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On the Disappearing of Joan Vollmer Burroughs

Katie Bennett Measures the Emotional Toll of Writing a Feminist Recovery Story

After William Burroughs killed his wife Joan Vollmer, he threw away all her possessions. Their son, Bill Jr., never saw a photograph of her. When Bill Jr. was 32, he begged his father to send him a photo but he didn’t. Allen Ginsberg tried to show him a photo of her dead face, though. Several times.

I’ve only been able to find a handful of photos of Joan Vollmer on the internet, and in half of them she is dead.

But Joan was once so vibrantly alive her “electricity seemed almost palpable,” as Joyce Johnson wrote. Joan sat right next to the men of the Beat Generation, co-creating its ideology. She laughed and breathed and liked to pick blueberries with her baby daughter Julie. Her teenage dream was to live in New York City.

Now she is only remembered as a footnote to William Burroughs’ mythology. On the internet, and in all the libraries I scoured, no one has tried to correct the narrative of her erasure.

Last year, I tried. After lack of interest from many other outlets, my pitch to write about her was accepted by a reputable literary magazine. But several scholars questioned the purpose of my project and my editor tried to get me to dramatize Joan’s promiscuity, while cutting out sections on her childhood and her dreams. Eventually, my story was killed. Simultaneously, my life imploded.

*

In September 2019 I moved from Philadelphia to a small and fairly conservative town in upstate New York. I was so lonely I did things like join an online women’s circle and drive forty-five minutes to Albany just to glance approvingly at anyone who wore black jeans or dressed the least bit alternative. I had one friend other than my partner. I worked a part-time office job at an elementary school and otherwise had nothing to do. I was isolated, and it’s what I had thought I wanted, or needed, to be a writer.

The desire for “proof” of Joan’s significance came up again and again as I spoke to writers and scholars about my work.

I began researching Joan Vollmer in my living room upstate on New Year’s morning, 2020. I’d woken at dawn, used to being jolted awake by my work alarm. Bleary-eyed and hungover, I made green tea and slunk into the living room couch as my partner slept for hours. We’d celebrated the night before with champagne, Jenga, and our radio tuned to a local station that played old Christmas songs. I’d felt warm and safe and in love—all I could have asked for from the holiday.

But beneath the glowing evening was, and always will be, a private anniversary I observe every New Year’s Eve: a body-memory of being 19 in New York City, a shadowy man on a rooftop and what he took from me. That memory coursed through me as I read Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, golden light illuminating the living room windows.

I came across the part where she quotes William Burroughs’ advice to a young writer: SHOOT THE BITCH AND WRITE A BOOK. I circled the line furiously, drawing dozens of exclamation marks down the margin of the page.

How had I not heard more about this?

I decided to research Joan, his wife, the “bitch” he was referencing. I wanted to uncover the ghost-woman, her dreams and her humanity. I did not yet realize how connected my mission was to the anniversary of my assault.

I pulled out my phone and searched her name. I learned she was 28 when she died. I was 28.

William shot Joan in the head.

*

For a year I learned everything I could about Joan, getting up at 5 am before work to read through stacks of library books, gleaning anecdotes and scraps from William’s biographies and texts on Beat history. During that time, my partner and I got married. We also began to fight regularly, and the pandemic magnified our isolation and tensions. I blamed him for our isolation, because we lived near where he grew up, where he had community and I didn’t. Like Joan, who, I learned, was dragged to small, isolated towns on William’s whim, I wanted to move. Also like Joan, I had no money. I could barely pay my half of the rent, whereas my husband, while still earning a modest salary, made three times more than me and paid most of our bills. One day I was struck by the realization that I’d fallen into the archetype of the disempowered wife.

Researching Joan made me feel important. I spent more and more time in the large, converted closet I used as a studio, reading about her and taking extensive notes.

As the months passed, I wasn’t surprised to discover she was much more than a mere footnote to William’s story. She was a vibrant, creative spirit. In the 1940s, she curated community in her Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan and led all-night discussions that laid the groundwork for the Beat Generation’s hallmark characteristics: social freedom and spontaneous literary composition. She introduced Jack Kerouac to Marcel Proust and William Burroughs to the Mayan Codices, and, through her eventual descent into addiction, partially inspired Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. The Beat Generation was as much a cultural movement as a literary one, and through her sexual fluidity and refusal to submit to socially prescribed female timidity, Joan inspired women to become “Beat.”

Again and again, I wondered why no one had bothered to write about her, beyond her relationship to William or the mythology of her death.

*

I came to care for her, almost as a friend. After learning her half-dozen letters were stored at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, I requested them. An archivist sent me scanned copies, and as I read through them, I laughed as she called her estranged husband Paul a “poor little soul” for assuming they’d get back together, and I felt furious on her behalf as she wrote about her plight to convince doctors she “wasn’t completely mad” after being institutionalized for being high on Benzedrine. I pictured Joan doing her favorite thing: sitting in the river by her and William’s shack in Texas, water up to her belly, her daughter Julie splashing at her feet. Her best friend Edie said she’d skip classes at Barnard to sit in the bath all day, bubbles up to her chin, reading every newspaper in New York City.

