The Brain Drawing the Bullet

12 September


Feeling extremely positive about swift delivery of completed ms. I’m writing fluently and well: purulent, narcotic stuff that K. says is giving him nightmares as he types it. In response to your questions:

The gun was not so difficult to acquire as you might imagine (they rarely are as difficult to acquire as someone might imagine who’s never made the attempt), in fact many of the group owned/carried guns. Yes, Mexico incident you mention did occur – as I said before, my fascination with the act (and with B.) began long ago – & in addition there had been one other close call previously on trip to Tangiers, a beautiful dark-skinned boy who was clipped but basically unharmed. All stupid/dramatic and excusable by drug use, which was particularly heavy at the time.

Mexico was pre-planned attempt unlike spontaneous, impromptu performance w/ I. and about two years prior. A photographer friend was visiting us and knew my interest so suggested it for a kind of photo shoot. He found a girl, forget her name, who balanced the glass and the whole thing went off without a hitch. May have given me more confidence later, unfortunately. Photographer’s shot was as good as mine and photo was excellent. I’ll see if he can send it to you, maybe it can be useful for publicity.

Understand the rush – usefulness of current notoriety &c. – for getting the material to you soonest. If there is any way to extract further money, please do and transfer at earliest possible. K. is working hard on all our behalfs not just typing but assembling material into best order and I have no means to reward him.

Attached are editorial notes regarding section you returned.

Best, L.

18 September


On last set of proofs: fine to reinsert line about ‘I can't watch this, I can't stand the sight’ &c., please go ahead. Extremely happy with final material, know you will be too. Didn’t want to concern you at time, but I had been writing about junk w/ distance that rendered the whole thing flat and uninteresting. Not useable stuff at all, utterly declawed by the remove of time and the inadequacy of memory, and happily now unnecessary. I used money you sent on some of the serious junk they have down here and offered it to K. as payment for his work on ms. Seeing his response (most extreme I've ever witnessed personally) has been invaluable. (One thing I’ve always shared with B. is an aptitude for scientific exploration.) Though made it necessary to find someone else (local boy) to do the typing: K. ultimately so violent/unpredictable I was forced to evict him from the house (it was all no never mind by then as material was very nearly complete). Have seen him once since out on the street sitting staring at nothing with great intensity. Took some notes observing him from a bar overlooking his perch for sequel currently in progress.

Let me know of current plan for publicity/review schedule &c. Could write pieces to accompany publication. Disinclined to write about death of I., not out of any particular discomfort but because it’s all in the book, explicitly only in passing, but it is the animating principle of the whole, the sine qua non, and people should be made to find it there. Imprudencia criminale is their equivalent of criminal negligence; thought I had covered this. Order of sections as sent is final: immediately before K.’s departure I tried various versions on him, and present order reduced him to near total paralysis, it has a possessed quality that any restructuring now could unbalance. This is the junk fiend-approved iteration and should not be disturbed.

Best, L.

10 October


Received final proofs and remain determined that line ‘I can’t watch this, I can’t stand the sight of blood’ be taken out. I never gave permission for its reinsertion and find its inclusion disturbing – how did it make its way back in? It is dishonest, it was never said and I don’t know why I ever wrote the damn thing. It was never said. Otherwise am content with proofs. Extremely happy to write piece on B.’s own accident, though surprised it couldn’t be placed anywhere more prestigious, would be interested to know where you tried. Accounts exist from each of the eyewitnesses, as well as several accounts from B. himself which vary intriguingly. Some completely honest (and was there ever a writer more full-bloodedly honest?) and with some profound insights into responsibility of Joan herself, which is a delicate, compelling position. Though also one version that embarrassingly denies many of the finer points of the whole thing (and I don’t mean the initial denial, which is entirely exculpated by legal necessity, but many years later when B.'s accomplishments put him absolutely beyond censure). Appreciate your concern for K., but assure you that the absolute best, most decent thing you can do for him now is to ensure that the book is as well published and received as it can possibly be. Importance of this to K. is at least as profound as importance of this to me (and to Inga). Please send list of publicity/review schedule. I have time to do more and I’m concerned that you are not using me fully. Can write more about B. Can write about Inga and the accident if this is necessary. Accounts of B.’s accident attached should give you an idea of the intricate, multivalent seams of interpretation and psychology present in the act: complicity of ‘victim’, writer as outlaw, mythical connections &c.

Best, L.

Very first account given by B. was in front of reporters. This from El Nacional:

At first the killer declared that in the said gathering, after there had been a great consumption of gin, he tried to demonstrate his magnificent marksmanship, emulating William Tell, and to that end he placed a glass of liquor upon the head of his wife, and aiming over the glass, at a distance of two metres, he fired, but as a consequence and result of the state of drunkenness in which he found himself, he missed the shot lamentably and injured the forehead of his wife with a bullet.

