William Burroughs and the History of Heroin

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

I have had to learn the simplest things
last. Which made for difficulties.

— Charles Olson

I stood estranged from that which was
Most familiar

— Charles Olson

Olson’s Maximus, To Himself could very well be my favorite poem. I find myself returning to it again and again. For all the poetry I read, I actually know very few lines from memory, but these two lines by Olson I have taken to heart. They speak central truths to me, and since everything relates to William Burroughs, they speak them of Burroughs as well. Even those only casually aware of Burroughs and his work know three things about him. He wrote Naked Lunch; he was a drug addict; he shot his wife William-Tell-style and killed her. These are the three simple facts of Burroughs; these are the most familiar aspects of his biography. But are they also the areas from which we stand estranged?

Take the shooting of Joan Vollmer in Mexico City on September 5, 1951. Thanks to James Grauerholz’s meticulously researched essay on the shooting, we know who did it; we know how he did it; we know where he did it. And yet, quite frankly, despite all the factual details, we do not have a clue as to motive in this central event of Burroughs’ life. Can we really be satisfied with the police report description as an accidental shooting? As the introduction to Queer makes clear, Burroughs was not. There had to be a reason, a purpose for Joan’s death. For Burroughs there were no accidents, no coincidences; everything was related; like Pynchon, Burroughs is the great writer of paranoia.

As for the writing and publication of Naked Lunch, the one novel of Burroughs’ that the Average Joe knows about, so much of what we know is really myth, misinformation, and misinterpretation. Carol Loranger and Oliver Harris have begun the process of disentangling the threads of this narrative about the narrative, but like Jan Potocki’s novel, A Manuscript Found in Saragossa, one story begets another until we run out of thread and stand lost in the labyrinth. Harris is about to step into the maze again and map his journey through the Burroughs Archives as they relate to Naked Lunch. It remains to be seen whether he will ever get out of the library in any condition to tell us, precisely and definitively, the tale of his adventures.

William Burroughs Shooting HeroinThat leaves us with the one simple fact about Burroughs. He was a drug addict. The deceptive term here is “was.” The past tense is crucial. “Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness” suggests that the author of Naked Lunch got straight, clean off heroin. Many people believe that Burroughs kicked heroin around 1957 under the care of Dr. Dent and the apomorphine cure. But the dirty little secret, the open secret, of Burroughs’ biography is that he was twisted on heroin for much of his adult life and was, in fact, on methadone until the day he died. The central tenet of drug addiction is “once an addict, always an addict.” You never kick; instead you are continually kicking, until you kick the bucket. The critical book that takes into consideration all the realities of Burroughs as a user and how they relate to his biography and his work remains to be tackled, despite tentative steps in that direction like John Long’s Drugs and the Beats.

I just finished reading Eric. C. Schneider’s, Smack: Heroin and the American City. It is a fascinating book that explores the urban space that engenders the heroin market and its users. The book covers the era from 1914 to the early 1990s, roughly the span of Burroughs’ life. As Oliver Harris states in his introduction to Junky, Burroughs lived through the entire era of illicit heroin use in America starting with the Harrison Act of 1914. As a reading of Burroughs’ addiction that takes into consideration the historical facts of the heroin trade and heroin use, Harris’ introduction is the most interesting that I know of. Using Schneider’s book as a factual source on the history of heroin, I am going to attempt to build on Harris’ foundations and suggest how such a reading can shed light on Burroughs’ life and work in what I hope are fruitful ways.

New York 1944-1945

“My first experience with junk was during the War, about 1944 or 1945.” — Junkie

The fact that Burroughs began experimenting with heroin around 1944 is unusual. Heroin addiction was at an ebb during the war years with most potential users in the military and with supply lines disrupted by the conflict. One of the values of Junkie is that it provides an accurate, personal account of this neglected period in drug history. Given the scarcity of heroin and new users, it is hardly surprising that Herbert Huncke (Herman) thought Burroughs (William Lee) was heat when he showed up with morphine syrettes. The drugs and the machine gun in Burroughs’ possession were military contraband smuggled off a boat in New York harbor. Increasingly difficult to obtain after the war, legally produced drugs of this type were almost completely replaced by illegally produced drugs cultivated and manufactured abroad.

William S. Burroughs, Junkie, Ace Double, 1953The face of drug addiction was about to change as well. The Ace Junkie published in 1953 contains a prologue by Burroughs that mentions his fascination with You Can’t Win, the autobiography of a career criminal named Jack Black. Much has been made of the substantial influence this book had on Burroughs’ life and work. Black describes “an underworld of seedy rooming-houses, pool parlors, cat houses and opium dens, of bull pens and cat-burglars and hobo jungles.” So summarizes Burroughs in his introduction to the 1988 reprint of Black’s book. Reading through Naked Lunch, Nova Express, and elsewhere highlights the extent of Black’s seductive power over Burroughs.

In fact, Burroughs’ interest in heroin is rooted even further in the past, both in his personal history and, although he downplays it, in literature’s. Burroughs’ prologue to Junkie makes this clear. Burroughs writes, “I recall hearing a maid talk about opium and how opium smoking brings sweet dreams, and I said: ‘I will smoke opium when I grow up.'” Interestingly, this is probably the same maid who introduced Burroughs to sex, which Burroughs hazily remembered as some type of molestation. The central role of this maid in Burroughs’ personal mythology remains to be fully explored. Burroughs also wrote of his fantasies of becoming an opium-addicted writer lounging languidly with his pipe and pen. These childhood fantasies of opium are rooted in a literary culture of the 1800s, both Romantic and Decadent. Coleridge, de Quincey, and Oscar Wilde become key influences here. Kubla Khan remains the foremost “sweet dream” of English Literature.

