Tag Archives: history

Must Read: Junky by William Burroughs


“This is an incredible book, no matter how ‘outdated’ it may be. Written about a man, Burroughs, in the 1950’s who is struggling with a growing addiction to junk (aka heroin). Its fascinating to read about how addiction was in an era way past our own; to see the differences, the similarities and the history of the never endearing struggle with substance abuse. The review below from TheDailyBeast.com sums it all rather well, enjoy!” -Robyn

Junky by William S Burroughs

In 1953, while Joseph McCarthy was hunting for communists in the highest ranks of the federal government, an Arkansan congressman named Ezekiel C. Gathings was conducting his own witch hunt. His target was the paperback-book industry. He argued that pulp fiction had “largely degenerated into media for the dissemination of appeals to sensuality, immorality, filth, perversion, and degeneracy.” Of particular interest to Gathings were novels about drug abusers, a class of American society nearly as reviled as communists. At the time, as Allen Ginsberg later wrote, there was a sense “that if you talked about ‘tea’ (much less Junk) on the bus or subway, you might be arrested—even if you were only discussing a change in the law.” The publication of a pulp novel named Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict, by the pseudonymous William Lee, was therefore a welcome surprise. It sold 100,000 copies in its first six months. American readers wanted what “Lee” was pushing.

Lee was William S. Burroughs, Harvard graduate and heir to the Burroughs Adding Machine fortune. Burroughs’s inheritance left the young scion free to pursue education and drugs at his leisure. He first took up anthropology, at both Harvard and later Mexico City College; then medicine, in Vienna; and finally heroin. Heroin stuck. Junky—as his novel is now known—combines all these interests. Unlike Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (also published in 1953), Junky eschews allegory for scrupulous realism. The approach is journalistic, pedagogical, often clinical, bearing little resemblance to novels for which Burroughs is now better remembered, like Naked Lunch and Nova Express. Although Bill, Junky’s narrator, mentions reading Oscar Wilde, Anatole France, Baudelaire, and Gide as a young boy, the tone owes more to Franz Boas and Margaret Mead. Junky is Bill’s life story, but only in a sense, for he discusses only the parts of his life that relate to junk. The story follows the development of his addiction, his attempts to quit, and his travels in search of cheaper, better drugs. Along the way we meet a largely interchangeable cast of dealers, users, thieves, and con artists. More than anything else, Junky reads like a field guide to the American underworld.

“Junk,” we learn, refers to opium and its derivatives: morphine, heroin, pantopon, Dilaudid, codeine. But it is much more than that. Junk, he says, “is a way of life.” And it’s an expensive one at that. A heroin addiction in 1953 cost about $15 a day, or the equivalent of $125 in today’s dollars. Junkies have their own look (emaciated, haunted, sallow) and their own junk names: Doolie, Cash, and Dupré. Junk has its own dialect. A user who robs drunks on the subway to support his habit is a “lush-worker”; a junkie’s eyedropper, spoon, and hypodermic needle constitute his “works”; doctors are “croakers.” The easiest way to convince a croaker to write a “script” for morphine is to fake gallstones or kidney stones. If those excuses fail, try facial neuralgia.

Heroin addiction takes patience and dedication. Burroughs estimates that you need a year and several hundred injections to develop a habit. An addict does not use heroin to get a thrill—never does Bill experience joy from heroin. A junkie uses only to avoid junk sickness, otherwise known as withdrawal. Junk sickness is like a hangover mixed with burning alive and a parasitic infestation: “I felt a cold burn over the whole surface of my body as though the skin was one solid hive. It seemed like ants were crawling under the skin.” There is also vomiting, diarrhea, violent sneezing fits, loss of breath, lowering of blood pressure, and extreme weakness. Bill feels a sensation like “subsiding into a pile of bones.” This condition might conceivably be manageable were it to last for 12 or 24 hours. But junk sickness tends to last 8 days.

There are cures for addiction, but they tend not to last. Not because the cures are ineffective; they are effective, particularly the incremental “Chinese cure,” which Bill uses, a gradual weaning that involves replacing the drug with increasing doses of Wampole’s Tonic. Bill stays sober for many months at a time. But he always returns to the junk—out of boredom.

Here lies the novel’s core perversity. The main reason the junkie does heroin, despite its horrors and despair, is because it’s better than the alternative: not doing heroin. It is better to be a junkie than to end up what Burroughs might have been, had he followed in his family’s line. The life of an “American business man,” he writes, “is a one-way process. When his organism reaches maturity it can only start dying.”

A junkie, on the other hand, exists in a state of constant physical emergency. With every hit, a junkie dies; as the drug’s effects dissipate, he is reborn. “Junk,” writes Burroughs at last, in the cleanest expression of the novel’s thesis, “is an inoculation of death.” It is total negation. “Perhaps the intense discomfort of withdrawal is the transition … from a painless, sexless, timeless state back to sex and pain and time, from death back to life.” The junkie knows life because he has an intimate knowledge of death. That is another way of saying that the junkie, unlike our “American business man,” knows himself.

But Burroughs is after something more than self-realization. Junky is not, after all, a memoir, a fact underscored by his cursory treatment of even the most basic biographical information. Bill’s wife, oddly, is introduced for the first time—and even then only in passing, by another character—more than halfway through the novel. His children are mentioned once, 50 pages later, in a single mysterious sentence: “My wife was in Acapulco with the children.” Junk leaves no room for family, jobs, or relationships other than those organized around the procurement and enjoyment of junk.

Near the end of the novel Bill moves to Mexico. He has plans to flee even farther away, deep into South America. The expat junkies he meets during his travels confirm his worst fears about his native country. McCarthy’s paranoia has infected America, which has entered “a state of complete chaos where you never know who is who or where you stand.” The junkie is grateful for his junk. At least he will always know exactly where he stands—even if he doesn’t know where he’ll end up.


