Words On Homo Words: William S. Burroughs, Jr. III

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Continuing our week long look at bookish homos, their works, and their legacies, we’d like to take a look at William S. Burroughs Jr III, son of the famed gay writer of the same, intentionally more original, name. While Burroughs Jr. himself wasn’t gay, he’s garnered a gay following as much for Beat-inspired prose and keen sense of emotional turmoil, as for his famous father, writer of Junky and Naked Lunch.

Born in 1947 under the growing shadow of his famously drug-addicted father, Burroughs proved early on that his mind rivaled his father’s, but struggled with his identity and role in the world. Burroughs already complicated life got even more hectic after his father shot and killed his mother, Joan, in a high-stakes aiming contest.

Following Joan’s death, Burroughs went to live with his grand parents, with whom he stayed for nearly a decade before going to live with his father in Tangiers, Morocco. The father-son reunion was short-lived, however, and the younger Burroughs soon flew back to his home in America.

At fifteen, Burroughs took a page from his father’s book, so to speak, by shooting his friend in the neck, an accident that led to his stay in a mental hospital. Like so many things in his life, the stay was cursory and Burroughs again returned to Palm Beach.

With his father abroad and his mother dead, and dealing with more mental turmoil than any child should ever have to confront, Burroughs took up drugs, taking his father’s lead in stealing prescription pads from hospitals. Not surprisingly, Burroughs landed in legal trouble and got trucked to a rehab facility.

As he got his life on track, Burroughs met and married Karen Perry, but the marriage broke a few years later under the weight of Burroughs’ alcoholism. Despite a healthy career, Burroughs never quite escaped the alienation that plagued him his entire life.

After a liver transplant in 1976, doctors and friends urged Burroughs to get his act together, but Burroughs either refused or simply couldn’t heed their warnings. Within five years, he’d be dead of liver failure.

After the jump, enjoy an excerpt from the forthcoming, Cursed From Birth: The Short, Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs Jr, edited by David Ohle to be published by Soft Skull Press November 1st.

William S. Burroughs Jr. III, son of Naked Lunch. Born in Conroe, Texas, July 21, 1947, 4:10 A.M. without consult or consultation. My mother (Joan was her name) must have been a remarkable woman. During the entire course of my fetal development, she consumed enough Benzedrine daily to kill Lester Maddox outright while Big Bill, my father, took three bangs of H a day to keep up with her in his own ivied and contemplative way. I was born to conversation and to an alfalfa farm in the Rio Grande valley. The main crop, marijuana, grew between the rows. My father had hired a guy name of Jose to tend the fields, and a couple of times a week he’d go down there and nudge him in the ribs. “Hey Jose, what’s that growing in my alfalfa? Haw, haw, heh, heh.”
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We split for Mexico City almost the moment I was born and all I can remember of the valley is the hot droning of locusts in the distance as seen, yes, seen, through gasoline fumes and the net over my crib (under a flat tree near a flat white house) to keep out the scorpions, beastly black things that danced and capered together between the blasted gnarled roots of trees until one was dead, flexing spasmodically, the other crooked and haywire.

I have no memory of our flat in the native quarter of the city for reasons soon to become evident, but the spiral staircase that led down from our top floor was banked with cool blue walls that kept out the heat. Perhaps I was just young enough then to feel the temperature of the color. At the bottom of the stairs, in poncho and sunlight, was my little Mexican friend, Micco, who was the proud possessor of a white rabbit named Chili. I had never worn shoes in my life until one day Chili thumped up to one of my brown and bare toes and bit me like a Gila monster. I went crying to my mother wah!, who was soft and warm and pulsing, and not only got a set of shoes, but also a fresh can of beans.

I had a half sister named Julie, full of smiles, a tiny naked dancer who was my mother’s daughter. She was only two years older than I, and the first hint of disaster was an impossibly mad drive along whimsically sudden changing mountain roads, with Allen Ginsberg in the car with us, terrifying glimpses of death, rusting wreckage far below and hearing my mother saying, “Ha ha, how fast can this old heap go?” Julie and I spent the trip on the floor of the back in the intimacy of fear as Allen pleaded with the driver to slow down. Finally we hit something and there was a little blood, but not much. The driver was not my father and Allen tells me that for a long time there was some doubt as to whose child I actually was. (If they only knew.) But I have my father’s chin and I have his heart and spend no time in the forest licking imaginary wounds.
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My father, pale and haunted, took me to a park all agreen with dusty Mexican trees futilely waving away the wind from a cloudless blue sky. I was nauseous but happy as we stood by a fountain, a big one that touched my face with spray in points of light. By the water, he unveiled his gift: a red boat that ran on alcohol- soaked cotton ignited in the stern. An awesome machine with real fire. “We have to be careful now,” he said with the utmost gravity as he shakily lit the cotton and then the little boat chugged crazy circles on the water. But my eyes were on three teenagers with greasy hair who were watching us from the other side of the water. They were snickering and I was afraid of them.

