In March of 1992, William S. Burroughs underwent an exorcism — a healing ceremony led by Diné shaman Melvin Betsellie. Allen Ginsberg was visiting at the time and sat in on the ceremony.
Burroughs believed he was possessed by a demon, which was named by his collaborator Brion Gysin during a mediumistic experiment in Paris. Gysin told Burroughs, “The Ugly Spirit killed Joan because.” This refers to the death of Joan Vollmer Burroughs in Mexico City in 1951 when, at a small gathering of friends, William attempted to shoot a glass off his wife’s head and missed. Burroughs came to believe that the Ugly Spirit had influenced him to take what was clearly a very foolish risk. He believed this horrific incident set him on his path as a writer. Some of the relevant details are here.
In 1985, in his introduction to the novel Queer, Burroughs related the following:
I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realisation of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing… The death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and manoeuvred me into a life-long struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out.
During his March ’92 five-day visit to Burroughs’s home in Lawrence Kansas, Ginsberg recorded about 16 hours of conversation with Burroughs. Following the visit, I transcribed the tapes, as I was assisting Ginsberg in his home office at the time. Some excerpts are given below. The full transcript is in the book Don’t Hide the Madness, released last fall by Three Rooms Press.
– Steven Tayler
It’s the day after the exorcism. Allen is asking William about his recollections of the ceremony.
AG: So what did you think of the Shaman, you didn’t see him put the coals in his mouth?
WSB: No I did not.
AG: How did you feel about it?
WSB: Well, I thought, my God, it’s great that he has touched me and I didn’t feel any burns or anything.
AG: He actually touched you with the body of the coal?
WSB: Oh yes. And I felt nothing…and I said, well, I’m certainly not injured ‘cause there’s nothing happening to me and I was very impressed but I couldn’t see, I didn’t know where the coals were. They were in his mouth!
AG: Yes . . . did you have any . . . how did you feel in terms of this sort of emotionally or psychologically during that time? I was quite moved in the sense, you know I thought . . . what I was thinking is all those people, very much your affectionate friends, really wishing you well.
WSB: Oh, that’s what I felt too, they were really great and I just felt, you know, sort of laying myself open just completely . . . undirected thought, undirected thought. I did nothing, no sort of intellectualizing.
AG: Blank, huh?
WSB: Yeah. Yes.
AG: What occurred to me is that we were sort of like focusing on your well-being but also I was realizing at the time, you know, what almost brought me to tears was, I don’t know if you realize how many people I’ve ever met who really love your work and felt a great deal of affection . . . but it must be hundreds of thousands or millions of people.
WSB: Yes. Well, yeah I feel it. I feel it very deeply. I like the shaman very much . . . the way he was crying.
AG: Later in the evening?
AG: When he was thinking of his mother and his grandfather. Father dying too.
WSB: Deeply sad, deeply . . .
AG: Well, we’re lucky to have seen that … lucky to have heard that…. Well, I was energetic, I don’t know why, this morning I got up at 6:30 and then tried to write what little fragments I could of recollecting the ceremonies last night. [Allen’s reading of his notes are included in the book.]
WSB: That was something—he had coals in his mouth.
AG: Yes, but I didn’t see it in his mouth, see, Steve did.
WSB: Well, even in his hand…
AG: Did you see them in his hand?
WSB: Well I don’t know. He, he came and blew on me with a coal, it was very close and I was surprised and reacted to the burning.
AG: Did you see him holding it, or was it being held in his palm or…?
WSB: I couldn’t tell.
AG: It’s in the paper you bought at the supermarket?
WSB: Well sure, these are… “Alien steals space buggy and flag off surface of moon” … “Jimmy Hoffa found alive.”
AG: What’s that one called, the News or something?
WSB: The News. “Runner up in beauty contest dies of jealousy . . . Eskimos killing walruses to get money for drugs!, say US wildlife officials.”
WSB: “Ninety-year-old twin sisters launch recording career.”
AG: Hundred-year-old twin sister nuns?
WSB: “Eskimos have been running around slaughtering rare Alaskan wildlife and selling the spoils for money to feed their nasty habits, US officials say.”
