Ten Amazing Facts About William Burroughs
Guns, the occult, literary experiments, heroin, ayahuasca, the Beatles, alien abduction…what wasn't he into?
1) Burroughs’ grandfather, William Burroughs I, was another madcap genius who, in the 1880s, invented the first ever automated adding machine. Its development had many teething problems – with the first prototypes, different pressures on the handle produced different results – and in such an enterprise there can be no half measures; either it works with complete accuracy or it’s useless. But the grandfather managed to overcome this obstacle and the machines went onto revolutionize bookkeeping, with banks and other institutions snapping them up. By 1920 the Burroughs Adding Machine Company was worth $430 million ($20 billion in today’s money), but Burroughs’ family, though wealthy, only saw a fraction of this fortune. If Burroughs’ grandfather had kept more control over the company, then Burroughs himself might actually have been as rich as Rockefeller.
2) Burroughs’ early childhood nurse dabbled in the occult and implanted ideas in his young mind that would dominate his later life. She was also responsible for a traumatic event that occurred when Burroughs was aged four, the precise nature of which remained vague despite years of psychoanalysis when Burroughs was an adult. It apparently involved the nurse making young Burroughs fellate a friend, and reflexively Burroughs bit the man’s penis and received a smack on the head. Whatever, the event naturally had a deeply disturbing effect and may well have had a hand in formulating Burroughs’ subsequent aberrant behavior.
3) Such behavior included a crazy act of self-mutilation when Burroughs was twenty-six. Insanely jealous of his then boyfriend’s dalliances with women, Burroughs cut off the top joint of one of his little fingers with poultry shears in order to present it to the boyfriend as a bizarre demonstration of his deep feelings; but instead he ended up presenting it to his psychiatrist. The young analyst was horrified and had Burroughs committed to a private clinic. Even more weirdly, the finger joint required a burial and a death certificate of its own, in case it was found and triggered a search for the remainder of a corpse. Burroughs mentions this ‘Van Goch kick’ incident early on in his first novel Junkie, using a casual tone as if it were just another average eccentricity. The subsequent psychiatric report later had the useful function of getting Burroughs discharged from army service when the war came along.
4) The major aberrant act of Burroughs’ life occurred in 1951 when he was thirty-seven, and, though homosexual, was living in Mexico City with his common-law wife Joan and their children. In a similar scenario to the finger episode, Burroughs was frustrated by his failed efforts to conduct a satisfactory affair with another – younger – man, Lewis Marker, the subject of Burroughs’ novel Queer, and his emotions seemingly tipped over into a kind of insanity. In the company of friends, Burroughs and Joan were both drunk and they colluded together in Burroughs’ so-called ‘William Tell act’, where Joan balanced a glass on her head and he was supposed to shoot it off with an automatic pistol. No one actually expected Burroughs to pull the trigger, but he did and killed Joan, and afterwards was totally aghast at what he’d perpetrated. Years later he drew upon his occult perspective and concluded that the act occurred because he was possessed by a malevolent entity called the ‘Ugly Spirit’, and later on still he said that his subsequent writing was an attempt to fight such forces of sinister control.
5) Burroughs was a lifelong opiate addict and a connoisseur of just about every drug known to man. His quest for different drug experiences took him Ecuador and Colombia in search of yagé or ayahuasca, having read that it increases telepathic powers. This was in the early ’50s, well before the dawn of the psychedelic era and when ayahuasca was virtually an unknown quantity in the west. Burroughs was therefore a pioneer of ‘ayahuasca tourism’, seeking out shamans in native settings and sampling their brews, sometimes overdosing perilously! What is remarkable is that Burroughs was the first westerner to discover the formula for the correct ayahuasca brew, including the chacruna plant, which functions as a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, activating the DMT in the ayahuasca and essential for the full-on experience. Ayahuasca had a profound effect on Burroughs, influencing his thinking and writing in groundbreaking ways.
