Call Me Burroughs

A Life


By Barry Miles

Formats and Prices




$16.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around January 28, 2014. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Fifty years ago, Norman Mailer asserted, “William Burroughs is the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius.” Few since have taken such literary risks, developed such individual political or spiritual ideas, or spanned such a wide range of media. Burroughs wrote novels, memoirs, technical manuals, and poetry. He painted, made collages, took thousands of photographs, produced hundreds of hours of experimental recordings, acted in movies, and recorded more CDs than most rock bands. Burroughs was the original cult figure of the Beat Movement, and with the publication of his novel Naked Lunch, which was originally banned for obscenity, he became a guru to the 60s youth counterculture. In Call Me Burroughs, biographer and Beat historian Barry Miles presents the first full-length biography of Burroughs to be published in a quarter century-and the first one to chronicle the last decade of Burroughs’s life and examine his long-term cultural legacy. Written with the full support of the Burroughs estate and drawing from countless interviews with figures like Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, and Burroughs himself, Call Me Burroughs is a rigorously researched biography that finally gets to the heart of its notoriously mercurial subject.


Begin Reading

Table of Contents



Copyright Page

In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author's intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at Thank you for your support of the author's rights.


The sweat lodge utilizes all powers of the universe: earth, and things that grow from the earth; water; fire; and air.


The sweat lodge ceremony had to be performed in darkness. Deep in the two-foot firepit the stones glowed, tended by the firekeeper, whose tasks were to heat and replenish the stones, guard the lodge, and make the food. Over the pit, the roof of the lodge was shaped like an igloo, carefully constructed from interlaced twigs and branches, covered with black plastic. The shaman himself was Melvin Betsellie, a Diné elder Navajo from the Four Corners area of New Mexico. He was young, round-faced, heavily built, his hair center-parted in the traditional manner like Geronimo in the old black-and-white photographs. Betsellie's calm, placid expression inspired confidence. He was a highly regarded shaman—the Oinkiga, purification ceremony, must be performed by an initiate who has had at least four years' apprenticeship, including the vision quest and four years of the sun dance, climaxing in the ceremony of being painted. Only then do the shamans have the right to pour the water of life (mini wic'oni) on the stone people (inyan oyate)—the hot rocks—to create Inikag'a, the purification ceremony.

Betsellie had been invited to Lawrence, Kansas, by Bill Lyon, an anthropologist who specialized in shamanism. Lyon had spent twelve years with Wallace Black Elk, a Sioux medicine man, and wrote Black Elk: The Sacred Ways of a Lakota, in which he explained how Black Elk called up animal spirits of all kinds. Lyon was a friend of William Burroughs's and they had a number of conversations about the efficacy of shamans in expelling evil spirits from the body. Burroughs had spent most of his life trying to exorcise what he called "the Ugly Spirit" and wondered if a Navajo shaman might finally succeed. Lyon arranged for a ceremony for the purification of Bill's spirit in March 1992, to take place on the grounds of his house.1

In the sweat lodge, all had stripped in preparation for the smoke and heat and had towels wrapped around their waists. Burroughs wore just his shorts, the scar from his recent triple-bypass operation showing as a brown line on his wrinkled chest. Though stooped and soft-muscled, his skull bony, at seventy-eight years he was still vigorous. His old friend Allen Ginsberg was completely naked except for his glasses, as was his wont. The author of "Howl" was now sixty-five years old, his trimmed beard and mustache threaded with gray, potbellied with scrawny legs, slightly stooped. Also present were Burroughs's old friend James Grauerholz, Grauerholz's twenty-five-year-old boyfriend Michael Emerton, Burroughs's assistant Steven Lowe, and Bill Lyon.

