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.”

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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.

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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.

by Leela Ginelle
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Leela Ginelle is a trans woman journalist and playwright living in Portland, OR. Her work appears in PQ Monthly, Bitch and The Advocate. Follow her at @leelaginelle.

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20 Comments Have Been Posted


Thank you for writing this. I didn't know this about Burroughs. Althusser strangled his wife, and it's also often sidelined in treatments of his work.

There are so many connections between cultures of violence which tacitly allow such acts, and the content of the person's work. So rejecting violence is not only an important moral choice for creators and audience alike, it also allows for creating better art, writing, films, etc.

Re: Joan Vollmer Burroughs

Great article.
I couldn't agree more. What always puzzles me is how does one ever again sleep after executing such trauma let alone continue to produce work which they wish others to see. I can't imagine doing anything other than either crawling under a ledge somewhere awaiting the inevitable or becoming an ascetic. On the other hand injustice is such an integral part of human character it is surprising we see any milk of human kindness at all.

So glad this has come up

I've always been shocked at how casually this incident is dealt with, typically by young men who revere Burroughs. At the very least, even if the story that it was an accident is true, he still pointed a loaded gun at the head of his wife. This need to deify artists takes away their humanity. It's like people can't keep two contradictory thoughts in their heads. Artists aren't angels, sometimes they're really terrible people.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Male Privilege

Just try to imagine this story if the roles had been reversed!

I also want to thank you for this

I've always known the story but the lore around--and treatment of--the incident had always troubled me in a way I never even tried to articulate. I'm glad that you did.

I work in criminal justice and social justice as a nonpracticing attorney in the US. I do believe that people convicted of crimes (as well as those who commit them but are never properly tried) can be rehabilitated and, with proper assistance, can re-enter their communities successfully. But the casual treatment of this incident as a lark, as display of cool gone awry, rather than a deliberate act of violence does not fit with notions of crime, punishment, rehabilitation--or any notion of justice at all.

There has been some re-evaluation, but how to get at real truth?

See "The Death of Joan Vollmer Burroughs: What Really Happened?" by James W. Grauerholz

I think it's asinine to call her death an 'indirect suicide' -- but it's also as problematic to try to remove her from the event by relegating her to 'victim' as it is to conflate the incident with what we usually mean by domestic violence.

Both of them were more or less out-of-control, and pretty self destructive. The 'William Tell act' in a way is a metaphor for their lives -- it might be worth mentioning that Burroughs, as a rich heroin addict could have expected to die of old age still a junky, because heroin doesn't kill people who are able to afford medical care. Vollmer was addicted to speed, an addiction that she traded for alcoholism - that might be part of what makes people believe that she wanted to die, but I already said I think that's asinine.

It doesn't mean that he deserved to get off for her death, but the article I linked above points out that even if he didn'tt have the advantages of wealth (his social class probably helped him way more than social misogyny but I guess its hard to separate the atomic effects of his privileges), he would have only ever gotten a few years in jail given that there was no evidence that he murdered her - the argument (even in court today) was basically going to be (wo)manslaughter vs. negligence (I don't think even he knew (for sure) which it was).

I agree wholeheartedly that her death shouldn't be glossed over, and it shouldn't be mystified or mythologized - but we should also be careful to not believe we can simply decide the truth, because none of us can honestly claim to have the ability to get at the truth. While I'm willing to accept even the possibility that he shot her on purpose (that is, actually murdered her), I'm also willing to accept that he may have accidentally done a terrible, stupid thing that cost him a great deal (even if -- well, let's face it -- they were so seriously doomed as a couple).

But really, check out the linked pdf - it's hella interesting, even just for all the photos.

Well said. I have known many

Well said. I have known many drug addicts who have done horrid things when out of control in their addiction. It doesn't excuse the actions but should be taken into account. They were both on a bender when the shooting happened. Joan used all through her pregnancy and her son was born addicted to drugs. At the time of the shooting, Joan was drinking a quart of tequila a day as well as using other drugs. Burroughs was heavily drinking and drugging as well. It was a big awful terrible mess that turned to the worse and should most definitely not be glamorized.

Grasping at straws

I've studied Joan Vollmer Burroughs extensively for a historical fiction-biography I wrote as my creative MFA thesis at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, where William Burroughs used to teach. I know the ins and outs of her entire story and by now, much of his as well. And this article, quite frankly, is kind of a load of BS.

To begin with, there are historical inaccuracies here such as his birthday (his was February 5th, Joan's in fact was February 4), the length of time that will have passed this year since the shooting (63 years, not 53), and calling Joan an "accomplished poet" as some jump from the fact that her apartment was in fact the place where the early members of the Beat Generation met in NYC. It is unclear from historical facts whether or not she studied journalism at Barnard, but there is no information to support her being a writer herself, and frankly portraying her as such is wrong.

William Burroughs was largely a homosexual man. Unlike most other male writers notorious for being alcoholics, womanizers, and abusers, he was a quiet man from a privileged background who was interested in the criminal underworld of NYC which later was documented in his writing. His relationship with Joan was one of a strong respect of each other's incredibly sharp intellects, and indeed, their mutual love of and addiction to substances - him with heroin, her with amphetamines and later alcohol. They were both self-destructive to a degree, but her probably more so in the early years, as she was married multiple times and had another child before giving birth to William Burroughs Jr., all by the age of 24 or 25. She was a fascinating figure and an amazing example of what women in the 1940s went through, and the essential void in history of her story is why I have devoted time to documenting and writing it.