By 1944, Black’s underworld had almost disappeared, and the opium smoke of Coleridge and Wilde had the musty smell of the library about it. After the war, heroin addicts were more likely to be young black or Latino males from urban centers, particularly New York and Los Angeles. It is no coincidence that these two cities were ground zero for jazz culture. The shift in ethnicity in heroin use reflects the growing cultural influence of black musicians who birthed the Hip and the hipster. I have written about this sociological phenomenon in my piece on Burroughs and Norman Mailer. Many assume that Burroughs’ interest in heroin came from a fascination with the hipster and black culture. Yet Burroughs is far from the White Negro that many assume him to be. Jack Kerouac was strongly influenced by be-bop and its environment, but Burroughs, although he listened to the music with Kerouac and hung out on the fringes of the scene, was interested in older drug cultures. Burroughs’ interest in heroin was largely an exercise in nostalgia.

So also were his day-to-day activities as a practicing addict. Burroughs repeatedly writes of Chinese laundries and opium dens as home base for Chinese heroin dealers and scoring. The Asian heroin trade would explode in the 1960s with the Vietnam War, which flooded the market with demand as American soldiers used heroin in large numbers to cope with the stress of combat. Yet in the 1940s, this aspect of the drug trade did not exist on an international level, and the Asian heroin trade in the United States was restricted to Asian-American and Asian immigrant clientele in segregated sections of major cities such as New York and San Francisco. Fears about their pre-WWII drug culture helped give rise to the Yellow Peril and in return made the Asian drug dealers cautious about white clients. The phrase “No glot… C’lom Fliday” highlights the linguistic and cultural barriers that resulted in mistrust, miscommunication, and missed connections.

If Burroughs’ status as an upper class white male prevented him from scoring in Chinatown, it was an asset in Middle America. Here lies a central paradox in Burroughs’ life as an addict. The prologue to Junkie makes clear that Burroughs / Lee became an addict to shed his conventional upbringing, and yet he often utilized his race and class in the service of his addiction.

Italian and Jewish gangsters quickly became the major suppliers of heroin in most other urban neighborhoods. Burroughs writes occasionally of such ethnic aspects of the drug trade in Junkie. “They were of various nationalities and physical types, but they all looked like junk. There was Irish, George the Greek, Pantopon Rose, Louie the Bellhop, Eric the Fag, the Beagle, the Sailor, and Joe the Mex.” There are many nationalities but no ethnicities. Joe the Mex is the exception that proves the rule. The junk neighborhoods are white immigrant neighborhoods gone to seed and threatened with invasion by blacks and Hispanics. They look like junk; they are white trash, yet the immigrant addict is not Burroughs’ peer either. From Bill Garver to Phil White, Burroughs’ junkie counterparts were often prodigal sons, like him, from good blue blood stock that, like the blue-chip stock market, had fallen from grace. In Junkie, Bill Gains is the addict to whom William Lee looks up. Naturally, Bill Gains “came from a ‘good family.'”

Tom the Priest: William S Burroughs in Drugstore CowboyBurroughs did not score in jazz clubs, on 52nd Street, or in Harlem. This would continue into the 1970s when he lived at The Bunker. Drugs were bought in Alphabet City and brought to Burroughs; Burroughs rarely if ever went there himself. In any case, street drugs were not his preferred kick anyway. Ideally, Burroughs would score pharmaceutical grade narcotics such as Dilaudid (which is closer to morphine than heroin). In Drugstore Cowboy, Burroughs’ character, Tom the Priest, skims the cream of the drugs Bob makes available to him choosing only the Dilaudid for himself: “This should earn you an indulgence.” To score such high-grade drugs, you have to rob the drugstore — a line Burroughs was reluctant to cross — or con the croakers. Junkie and Naked Lunch portray Bill Lee putting the make on croakers and rural drugstores for forged prescriptions. This was a route less available to Black and Hispanic hipsters for obvious reasons of race and class prejudice.

Burroughs’ education was also important. Most drug addicts graduate from the school of hard knocks, but Burroughs backed up his street smarts with university degrees. He was more than a junkie; he was a “Master Addict to Dangerous Drugs.” He attended Harvard and medical school in Vienna in the 1930s. He was well read and knowledgeable about literature, medicine, psychology, and anthropology. Oliver Harris has pointed out how Burroughs suppressed the literary basis of his addiction in Junkie. Yet Burroughs, like Dr Benway or Dr Mabuse, was out to con his former peers. Scoring implies a game, and for Burroughs, it was not a physical conquest but a test of intelligence. Burroughs with his aristocratic, educated air could pass in rural Middle America, gain doctors’ confidence, and, thereby, gain access to the medicine cabinet.

Despite wanting to cast off his Grey Flannel Suit and university tie, Burroughs had to wear them in order to score. So on one level Burroughs’ addiction is rather conservative; yet what is transgressive is that, as with his cut-ups, particularly Time or APO-33, Burroughs detourns the message and mores of the dominant order for his own aims. In this case, Burroughs manipulates Middle America’s prejudices regarding race, class, and education for his own immoral ends. These prejudices themselves are a form of addiction. In his Paris Review interview from 1965, Burroughs states, “The nasty sort of power: white junk, I call it — rightness; they’re right, right, right — and if they lost that power, they would suffer excruciating withdrawal symptoms.” Burroughs reinforces Middle American stereotypes while subverting them. When Burroughs enters a drugstore to fill a script, he reads off his own, dealing “white junk” to squares. Burroughs is both addict and pusher.

