Patroness of Wasted Potential.

More and more, I see myself as being addicted in general than simply addicted to alcohol. Because while it's true that the hooch is usually the last thing on my mind most days, in point of fact that's because I've replaced it with people, with situations, and with the intoxicating maelstrom of my own disordered thinking.

There's nothing especially glamorous about being an addict. When you strip away the self-generated drama of it all, it's tedious. Rather than elevated to a level above most people (because when you're in the throes of it, you really do believe that you FEEL things more intensely than the hoi polloi -- those poor slobs that go day-to-day getting things done), what you are is MIRED in a state that some in recovery call "terminal uniqueness." Meaning: NOBODY has ever felt this way, experienced your loss, needed that person/drug/pair of shoes the way you have.

In the meantime, Rome burns while you're fiddling to an audience of zilch. People move on, lives are being lived, and you're on the couch with the bottle, or in front of the computer feeling exquisitely sorry for yourself. No one really likes a martyr: you don't get invited anywhere because your cross won't fit through the doorway.

I joke about this because I CAN. I joke about it because I have to. There have been people in my life who have died because they couldn't ultimately see the ridiculousness of it, or the very real dangers of clinging to an anvil in the middle of the Atlantic. There are people that I didn't know personally who didn't have to wind up dead, who didn't have to sink all their energy and talent into something that yielded nil, into people who couldn't -- or wouldn't -- love them back.

For years, Joan Vollmer Burroughs has fascinated me.

Accidentally shot in the head by her husband, William S. Burroughs, in 1951, Joan is little more than a tragic footnote. At best, she's an inadvertent muse who achieved her status in a way that no one should. "SHOOT THE BITCH AND WRITE A BOOK. That's what I did," Burroughs would say decades later, shortly before his own death in 1997. It's a chilling statement, but by most accounts Burroughs would spend the rest of his life haunted by this act, maintaining that it was Joan's death that motivated him to write.

She was a student at Barnard when they met in the mid-1940's. Her apartment at West 118th Street became a salon, where the writers who would become known as the "Beats" regularly congregated. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady would all later write about Joan, lauding her quick wit and remarkable intellect. Ginsberg in particular noted that in many ways, Joan was smarter than Burroughs: there were no limits to her thinking.

But she was addicted to Benzedrine, later to alcohol, and ultimately to an impossible situation. She attached herself to a man who, while he respected her intellect and "loved" her in his own way, could not be there for her emotionally. A junkie himself, Burroughs was in no position to tell her to get her shit together, even when she was pregnant with their child. They bounced from New York to Texas to Louisiana to Mexico, chasing various schemes and dragons, until that fateful afternoon when Burroughs produced a gun and jokingly suggested that they perform their "William Tell Act."


I realize as I write this that, in a sense, I'm romanticizing the whole sorry, sordid tale. Here was no great love story or cosmic meeting of the minds. Here were two profoundly damaged human beings who tried to make a go of it, and failed. Even playing the tired "what might have been/what was meant to be" card in this case seems silly. Burroughs's brittle summarization of the path his life took following the events of 1951 is terrifyingly apt. He shot the bitch and wrote a book. End of discussion. I suspect that Joan herself would not have cottoned much to any overly-sentimental exposition of her role, or of what she might have accomplished herself had she not been strung out on bronchial dilators. But then, she's dead.

Basically, it all comes back to potential, for me. You can waste it in the belief that you are engaging in something "noble" or "tragic" or "predestined," or you can get off your ass.

"I was not much surprised to hear of your hospitalization , as I've been claiming for three years...that anyone who doesn't blow his top once is no damn good...No percentage in talking about visions or super-reality or any such lay-terms. Either you know now what I know (and don't ask me just what that is) or else I'm mistaken about you...in which case you're just a dime-a-dozen neurotic and I'm nuts."
-- Joan Vollmer Burroughs, letter to Allen Ginsberg, 1949.

lisamcc at 12:54 p.m.

6 comments so far
2007-11-11 00:34:54

2007-11-11 17:36:30
Just saying..... "HI"....I got here thru a banner.

2007-11-12 11:52:31
Very beautiful post, baby. I remember when I was talking my brother, via long distance phone call, through his cold turkey alcohol/cocaine quit. He told me later that at one point I said to him, "First, you have to stop thinking that this is all so goddamn poetic."

lj lindhurst
2007-11-12 13:17:11
I was talking to my very-much-in-denial alcoholic friend the other day, and talking about how much I previously drank and smoked, and she was like, "All the great artists drank and smoked! they ALL DID!" I just wanted to smack her. WTF is that supposed to mean? so what? these great people were operating at only half-capacity? that they had completely fucked-up personal lives, yet somehow managed to create art? It was like she was suggesting that living in the throes of addiction is some kind of magnificent, "Moulin Rouge"-like state of existence, and I was giving something magical up by not living this way. It's just bullshit.

2007-11-12 14:08:30
Nope - nothing "magical" about waking up with a hangover you can feel in your back molars. Nothing especially "poetic" about pursuing something (or someONE) that's shown you nothing but fairly brutal disregard, either.

2007-12-02 23:44:57
Hi - Just finished watching 'Beat', a pretty tepid movie about Joan Vollmer Burroughs, although Courtney Love, surprisingly, CAN act. I was wondering if there were any Vollmer diaries / journals / letters published, since she's depicted writing in the film. Where'd you find the letter you quoted, in Ginsberg's collected letters?

previous | next