AG: Oh, that’s part of the war against drugs.
WSB: “Undercover agents worked for the past two years to bust a massive ring of poachers who’ve skinned and beheaded walruses, polar bears, and seals for their valuable fur and ivory. An ivory tusk could sell for as much as $5000, officials said.”
AG: Uh hm.
WSB: “They nabbed twenty-nine of these culprits and are hunting down another eighty.” Good God, what nonsense!
AG: You read those regularly?
WSB: Oh yeah, there’s always some funny stuff, they’re so funny, see.
AG: Have you gotten very much stuff for your books from those?
WSB: I told you about my hairy beast. I conceived of this disease in Ghost of a Chance. The hairs, the hairs just grow all over people and then there were spores…choke to death. So then I pick up this thing and it says “rare disease turns woman into hairy beast!”
AG: Uh huh. Well, your writing prophesied that… But I mean did you ever take anything out of there and exaggerate it? Do you remember any?
WSB: Well, yes I think of some. “Doomed cancer patient’s suicide miracle, man shoots brain tumor out of his head and saves his life.”
AG: I see, he had a brain tumor and he committed suicide and shot the tumor out…auto-operation.
WSB: Really. “Freezing to death don’t drink booze.” …. “Nincompoop animal lovers want to outlaw the term ‘pets’… You ought to call them ‘companion animals.’”
AG: How many…you got around the house, Bill?
WSB: How many what?
AG: Companion animals?
WSB: There are six. Six companions.
AG: And all cats.
AG: And none of them pets, but companions. Your equals, peers!
WSB: Fletch! Get away from the dip. Get a way from the dip! Mother of God…
AG: So who would you like to go to bed with at this point? Anyone?
WSB: No one.
AG: Pardon me?
WSB: No one, I’m not interested in sex at this point, very little.
AG: Do you have wet dreams?
AG: Or dreams.
AG: Do you have sexual dreams at all?
AG: Not even that? I seem to be still in the running somehow.
WSB: Well, it’s good for you but…
AG: Well, neither good nor bad; it’s just there, you know.
WSB: Bravo, bravo.
AG: Partly because I’m not that interested and so things sort of tend to come to me now.
WSB: Bravo, but I don’t…
AG: Would you like strawberries or raspberries for dessert…or both?
WSB: I want raspberries. [To cat:] Oh my beast, my Spooner. Oh, I love my Spooner beast. Oh my beast. Um. I love you, I love you. All of my love goes to animals now.
AG: Well, the two of you make a nice couple, I must say.
WSB: Look at that. Look at the way…that’s Toughs. Now look at him, the way he puts his paws up to me. Yes, my beast….
AG: That’s the most affectionate of them?
WSB: Well, no, Ruski is more affectionate…but I love this, mm mm. God, my God…you disturb him somewhat. Come on. Come on. Come on, baby. I love you. I love my cat. I love my spoony cat, I love my spoony cat. You see, he is giving out pure love. Look…Oh God, my Spooner. I love him. He’s disturbed by what you’re doing.
AG: Well I ain’t doin’ nothing to him now….
WSB: You wonder what sort of feeling, what sort of love is coming from this cat. Look at that, look at the way he loves me….Oh my cat…My Spooner…. Oh how I love you love you love you love you. Mm. It’s alright, it’s alright, Spooner, it’s alright, Spooner. He’s a little nervous, he’s a nervous cat.
AG: That’s ‘cause I’m moving around a lot.
WSB: No, the cat has always been a little nervous like that. I don’t know what. He was a full-grown cat when he first came here. Well, not…a year old perhaps. And he’s been here for about two years. Mm. Spooner, my Spoonsy! Someone give him a little more food, cause he’s… Spooner beast. Spooner. He knows…he’s very affectionate when he wants food. Damn right he does.
AG: Well, Bill, you have a very nice set up here.
WSB: Oh yes…this is great.
AG: Well, you got this all by yourself, you have the house, you have your solitude. You got people, a lot of people coming in to help.
WSB: That’s right, yes.
AG: Good people, intelligent.
