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Burroughs: A Pioneer in How We Perceive Addiction Today


Kerouac, Ginsberg and other Beat Generation Artists. Image courtesy of John Cohen/Hulton Archive

The “Beat Generation” often describes a group of Avant-garde American writers and poets who first gained distinction in the 1950’s post-World War II era, but also can refer to the broader social counter-culture movement that was glorified by their literature.

The most well-known beat writers include William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch (1959), Jack Kerouac, On The Road (1957), Alan Ginsberg, Howl (1956).

The movement grew from bohemian artist communities in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City’s Greenwich Village. The Beats favored a dress code that shunned materialism. They used slang adopted from jazz musicians and sought to be apolitical in their art.

Aside from being non-conformist with fashion, sexuality, and religion, they favored substances that would increase sensory awareness – experimenting with all drug types, including opiates and hallucinogens. In Burroughs’s case, experimentation would lead to addiction.

William S. Burroughs, Author of Junkie

A Beat writer regarded as one of the most influential and iconic of the 20th century, Burroughs was severely addicted to opiates for fifteen years. In fact, Burroughs first published novel was entitled, Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict, initially released under the pseudonym William Lee in 1953. The book is a semi-autobiographical account of Burroughs’s life as a heroin addict and dealer in Lower Manhattan in the 1950’s.

Although Junkie was originally only published as a pulp novel catered to subway riders, it sold approximately 100,000 copies in the first six months. The novel is widely considered groundbreaking, since it is one the first to shed light on the harsh realities and nuances of drug culture, the disease of addiction, and the human condition as a whole.

In the introduction to his most renowned novel, Naked Lunch, Burroughs included an entry entitled: Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness. In it, he speaks candidly about his experience with addiction to junk, which he designates as a “generic term for opium and/or derivatives including all synthetics from demerol to palfium.” Burroughs then chronicles the many types of junk he used, along with the various methods of consumption: “I have smoked junk, eaten it, sniffed it, injected in in vein- skin-muscle, inserted it in rectal suppositories.”

William (Lee) Burroughs's first book, JUNKIE: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict, was published in 1953. Image courtesy of Brian Cassidy, Bookseller.

In his deposition, Burroughs attempts to explain the age-old question; “Why does a Man Become an Addict?” The disease of addiction can be exceedingly difficult to understand for those who have never experienced themselves. He writes: “If you have never been addicted, you can have no clear idea what it means to need junk with the addict’s special need.” Perhaps the most persistent question asked by the non-addict is simply, why? They may wonder, why an addict chooses drugs or alcohol over their closest friends and family? Or, why they continue to use amidst the destruction of their relationships, career, life, and body?

While this question may be easy to ask, the answer is far more difficult to decipher. Burroughs describes the physical dependence he experienced as a result of his heroin addiction, something most of the American public know nothing about.

“The answer is that he usually does not intend to become an addict. You don’t wake up one morning and decide to be a drug addict,” Burroughs writes. In his experience talking to other addicts, he explains “most did not start using drugs for any reason they can remember. They just drifted along until they got hooked… One morning you wake up sick and you’re an addict.”

The junkie continues to use, despite the mental and physical destruction it causes, because it’s better than her/his alternate option, not using. When a junkie develops a serious addiction, she/he is no longer using junk solely to achieve a high, but also to avoid the miserable symptoms of withdrawal. Eventually, the junkie must use to maintain; to function.

Nathaniel Rich, who wrote a piece on Burroughs for The Daily Beast (link), explains that “with every hit, a junkie dies; as the drug’s effects dissipate, he is reborn.” In Junkie, Burroughs asserts, “…junk is the inoculation of death that keeps the body in a condition of emergency” (106).

Burroughs’s Writing on Addiction

William S. Burroughs, 1965 (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Burroughs was a pioneer in writing about addiction. He was one of the first popular authors to describe his own dependence on opiates, with honesty and transparency. To understand how radical this was, we must consider the cultural environment of 1953 America.

Still under the dark shadow of World War II, the United States was unnerved with the instability of the global landscape and many Americans reacted domestically with strong ideals of conformism and anti-communist hysteria. Burroughs socially liberal views stood in direct contrast of the status quo; his content was audacious and frank in describing the lowest tiers of American society, which was largely unknown to the American masses.

Writing from his own experience, Burroughs describes his addiction to junk as a “sickness.” This is a progressive viewpoint, and one in line with our current understanding of addiction as a disease and the model embraced by the largest sobriety program, Alcoholics Anonymous.

Today, we see a much greater presence of illicit drugs in popular culture and the media. We’re exposed to the harsh reality of heroin addiction in films, television, and online. We even have reality shows about addiction and intervention, providing intimate portrayals of addict life to the masses. An obvious discrepancy to 1950’s America when Burroughs wrote his most seminal works. Though much like then, junkies are still labeled outcasts and often times driven to squalor by the general public’s dismissal.

While there is much progress to be made in public perception of the addict, our lax stigma of the junky has made many treatment options and methods of recovery available. As a recovery patient benefiting from world class treatment, I have learned that staying clean and sober is an arduous task, to say the least. And it proved to be for Burroughs as well. His addiction cost him his wife, kids, family, and friends – all of his relationships except those associated with obtaining and using drugs. He mentions that he had achieved sobriety for only a few months at a time, although he always returned to the junk. But if it weren’t for his courage and honesty, we might not have achieved the level of awareness, understanding, and compassion for addicts and addiction that we have today.  We gain support and guidance when we not only listen to, but also understand and learn from the experiences of an addict/alcoholic who came before us.

If you or someone you know is suffering from any form of addiction, please visit our treatment center directory or call 800-781-7840



Burroughs, W. (1953). Junkie: The Definitive Text of “Junk”. New York: Grove Press.
Burroughs, W. (1959). Naked Lunch. New York: Grove Press.
Burroughs, W. S. (1991, October). Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness. Retrieved October 7, 2013, from Yardbird Books:
Encyclopædia Britannica. (n.d.). Beat movement. Retrieved October 7, 2013, from Encyclopædia Britannica Inc.: <>.
Rich, N. (2013, June 27). American Dreams, 1953: ‘Junky’ by William S. Burroughs. Retrieved October 3, 2013, from The Daily Beast:



Written by

A staff writer here at T4A, Roscoe enjoys investigating and writing on a variety of topics concerning addiction and mental health. His articles cover everything from the latest news stories to his own experiences with addiction and/or mental illness. He is a recovering alcoholic from New York, NY who is grateful not only to be sober, but also to have a life back. His interests include reading, writing, running, and anything involving the outdoors. Now that he is sober, he hopes to graduate college in the next few years with a degree in Business. He strives daily maintain a positive attitude and to work on himself; to make up for all of his past wrongdoings, and to give back by helping those who are struggling. Roscoe cherishes the opportunity to share his thoughts and ideas through the T4A blog, and welcomes any sort of feedback from readers!

Filed under: Addiction, Alcohol and Drugs, Featured, Recovery, Substance Abuse · Tags: addict, Addiction, Beat Generation, Beat Writers, drug addiction, junkie, morphine, Naked Lunch, Opium, William S. Burroughs

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