Joan’s face was like a “little heart.” She had large, curious eyes and a tight, serious mouth. Lips always painted red. She wore her brown hair bobbed, parted in the middle. It fanned out in soft, sculpted waves. She reminded everyone of Greta Garbo.

When I looked at a photo of Joan, I felt as Siri Hustvedt did, looking at Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman: “She is of me while I look and, later, she is of me when I remember her.”

And I discovered many parallels between her life and my own. She grew up in Loudonville, New York, half an hour from where I lived. She took care of her two small children all day while I worked in the service of small children at an elementary school. We had both experienced deep loneliness: Joan alone in small towns far from anyone she knew as William traveled the world, me upstate during a pandemic, far from friends and my creative community in West Philly. And, like Joan, I hadn’t yet created a body of work that would deem me worthy of literary recognition. In defending Joan, I was defending myself and my own creative potential.

When a magazine accepted my pitch to write about her, I was ecstatic. Finally, I thought. After 70 years of having her life and legacy stomped on, Joan Vollmer would begin to be known. And, after years of scribbling in isolation, sometimes posting on my Tumblr or interviewing bands for small blogs, I would be seen as a “real” writer.

*

With the magazine behind my name, I reached back out to scholars and writers who hadn’t responded to my earlier inquiries. It was bittersweet to see their names suddenly in my inbox.

I thought of Kate Zambreno and her account of how T.S. Eliot’s estate denied her access to Viv Eliot’s papers because she hadn’t proved she was researching for publication rather than “private study.” How only a select few hoard information, dole it out sparingly, and control the narrative, usually in a way that favors white men.

One of the scholars who responded to my second request was Nancy M. Grace. I was thrilled. Nancy was one of the first, and remains one of the only, scholars to acknowledge that Beat history existed outside the trio of William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg; that women were writing and working alongside them, but had been dismissed as second-class, if acknowledged at all.

Over the phone, Nancy was kind and generous with her time. She agreed that Joan wasn’t just a “muse” and that the common narrative surrounding her death—and the way it is used to bolster William’s outlaw persona—undermines the seriousness of the act and contributes to our culture’s permissiveness toward violence against women. She told me I was doing important work, and it meant everything to receive her validation so early into my project.

Yet I also felt Nancy’s hesitation and wariness. She cautioned me not to project too much onto Joan’s life for lack of documentation. I understood she was speaking as an academic, where documentation is an essential component of crafting an argument, but academia had failed Joan. Its methods, as I understood them, didn’t leave room for questioning what gets valued as “proof.”

In The Gender of History, historian Bonnie Smith writes about the subjectiveness of “proof” and how the ephemera of women’s lives (scrapbooks, cross-stitch, diaries, letters) are often intentionally discarded as insignificant. Doireann Ní Ghríofa, in her recent book, A Ghost in the Throat, laments that Irish poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s letters and journals were discarded after her death, whereas her husband and brothers’ were kept. In Joan’s obituary, more space is given to her husband and father’s occupations than to her own life or achievements.

It’s true that Joan is only famous because of her relation to the Beat men. William Burroughs directed this narrative—through killing Joan, he ensured she wouldn’t live to create a body of work.

This dynamic, of academia—and our larger culture—devaluing facts and documents related to women’s lives, was perpetuated in my conversation with Nancy. For example, she believed Joan had been addicted to benzedrine, which has been documented in hospital records. Yet she didn’t think there was enough evidence to definitively claim Joan was intelligent or had a vibrant spirit. When I told her about Joan’s letters, and their humor and wit, she said she didn’t know they existed.

*

The desire for “proof” of Joan’s significance came up again and again as I spoke to writers and scholars about my work. After I handed in my first draft to my editor, he said my essay was well-researched, but he wanted to see more evidence of how she informed the literary output of the Beats. He supported my idea of giving Joan more agency in the formation of the Beat Generation, but only in relation to the men.

It’s true that Joan is only famous because of her relation to the Beat men. I know that when speaking about her I must honor that connection, how much more famous they were, and their significant, culture-shifting literary output. I still bristle at this, though, because William directed this narrative—through killing Joan, he ensured she wouldn’t live to create a body of work or transcend her addictions. She may never have, but she also may have joined the ranks of Beat women who, later in their lives, wrote memoirs as correctives to their previous erasure. Women like Carolyn Cassady, Diane di Prima, and Hettie Jones.

There are so many women like Joan, unable to tell their stories. There are also devoted writers, across academic fields, who are engaged with the complicated, and often exhausting, work of recovering them. These writers are also navigating a relatively new, and continuously evolving, approach to scholarship, piecing together lives from scraps they’ve exhumed from the depths of the dominant cultural narrative.