WSB: I need that. And they made it possible for me to bring Ruski back…that means so much to me. My Ruski.
AG: When Steven and Wes moved here and got the house they made it possible for you to bring Ruski back?
AG: A ha.
WSB: I’ll never let him go. My God, I love that cat.
WSB: I could never kill a bear or a deer. I can’t kill any animal.
AG: What should I do with a cat when I’m allergic to cats?
WSB: I like to shoot, but I could never kill an animal…and a deer, good heavens, never.
AG: Have you ever shot an animal? Once you shot a porcupine or something? Was that Lucien?
WSB: No, I did once in South America shoot a beautiful animal like a monkey, but it wasn’t hurt bad and it ran away and I’ve always hoped that it was alright, survived. I’ve regretted that all my life. It was fifty years ago and I still…sometimes I wake up at night, you know, oh my God, why did I do that?
The things that…the bad things that I have seen…most are very small, you say “oh well.”
Thus the Ugly Spirit comes in. I realized that I was taken over by something to do these things and that’s where the Ugly Spirit comes in. And it gives me a terrible feeling. It gave me a terrible feeling, to think that I am not in control, that I have gone and shot this animal…terrible. Terrible. Just don’t want anything like that to ever happen again. I want to be rid of that emphasis forever. It’s so much tuned into the…oh, sort of the whole western, I don’t know, European WASP tradition. I remember when I was at Los Alamos and…with Boy Scouts…and suddenly there was a badger came running in, and the counselor… he [the badger] just wanted to play…the counselor rushes over and gets this .45 automatic and it’s so inaccurate, he can’t hit it from here to there, and finally he puts the gun right against it and kills it, shoots it. Good God! These people, all they can think of when they see an animal is to kill it. The badger was just playing around.
WSB: What’s that?
AG: I brought that for you, it’s an up-to-date report on Salman Rushdie’s situation.
[On 14 February 1989, a BBC reporter told Salman Rushdie that he had been sentenced to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini for defaming Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses. For nine years Rushdie and his family lived in hiding.]
WSB: Where the hell is he now, it’s not America is it?
AG: You know, I saw him.
AG: He apparently had been reading my poetry and he was in New York and asked to see me. So Andrew Wylie told me, so I went to a hotel, a secret hotel and had to pass the guards downstairs, and about ten big burly guys upstairs in the corridor and in the inner room.
WSB: Who from? What police force?
AG: Well, New York City police force at the moment. Then there was Andrew and Rushdie. Andrew showed me the curtains. The curtains were made of bullet-proof lead or some bullet-proof thing. So they were closed…and he was in this big flowery hotel room. He said he’d been reading my poetry, that he found it lively and he had two copies of my collected poems. We have the same agents…and he’d sent me a message before that he liked it, he said it was, you know, of the moment, lively.
Then I asked him did he know how to meditate. He said, no actually he’d never got that. So I said would you like to learn? He said, “yeah! Why don’t we do that?” So I sat him and Andrew down for like five-minute instruction, and one of the things I said in the whole instruction suggestions was relax the eyeballs with some sense of the periphery of the optical field, rather than staring at a point and straining the eye. So when we were all over with it…we’d sat for about five minutes…he said, “That was very interesting, the business of the periphery of the optical field.” And that was just one of many elements, but he must have a relatively subtle mind to pick up on that, eyeball kicks so to speak.
WSB: So, yeah, meditation can solve a trap by just seeing it. If you see a trap…
AG: Well, like that spirit we were talking about.
WSB: You see, when you see it, it’s gone.
AG: Except what he was saying is that there are these several million dollars worth of paid assassins out to get him. You know, professionals, not even having to do with Islam. Just real professionals who want the money.
WSB: I tell you…they probably would never collect it…if one of these paid assassins killed him, they would deny that they had anything to do with it and kill the assassin.
AG: So I asked him if there was anything I could do or we could do. He said the only thing to do is publicity, noise. He can’t defend himself by force. The only thing is protest, publicity, public furor, pressure on the American and British governments to make it a condition of recognition.