Addiction and the Role of Family History


Addiction is due 50 percent to genetic predisposition and 50 percent to poor coping skills.This has been confirmed by numerous studies. One study looked at 861 identical twin pairs and 653 fraternal (non-identical) twin pairs. When one identical twin was addicted to alcohol, the other twin had a high probability of being addicted. But when one non-identical twin was addicted to alcohol, the other twin did not necessarily have an addiction. Based on the differences between the identical and non-identical twins, the study showed 50-60% of addiction is due to genetic factors.(1) Those numbers have been confirmed by other studies.(2)

The children of addicts are 8 times more likely to develop an addiction. One study looked at 231 people who were diagnosed with drug or alcohol addiction, and compared them to 61 people who did not have an addiction. Then it looked at the first-degree relatives (parents, siblings, or children) of those people. It discovered that if a parent has a drug or alcohol addiction, the child had an 8 times greater chance of developing an addiction.(3)

Why are there genes for addiction? We all have the genetic predisposition for addiction because there is an evolutionary advantage to that. When an animal eats a certain food that it likes, there is an advantage to associating pleasure with that food so that the animal will look for that food in the future. In other words the potential for addiction is hardwired into our brain. Everyone has eaten too much of their favorite food even though they knew it wasn’t good for them.

Although everyone has the potential for addiction, some people are more predisposed to addiction than others. Some people drink alcoholically from the beginning. Other people start out as a moderate drinker and then become alcoholics later on. How does that happen?

Repeatedly abusing drugs or alcohol permanently rewires your brain. If you start out with a low genetic predisposition for addiction, you can still end up with an addiction. If you repeatedly abuse drugs or alcohol because of poor coping skills, then you’ll permanently rewire your brain. Every time you abuse alcohol, you’ll strengthen the wiring associated with drinking, and you’ll chase that buzz even more. The more you chase the effect of alcohol, the greater your chance of eventually developing an addiction.

Your genes are not your destiny. The 50% of addiction that is caused by poor coping skills is where you can make a difference. Lots of people have come from addicted families but managed to overcome their family history and live happy lives. You can use this opportunity to change your life. (Reference: www.AddictionsAndRecovery.org)


What Is Your Family History?

Most people don’t know their family history of addiction very well. Addiction is not the sort of thing that most families talk about. Not too long ago you could have a raging alcoholic in your family and nobody would talk about it. Or they would make some quaint remark like, “Oh he drinks a little too much.” There was so little people could do about addiction before that there was no point in talking about it.

But now that you can do something about addiction, a family history is worth talking about. Once you stop using and tell your family that you’re in recovery, that’s often when they will tell you about the family secrets. That’s when family members will sometimes come out of the closet and tell you their stories.

Let your coping skills be the legacy you pass on to your children. Don’t let your genes be the only legacy you pass on to your children. Your children are more likely to have an addiction because of your addiction. But their genes don’t have to be their destiny. You can help your children lead happy lives by teaching them healthy coping skills – by being an example with your recovery.

Is Addiction a Disease?

Addiction is like most major diseases. Consider heart disease, the leading cause of death in the developed world. It’s partly due to genes and partly due to poor life style choices such as bad diet, lack of exercise, and smoking. The same is true for other common diseases like adult-onset diabetes. Many forms of cancers are due to a combination of genes and life style. But if your doctor said that you had diabetes or heart disease, you wouldn’t think you were bad person. You would think, “What can I do to overcome this disease?” That is how you should approach addiction.

Addiction is not a weakness. The fact that addiction crosses all socio-economic boundaries confirms that addiction is a disease. People who don’t know about addiction will tell you that you just need to be stronger to control your use. But if that was true then only unsuccessful people or unmotivated people would have an addiction, and yet 10% of high-functioning executives have an addiction.

If you think of addiction as a weakness, you’ll paint yourself into a corner that you can’t get out of. You’ll focus on being stronger and trying to control your use, instead of treating addiction like a disease and focusing on stopping your use.


Cross Addiction

You can become addicted to any drug, if you have a family history of addiction. If at least one of your family members is addicted to alcohol, you have a greater chance of developing an addiction to any other drug. Cross addiction occurs because all addictions work in the same part of the brain. If your brain is wired so that you’re predisposed to one addiction, then you’re predisposed to all addictions.

This is especially important for women who may come from alcoholic families, but who often develop addictions that go undetected, like addictions to tranquilizers, pain relievers, or eating disorders.

One addiction can lead to other addictions, and one drug can make you relapse on another drug. That’s one of the consequences of a brain that’s wired for addiction. Suppose you’re addicted to cocaine. If you want to stop using cocaine then you have to stop using all addictive drugs including alcohol and marijuana. You may never have had a problem with either of them, but if you continue to use alcohol or marijuana, even casually, they’ll eventually lead you back to your drug of choice. Recovery requires total abstinence.

How does cross addiction cause relapse:

  1. All addictions work in the same part of the brain. Addiction is addiction is addiction. Therefore one drug can lead you back to any other drug.
  2. Even moderate drinking or smoking marijuana lowers your inhibitions, which makes it harder for you to make the right choices.
  3. If you stop using your drug of choice but continue to use alcohol or marijuana, you’re saying that you don’t want to learn new coping skills and that you don’t want to change your life. You’re saying that you want to continue to rely on drugs or alcohol to escape, relax, and reward yourself. But if you don’t learn those new skills, then you won’t have changed, and your addiction will catch up with you all over again.

(Reference: www.AddictionsAndRecovery.org)