A Great Artist Kills His Wife—Now She's Just a Quirky Footnote in His History
Poet Joan Vollmer was killed by her husband, William S. Burroughs, before she even turned 30.
This year is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of celebrated novelist William S. Burroughs. The date, as centenaries do, occasioned new biographies and appreciations.
Scholars commented on Burroughs' paranoid, futuristic voice, his connection with Beat generation writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and his noted drug habits, all of which, along with his privileged background, make up his public face. They also spoke matter-of-factly about his shooting and killing his wife Joan Vollmer, as though it was just one more eccentric, quirky footnote in the life of a "great writer."
For instance, Peter Schejeldahl, writing in the New Yorker about the new biography Call Me Burroughs, called the shooting "the most notorious event" in Burroughs life, but passes no judgment on the matter. He describes the writer as being "devastated" by the murder, and, in a nice bit of victim blaming, repeating the theory that the death was "an indirect suicide, which (Vollmer) had willed to happen."
Also reviewing the new biography, the Boston Globe's Matthew Gilbert called Vollmer's murder "the most defining event" in the author's history and that the murder gets "a chunk of space" in the book. While briefly characterizing Burroughs as "selfish and careless," his final verdict was, of course, adulatory, as he concluded his subject had "lived a unique, uncompromising life that led to a body of unique, uncompromising work."
Anyone concerned at all about domestic violence might find it chilling that this homicide, which Burroughs committed publicly in Mexico before returning to the US to escape legal repercussions, has been woven into his public legend in a way that enhances, rather than detracts from, his mystique. Vollmer was herself an accomplished poet—in book The Women of the Beat Generation, Brenda Knight writes, "Her apartment in New York was a nucleus that attracted many of the characters who played a vital role in the formation of the Beat."
In the story, as it's commonly repeated, Burroughs fired at Vollmer during a party while enacting a "William Tell" game. Having, according to him, accidently aimed low, his bullet struck Vollmer's head, killing her. Burroughs himself mythologized the event, claiming it was the genesis of his becoming a writer, while distancing himself from it, as well, seeing it evidence of an "invader," or "Ugly Spirit" inside him.
This line was parroted by countless cultural gatekeepers who enshrined Burroughs as a genius and a paragon of outlaw cool, and who never once questioned whether his act of wife killing might make him someone to scorn rather than extol.
The press clipping of Vollmer's murder, via the Fuck Yeah Beatniks Tumblr.
An obscenity trial that accompanied the publication of his most famous and well-regarded work Naked Lunch served to further burnish his image as a transgressive genius. Rather being cast as a perpetrator, he was now the persecuted one who had suffered for his art.
By the last ten years of his life, he had become practically a totem of counter cultural chic. In 1989, director Gus Van Sant cast him as a priest in the film Drugstore Cowboy. In 1991, David Cronenberg adapted Naked Lunch into a film and in 1993, Burroughs recorded the album The 'Priest' They Called Him with Kurt Cobain. In 1994, three years before his death, he made a commercial for Nike.
A whole generation of Gen-Xers—myself included—was taught to revere Burroughs as a mythical visionary, a croaky-voiced writer of impenetrably brilliant, filthy novels. The murder of his wife was an apparently necessary act, co-signed by his and our contemporaries.
This thinking has continued to our day. Speaking recently to NPR, Call Me Burroughs biographer Barry Miles described Vollmer's killing as both "clearly an accident" and "a pivotal event" in the author's evolution.
I would posit that William Burroughs' shooting and killing of his wife Joan Vollmer is an act in vital need of reevaluation, and that there are questions so inherently central to it that it's shocking, upon reflection, they've never been asked.
Is the loss of Joan Vollmer's life, for instance, less important than a collection of novels scholars think are cool? Likewise, is a celebration of William S. Burroughs that doesn't reckon with the epidemic of domestic violence in our culture, with which his actions clearly align, complicit in the continuation of that violence?
Questions like these mark a sharp turn from the sort of "great man" hagiography to which Burroughs, and men like him, are almost exclusively treated.
Aesthetic achievement is easier and more fun to reckon with than domestic violence, which probably explains why those who evaluate Burroughs, who are largely themselves men, leave it as just a sidenote. But this omission—the failure to call out and pass judgment on male on female violence—allows such acts to be ignored at best, and tacitly approved at worst. It needs to stop.
When Dylan Farrow's New York Times op-ed suggested a reappraisal of Woody Allen's films in light of her allegation that he molested her, it was met with some ambivalence. Even those who supported her asked aloud, in a mixture of guilt and annoyance, if this meant they couldn't watch his movies anymore. Farrow had forced them to connect a male artist's private and, allegedly, criminal acts with his creative output, and question whether their enjoyment of the latter implied a condoning of the former. In doing so, she broke with centuries of tradition.
I wish biographers would begin placing as much emphasis on the morality of artists like Burroughs' actions toward the people in their lives, and the place of those actions within our all too hidden culture of patriarchal violence, as they do extolling the aesthetics of their creations.
If they would start, it wouldn't feel so novel when people like Farrow did so with Allen, or when rock critic Jim Derogatis asked listeners to reconsider R. Kelly's work in the light of his alleged crimes against underage girls.
Everyone is, of course, free to consume the art and entertainment they like, but it's time we stop erasing or soft pedaling the misconduct, and in these cases, the alleged violence and sexual assault of women and girls, from artists' stories, as though the work somehow supersedes the security and life of the women in question.
February 5th was William S. Burroughs' centenary. September 6th will be the 63rd anniversary of the death of Joan Vollmer, the woman he killed.
Related Reading: R. Kelly Reveals Our Nation's Unfair Sex Laws.
Leela Ginelle is a journalist, playwright and transgender woman living in Portland, OR. Photos of Joan Vollmer and her grave via Literary Kicks and FindaGrave.com. The last line of this article originally contained the wrong birthday for Burroughs and the wrong anniversary number—those numbers were updated on 3/31/14.
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