While delivering this statement, B. gets word that Joan has died from the wound and there is much weeping and rending of hair. Then B.'s lawyer comes in and (this still in front of pack of reporters), tells B., Don’t be stupid, the pistol fired accidentally. And then he tells the reporters, ‘I will prove it was an accident. The point is, William has not testified before the authorities, and before he does, he will know perfectly what he has to say.’ By his next statement B. knows perfectly what to say:

We were all drunk. I took my pistol from a valise and put it on the table; then I picked it up again, to demonstrate to those present how to handle it, and while I was playing with it the shot was produced that killed my wife, who was seated before me.

She fell to the floor and I thought she was playing a trick, but one of my friends informed me that she was hit. Then I lifted her up and seated her on an easy chair.

All my friends left. After that, my wife was taken by persons from the Red Cross. I went to that institution to find out her condition.

Later, from a friend of mine, I knew that Joan had died.

Call that #2.


My wife had taken several cups [of alcohol]. I pulled out the pistol to show it to someone. My wife was seated approximately 8 or 10 feet from me. The pistol slipped and fell, striking itself on a table, and discharged. At first, I thought she was attempting a joke when she fell down, and I went to where she was. I moved her onto an easy chair. Then someone called the Red Cross, but Joan did not return from her swoon. All was purely accidental. I am sure that none of those who were present could doubt that it was all accidental.

The jealousy angle that has been brought up by the newspapers is absolutely ridiculous. I loved my wife and I had no reason to be jealous.

I did not put any glass on her head. If she did so, it was a joke, and certainly I did not try to shoot at the glass.

I wish to put on record my gratitude to the Mexican authorities, who have treated me with every kind of consideration and in the most correct way.

13 days in prison, $300 in bribes to ballistic experts (don’t need to tell you, G., prices have gone up ...)

A.’s version:

It was a convivial gathering, just the four of us. We were sitting around drinking, with Bill at a table, and Joan sitting across from him. The conversation was desultory. Bill had a gun. That was nothing unusual. Even I had one, a Belgian automatic I had picked up overseas, though it often wound up in the hock shop. When he said he was going to do his William Tell act, nobody said, ‘Look, Bill, this is not a good idea.’ There was nothing especially alarming about it. There had been some drinking and Bill was known for his marksmanship. As for the reason Joan went along with it, you could ascribe it to her confidence in his marksmanship, or anything else you want to ascribe it to.

At any rate, the gun fired low and Joan was shot in the side of the head. We all sat there staring and not believing. But once I saw the red trickle, I was past disbelief. I knew what had happened. I had seen him pick up the gun and fire it. I think I was the first to move. The only thing I could think of doing was to get the hell out of there – I told you, I’m a natural coward. I knew that a Mexican medical student lived in one of the little cubicles on the roof, so I said I was going to get him. He wasn’t there, so I came back down and from then on I don't recall any particulars. Somebody else called the cops.

W.’s version:

So we were sitting around in this living room littered with bottles, and Joan was drinking gin with limonada, and Allerton and I were sitting on the sofa, and Burroughs was sitting in a chair within an arm's reach of me, so close that I could have reached over and grabbed his gun, and Joan was in a stuffed chair across from Gene and myself. I don't know how the conversation got around to it, but Burroughs said, ‘Joanie, let me show the boys what a great shot old Bill is.’ So she balanced her glass on her head and said with a giggle, ‘I can't watch this – you know I can't stand the sight of blood.’ And then it dawned on me that he was actually going to pull the trigger, and I thought, ‘My God, if he hits the glass there'll be shards flying all over the place, there'll be a hole in the wall, and how are we going to explain this to Juanita’ ... it just seemed ridiculous to me. So I started to reach for the gun, but then I thought, ‘You better not, ’cause if it goes off and hits her ...’ She was nine, ten feet away. And then bang, that was the first impression, the noise – we were temporarily deafened by the sound. The next thing I knew the glass was on the floor, and I noticed the glass was intact, it was rolling around in concentric circles, this six-ounce water glass. And then I looked at her and her head had fallen to one side. Well, I thought, she’s kidding. Then I heard Allerton say, ‘Bill, I think you hit her.’ Then he cried ‘No!’ and started toward her, and then I saw the hole in her temple. Burroughs kept crying ‘Joan, Joan, Joan!’ He was out of it, in shock.

Allerton went to get a doctor, and I went to Juanita's place, leaving Burroughs there, kneeling in tears at her side, saying, ‘Talk to me, talk to me.’ And I heard the death-rattle then, the snoring sound as if she were asleep: harrrrrrrrhhh, like that.

If he was a good shot that was the worst shot I ever saw. But there was no way anybody could convince me that it was done on purpose.