Burroughs had warned the shaman of the challenge before the ceremony: He "had to face the whole of American capitalism, Rockefeller, the CIA… all of those, particularly Hearst." Afterward he told Ginsberg, "It's very much related to the American Tycoon. To William Randolph Hearst, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, that whole stratum of American acquisitive evil. Monopolistic, acquisitive evil. Ugly evil. The ugly American. The ugly American at his ugly worst. That's exactly what it is." William Burroughs believed in spirits, in the occult, in demons, curses, and magic. "I do believe in the magical universe, where nothing happens unless one wills it to happen, and what we see is not one god but many gods in power and in conflict."2 He felt himself possessed, and had spent much of his life trying to isolate and exorcise this demon. Asked how he would describe his religious position, Burroughs replied, "An Ismailian and Gnostic, or a Manichean. […] The Manichean believe in an actual struggle between good and evil, which is not an eternal struggle since one of them will win in this particular area, sooner or later."3 Throughout his life Burroughs felt engaged in this struggle against the Ugly Spirit. This time he was determined to win.

Burroughs had first identified the Ugly Spirit very early on, back in St. Louis: "When I was a young child, a feeling of attack and danger. I remember when I was five years old, I was sitting with my brother in the house that we had on Pershing, and I got such a feeling of hopelessness that I began crying. And my brother said, 'What's the matter with you?' and I couldn't tell him. It was just a feeling of being completely at a hopeless disadvantage. It was a ghost of some sort, a spirit. A spirit that was inimical, completely inimical. After that there were many times the condition persisted and that's what made me think that I needed analysis to find out what was wrong. […] It's just I have a little bit, a much more clear insight than most people have, that's all. No problem like that is peculiar to one person."4 He knew already that he had been invaded by the Ugly Spirit. It took him a lifetime to expel it.

Burroughs believed the Ugly Spirit was responsible for the key act that had determined his life since September 6, 1951. That day he had been walking in the street in Mexico City when he found that his face was wet. Tears were streaming from his eyes for no logical reason. He felt a deep-seated depression and when he got home he began throwing down drinks very quickly. It was then, later that day, that Bill killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, fatally wounding her while attempting to shoot a glass from her head in a game of William Tell at a drinks party. Burroughs never really understood what happened that day, except to recognize that what he did was madness. Near the end of his life he said, "My accidental shooting of my wife in 1951 has been a heavy, painful burden to me for 41 years. It was a horrible thing and it still hurts to realise that some people think it was somehow deliberate. I've been honest about the circumstances—we were both very drunk and reckless, she dared me to shoot a glass off her head, and for God knows what reason, I took the dare. All my life I have regretted that day."5 It was not until 1959 that the malevolent entity was given a name. Burroughs and his friend Brion Gysin were conducting psychic experiments at the Beat Hotel in Paris when Gysin, in a semitrance state, wrote on a piece of paper, "Ugly Spirit killed Joan because…"

In the much-quoted introduction to Queer, Burroughs explained how writing became his main weapon against possession by the evil spirit: "I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out."

The shaman was making his way around the lodge. He thanked each one of them, starting with Burroughs, for inviting him to share the traditional medicine of his grandfathers and giving him the opportunity to use his healing medicine to drive the bad spirit from Bill's body and out of his life. He turned to each of the four directions and prayed to the grandfathers, the water, the earth, the rocks, and the red-hot coals in the firepit, thanking them all and asking them to use their power to help Bill. He took a feather and wafted smoke toward each of the people there, and repeated the action with his hands. Then he threw water onto the hot stones, which exploded in great clouds of smoke and steam, filling the enclosed space, making it unbearably hot like a sauna. All anyone could see was the glow of the fire in the pit, and the vague shadowy outlines of their neighbors in the darkness, through the swirling, suffocating smoke. Their eyes ran with burning tears and the sweat began to pour off them. The ceremony was now under way. Chips of cedar wood thrown onto the stones gave off a powerful fragrance, mixed with the steam.