At this time, Bill was looking straight into the abyss. The rock he’d built upon was rattling and crumbling and echoing down from beneath his feet and he was pale and thin. I was his main concern there by the fountain, but over the yearning and pain that he felt for me hung something heavier. Like lead, but molten and smelling of gunpowder and burnt copper. The Burroughs Curse. I don’t know when it was first visited upon us, but I felt it then and the chug, chug, snicker, snicker painted a very lasting picture.

After the shooting, Julie went away, never to be seen by me again. Allen was not allowed to see her and it was clear that Bill would have been dried and cured on sight. As to myself, my father made the wisest choice available and took me to live with my grandparents in St. Louis. I remember arriving at their house on a hill all afeard with a piece of paper crumpled in my hand and asking, “Where’s the wastebasket?” My father had always been a stickler about litter. “Now Billy, there’s enough crap around, huh?” And then he was gone to suffer in abominable ways and to write or more accurately transcribe Naked Lunch. No shit man, he stayed not upon the order of his going but went at once. “Wouldn’t you?”

I was taken in without reticence and with great compassion. My grandmother was Laura Lee Burroughs, aristocratic, proud, possessed of great strength and a great disgust for all things pertaining to bodily functions. She had once been extraordinarily beauti¬ful, and wielded enormous power. My grandfather was Mortimer P. Burroughs, known as “Mote,” a name picked up in the south. He was kind and gentle, and while largely under Laura’s thumb, still provided most of the merriment in the house. “Oh-h Mote!” she would say as he’d slip into his favorite story, fraudulently aweep about the time he ate a robin for Christmas dinner.

I loved my grandfather deeply when I was a child. When I was five, in the St. Louis twilight, he took me out into the cool grasses where we deep-lunged blue light and looked for the first star. He would drop silver dimes in the grass and tell me angels were dropping them for me. And I would gather them up and give them back. I knew that angels had somehow dropped them. They fairly shone with stardust.

I felt small in my bed, but secure with my big grandfather there, reading Horton Hatches the Egg to me. In Palm Beach, Florida, when he went swimming in the ocean, I would cry until he came home. And he and I played a game called Our House. Laura was never included, nor did she ever try to join in. The game consisted of imagining a strange, forbidding place, a mountaintop or a cave, preferably inaccessible, surrounded by tangles of vine and bramble. And this would be the place where we built “our house.” Years after Mote died, I was just beginning to understand what the game was meant to teach me.

I remember how he chuckled to himself when he found me crying at the bottom of our steep driveway in winter. I couldn’t get up the drive because it was iced over and I didn’t think to walk in the snow. I remember all of us sitting on the back porch. I was welcome on any lap and we’d watch the cars make the water spray on the thruway a mile away.

We all slept in the same room, and Laura had a ritual. I would say, “My foot hurts,” and she would sit on the bed and massage my calves until I fell asleep. Or she would reach across from her bed to mine and hold my hand in the dark. I was unspeakably afraid of the night. My first encounter with head¬shrinkers would come over this fear of the dark. It was a bitter enemy. I even saw danger in reaching across the darkness to hold my grandmother’s hand. Something might grab it, or it could find someone else in her bed.

Still, all these years later, I am in an uneasy truce with the dark, and always shy away from its resting places. The headshrinkers didn’t know what they were doing. They dropped acid a few times and wore things around their necks. With steamer trunks of books in tow they tried to move into my house (head) and tell me how to furnish it. I gave them the guest room with the missing wall and nothing in it but a freshly killed rose and a musical note. They gave me hypnosis, Thorazineâ„¢, Ritalinâ„¢, imprisonment, kisses on my ass, and threats. They told me if I didn’t let them take care of my problem right away, I’d have difficulty with interpersonal relationships the rest of my life. They were right about that.

One psychologist hypnotized me, and in the guise of making sure I was deep under, stroked my hand–which he seemed to enjoy. He would tell me it was getting more and more numb, and that I soon wouldn’t be able to feel anything. Sometimes I didn’t when he jabbed my hand with a needle again and again, as many as five times. I know he enjoyed that, too.

From Cursed From Birth: The Short, Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs, Jr. Compiled, Edited, and Introduced by David Ohle
© 2006 The Williams S. Burroughs Trust. Reproduced by permission of Soft Skull Press, Inc. Soft Skull