WSB: Stupid barbarous nonsense. Now, if they were literate enough to read Naked Lunch, I would certainly be on that list with Islam Incorporated, talking about making fun of the Muslim religion, holy shit!
AG: I know but you’re an infidel, he was born as a Muslim…so apparently their complaint against him is that it’s from within the faith…it’s inconceivable that he could be so insulting to something he knows and is part of himself, he’s a traitor. You’re just a negligible heathen anyway, boy, and you’ll never be anything better.
WSB: Fine with me, but I don’t know, what a bunch of nutcases.
AG: What would you do if you were in his case?
WSB: Well, eventually I’d take to carrying a gun all the time. That’s all I could do. That would be something. I’m able with a gun to defend myself.
AG: The only thing is that they’re professional assassins, so it’d be pretty hard, constantly to be on guard.
WSB: Oh, absolutely. Real professionals are hard to deal with, very hard. Because they know where you are and you don’t know where they are. You’re a sitting duck, in other words.
AG: I never read all the Don Juan books, not one of them, actually.
WSB: Well, they’re very interesting, particularly the crossing… You reach something called the place of no pity. That’s very interesting and here in Martin’s book it is repeated almost word for word. “Something subtly merciless had lodged there.” That’s the priest, the exorcism priest; compare it to Don Juan’s place of no pity. It really comes down to the place of no self pity. It isn’t pity, it’s self pity.
AG: What did you think of the shaman last night saying “I’m a pitiable creature, and this pitiful man beside me”?
WSB: He meant that sort of thing.
WSB: No, not that so much as…
WSB: Limited. It’s sort of like humility . . . humility, that he recognized the limits of his power, that’s all. You don’t want to get uppity.
AG: What book is that? Hostage to evil?
WSB: Now this is Hostage to the Devil, this case of five exorcisms. And also I remember Doctor Rioch saying that there comes a point in therapy, if the therapy is deep enough, there may come a point where the therapist encourages the patient, the subject, to express his aggression. In some cases he will immediately attack the therapist. And he says that requires expert handling (chuckles).
AG: R. D. Laing did that…with Peter. He provoked Peter, but Laing was drunk and Peter was drunk and Peter attacked Laing; we had to call the police (laughs). Laing kept saying, “Well in a normal situation in England, I would have had several burly…”
WSB: Well exactly, always in any exorcism, they had two strong men there to restrain the subject if he or she becomes violent, and they have great strength. So it takes two. They often are ex-policemen or, you know, policemen. They’re just there in case the… So I like all these intercessions where in a way they’re doing the same thing.
AG: What’s the guy who wrote that?
WSB: His name is Malachi Martin, he was a Jesuit.
AG: Intercession with Don Juan, you mean.
WSB: Yes, with Don Juan and with shamanism. They’re trying to get an evil spirit out.
AG: So this is a formal exposition of Catholic procedure, a practicing Catholic view of exorcism?
WSB: No. It’s five cases of exorcism.
AG: But done under Christian, Catholic…
WSB: Done by a priest and then he has to have his helpers to restrain the person and it’s very interesting because it corresponds very directly to the shaman’s… Now you see the priest must be able to control the spirit. And he’s attacked by the spirit, very violently. And if he doesn’t watch what he’s doing, he can be fucked completely or even literally. There’s a case here where the spirit leaped on the priest and fucked him up the ass.
AG: [laughing] How did they put that?
WSB: Just exactly, there’s no sort of prissiness here.
AG: Who is the guy who wrote it, an ex-priest or an assistant or somebody who’s done research?
WSB: No. He was a Jesuit, Dr. Martin. And always, the psychiatrist, if there is one present, fucks everything up. ‘Cause they don’t know what they’re doing, or what they’re up against. They think it’s just some Goddamned complex.
AG: What are these entities?
WSB: We don’t know. That’s just it. They say that they are evil spirits. It would seem that they are spirits that came into existence with Christ.
AG: Spirits of what?
WSB: With Christ, they’re Christian spirits, evil Christian spirits.
AG: Christ did exorcism, didn’t he?
WSB: Of course he did.