There were four long prayers, and after each prayer the shaman sprinkled more water on the hot rocks, which were replenished by the firekeeper, to create more steam and heat. First he thanked the spirits, the grandfather spirit and the spirit that made Bill. He prayed to make Bill's passage easier when the time came for him to return to his creator. They were all asked to focus their attention on Bill and send him their healing thoughts. A heavy, long-stemmed pipe with a carved stone bowl filled with sweet, mild tobacco was passed around and each puffed three or four times, cradling it with one hand beneath the bowl and the other clasping the shaft. There were more rounds of tobacco and more prayers. Then, after the fourth round of steam heat, the shaman sprinkled water several times on each of them with his feathered fan. He took some of the hot coals in his hand and put them in his mouth, several times swallowing the coal that now contained the bad spirit and then retching it up. Michael Emerton and Steven Lowe were both stunned by the sight of the coals in his mouth, lighting up his throat. "It looked quite terrifying, the mask of his face openmouthed, the inside of his mouth lit up, you could see down to his throat in the red coal light," Lowe recalled.

Then the shaman approached Bill and touched him with a red-hot coal. Afterward Burroughs told Ginsberg, "I thought, my God, it's great that he touched me with the coal and I didn't feel any burns or anything. I was very impressed." Bill couldn't understand how the hot coal was circulating in the smoky darkness; it seemed to be flying through the air, circling around Bill and the fire, and then back again. But it was a long ceremony and the smoke and steam made Burroughs very uncomfortable. He felt weak and desperately needed to breath cool air, so he crawled nearer to the entrance. Afterward he told Allen Ginsberg, "I needed air, I needed to get out. I finally lay down near the door and then I felt better… and… I had to stick it out and stay there, I couldn't break the spell. As soon as he began using the coals, I immediately felt better."

Ginsberg wrote, "The spirit was caught, jiggled in the shrill flute and blown into the fire. Put the spirit into the rocky fire-pit still glowing, steaming with cedar-fragrant smoke in our eyes." Now the Ugly Spirit was in the firepit and Betsellie concentrated on sending it back to whoever, or whatever, put it in Bill in the first place: an animal, possibly, or more likely a malevolent person. Once more he wafted smoke at each of them separately and prayed. Burroughs was moved by the ceremony and kept repeating, "Yes, yes. Of course, thank you, I'm grateful," maintaining his customary good manners, until at the very end the heat and smoke were too much for him, and he begged, "Please. Please—open the door, I need to go out." But this was not the end of it.

At Lyon's house Betsellie had set up an altar with medicine bottles and skins, the bone flute, sand from a sacred power mountain, and a white bald eagle feather placed on top of feather fans all laid out before the big fireplace. The objects were all gifts from his grandfather and teachers. They were tended by a Winnebago Sioux woman. Here the ceremony carried on for another hour and a half before the altar with the shaman on his knees asking for help to preserve old medicines and old ways, to stay in touch with the grandfathers, sky, wood, rock, nature. He thanked his grandfathers and his parents who had died six years before and cried for his mother. At first Burroughs was given a blanket and a pillow to sit on the floor, then he was seated in a chair, facing the altar brazier, holding a sprig of green leaves. Then came the climax of the long ceremony. Betsellie dropped to his knees and chanted several very long prayers in his melodic native Navajo tongue while waving smoke at each of them separately. He prayed to the bear spirit, the four-legged people, the two-legged people, the crawling people, the insects, the families, the brothers and sisters there and everywhere, the relatives and their own brothers and sisters or relatives. "Family, all one family, no matter what race we come from. All relatives together in a room." He asked them all to help the old man on his way with a strong heart and clear head; to give him a long happy life, a peaceful life from now on, the bad spirit, the Ugly Spirit, having gone back to where it came from, and whoever it came from.

Finally the ceremony ended. The fire attendant had prepared a homely pot roast and gratin potatoes with salad followed by coffee and homemade iced cake. Afterward Ginsberg questioned Burroughs about his reaction to the exorcism ceremony, and how he felt about the waves of love and affection shown to him by the participants. "I feel it very deeply," he said. "I like the shaman very much… The way he was crying. Deeply sad, deeply… That was something…"

Afterward Burroughs and Melvin Betsellie sat together and discussed the evil spirit. The next day Bill explained to Allen, "He was suffering, he was hurt by this spirit. And he says he hadn't realized the power of this entity, the full, evil power. It was almost too much for him." The shaman had said it was the toughest case he'd ever handled and for a moment he thought he was going to lose. He wasn't expecting the strength and weight and evil intensity of this spirit, or "entity," as he called it. "The same way the priest in an exorcism has to take on the spirit," said Bill. "Some of them are not strong enough. Some are killed." In the opinion of Bill Lyon, who had arranged the ceremony, "It scared Betsellie on a deep shamanic level. He entered into the purification of Bill's spirit in an incautious, overconfident manner. Yes, he'd got the bad spirit. He knew he'd got him, but it hit him harder than he anticipated."

