William Seward Burroughs III—better known as Billy Burroughs or William Burroughs Jr.—had one of the more tragically doomed lives in literature. Despite being an excellent writer in his own right, Billy was more infamous for the horrific childhood bestowed upon him by his father, meticulously chronicled in the brutal book Cursed from Birth: The Short, Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs, Jr.. You may have heard how Burroughs II shot his son’s mother to death in an insane, drunken “game” of “William Tell” when the child was only four—it didn’t get better after that.
“Had it been sublime to be born in time, hospital halls unknown, mother soon to be blown from the face of the earth, a bullet hole in her head, father pale, hand shaking as he lit the wad of cotton in the back of a little toy boat in a Mexico City fountain. The boat made crazy circles as the poplar trees trembled, and our separate fates lay sundered, he to opium and fame, bearing guilt and shame. And I, the shattered son of Naked Lunch, to golden beaches and promises of success.”
After a long stay with his grandparents, Billy went to live with his father in Morocco, who introduced him to pot at thirteen and failed to protect him from multiple rape attempts. Billy then returned home to his grandparents in Florida, and echoing the most traumatic incident of his life, shot his own friend in the neck at 15. Though the boy survived, Billy initially believed he’d killed him and ran away to hide. He suffered a nervous breakdown. From there it was a descent into the addictions that his father fostered. Poet John Giorno called him “the last beatnik,” a foreboding casual honorific for a man who considered himself “cursed.”
At one point late in Billy’s life, Michael Rectenwald—(poet, fiction writer and academic, who was at the time an apprentice to Allen Ginsburg at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado)—was placed in a sort of care-taking position for Billy—no easy task for a college student. Nonetheless, Rectenwald saw Billy’s devastating final days, and was the recipient of the heart-wrenching note below, left before Billy fled to Florida. He died of cirrhosis at age 33.
Just woke from my daily ____ ‘Time Out’ A slight spill of beer—and of course—no one here—I must tromp the gathering night (o god I wish I wish, I could have the wish I wish tonight) but I need the cabin—My voiced is laced with madness & my only mental funds have long been placed in security—God, I’m so alone—I splurged and bought a case of beer (redundant) & of course there’s no one here—The wish? I do so much want to be honorably nonexistent
An extended clip of Billy Burroughs from Howard Brookner’s Burroughs: The Movie shows the fraught father-son relationship: