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Book Review: Mentored by a Madman: The William Burroughs Experiment

Book: Mentored by a Madman: The William Burroughs Experiment
Author: Andrew Lees
Notting Hill Editions 2016

A collection of famous faces adorns the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. Positioned in the second row next to Marilyn Monroe and above Oscar Wilde is a picture of beat generation writer William Burroughs. Burroughs’ novels and essays ––such as The Naked Lunch, Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict, and the Yagé Letters ––drew on his experiences as a heroin addict who traveled the world from Mexico to Morocco to Paris to London to the Amazon jungle, experimenting along the way with mind altering substances. As a young neurologist in London, Andrew Lees read The Naked Lunch in 1969 and recalls being intrigued and attracted by this provocative, self destructive, larger-than-life character. In his riveting memoir, Mentored by a Madman, which lucidly captures the many influences shaping his education as a neurologist and neuroscientist, Lees not only cites extraordinary medical mentors, such as William Gooddy and Gerald Stern, but also the radical thoughts of a less traditional (and possibly insane) guide:  William Burroughs.

Despite the excitement surrounding the introduction of L–DOPA for Parkinson’s disease in the 70s, Lees had periods in his career when he felt frustrated with the conformity of medicine and the relative lack of progress in clinical research. Perhaps, Lees reasoned, he should follow Burroughs’ example; perhaps the act of using self-experimentation and mind-expanding drugs might lead to new cures. As Lees puts it, “I considered myself very fortunate to have been given the chance to be a doctor......But on those occasional days when attending the neurologically ill was not enough to fill my heart and mind, Burroughs’ non-linear presence sustained me. He was now a symbol of unlimited scientific possibility, the archangel of abundance who guided me beyond the far horizon and encouraged my wistfulness.”

Lees’ memoir explores his search for new molecules to offer relief when Parkinson’s disease patients no longer got benefit from L-DOPA; drugs like bromocriptine and Deprenyl. But it is Burroughs’ use of the drug apomorphine that really captured Lees’ interest. In 1960, Burroughs came to London to be treated by the physician Dr. Dent, who claimed to be able to treat heroin addiction painlessly with apomorphine. While today, few people use apomorphine to treat addiction, the drug turned out to be therapeutic for Parkinson’s disease; the basis of a therapy to “rescue” advanced patients who are caught between freezing episodes and disabling dyskinesias. 

In the tradition of his mad mentor, Lees obtained 50 small vials of apomorphine from the pharmacy at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London. “I took one of them home and jabbed myself with one milligram. Within a few minutes, I started to feel pleasantly relaxed. I did not feel sick and the mild sedative effects disappeared in half an hour. One unexpected effect was a strong penile erection lasting about ten minutes.”

Lees then gave the apomorphine to a group of patient volunteers during their off periods when unresponsive to L-DOPA. According to Lees, “The effects were spectacular. Every single patient was unlocked after about ten minutes and the beneficial effects of apomorphine were sustained for about an hour......A group of helpless invalids had sprung back to life and could now laugh, talk, and stride effortlessly around the ward. “

There is a symmetry to this memoir. Burroughs started by going into the rainforest and experimenting with drugs. He wanted to be a doctor and ended up a great writer. Lees went into medicine, and ironically at the end of his career finally got to the rainforest. In 2013 at the age 66, Lees traveled to the Amazon rainforest to experiment with yagé, a narcotic, which is made with a mix of the vine Banisteriopsis caapi and other plants. As Lees puts it, “Hallucinogenic molecules could open up frightening new vistas of exploration and if Burroughs was right, my trip to the Amazon would lead me to unimagined cures. I wanted to see whether yagé could infuse my monochromatic research canvas and open up vivid new scientific perspectives.” As Lees reports, the experience was vivid. “Yellow and green iridescent zigzag spectra and indigo and argent helices are under my eyes, ultramarine charges come out of my arms. Jungles glide past and I see vast rivers of land accelerating past locked shorelines.”

Lees continues to speculate. “Perhaps yagé would one day take its place alongside the other treatments for Parkinson’s disease, ......It might also aid the human spirit to comprehend its true transcendent nature and eliminate all fear. I felt sure, after my own experience, that there was something in it.” 

Andrew Lees has written a fascinating and provocative memoir. While some may not wish to have Burroughs as their mentor, they will find Lees’ narrative both well written and compelling.