Mexico City 1949-1952

As soon as I hit Mexico City, I started looking for junk. —Junkie

The arrival in Mexico is the climax of Kerouac’s On the Road. Sal Paradise crosses the border in search of his birthright. Kerouac writes of Mexico as part of the “equatorial belly of the world” where “[t]hey had high cheekbones, and slanted eyes, and soft ways; they were not fools, they were not clowns; they were giant, grave Indians and they were the source of mankind and the fathers of it.” Mexico is a confused mix of birth and death, blood and semen, motherhood and fatherhood, sexual experience and innocence, wisdom and wonder, miscegenation and purity. Many critics have pointed out the stereotyping of the Third World and the racial Other at play in Kerouac’s work. What I want to point out is that for Kerouac, Mexico is the place of origins — the Source.

Still from the film Chappaqua showing William Burroughs with hypodermic and cigaretteThe same holds true for Burroughs. Once in Mexico City, Burroughs enrolled in college in order to study anthropology and archeology. These are studies of the beginnings, the morning, the dawn of civilizations. In addition, Burroughs’ concept of Mexico contains many of the contradictions of Kerouac’s, yet most important for this discussion is the fact that Mexico in 1949 had newly become a primary source for heroin. After World War II, there was a shortage in heroin on the American market. Mexico stepped in, increasing its cultivation of poppies and production of heroin. Burroughs was a part of this trade. While living in East Texas and Louisiana, he grew marijuana, which he planned to sell in New York City. The trip from Texas / Louisiana to New York was a major route in the drug trade. Southern marijuana would come up from Texas and be exchanged for New York City heroin. Burroughs was well aware of this, as were Texan authorities. In quick order, Burroughs ran afoul of the law. Clearly, Burroughs went to Mexico to escape the drug laws in the United States, but he also went there — to put a twist on the famous statement attributed to Willie Sutton — because that’s where the drugs were.

Junkie provides some very good information on the drug scene in Mexico City as it entered the international market. True to form, Burroughs refrained from scoring on the street level in Mexico City. Burroughs’ junkie peers would acquire the drugs for Burroughs, or Burroughs would hit up the local doctors. Corruption was rampant; so as long as Burroughs had the money, Mexican doctors would write the scripts. In addition, these doctors were more likely to cater to white American clients than Mexican ones. Once again, Burroughs relied on his class and race in his drug use.

There is a suggestion of race and class in his choice of heroin as well. Burroughs makes clear that Mexican heroin was of much poorer quality than the heroin distributed in New York City. Mexican heroin was brown in color, reflecting the levels of impurity and the lower levels of sophistication in the refining process. Pure heroin is white. Mexican heroin is cut, adulterated, impure. There is racial stereotyping here tying miscegenation, incest, and tainted bloodlines to Mexican heroin and Mexicans. This fascination with racial mixing and its link to drug use is clear from Burroughs’ yage vision of the Composite City: “The blood and substance of many races, Negro, Polynesian, Mountain Mongol, Desert Nomad, Polyglot Near East, Indian — new races as yet unconceived and unborn, combinations not yet realized passes through your body.” Yage has a racial component; in one yage vision Burroughs believes himself transformed into a black woman.

There is also a sexual component to this. From Junkie to Queer, addiction shifts to obsession. At the end of Junkie, Burroughs writes, “My wife and I are separated. I am ready to move on south and look for the uncut kick that opens out instead of narrowing down like junk.” To the extent that Queer picks up the narrative from Junkie, the “uncut” kick refers less to drugs than to men and to the likely uncircumcised “boys” Burroughs may have picked up in Mexico City.

Lewis Marker with William BurroughsUnlike Kerouac and Cassady who indulged in Mexican prostitutes, Burroughs prefers the “white boy,” slang for pure heroin, to the “brown sugar,” slang for Mexican heroin. Young men from the Third World are acceptable in a pinch. Like Mexican heroin they are readily available and cheap, but they do not give the same kick as pure white boys. Burroughs had casual sex with young men of various ethnicities, but became obsessed only with white boys like Allen Ginsberg, Lewis Marker, and Ian Sommerville. It was to them, not Mexican or Arab boys, that Burroughs was emotionally addicted. In his letters from the 1950s, Burroughs often presents his feelings for Ginsberg and Marker in terms of addiction, for example, writing to Ginsberg of his “Marker habit.”

Paris 1958-1959

The article is supposed to be what it is and not a cover really. — Letter to Ginsberg, Oct. 7, 1959

In the early spring of 1959, Burroughs was accused of participating in an opium smuggling ring. French police believed Burroughs was the “Paris O outlet.” This is not as far-fetched as it seems. In a letter to Ginsberg from April 2nd, Burroughs admits that he considered “pushing a little Moroccan tea in Paris” with the help of Paul Lund. Lund was an English gangster living in Tangier who had much experience with smuggling. Burroughs never acted on the idea but he ran in drug and smuggling circles in Tangier and Paris, such that his travels to and fro were bound to attract attention. After World War II, the United States heroin supply from the Middle East was largely shipped from Marseilles, France to New York City. This was the famous French Connection with Mediterranean gangsters overseeing mainly Turkish poppy production, heroin production, and drug distribution. This was a major international news story and aspects of it found its way onto the big screen in 1971 in The French Connection. The drug dealers did not benefit from the publicity. In 1972, three major busts of processing plants in Marseilles severed the connection, which resulted in a free-for-all in re-establishing supply lines to the American market. Once again, as after World War II, Mexico stepped into the breach.

Interestingly, Oliver Harris suggests that the apartment building that serves as the setting of the Hauser and O’Brien episode that ends Naked Lunch could have been modeled on the Hotel Marseille on 103rd Street in New York City. Symbolically the hotel is the hub of the drug trade of Interzone, Lee’s home base. Harris points out that what Lee is producing and pushing, and what concerns Hauser and O’Brien are, in fact, not drugs, but literature. They are instructed to “Just pick [Lee] up. Don’t take time to shake the place down. Except bring in all books, letters, manuscripts. Anything printed, typed or written.”

Burroughs at the Beat Hotel in 1959, Photograph from Time-Life ArchiveFiction mirrored reality for Burroughs. In the April 2nd letter, Burroughs continues, “They shake Paul’s trap down and find some old manuscripts I left behind, and wade through a suitcase full of my vilest pornography looking for ‘evidence.'” In addition, the police found some incriminating letters that suggested drug involvement. Burroughs writes, “Oh, and the fuzz has a letter I sent to Shell [Mack Thomas author of Gumbo] from London in which I say something to effect: ‘Pooling our knowledge could be of great benefit to both parties.’ I can see myself taking shape in their 12-year [old] minds as ‘the evil, perverted brain behind international narcotics ring, the agents of which pretend to be poets and painters to cover their sinister operations.” At the end of Naked Lunch, Lee worries about the detective seeing the contents of his suitcase. The suitcase contains not drugs, but manuscripts. Lee sweeps notebooks into his briefcase along with his works and junk. As Harris points out, the key to the end of Naked Lunch is more that Lee is a writer than a drug addict.

Yet in April of 1959, Burroughs was a sort of criminal mastermind. Just weeks before he came to the attention of French authorities as a smuggler, he came to the attention of American authorities. In March of 1959, sections of Naked Lunch were published in Big Table #1. The Chicago Post Office promptly seized the magazine as obscene and made moves to put the book on trial. Once again Burroughs’ “vilest pornography” was “evidence.” Soon after the Big Table hype, Maurice Girodias offered to publish Naked Lunch in France. Girodias and Olympia Press were the French Connection for pornography in the United Kingdom and the United States. Like smugglers hiding packets of heroin in false-bottomed suitcases and hollowed-out cars, those curious about Naked Lunch would have to smuggle the book through customs. Burroughs was not a drug smuggler; he was the Source of obscene literature: “The evil, perverted brain behind an international” pornography ring.

Immediately after the publication of Naked Lunch in Paris in July 1959, Burroughs was busted — not for obscenity, but for drug possession. The police “had an order for [Burroughs’] arrest issued April 9th,” no doubt stemming from the smuggling accusations a year earlier. The key piece of evidence in the case against Burroughs was “a doctored letter allegedly written by [Burroughs] to [Lund].” A letter-writing campaign was organized by Girodias to aid Burroughs in court. More importantly, in a letter to Ginsberg from September 11th, Burroughs notes that he began “writing a short deposition with regard to Naked Lunch. This is essential for my own safety at this point.” “Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness” was written for his drug possession trial in Paris, not his obscenity trial in the United States. The Deposition is the source of the myth that Burroughs kicked drugs. “I awoke from The Sickness at the age of forty-five.” Burroughs states his drug use in the past tense because he was seeking leniency in his upcoming trial. In addition, Burroughs distanced himself from his role as author of the novel and highlighted the moral aspects of its content. Again these were added less to help Grove Press with an obscenity trial than to help Burroughs beat a drug possession rap.

Ironically, it would be Naked Lunch itself that would get Burroughs off the hook. The French courts were impressed with the fact that Burroughs was a published author and overlooked his indiscretions. In Queer, Burroughs suggested that he had to write his way out of guilt caused by Joan Vollmer’s death. Similarly, Burroughs wrote his way out of a drug charge in Paris.

New York 1974-1981

If you can score for sex and drugs in a place, then you know you really made contact with the place.” –Burroughs to Steve Mass, owner of The Mudd Club

Returning to the United States after decades in exile — his last stop being an extended stay in London that left him bored and broke — Burroughs really connected with New York City in the 1970s. Fortunately or unfortunately for Burroughs, the Big Apple was rotten to its core. For anybody only familiar with New York City in the last decade, it might be impossible to imagine just how dysfunctional the city was through much of the 1970s and 1980s. Sex, drugs, and violence were rampant. In areas like Alphabet City and Harlem, drugs were a cancer.

In his vision of Interzone, The Market, and The Composite City from the 1950s, Burroughs expresses his vision of New York City. On July 10, 1953, Burroughs wrote a letter to Allen Ginsberg envisioning the Composite City as viewed under the influence of yage. “All houses in the City are joined… great rusty iron racks rising 200 feet in the air from swamps and rubbish with perilous partitions built on multilevel platforms and hammocks swinging over the void.” The Composite City passage was also written under the influence of Allen Ginsberg and with the anticipation of seeing Ginsberg in the coming months. Ginsberg was living on the Lower East Side in New York City. Burroughs’ vision of the city is in part a fantasy of inhibiting the same space as Ginsberg. In late 1953, Burroughs arrived at Ginsberg’s apartment and began work on the yage letters’ material, including the Composite City section. Pictures taken by Ginsberg of Burroughs and Kerouac show how the view out Ginsberg’s window mirrors the yage vision. Fire escapes, clotheslines, and telephone wires connected decaying tenement housing that appeared to lean into one another.