Burroughs asked Betsellie what the spirit looked like. He said it had a white skull face but had no eyes, and there were some sort of wings. Discussing it the next day, Allen asked Bill if he recognized the image. Bill said that he had identified it many times in his paintings. He had shown some of them to Betsellie, who had immediately recognized the spirit in the swirls of abstract brushwork, pointing to it saying, "There it is, right there."

When Ginsberg asked him, "Did you get anything from the shaman's sweat lodge ceremony?" Burroughs replied, "That was much better than anything psychoanalysts have come up with. […] Something definite there was being touched upon. […] This you see is the same notion, Catholic exorcism, psychotherapy, shamanistic practices—getting to the moment when whatever it was gained access. And also to the name of the spirit. Just to know that it's the Ugly Spirit. That's a great step. Because the spirit doesn't want its name to be known."

This is the story of William Burroughs's battle with the Ugly Spirit.


An Education

Chapter One

As a child I had been a great dreamer, bordering on hallucinations which often involved animals. After years of trying to discover who and what I was, I suddenly awoke one morning and realized I didn't care. I didn't want insight. I wanted to escape and forget.1

1. St. Louis Toodle-oo

"It is self-evident that St. Louis affected me more deeply than any other environment has ever done. I feel that there is something in having passed one's childhood beside the big river, which is incommunicable to those people who have not. I consider myself fortunate to have been born here, rather than in Boston, or New York, or London."2 So wrote T. S. Eliot, who grew up not far from Burroughs's house in St. Louis. Indeed Bill's mother had waltzed with Tommy Eliot at dance class.

St. Louis was founded by Pierre Laclède Liguest in 1764 on the west bank of the Mississippi as a fur trading post. When Burroughs was born there in 1914, St. Louis was the sixth largest city in the United States, with a population of about three-quarters of a million. The 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, to celebrate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase, had given the city an enormous boost. It was the greatest event in the city's history, spread over 1,272 acres of the western half of Forest Park, attracting twenty million visitors. It focused attention on St. Louis's central location and triggered increased construction of hotels, office buildings, houses, and manufacturing industries. St. Louis in 1914 was prosperous. Safe drinking water had recently been installed and electric trolley cars connected all parts of the city. After the fair, Forest Park was laid out, using many of the World's Fair buildings: the zoo used the fair's giant aviary as its nucleus, and the Art Palace became the St. Louis Art Museum.

However, St. Louis was one of the most polluted cities in the United States, the result of burning soft bituminous coal for heat and a lack of proper zoning that allowed factories to be built next to residential neighborhoods. The town was always seen through a smoky haze, like something out of a Sherlock Holmes story, the globe lampshades haloed through the fog. Burroughs could still remember the old nineteenth-century Riverfront area, the site of the original village, before the whole forty-block section was torn down in the thirties. There was a high level of corruption, particularly surrounding major civic projects. In "When Did I Stop Wanting to Be President?" Burroughs jested that his childhood ambition was to be appointed commissioner of sewers for the City of St. Louis, so that he could wallow in graft and corruption with the fat cats. St. Louis was infamously the site of the worst race riots in the United States, when from June 30 to July 2, 1917, in East St. Louis, across the river in Illinois, whites rioted, burned, and murdered blacks on the streets; many were stoned to death or torn apart by the mob. The St. Louis Republic for July 3 ran the headline, "100 Slain, 500 Hurt in Race Riot. 6 E St. Louis Blocks Burned by Mob to Wipe Out Blacks." The police and National Guard, rather than attempt to stop the violence, joined in.