6. Burroughs’ most famous novel Naked Lunch was first published in Paris in 1959 and caused extreme controversy in every way possible, and polarized opinions. Its highly experimental non-linear format and phantasmagorical visionary perspective, derived from heroin withdrawal, ayahuasca and massive doses of cannabis candy, won him praise from Norman Mailer, J. G. Ballard and Anthony Burgess; but the numerous explicit sex scenes, one involving an auto-erotic hanging, were deemed disgusting and pornographic in many circles, and the book faced a censorship trial upon American publication. In 1966 the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that although the book appealed to a prurient interest in sex and was patently offensive in its representation of sexual matters, it was not without redeeming social value, and was therefore not obscene in legal definition. Publication was permitted, and this was the last ever censorship trial in the United States. Naked Lunch was Burroughs junior’s ‘adding machine’ and like his grandfather’s invention it changed the times forever.
7) Burroughs’ lifelong interest in the occult got a boost when he met the painter Brion Gysin, who also collaborated with him on the famous ‘cut-up’ literary method. Gysin was an expert on Moroccan magic, secrets of which he imparted to Burroughs. They had scrying and mirror-gazing sessions at the Beat Hotel that yielded hair-raising results, and Burroughs eventually combined cut-ups and magic in a bizarre fusion that was seemingly effective. His method was to take photographs and make tape recordings in targeted places and then play them back in situ, subverting space-time, as he saw it, and thereby causing troublesome incidents. After falling out with the Scientologists, he launched an attack on their London Bloomsbury headquarters and shortly afterwards they decamped to Tottenham Court Road. Next thing, Burroughs similarly attacked the Moka Bar in Soho, where he’d received rudeness and bad service, and after several recording sessions the business began to collapse and eventually closed down. Burroughs used the incident in The Place of Dead Roads, his penultimate major work.
8) Ian Sommerville, Burroughs’ lover in the 1960s, worked for a period as a recording engineer for the Beatles, using Ringo’s flat in Montagu Square as a base for the sessions and for general hanging out. It was here that Burroughs met Paul McCartney, and the two formed a creative friendship. Whilst Burroughs experimented with his cut-up recordings, McCartney composed ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and considered incorporating cut-ups in his work. There were many stoned conversations about the possibilities of new innovations, such as the conscious-changing Dreamachine that Sommerville and Gysin had developed – this was, after all, swinging London in 1966! Burroughs and McCartney liked one another, and the latter paid the former the ultimate complement by having him included in the photomontage on the legendary Sgt. Pepper album cover, positioned next to Marylyn Monroe and below Fred Astaire.
9) Burroughs first fired a gun at age eight, accompanying his father on a duck shoot. He loved the experience and it started an obsession that would lead him to becoming a life-long classic American ‘gun nut’. He constantly engaged in target practice and often carried a pistol when going out socially. Once whilst drunk in a Mexico City bar, he got into an argument, pulled his gun and was grabbed from behind by an armed policemen, and the two had a ‘Mexican standoff’ that was fortunately defused. Even as an old man living in Kansas, he still retained a large collection of handguns, rifles and shotguns, slept with a .38 under his pillow and never went out unless armed to the teeth – not only with a pistol but also with Mace, a blade disguised as a credit card and a steel whip!
10) Burroughs’ unconventional beliefs and behaviors didn’t abate with age. In 1992 he underwent an exorcism ceremony performed by a Navajo shaman, with the intention of ridding himself of the ‘Ugly Spirit’ that had caused him to kill his wife, Joan. It proved to be an extra difficult case for the shaman, but Burroughs got the result he was seeking, saying that the atavistic ceremony did more for him than years of Western-style psychoanalysis. He also became convinced of the reality of alien abductions, and after studying case histories he concluded that the aliens’ prime motivation was sexual. Wishing to be abducted and presumably have intercourse with aliens himself, Burroughs advertised his readiness by having his lawn mowed to manifest the shape of a giant erect penis to the heavens. Surprisingly he found no takers in the alien world!
Burroughs, William, Allen Ginsberg and Oliver Harris. The Yage Letters Redux. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1963, 1975, 2006.
Miles, Barry. William S. Burroughs: A Life. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2014.
Morgan, Ted. Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs. London: The Bodley Head, 1991.