Cursed from Birth: The Short, Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs Jr.

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Review by Tom Bowden

The son of a heroin-addicted father and an alcoholic mother addicted to Benzedrine, William S. Burroughs, Jr. had the kind of start in life most of us would rather avoid. Things went downhill from there when he was four after his father shot and killed the mother in Mexico. His older sister (whom he was to never see again) was sent to live with his mother’s parents, and Billy was sent to live with his father’s parents. His father skipped the country and lammed it to Tangiers, where he remained addicted to various opiates, smoked lots of dope, and wrote what would become a seminal 20th century classic of avant-garde fiction, Naked Lunch.

Cursed from Birth book coverGrowing up in the comfortable upper middle class surroundings of Palm Beach, Florida, and sent to private schools, Billy, as the son of privilege, nonetheless flailed about, an emotional misfit. His father, always distant before the shooting, he saw only on short, occasional visits to the U.S. after the shooting. (The book’s cover is particularly chilling, showing a picture of father and son, Billy appearing to be six or seven years old, with the father’s arm coming from around and behind the boy, but with his hand frozen just inches above his son’s shoulder. Whether the picture was snapped in mid-pat or just before Burroughs, Sr. gripped Billy’s shoulder, the picture nonetheless captures the emotional distance between the two.)

Cursed from Birth is a sad but compelling autobiography of a self-destructive soul (Billy) who acts as if he is fated for his particularly grueling death: hemorrhaging from cirrhosis of the liver (his second one) by the age of 35. Pieced together from notes toward a third novel he was too drug-addled to finish, and complimented by numerous interviews with people who knew him — including Burroughs, Sr., Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, and others — Cursed forms a mosaic not unlike a shattered mirror reassembled.

Billy begs for money, steals from his grandmother, gets stoned with his dad, and endures a liver transplant that never quite heals and leaves him in chronic pain:

The wound, as I called it, was three inches across, eighteen inches long, and as deep as my backbone. I was gutted like a Halloween pig. It couldn’t be stitched up because of infection danger and had to heal from the inside out. When the nurse first saw it, she said, “Oh my God!” Which scared me to death. Just what I needed. And it had to be washed out with saline at least three times a day and disinfected. Slosh it in with a squirting machine, suck it out with a vacuum machine. The first time I looked down at what they were doing, I said it, too: “Oh my God!” I didn’t look down there again for weeks.

For the pain they gave me only enough Demerol to maybe cure a headache — 25mg. I used to mainline 400 and go for a walk.

And in between the bouts of pain, the half-hearted attempts to find work, the failed marriage and love affairs, is lots and lots and lots and lots of drinking.

I read Cursed from Birth as a fan of the author’s father. I wrote my master’s thesis on him in 1988, for which I also interviewed him (before he decided to “turn on the charm” to strangers, as he phrases it in his Last Words). I suspect most readers of Cursed will read it for the same reason — to find out more about the father — even though Billy’s first two books, Kentucky Ham and Speed, are still in print. From that angle emerges a man quite at odds with his public persona. (For all his hard-ass talk, Burroughs, Sr. struck me as actually quite shy.) We find a father doing everything he can — within the realm of letting his son take responsibility for his own behavior — to help his son through hard times, who sobs uncontrollably at the hospital when his son undergoes the liver transplant that could kill him (not that Billy had many options at that point in his dissolute life), who is angrily frustrated by his son’s steadfast insistence on blaming everybody else but himself for his troubles.

Cursed from Birth also stands on its own merits as a document chronicling abuse, addition, apathy, desperation, self-destruction, and death. No one comes out of this autobiography an angel, and nobody comes out wholly evil, either. Everyone here does their share of dumb things and good, motivated by conflicting desires and opinions as to what is best, what is right.

Recommended reading.

Tom Bowden is freelance writer and editor. This text was originally published by the Education Digest. When the Education Digest removed it from its web site, Mr. Bowden graciously offered it to RealityStudio so that fans of Burroughs have a chance to read the one review about this cursed book. (Thank you Tom Bowden!)
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