AG: He drove the money-changers out of the temple but he also went down to hell and cast…
WSB: He sent the spirits into the swine, remember? They said well where can we go? And he put them into the swine.
AG: And then the swine ran off a cliff, into the ocean.
WSB: What the poor spirits did then I don’t know. So it’s very, very interesting. Now listen to this. In this he speaks of the evil spirit “multiplying its own shape in endless succession, soul-killing succession, baneless graves in a row.” In other words a virus.
AG: Baneless graves in a row, that’s good prose.
WSB: It’s a virus, multiplying its own image.
AG: Um hm. What is a virus, actually?
WSB: It’s…well in the first place it’s an obligate cellular parasite.
AG: Obligate meaning what?
WSB: Well, meaning that’s the only way it exists, or functions. Unless it’s in a state of…
AG: Obligatory parasite or obligate…
WSB: Obligate cellular parasite.
AG: So a parasite onto cells.
WSB: Yeah. Now that’s not true of bacteria, it’s not true of parasitic entities like malaria or spirochetes. They can exist apart from cells.
AG: They can exist in solution, in vitro…in mucous…
WSB: In all sorts of things. Not a virus, and that was the trouble they had in cultivating a virus, ’cause it only grows in living tissue. But you can’t cultivate it in a petri dish.
AG: So then in what sense could you call word a virus?
WSB: It repeats itself but only in the sense of repeating itself word for word. What a virus does is repeat its own image, word for word.
AG: However, would that be…in this image of word as a virus or ideas as viruses, you catch a virus, you catch a word, that wouldn’t be down to the cell level, that would be another kind of paradigm, another kind of…
WSB: Say here is the obligate cellular parasite. You have an idea of that and an idea of that, a serial relationship. So it’s sort of rough metaphor to say it…
AG: Yeah. It’s not literally in the cell.
AG: You ever think of it as literally in the cell?
WSB: Well, sure…originally yes, the concept of word, in the cell.
AG: Where did that come from, the idea of word as…that wasn’t Korzybski?
AG: No. It was what? Yours or partly Brion’s?
WSB: Partly mine…but it’s no concept at all.
AG: Where’d you first hear of it?
WSB: Well, I said it acts like a virus.
WSB: That’s all. And a virus is an obligate parasite, an obligate cellular parasite. And a word could…a language could hardly…cannot exist without…
AG: The speaker.
WSB: The speaker, without speakers.
AG: Without a host, yeah.
WSB: More than one.
AG: Uh hm. Well you could talk to yourself I guess.
WSB: But how? You can talk to yourself, but the concept, unless the concept of another person were there, you wouldn’t… The concept of a language, communication…you couldn’t talk to yourself. Unless you had a concept.
AG: Uh hm. I like the idea of…the idea as a virus in the sense of… ‘cause it’s obviously…in marketing research that’s exactly what they do…like for political purposes, to make a little slogan.
WSB: Why sure. Now I know you’ve heard about the computer viruses.
AG: Yeah, now what do they do? They just sort of…it spreads through the telephone modems.
WSB: It can get in the program. And then it’s hard to get rid of. They have to kind of call in a priest [laughter] to exorcize the computer of its virus. I don’t know how the computer would attack the priest.
AG: The virus could go back to the FBI files and get everything on the priest and then spit it out on the printer and…
WSB: The evil spirit knows all about the priest. He knows all his early sexual experiences. That is, one of the priests went down on a woman when he was sixteen, and the evil spirit says, “Ha ha, Peter the eater.” And just goes through all his sexual history. Very obscene. It’s full of very overt obscenity…when they get going…you know…what a wretched person…
AG: The exorcist is…
WSB: Yeah. Now then, if the priest tries to challenge the spirit on its own grounds, he can really get into trouble with it. He can go mad.
AG: Like what, you mean get into a metaphysical argument with a…?
WSB: Well, no, that isn’t dangerous that’s just not productive. No. But now look, unless the person in question wants to get rid of the…
AG: Oh yeah.
