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William S. Burroughs

Burroughs lived a very interesting life, all over the world. Most people can't afford to do this, because they have to work for a living. Burroughs was the grandson of the inventor of the Burroughs adding machine. Although he often stated that his family was not wealthy, they were able to give him an allowance which gave him the freedom to pursue his interests. After graduating from Harvard (the usual college choice of the impoverished), he travelled around, hovering mostly around New York.

William Burroughs. The Beats

In New York he met and began hanging out with the people who would eventually become known as the Beats. In particular, Burroughs had a close sexual relationship with Allen Ginsberg. This relationship caused Burroughs some amount of unhappiness throughout his life because, although he respected Burroughs as an artist and friend, he wasn't that sexually attracted to him. Their sexual relationship lasted a fairly short period of time, but it appears that Burroughs would have preferred it to be a life-long love affair.

William Burroughs. Burroughs also met Joan Vollmer around this time and place. Vollmer would be a principal participant in what is probably the one thing Burroughs is best known for: the William Tell Incident. Before that, however, Burroughs and Vollmer had a son, William Jr., who would get little more from his father than his name.

The Opiates

During this period, Burroughs began the most consistent and long lasting relationship of his life: his relationship with the opiates. In New York, Burroughs discovered morphine and quickly became addicted to it. Unlike most opiate addicts, however, Burroughs seems to have changed his relationship often with relatively little difficulty. Sometimes he was addicted; sometimes he was chipping; sometimes he was not using at all.

At this time, Burrough finished his first published book, now known as Junk, about his drug experiences. It was published as a sensationalistic novel titled Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict. In retrospect, this title would have served well for a Burroughs autobiography. One of the reasons that Burroughs is such an icon is that he never did repent his drug use.

The William Tell Incident

William Burroughs. Burroughs and Vollmer, who was a Benzedrine user, decided to move south where they could better acquire their drugs of choice. This led them to Mexico City in 1951. Burroughs had a lifelong love affair with guns and he was very capable with them. It is said that from time to time, Burroughs and Vollmer would put on a "William Tell" demonstration where he would shoot an apple off of her head.

On September 6, after the consumption of much alcohol and speed--and who knows what other drugs--they decided to do the demonstration again. This time, however, things did not go well. Whether it was due to the large quantity of drugs consumed, a problem with the gun, or just plain bad luck, no one can say. Not a lot is known about that night. What is known is that Burroughs did not hit the apple; instead, he shot Vollmer in the face, killing her instantly.

Burroughs was arrested and jailed for a short period of time, but his family was able to get him released. Burroughs never did spend much time in jail for any reason.

William Burroughs. One could not say that Burroughs was a traditional writer in any sense. His books were usually cobbled together from his notebooks, often as a group project with other beat notables such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. This undoubtedly added to the style of the books. It is not hard to imagine how impenetrable a book like The Naked Lunch was to readers in the late 1950s. They can be hard to decipher by modern readers.

After the Mexico City incident, Burroughs spent a lot of his time in Tangier. Burroughs was quite fond of codeine his whole life, and it was available over the counter in Tangier. So it was easy to stay high on a budget there.

Burroughs in Whole

Burroughs stayed busy all his life, doing a variety of things but always coming back to writing. In the last decade or so of his life he began writing relatively straight-forward fiction.

In the end, Burroughs is probably best remembered for living so long. Most people assumed that the prototypical junkie would have to die young. Instead, Burrough's life demonstrated a number of truths about junkies:

  1. Junkies don't use constantly; they use, get clean, use; sometimes they get clean for the rest of their lives.
  2. The opiates don't have a great negative effect on the body.
  3. Junkies who have a means to support themselves can life long and healthy lives.

by Dr. H © 2001
Last Modified: 3 January 2011


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