Did she want to die when her body was physically deteriorating in 1951 and she had been a serious alcoholic and drug addict, in addition to having polio? Perhaps. Bill and Joan believed in telepathy and the telepathy they had with each other. She stood up there in front of the gun, willingly, while he willingly pulled the trigger. He had to live with the consequences of his actions (and admittedly from a legal standpoint there were few, as he was in Mexico City at the time and had money) for the rest of his life, and the event is what he credited with pushing him to become a writer, to get out of the dark place he found himself in after killing his companion and the mother of his only child. (Their son, Billy Jr., would have a tragic end as well, dying of addiction at 33.)

Portraying Bill as a man with a history of domestic violence is flat-out incorrect. While I agree that this event should not be glossed over, which happens often with the young male acolytes of his work, putting him in the same category as women abusers like R. Kelly is specious and wrong. It was an accident. It was not murder. It was an accident, and to say otherwise is just not right.

Thanks for the corrections

Hi Katie,
Thanks for providing your research and different perspective on Vollmer's life here. Your analysis of Vollmer's accomplishments and Burrough's intentions clearly differ from this author, but the numerical inaccuracies are undebatable. I'm going to correct the last line of this article now with the right numbers. It's always good to get more information on the life of an artist who is not well known—if you have your research on Joan Vollmer online, please feel free to post a link.

I actually have a bit of a

I actually have a bit of a problem with some of this, and I would extend it to some of the Woody Allen outrage as well.

I just don't understand the want to moralize the work and to punish the love of it.

Just to be clear here, I'm in no way excusing any awful deeds if they were done--both Burroughs and Allen had/have by many accounts some pretty sinister qualities.

But it seems to me that the outrage sometimes has less to do with any acts they might have committed (the jury really is still out on either's guilt) and more to do with somehow being tricked into loving the works of artists suddenly revealed as patriarchal monsters. And so rather than work out our complicated feelings for loving bodies of work produced by people we're suddenly supposed to detest, the rage for that quandary is put on the artists. I don't know what this supposed to produce. Knee jerk hate? Preemptive judgement?

I have a certain amount of curiosity for both the Allen-Farrow controversy and Burroughs's shooting his wife. They're both exceptionally interesting people, and, frankly, made more interesting by these controversies (admittedly Burroughs's life is more interesting to me than his actual work). But I have just as much want to see these acts tried as I would any other alleged crime. I hope I'm not swayed for or against them by my other fascination which is for their work.

I find this expectation that as a good feminist I should feel only cold outrage for these men (and guilt for appreciating their art) a bit disingenuous. I really don't think that outrage would exist in the same way if there wasn't also some appreciation for the art in conflict.

Personally, I'd rather see more curiosity and elucidation for these events than premature and righteous rage.

I have always been under the

I have always been under the assumption that Joan's death was an accident -- a very stupid, tragic, drunken accident, but not a premeditated act.

If you want to look into another male artist and the suspicious death of his younger, talented artist wife -- how about Carl Andre and Ana Mendieta? He was charged and acquitted of her murder, and now he's got a big retrospective coming up at Dia Beacon while she's still very dead and mostly only known by feminist art scholars (though she should be much better-known).

"Cursed From Birth"

This is an excellent and (sadly) timely piece. I would recommend, for further reading "Cursed From Birth: The Short, Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs Jr." which is the story of the Burroughs and Joan Vollmer's son told largely from his own perspective. He was four years old when his father killed his mother and died at 33. Reading his account of the Beats will make you see them in a whole other light. He is another casualty of the murder (of Burroughs in general) as he understandably never recovered from it.

This is an incredibly

This is an incredibly childish piece of writing that gets several facts wrong, as amply documented in the other comments. I suppose that's what you need to do these days to get people clicking on your hackwork.

Ana Mendieta, Kitty Genovese, Joan Vollmer, Adele Morales -

I am chuffed to be a GenXer, and I always despised the act he perpetrated. I never viewed him as a glorified artist, as with Mailer - always thought of them as a coupla jerks who killed / hurt women. The women - the women - the women- people, come on.

Joan Vollmer

You're T-Shirts say 'Outsmart The Patriarchy"

They should say 'Male Artists Kill Women Artists Who Outsmart Them!'

Joan Vollmer was shot at by Burroughs because she was better and smarter than him.

I'm sorry to say but this is

I'm sorry to say but this is trully inaccurate. Framing the shooting in terms of domestic violence - why? Burroughs scholar Rob Johnson makes it clear that their "William Tell act" was something they did on a regular basis, starting it back on their farm in Texas. Is it a horrible and tragic accident? Yes, it is. But saying that this should be interpreted in the light of domestic violence is flat-out silly.

No distespect....

...but this article continues exactly what it tries to point out: a lot of info on the drop-out superstar and hardly a line about the victim, and only in relation to the murder. A personality is left as blank as before.

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