Laura and Mortimer Burroughs lived on Berlin Avenue, a private gated street in the wealthy Central West End. The streets had night watchmen and guardhouses; one of them, the huge stone gatehouse guarding Portland Place, the extension of Berlin Avenue, is remembered in The Place of Dead Roads.3 The Burroughs house at 4664 Berlin Avenue was built by Mortimer Burroughs in 1912 to his own design. The name of the street was changed to Pershing Avenue,4 after General Pershing, a Missouri man, commander of U.S. forces during World War I. It was a large, comfortable five-bedroom house with a fifty-foot lawn in front sloping down to the street and a large garden behind with a fish pond surrounded by rocks. The backyards were separated by high wooden fences twined with roses and morning glory. At the bottom of each yard was an ash pit; the houses on the private roads were not connected to the main sewer, and from his bedroom window young Billy could sometimes see rats scurrying about. At the end of the garden the garage opened onto Carriage Lane behind.

The front door, with its yellow and blue stained glass panels, was reached by five stone steps. The door led to a large mahogany-paneled hall, set forward from the main house. A wide arch to the right led to the main reception room with more mahogany paneling, built-in bookcases and a fireplace, a high ceiling, and leaded windows looking out over the front lawn. Another wide arch led to the staircase, a large dining room, a study, and a big kitchen. Upstairs the master bedroom looked out over the lawn and was filled with light from an enormous window. There was a dressing room and bathroom, and a room at the back, facing south, where Bill and his older brother, Mort, slept. Mortimer, named after his father, was born on February 16, 1911. Mortimer senior was always called Mote to distinguish him from his son, known as Mort. The boys' floor had a further guest bedroom and a clapboard sleeping porch jettied out over the back garden. The top floor consisted of two large rooms and a nanny's bedroom overlooking the back. Despite the wooden paneling, the whole house was light and airy.

Mote was a keen gardener. The flower beds were filled with roses, peonies, irises. In an oft-repeated memory, Burroughs recalled, "The stars are coming out. There's the Big Dipper. His father points to Betelgeuse in the night sky over St. Louis… smell of flowers in the garden."5 Laura enjoyed flower arranging—later, in 1940–42, she wrote three books on the subject for the Coca-Cola Company—so the house was always filled with the scent of fresh blooms. There was a permanent yard man, an African American gardener named Otto Belue. Otto played with Billy and let him help out; they got on well. Sometimes Otto brought his son to work and the boys played together. Burroughs always remembered "Otto's son, who played the violin." When Mote and Laura moved to Florida, they gave Otto enough money for him and his wife, Gertrude, to buy a house. When Laura died, Burroughs continued the family tradition of sending Otto twenty-five or fifty dollars every Christmas.

The family had three servants in the house. Burroughs remembered, "We usually had a black couple, one that did the cooking, and the man was sort of a butler."6 He also recalled having an Irish cook. There was a maid who did the housework and served table, and Mary Evans, a Welsh nurse (or nanny or governess; Burroughs used all three terms), who lived in.

William Seward Burroughs II was delivered by a midwife in the master bedroom of 4664 Berlin Avenue on Thursday, February 5, 1914, a healthy full-term, nine-pound baby.7 He was named after his grandfather, the inventor of the adding machine. The only family member not delighted to see him was Mort, his elder brother, then three years old and who no doubt deeply resented this intrusive stranger. Bill's mother, Laura Hammond Lee Burroughs, was then twenty-six. Bill's father, Mortimer Perry Burroughs, was twenty-nine. They had married five years before in November 1908. Although Bill was a wanted child, in 1940 Laura told a psychiatrist at the Payne Whitney Clinic in New York (where Bill was under care after a psychotic incident) that she thought she had really wanted a girl. Little Billy grew up surrounded by his extended family.