After I handed in my first draft, my editor commented, “the narrative starts going once she gets to NYC and sleeps around and meets the Beats, so get there as soon as possible.” He wanted me to cut my discovery of a promising story Joan wrote when she was a teenager, the prizes she received in high school, and her journalism scholarship to Barnard—all evidence of her literary ambitions and intelligence. I thought of the famous Angela Carter quote: “Picasso liked cutting up women.”

And I felt the violence of these men’s incisions. In my closet-studio I felt myself shrinking, like Sibyl in her jar. Laughed at, taunted. My papers dispersed in the wind.

My husband and I separated. I cried openly at work. I drank and wandered around our apartment in a ratty nightdress, a specter, haunting myself. I dreamed of shit and death. I stopped speaking to my family.

Reality is not a tall tale or legend. Reality is not always the “gripping scenes full of action” my editor said my piece was sorely lacking. Reality is dailiness, small pleasures, and boredom. It is a wife alone in her apartment, unsure how to move her body through the world. It is Joan begging William for affection. It is the everyday coping mechanisms women employ to survive a world that treats them brutally.

*

After her death, Joan continued to be brutalized, dissected.

William’s literary executor James Grauerholz wrote a 70-page document about Joan’s death in which he deconstructed the events surrounding her murder. He writes about what kind of gun William may have used, how many people were in the room, and how long William spent in jail (only two weeks). He puts William “on trial” and asks the readers to act as “judge and jury.” He turns her death into a spectacle, a murder-mystery. It’s the longest piece of writing on Joan, by far, but it obscures Joan the woman almost completely.

Still, I reached out to Grauerholz for information, figuring if anyone knew more, he would. Plus, he seemed sympathetic to her situation; in his paper he mentioned being responsible for getting William to write an inscription for the unmarked cemetery niche where Joan’s remains were stored. This was after her bones had been dug up from their original grave—due to William and her family not paying the plot fees.

Grauerholz’s response was short and vague. He referred me to various archives I’d already looked at. He said William never talked about Joan. That’s it. Tight-lipped. William’s self-identified “best friend” for dozens of years, his literary executor, his sometimes-lover (according to Burroughs: The Movie), had nothing to say about Joan.

When I reached out again several months later, Grauerholz told me about two other researchers, one with a PhD, who had already submitted a final draft of their book-length biography on Joan for publication. He said they had “very far outstripped” my efforts, and that it was unclear what options I had moving forward—but that I needed to speak to the other researchers to find out. His language was patronizing, even threatening. It reflected the attitude I’d continuously encountered in academia, which insisted that without significant documentation on her life, Joan wasn’t worthy of attention—certainly not multiple books.

That night I dreamt I came across a family burial ground that had been abandoned. I couldn’t believe the recent generations of family members had let it go to seed, when it contained beautifully engraved tombstones and rows of leather-bound books full of valuable information, now entangled in weeds. I resolved to be the keeper and librarian of the gravesite, to not let it sink into dirt and obscurity.

*

A few months ago, I moved back to West Philly, shedding the stale narrative of being an artist-in-isolation. Once I made the decision to change my life, I unlocked hidden stores of energy that propelled me forward, rapturously. Surrounded by moving boxes, I recorded an entire albums-worth of songs onto my laptop. I quit my job. I turned thirty and felt younger than I’d ever felt in my life.

My husband and I reconciled and hosted a house-warming party at our new apartment, full of friends and acquaintances we hadn’t seen for two years. My virtual women’s circle, the one I’d been so skeptical of joining, provided crucial support for my life changes. My friends, mostly women and nonbinary feminist artists in their late twenties and early thirties, understood, unquestioningly, what I was calling my “Joan project.” They were also, like me, “emerging” in their creative fields, and they also worked outside the structures of academia.

I put my Joan project aside. I told my therapist about all the pushback, and how my stress manifested in headaches and neck pain, but how I was determined to forge ahead regardless. She told me about two kinds of grief: there’s the grief of living in the space of unrealized potential and dreams, which is, in many ways, where Joan existed. And where my grandmothers, immigrants who struggled with the loneliness of their displacement, existed. Where so many women exist. Then there’s the grief of honoring these women and working through difficulty, which is the privileged position I am in now.

There is so much more to say about Joan. I am working on a book, not a straightforward biography of her life, but a story that begins to explore who she was while also placing her in the context of a male-dominated art world—an art world that has, for too long, turned a blind eye to the harm done—included, in some cases, murder or alleged murder—by supposed male “geniuses” (e.g. Carl Andre, Norman Mailer, Sid Vicious, Louis Althusser, Bertrand Cantat, Robert Blake, Harry Horse, and Spade Cooley). Within this story is my own story, too: myself in upstate New York, making less money than my husband, my loneliness and isolation. And also, my ability to do what Joan could not: to move, to change my life, and to write and share that writing publicly. To walk through the city at night, alone, cheeks pinkening in the wind.

Katie Bennett
Katie Bennett
Katie Bennett is a writer and musician from West Philly. She's a mentor for PEN America's Prison and Justice Writing Program and she has an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers University-Camden. You can learn more about her projects on Instagram @katiepbennett.





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