William Burroughs shooting the World Trade CenterThe July 10th letter also envisions New York City’s future. “The City is visited by epidemics of violence and the untended dead are eaten by vultures in the street. Funerals and cemeteries are not permitted. Albinos blink in the sun, boys sit in trees languidly masturbating, people eaten by unknown diseases spit at passersby and bite them and throw pus and scabs and assorted vectors (insects suspected of carrying disease) hoping to infect somebody.” This is not just a yage vision; Lee sees a similar scene during junk withdrawal in Junkie. Burroughs writes, “One afternoon, I closed my eyes and saw New York in ruins. Huge centipedes and scorpions crawled in and out of empty bars and cafeterias and drugstores on Forty-Second Street. Weeds were growing up through cracks and holes in the pavement. There was no one in sight.” This resembles New York City in the early 1970s, a city devastated by drug abuse and yet struggling with a heroin shortage. For junkies it was Panic in Needle Park. A dead city. A New York newspaper headline concerning President Ford’s failure to bail out a bankrupt New York read: Ford to City: Drop Dead. Blocks and blocks, like Alphabet City, were already dead, inhabited by drug addicted zombies preying on the living. The disease was spreading building by building.

New York was a city of death, and Burroughs fell in with the culture of death that was punk. Wearing Nazi insignia, a deadly pallor, and living beyond hope and too bored to despair, punk found escape in drugs, particularly heroin. The drug released all pain and anxiety. Punks found Burroughs to be a father figure, yet Burroughs, now in his sixties, was, with the help of James Grauerholz, finally outgrowing and growing weary of his children. New York City with its streets clogged with garbage, its architecture and infrastructure crumbling, and its bank account depleted was the City as aging junkie. Burroughs was stuck in a prison he created: the junkie’s body and environment. The punks raged that there was no way out, but self-destruction and death. Once again “at the end of the junk line” trapped in the “fibrous grey wooden flesh of terminal addiction,” Burroughs decided to do the impossible — he decided to return home.

Lawrence 1981-1997

I was born in 1914 in a solid, three-story, brick house in a large Midwest city. — Junkie

Burroughs’ arrival in Lawrence in 1981 signaled a new beginning, and nothing symbolizes this fresh start more than his entrance into the methadone program. Burroughs, like Herbert Huncke, was on methadone until the end of his life. The use of methadone to treat drug addiction was spearheaded by Vincent Dole and Marie Nyswander in the mid-1960s. This was around the time that Burroughs was aggressively extolling the virtues of apomorphine in little magazines and mimeos. Both drugs work in a similar manner as metabolic regulators. Dole, Nyswander, and Burroughs all believed that heroin addiction altered the user on a cellular level and that the only way to a cure was at that level. Methadone gained the support of urban policy makers after a sensational early success in lowering crime rates related to drug use. By the 1970s methadone symbolized progressive drug treatment in a country that favored a Drug War of prohibition, harsh penalties, and crackdowns on users rather than producers and suppliers.

One criticism of methadone was that the user was merely trading one addiction for another. In addition, many did not like the manner in which the methadone program was structured. Participants were required to take their daily dose at a center, which made treatment seem like probation, leading many to label the program as “orange handcuffs.”

James Grauerholz and William Burroughs, Photograph by Jose FerezFor Burroughs, he was trading one addiction for another. Methadone was, like heroin, not a kick; it was a way of life. But unlike the death-in-life of the New York City drug scene, the methadone program allowed Burroughs to establish a new domesticity in his life. Grauerholz managed Burroughs’ daily affairs; methadone managed his drug addiction; and that left Burroughs free to create, which was always his most powerful compulsion. In terms of his writing, Burroughs likewise became conventional. In his later work, Burroughs’ fictional characters reside in the “solid, three story, brick house” of basic genre structures like the adventure story or the western. Plot and narrative serve as the foundation for these familiar surroundings as Burroughs’ writing style became more mainstream, more reader-friendly, or at as close as Burroughs could get to the norm.

In the prologue to Junkie, Burroughs as William Lee writes that his boyhood home “had a lawn in front, a back yard with a garden, a fish pond and a high wooden fence all around it.” He continued that “all the props of a safe, comfortable way of life that is now gone forever.” Heroin took it away, but methadone gave it back. The key to methadone is that, in allowing the addict to manage his addiction and to carry on with activities such as working and socializing, it allows him to participate in the American way of life. It regulates the metabolism so the addict can organize his life, which paves the way to punching a time-clock and putting the kids to bed. Methadone not only handcuffed the addict to the Methadone Center, it encouraged the straightjacket of the business suit. If heroin and opium brought “sweet dreams” and stately pleasure domes, methadone offered a chance at the American Dream: the wife, the dog, the two cars, and a three-story house with the white picket fence. In 1944, Burroughs wanted to leave all that behind, but late in life, after years of traveling the junk road, he realized he wanted, in some respects, to come back home. Opium Jones became one of the Joneses. Methadone made that possible. For Burroughs, the junk road was not a straight shot to nowhere; it was a circular journey beginning and ending at the doorstep of a “solid, three-story brick house in a . . . Midwest city.”

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 2 November 2009.

27 thoughts on “William Burroughs and the History of Heroin

  1. ‘Opium Jones became one of the Joneses.’ Good line, good way to frame that thought. He certainly wanted some of that life back, what with the fish pond in the backyard of house on Learnard Ave…

  2. A wonderful piece of scholarship, very illuminating, especially about Bill’s classist, xenophobic leanings. It’s always a pleasure when someone reveals new angles to this man’s life, outlook, work and actions.

  3. Bill and I shared a psychiatrist. Bill saw him at the University of Kansas methadone clinic. I was and continue to be under his care at the Kansas City VA hospital. Dr. McKnelly works both places. I’ve been seeing the doc since 1980. I only learned of this thin overlap in life accidentally, and not from the doc. I was lucky enough to get clean at NA and simply get treated for bipolar disorder with some anti-seizure drugs. I continue with both the 12 steppers and the stabilizing drugs, although the medical treatment is controversial among some at NA.

    Bill was strung out to the end. I don’t consider my self addicted, but recovering while taking medical treatment for another separate chronic disease.

    Bill and I had some common interests and some common acquaintances, but I never met him. I did know where he lived in Lawrence, but didn’t want to intrude upon his privacy.

  4. i enjoyed, and found this piece very interesting and well written, but i couldn’t help but wonder what burroughs himself would say about some of it. i remember in class someone asked him about heroin addiction and if he’d ever cleaned up. he said something like: why of course. i could have never written all of those books without long periods of being clean. he said that junk and the addict’s life killed the creative drive, and i’d agree with that. he later changed that stance some, but by then he was elderly, on methadone, and a methadone program if followed correctly does allows the addict a stable life, since it’s a long acting drug; but there’s still a kick involved, referred to on the street as a “glow,” otherwise there would be few takers; and unlike heroin, one can drink alcohol and smoke pot, and work creatively. the statement: ‘once a junky always a junky’ i find faulty. firstly, it’s a self fulfilling prophecy, and if one buys into it they are pretty much doomed. i personally have seen too much evidence of that simply not being the case. then there’s the whole definition of addiction which to me is: pursuing something regardless of it’s overwhelming disadvantages.
    i don’t mean to take anything away from this most fascinating and well researched piece, it has just raised some questions for me, and i consider that a good thing.

  5. The idea of “once an junky, always an junky” is more to the point that kicking drugs or dealing with any addiction is a day to day, minute to minute process. The potential to relapse is always present and the addictive personality, mentality, or impulse is always present. The only thing that ends this struggle is death. This is not to say that people do not live clean; many people live the rest of their lives sober but the battle with the addiction is only over when their lives are over.

  6. it’s only a day to day, minute to minute process if you believe that to be the case. i don’t buy the ‘addictive personality’ idea either or even labeling for that matter; all of these ideas are negative in my opinion, when a person is striving for emotional health and well being. the battle with the addiction (for some) is over when they REALLY decide it is over.

  7. There’s some thoughtful ideas here. But this old notion of “trading one addiction for another”, I find problematic. I always found it somewhat simplistic and problematic on a number of levels == in thought, word and deed as the Priest might say. As an addict in recovery (I use the current medical parlance here, though I know there are problems with the simplicity of that language also) I have found methadone to be highly effective; and as a writer, I’m finding myself returning to serious work after not really writing for a protracted length of time on painkillers like oxyocodone and vicodin. It does demand that one keeps to a schedule and that one creates a life and work structure that I imagine would be limiting to me if I was, say, interested in being a travel writer or a writer interested in moving across the globe in a physical sense, but that’s never really been on my agenda as a writer and I canlive with the trade-off of producing pages daly and having a roof over my head and some money in the bank as opposed to going on the scout, or roaming across some post-modern interzone of someone else’s devising. Since I have pain issues that are legit also, it’s a good fit on that level also. The point is, that once Burroughs stabilized on a methadone program, he had the stability to finish the wide-ranging rough material of the Cities trilogy into publishable form. None of this really has to do with the average “citizen’s” view of morality — but even folks with a long history of addiction seem to have misconceptions about methadone, which I feel has brought me back to life as a writer, as opposed to a person with writerly thoughts and aims, perpetually on the nod.

  8. This is an interesting essay. I might have written something like it myself when I was in college.

    However, while I can see the point is necessary to your argument, I must take exception to the following over-generalization:

    “Most drug addicts graduate from the school of hard knocks, but Burroughs backed up his street smarts with university degrees.”

    Opiate addiction crosses all class and ethnic lines. In claiming Burroughs capitalized on the image of priveliged white Harvard graduate, you, yourself, advance a “stereotype” about junkies.

    And you completely lose me in the paragraph wherein you claim, “When Burroughs enters a drugstore to fill a script, he reads off his own, dealing ‘white junk’ to squares. Burroughs is both addict and pusher.” I find this unintelligible. What exactly is he “pushing”? His image as a straight white guy, I suppose. But so what? WSB was not unique in this. He had front. “You gotta play the cards you’re dealt.”

    Furthermore, to claim “[t]here is racial stereotyping here tying miscegenation, incest, and tainted bloodlines to Mexican heroin and Mexicans. This fascination with racial mixing and its link to drug use is clear from Burroughs’ yage vision of the Composite City . . .” is to conform Burroughs’s ideas about Yage to your OWN preconceptions about class and sex. To argue that “[t]here is a suggestion of race and class in his choice of heroin,” is just more tiresome “Gender Studies” twaddle and, in my mind, ruins what might have been a simpler, informative discussion linking the history of junk in the U.S. to Burroughs’s addiction.

    On the whole, this argument is yet another attempt to shoehorn sex and class, the Party Line adhered to in universities, into an analysis of Junk as a Burroughs theme.

  9. David,

    Thanks for your comments and your criticisms. I appreciate your close reading. Of course my own ignorances, stereotypes, and mis-readings are in this piece, they are in every piece of writing. The generalization you point out is a great one; and no doubt stereotype. Another that people have mentioned to me is the idea that once and addict always an addict. So this piece might reveal me but I think it also reveals Burroughs. Maybe just my Burroughs.