B. again:

Let's see, Joan was sitting in a chair. I was sitting in another chair across the room about six feet away, there was a table, there was a sofa. The gun was in a suitcase and I took it out, and it was loaded, and I was aiming it. I said to Joan, 'I guess it's about time for our William Tell act.' She took her highball glass and balanced it on top of her head. Why I did it, I don't know, something took over. It was an utterly and completely insane thing to do. Suppose I had succeeded in shooting the glass off her head, there was a danger of glass splinters flying out and hitting the other people there. I fired one shot aiming at the glass.

Brion Gysin said to me in Paris: ‘For ugly spirit shot Joan because ...’ A bit of mediumistic message that was not completed – or was it? It doesn’t need to be completed, if you read it: ‘ugly spirit shot Joan to be cause,’ that is, to maintain a hateful parasitic occupation. My concept of possession is closer to the medieval model than to modern psychological explanations, with their dogmatic insistence that such manifestations must come from within and never, never, never from without. (As if there were some clear-cut difference between inner and outer.) I mean a definite possessing entity. And indeed, the psychological concept might well have been devised by the possessing entities, since nothing is more dangerous to a possessor than being seen as a separate invading creature by the host it has invaded.

I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realisation of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and manoeuvred me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.

There was a hearing several days after the trial but I wasn’t there when case came up for decision one or two years later. Legal system down there is very different from our own. Think they decided it was accidental, ‘imprudent criminal’ they called it and there was suspended sentence I guess. Don’t remember very well.

May yet attempt a story or some account of Inga’s death. I suspect my reluctance is not at all because I think it would be in bad taste to write about it. I think I am afraid. Not exactly to discover terrible unconscious intent. It’s more complex, more basic and more horrible, as if the brain drew the bullet toward it.

I was there during the Alemán regime. If you walked into a bar, there would be at least fifteen people in there who were carrying guns. Everybody was carrying guns. And I had that terrible accident with Joan Vollmer, my wife. I had a revolver that I was planning to sell to a friend. I was checking it over and it went off – killed her. A rumour started that I was trying to shoot a glass of champagne from her head William Tell-style. Absurd and false. Then they had a big depistolization. Mexico City had one of the highest per capita homicide rates in the world. It really was a bit much, the Alemán regime.

2 November


I have begun writing this several times and each time restrained myself, but I have to express my frustration. I am deeply concerned and disappointed by lack of response to the book. Yet to see any substantial/thoughtful review. Yet to see any response whatsoever to the piece on B.’s shooting of Joan, and I worry that I was right to think it had been badly placed. Still, convinced there must have been some response, if you have been contacted directly by anyone then please let me know exactly what they have said. If you think a further article might be useful in drawing out some of the material, then I can supply, perhaps this time in a venue more likely to attract an interested readership?


20 November


Thought I had perceived in some of your more recent communications a growing distaste towards me and can only now believe it confirmed by your silence. I am disappointed by lack of reviews, disappointed by lack of coverage, disappointed by apparent lack of sales, disappointed by lack of communication. But blame is shared and I want to redeem myself any way I can. Please let’s endeavour to make the book a success for all our sakes. What’s to be done?


8 December


One review, and I would rather none than a petulant, small-minded offence of this sort. Criticism of myself I can shoulder nobly, but the implied criticism of B. I will not, and would like to publish a response. It was as decent and right that Van Gogh’s ear be cut off as that Joan should die (this was truly B.’s Van Gogh kick, more than the time he clipped off the knuckle of a finger), and even dispensing with the well-established responsibility that Joan herself must bear, the work would absolve him fully. Blake wrote ‘the cut worm forgives the plow’.


30 December


Keen to know your plans for receiving more/better coverage for the book. Have an idea of my own: have lured back K., though he is sick and often doesn’t know me. Want your opinion on whether a second accident similar to the first might be useful in garnering attention now that the book is available. Will wait for word before pursuing this course of action as not sure the charge will be as easy to beat this time or in this place. Have not received word from you for some time.


31 January

Still no reply to previous? Please let me know what is going on, G. I need to hear from you. K. is escaped. Have performed act twice (w/ hired girls), with terrible luck, hitting the glass each time regardless of drink consumed. Have never told full story about Inga. Can do this if it would help. Something must give, all is intolerable. I made her draw a mark with her eyeliner, 4.5mm to the left of the midline of her forehead. It was the bravest thing I ever did.

31 January

I took the gun from the suitcase and said ‘It's time for our William Tell act.’ She wouldn’t put the glass on her head, not to begin with. She was the one who had been drinking all day, but I was shaking violently, even though it was important that I was sober. Joan, Burroughs' wife, had once been walking down the road and thought white worms were crawling out of her skin. She had a junk habit and a benzedrine habit. She had a death wish and her brain drew the bullet toward it. Inga had a junk habit and a death wish, and the cut worm forgives the plow. The mark 4.5 mm left of the midline of her forehead bled, and the glass rolled on the floor and the brain drew the bullet toward it.