William Burroughs is not as recognizable a name or face as his neighbor on the iconic cover of Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, Marilyn Monroe. For a brief period of time, Burroughs was a maladjusted medical student, a bit like Maxwell Edison majoring in medicine (from the Abbey Road album). A disillusioned Burroughs abandoned formal medical training in favor of a career in self-drug experimentation and writing.
Andrew (A.J.) Lees is an accomplished neurologist who followed an inverse career path to Burroughs. Adopting Burroughs as a muse after reading and re-reading Naked Lunch while setting out on a career in medicine, Lees became widely regarding for his treatment of Parkinson’s Disease. The informal mentoring between writer and reader is the centerpiece of Lees’ this enchanting memoir.
During his lifetime, Burroughs had tried to collaborate with various scientists and physicians, but they were dismissive of his attempts to make medicine more magical and magic more medicinal. Lees was inspired by Burroughs’ trips to the Amazon rainforest, and experimentation with hallucinogens like ayahuasca. As Lees noted, this form of self-exploration and experimentation has gone entirely underground in modern medicine. (Ayahuasca enthusiasm is booming worldwide, and proponents range from recording artist Sting to Howard Stern sidekick Robin Quivers.)
Lees writes: “As I had gone through my training I had learned to treat the person not the disease. William Osler’s words ‘Ask not what disease the person has but rather what person the disease has’ had become my modus operandi. I had come to understand the importance of nuanced explanation, the calm gesture and the reassuring smile. I had observed my patients’ varied responses to their treatment and grasped the mystery of the therapeutic process.
I tried as best I could to enter my patients’ mode of thought. I avoided at all costs saying to them ‘I understand how you feel’. Many of my decisions were now based on informed guesses, hunches and imaginings; exploratory acts motivated by a passion to do good and quite independent of scientific knowledge. Unconscious wisdom, know-how and rules of thumb all played a part in my doctoring.”
Burroughs did the first public reading of his seminal work, Naked Lunch at Shakespeare and Company Bookshop in 1959. Lees returned to the scene nearly 60 years later to pay tribute to a mentor that he never met directly.