rourke says. "And they think they're not important. Margaret's poem points out how important that person is that takes your hand, that looks at you, amid the flurry that's going on around your body."

Robison says she only scanned her son's book about her and has no intention of seeing the upcoming movie unless her son comes to take her. She says that she felt hurt by her son's angry and harsh words in Running with Scissors, but quickly adds that she's past that now and seems proud of his success.

"At this point, Running with Scissors the book and the movie are a great part of Chris' life," she says. "But it's part of his life. It's not a part of my life. That book really touches me very little. It's not my focus. My focus is on my spiritual growth, and largely through poetry. And that is what my life is about. That plus, certainly to do everything I can to hold my family in love."

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Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.
In her nearly 20 years at NPR, Tracy Wahl has established herself as a champion for innovation in the newsroom. She was among the first at NPR to embrace social media as a way to engage audiences and deepen our journalism through crowd-sourced reporting. She launched Morning Edition's first Twitter account, and led the program's early ventures into multi-platform storytelling.