    As for the white junk paragraph, Burroughs plays a role (reads a script) that fits into an image of rightness (straight white guy, educated as well as being right, having the right opinions from the Paris Review interview) and he feeds the square’s addiction to rightness, thus he is a pusher in a way. The so what is that he plays both ends of the game: he want to shed his class for example through drug use yet relies on that class to get drugs and get out of the drug related trouble he finds himself in.

    There are both conservative and transgressive elements to Burroughs’ drug use. Most people hightlight the outlaw elements, I am suggesting the opposite exists as well.

    Again thanks for your comments

  10. hi, I hope it’s alright to post a question here instead of a comment, so . . does anyone know who shot the picture of Burroughs aiming at World Trade Center?

  11. Some interesting points in the essay and the comments. I recall Huncke once telling me something to the effect that Burroughs approached drugs with a sense of scientific inquiry.

    Your essay focuses on Burroughs, but contrasting the experiences of WSB with Huncke would be a fruitful tangent. Herbert was born a year after William, his drug use began in the late 1920s and lasted until his death in 1996. Both men were on methadone in their last decades. (It’s doubtful that such programs ever anticipated the needs of octogenarians).

    Huncke spent almost the entirety of the 1950s incarcerated for drugs and burglary. As Ann Douglas observed, Herbert was one of Genet’s “torturable” masses. WSB, as has been pointed out, had and utilized resources that Herbert lacked.

  12. I corresponded a bit with Burroughs during various periods of incarceration (of mine), when he was based in Lawrence and “stabilized” – he actually advised me to switch to methadone to stay out of trouble/prison.

    One thing I found interesting in Junkie was how it described the existence of Mexico City white that was actually the pharmaceutical, Pantopon. That particular molecule has never been available in my lifetime as a junkie – but if I’m not mistaken it was a mixture of the active ingredients of Dilaudid, Oxycontin, etc (In other words, all the opoids compounded in one prep!)

    AS far as the various other “theories” this essay present – well – hmmm – made good reading.

    Thanks and later,]


  13. An interesting read. Burroughs is & will always remain one of my favorite American writers of the 20th century “JUNKY”- was an excellent account on his life at that time. “Naked Lunch” -unfortunately I saw the movie by David Cronenburg first, although it was bizarre & definitely an interesting film, the book was absolutely amazing.
    After that I was hooked on Burroughs.

    I also have a serious problem with the school of thought: “trading one addiction for another” – When speaking of Methadone treatment/maintenance.
    I’m a professional artist & for much of my life have been an opiate addict. A Junky. My real addiction was opiates, but I used all drugs, all the time. I was able to use drugs & continue my passion for many years, but became such a hopeless addict that for nearly a decade, I did not produce any art. Being a Junky is a full-time job.
    After going to a Methadone Clinic, getting on a stable dose, I live a real life.
    That was a little over 6 years ago.
    I have a beautiful daughter. A great woman. A family. I’m a contributing member of society.
    Almost all my old ‘drug buddies’ are dead, or in prison. And I had a bigger habit than all of them. I always had to do the biggest shot. Take the most pills, etc.
    I’m lucky.
    When a person is addicted to drugs for a long enough period of time, the brain is changed in such a way that cannot be undone (not yet anyway) Leaving the user forever in torment, even after NO trace of the drug is in the system. You’re need for drugs is greater than your most basic human requirements: Food, Shelter, Sex, Safety, Family, etc.
    It’s true that Methadone is highly addictive. In-fact the with-drawls can often last over a month & are considered “The Worst With-drawls Imaginable” -even by many in the medical profession.
    Methadone is abused. It can be dangerous.
    However many Medications for a million other medical problems, are Narcotic,highly addictive, abused & can be dangerous.
    Methadone is a treatment. And further more, one can detox from it slowly, & even switch to another drug Suboxone, which is much less addictive, & has less severe with-drawls.
    Methadone has been shown to cause the body virtually NO long-term damage. I can’t think of many drugs that cause No long-term damage. Not even Tylenol!

    -To: Shane Flipside:
    Concerning your question about a mixture of Dilaudid & Oxycontin..
    As you may know now, Numorphan was available in the 70’s (That’s what Bobby Hughes is talking about when they’re shooting ‘Blues’ in the film: “Drugstore Cowboy”-which of course featured Mr. Burroughs playing Tom “The Priest”) I think it was taken off the market because of how easily one could inject it (although many others are too). Numorphan has returned as Opana. Both are Oxymorphone, which when you think about it, is basically that mixture. Dilaudid, is Hydromorphone & OxyContin is Oxycodone.)
    Opana has essentially replaced Oxycontin.

    Thank you again for the fun read.

  14. I agree with Seamo’s comment. I too am an artist who had, over the course of my life, developed an opiate addiction, and have been living recently on “rehab” medication, which for me has been Suboxone since Methadone is simply much harder to get where I live.
    This article is a very interesting and articulate read, but in some ways perhaps a little too thoughtful. The article makes a connection from “white” heroin and “brown” heroin as a class/race divide, but I challenge anyone to find a junkie of any race to pass up pure heroin for “brown” junk. This, along with several more instances of junkie activity, may have been read into a little more than necessary. There are quite a few misconceptions about addicts, by people who have never gained a real habit, that will probably never truly subside. That’s just the nature of perception.