WSB: If you have someone like…there’s one person here, the evil spirit says, “He is ours completely.” Well the priest, being experienced, knows better than to try to get in there and challenge that because the person in question is completely possessed. The only thing the priest has to work with, the desire of the…what’s left of the person’s will, desire to be cured or freed.
AG: That’s a little bit like Alcoholics Anonymous. Only until you realize you have a disease and that you can’t do it by yourself and that you need help…
WSB: That’s right.
AG: And then turn to others for help.
WSB: That’s right.
AG: Otherwise pride or secrecy will prevent…make a barrier for anybody to reach a hand in.
WSB: He spoke of all the barriers here now. As a young priest he made that mistake once, of trying to exorcize…someone who was completely possessed, nearly… just barely escaped with his life.
AG: That book was written by an ex-Jesuit who did it, who was a specialist in this?
WSB: Yes, sure.
AG: Has that got the imprimatur of the pope?
WSB: Suppose so…
AG: They’re allowed to . . .
WSB: Oh yes…the priest…has been on television…an exorcism on television. I saw little bits and pieces of it. You saw doors opened up and drawers in a bureau opening and closing. All these physical manifestations. Doors slamming, things like that. And the priest there, you know saying Jesus stuff, but they finally got the spirit out.
AG: Apparently this guy Malachi Martin is the religious editor of William Buckley’s National Review also. You’d think he’d exorcize Buckley.
WSB: Now the Catholics tend to think that any spirit is evil…. One of the great sources of error of course is narcissism…fixed…try to hang on to an image.
WSB: A fixed image….
AG: Taking that external image for real.
WSB: You see, “a malevolent intelligence is scanning the innards of his very self,” this is the priest, “the attack finally wells up and pours over him. Father Hearty is filled with disgust and loathing he cannot control; he starts to retch, he is whipped with a ferocity he could never have imagined. . . . Now in one hurting glare of exposure he sees his weaknesses laid bare: the tawdry logic he received in his philosophy training, the self-confident, ignorantly treated facts of theology, the self indulgence and one time hypocrisies as of his piety. The useless pride in his priesthood, all is so much drivel and dross, a dump of human trash that withers under the fire of that gaze, looking in at him and probing every darkest cranny of his weakness.”
AG: Ho ho!
WSB: “Well, father, what did you expect? A gold watch?” Christ’s sake.
WSB: “His soul, as a willing being, stands naked of all the supports and reasons of a lifetime, scrutinized by the unwavering gaze of high, unlovely, and unloving intelligence.” So that’s what the priest has to put up with, you see. Everything goes.
AG: That’s pretty, completely… You’ve been in that situation, haven’t you?
WSB: Sure, man. But anybody is.
AG: I guess when you, um…
WSB: If you go far enough…
AG: But did you ever find yourself in a situation like that?
WSB: Good God yes! Anybody does.
AG: It’s very familiar.
WSB: Take a look! Just take a look at yourself. What are you? Of course you do. Unless you… See everything that he relied on, had relied on…it’s vanities…it’s all vanity. It’s nothing. All that…everything goes. The only thing he can hang on to is his will. The will to resist. But that will go too if he steps into the territory of the…
AG: So how did he resolve that? Just withdrew from the territory?
WSB: He just hung on, he hung on. It’s a question of hanging on. Until the spirit leaves, spirit goes. Maybe that was a success, but not all of them are successful.
AG: How much is that like a bum trip on acid? Or psilocybin?
WSB: It`s sort of…
AG: It’s very similar.
WSB: Similiar. Similar.
AG: What do you think the shaman, Melvin, was seeing in you? What do you think he was getting?
WSB: The spirit.
AG: Something like this?
AG: Something like that?
WSB: Well, not exactly, no. But he described it as a spirit with like a white, skull face…
AG: Hm hm.
WSB: But no eyes, and sort of…wings.
AG: That’s what Melvin saw?
AG: And did you get any glimpse of such a thing?
WSB: Well, I have many times.
AG: Yeah, and you’ve painted it in a way.
WSB: Yes I brought out some paintings and he would say, “Well there it is, there it is, and there it is,” in the painting. For example…let’s see…come in here and I’ll show you some of the paintings that I showed him.