Laura's parents came from a religious background. Her father, James Wideman Lee, was born in Rockbridge, Georgia, in 1849 to parents who were only eighteen. He realized that the church was his "calling" at the age of sixteen and became a circuit-riding Methodist minister. He worked hard as a preacher, a fund-raiser, an author, and a church builder: he had built three new churches in Georgia by 1893. He transferred to the fashionable parish of St. John in St. Louis when he was forty-four. In 1903 he built the new St. John's, which still stands at "Holy Corners" at McPherson and Washington on Kingshighway.

When he was twenty-six, he married Eufaula Ledbetter, aged thirteen, then a marriageable age in the South. She was the daughter and granddaughter of Georgia preachers, which helps explain her attraction to James at such a young age. She had her first child at the age of fifteen. Of her twelve children, only six survived past infancy: Alice "Darly" May, Ivy Ledbetter, Kate Carter, James Wideman, Laura Hammond, and Lewis Hughes Lee, the youngest.

The Lees had a large, comfortable house and the family gathered there each year for reunions, Christmas, and Thanksgiving. It was something they had to do. The family patriarch also required the children to attend Sunday school at St. John's. Lee wrote more than a dozen books, including The Romance of Palestine (1897), The Illustrated History of Methodism (1900), and The New Self Interpreting Bible (1909) in four volumes, as well as coauthoring a eulogy to his friend Joel Chandler Harris, author of Uncle Remus. Harris wrote for the Atlanta Constitution and Lee was a close friend of both its publisher, Evan Howell, and its editor, Henry W. Grady, also the subject of one of Lee's biographies.8 Bill was only five when James Wideman Lee died from complications from a broken hip, but remembered him as a fine-looking old man with a thin face and white mustache. He was said to have been a great charmer. Mote had insisted that Bill and Mort attend Sunday school, but when their grandfather died they were no longer required to do so. Mote and Laura were not religious and their sons were not brought up as believers, though, rather hypocritically, Mote once spanked Mort for fighting on a Sunday.

Laura, born in Atlanta in 1888, was the fifth of the six surviving Lee children. Her older brother, Ivy Ledbetter Lee, born 1877, was the success of the family, becoming a world-famous PR man. He is considered to be the founder of modern public relations, and his company, Parker and Lee, apparently issued the world's first press release, reporting news of the 1906 Atlantic City train wreck before journalists could get the facts elsewhere. In 1914 he worked for John D. Rockefeller Jr.—"to burnish the family image"—and to represent Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company. He was dubbed "Poison Ivy" by Upton Sinclair after the Ludlow Massacre when the Colorado National Guard and Rockefeller's camp guards fired on a tent city of twelve hundred striking miners, killing between nineteen and twenty-five people. Ivy Lee declared that the dead were victims of an overturned stove, when in fact they had been shot in cold blood by the Rockefeller-paid Colorado militia. He started Ivy Lee & Associates in 1919 and worked for Bethlehem Steel, George Westinghouse, Charles Lindbergh, and Walter Chrysler. He specialized in devising propaganda for clients despised by the public for their antiunion and strikebreaking activities. When he died in November 1934 the U.S. Congress was investigating him for his work in advising Joseph Goebbels on public relations techniques for the Nazi Party, and for his work for the IG Farben company, which manufactured the Zyklon B gas used in the Nazi death camps. He met with Hitler many times and told Bill, "The last time I saw him Hitler told me, 'I have nothing against the Jews.' He said, 'This is all exaggerated.' " Ivy Lee was so famous there was even a song that ran, "Even Rumania has Ivy Lee mania. Gosh how the money rolls in."

Burroughs disliked his uncle. "He was very pompous, you didn't talk to him, you listened. There was never any feeling at all between us. The last time that I saw him we'd been out to his house for dinner in Long Island, and he was sort of fuzzy. Fuzzy the way people get when they've got something wrong."9


On Sale
Jan 28, 2014
Page Count
736 pages

Barry Miles

About the Author

Barry Miles is the author of many seminal books on popular culture, including the authorized biography of Paul McCartney, Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now; Ginsberg: A Biography; William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible; Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats; and The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1957-1963. He also co-edited the Revised Text Edition of Naked Lunch. Miles was born in Cirencester, England.

Learn more about this author