  15. nice piece all the haggling is a waste of time and points of views…..are amazing. I’m glad people are speaking of this amazing human being he changed culture,music.writing,painting, influenced all the arts and lived the life he lived….thanks williamu

  16. Great read his influence is massive ….. I paint I write and owe all of that to William sending love wherever the next life has taking you

  17. Hello,

    I just want to say that Burroughs was a minor figure in literature world of the 1950’s. I don’t like the glamorizing of the junk world, I too am a child of the 50’s and used all thru the 60’s up to mid 70’s. The streets in NYC during the 60’s were flooded with h, and destroyed many lives. This was mainly set in black and Latino areas and didn’t get the press like today’s ” plague”.

  18. “Awe shucks”!!! you boys prolly made em blush in tha grave. It’s always nice to find out more info on Bill, whether or not it’s true, misguided, convoluted, or just simple … Chances are he is all that we have always dreamed and been our captain drumming out notions of bombs to the white coat death trip and life to sheer rationalization… Which always makes us happier with a sauve candy coated clown as well versed in the knowledge that he had of so much… A true lifer by choice…hell boys when you have ridden so long in the cabs of interzone of hereonout you simple fucked… A slow gin fizz terminating cotton fevers of countless good for nothing junkies of now now now… I want my candy now mommy!!!! “Let me off on this curb” fascinating to see so many that never want to get straight when the options are so limited… Mug jizz, bio tuners, witchcraft, Catholicism, Taoism, will power, spontaneous healing, spontaneous combustion, spirits, peyote, ayuhuasca, just good ol cup o Joe, etc etc… Just don’t whine if your life winds up in purgatory slowly waiting for the gates to come round cause Robert Antwon Wil Shakes said it best tunnel reality upon tunnel reality is infinite… 20 years of being a double agent has taught me something… Possession is real and William Tell who the fuck ever to shut up and I will remember this story was all lies… Matters of perception and where your lines in the sand between darkness and light exist is all it is… Time can change but change cannot because it is singular one pointed… Guess we don’t need cream with our coffee after all.. Go ahead it will only kill us we all float down here… Junk is not punk but punk is not junk cause I’m still sick and this album has played for four or five paragraphs now… I gotta get off this vibe … To all your relations…. Eat liver… Lamanin or something…

  19. I watched you write that drivel, Donnie Arkansauce.
    Good God, we had some times, didn’t we?

  20. When modern man’s rationale is based on life’s goodies offered by a 2,000 years old secret society-based credit industry (come on, who’s got 100 g’s for a frikin new beemer), who is to blame for the culture of begging that begats the need for a change of mood that dope brings, albeit with great compromises? Finger the dope fiends if you still want that auto loan for the $100,000 beemer.

  21. I’ve always loved Junky. Less so Naked Lunch and even less so his other works. Still I am a Burroughs fan. I’ll read Junky about biannually and have most of its key passages memorized. It’s a masterfully wonderful work of distilled yet colorful expression.

    I was a heroin and cocaine user on and off for about five years in my life otherwise been entirely clean and sober. My speedball use is perhaps part of why I like reading Burroughs but his writing is the real reason.

  22. Really good read, again…. This Reality Studio is indispensable place! I have to read that Eric Schneider book you mentioned, which is about USA cities and smack. I’m European and schooled of the realm in this side of the pond only. Burroughs’ books I know quite well though.

  23. WSB was not a typical junkie. A white, educated published writer coming from a wealthy family with well-to-do friends he was able to support his addiction throughout his life without resorting to the usual criminal activities that take most addicts down. As such his story is atypical and not representative of the horrors that befall most junkies.

  24. I don’t know why I have to leave a mark here, but I got nothing left to do after 72 hour amphetamine marathone I guess. The sleepless rush run which I didn’t indulge for awhile now, let’s say few years, is just about to end. With some dope. That, I do indulge. On regular basis.
    I have to say though, I was on a methadone programme and I hated it, maybe because I abused it to the furthest reaches of mental and physicall junk sickness. I got on it just because I couldn’t cope with day to day obtain-the-junk fight and it is free. Also, I was getting my share once a week. But, I was mainlining it, and it almost completely destroyed me. I got out by going to a rehab known as a commune in Europe. Ad, it is true – that is the worst junk kicking one can go thru – a month of madness, hallucinations, and real danger of an epileptic seasure if one’s not careful and drop from very high dosages to nothing.
    The dope I’m about to use will be about half of my daily habit since speed keeps my junk sickness at bay. Just to smooth the edges. I am smoking or snorting it. I haven’t been shooting for years now, not for any ‘health reasons’, or morals- but rather issues. For a decade now I couldn’t find a worthy vessel to save my life – maybe onece or twice a month and my body would rebel and kick the shit out of me from inside – mentally as well as physically.
    I got back to junk but after the methadone fiasco – I never upscaled my dependence to levels I was at before, those that brought me to the ‘methadone decision’. I use a really small amount daily – varying from qurter to half a gram.
    And I live a pretty normal life, as any methadone patient, but with a big difference – I do a clean week every now and then, every 2 months or so. Finished one about 10 days ago.
    We’re in the middle of a panndemic crisis of global proportions – corona virus, or COVID-19, and I’m sure Bill would love to have witnessed this as he was a ‘global pandemic senario buff’… been writing this comment to long now – I have a 12 hour taxi ride to do and it starts in about 3 hours.
    I am the driver.
    I’m 42-

  25. If you withdraw from methadone, it must be very gradual, and you need some determination to take the last step, notwithstanding that by that time the so called ‘glow’ is a distant memory. But it can certainly be done. Burroughs once said that, as a writer, he never regretted his experiences with junk. I first encountered his name in a review except on the back of a paperback copy of Castaneda’s first book, back in the mid seventies, in a list including Huxley, Michaux, et al. I think it actually enriches understanding to have these experiences.. but that is true of experience in general.. There is a price!

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