50. Henry James – The Turn of the Screw (1898)

This will be a fairly quick blog post, just to jot down some vague ideas regarding one of Burroughs’ very last revelations about his childhood.

It goes against all current concepts of the sacred to challenge “survivor’s testimony”, but I believe there is good reason to doubt Burroughs’ 1990s revelation that he was a victim of child abuse. Perhaps not to the extent of him having made the whole thing up (albeit subconsciously) but at least in the details of the events.

The story, revealed in analysis and described to Ted Morgan in Literary Outlaw, goes: Burroughs’ favourite Welsh nanny, who looked after him as a child and taught him curses and how to call the toads, had a red-headed boyfriend who took Burroughs away one day, with the nanny’s permission, and abused him.

It’s a very serious allegation, and many academics of psychological bent take it as either a starting point for his homosexuality, or a foundational trauma from which to read his life and work, or else just another unfortunate event in a rather unfortunate life.

My reasons to doubt include: 1) Burroughs was a Scientologists, and Scientologists are heavily pressured so as to “uncover” early life traumas and even pre-birth traumas, 2) this revelation came in the 1990s, when uncovering “repressed trauma” was so highly publicised it took the form of a social contagion, 3) all of his memories of his nanny from before 1990 were glowing, 4) he writes of his first homosexual encounters in the 1940s, explicitly calling them the first (with his cousin and a teacher from Los Alamos), 5) he had on a number of previous occasions “remembered” thing happening to him that he’d actually read happening to fictional characters, and, finally, 6) the events as he described them are almost identical to those described in Henry James.

Did Burroughs read Henry James? There can be no doubt about that. He cuts up A Portrait of a Lady (mixing it with A Clockwork Orange and Brighton Rock, perhaps trying to put his wild boys into James’ genteel world). As a Harvard literature grad of the 1940s, it’s certain that he’d have read him in the context of F.R. Leavis’ The Great Tradition; extremely popular at the time.

So, what in The Turn of the Screw suggests this abuse? Well, James’ writing is suggestive, rather than descriptive, so his female protagonist and her colleague, Mrs Grose, in describing the previous governess and gentleman’s man, always flinch away from the details.

“Quint was much too free.”

“Free with my boy?”

“Free with everyone…”

Quint is the red-headed man, accomplice of Miss Jessell.

“He did what he wished.”

“With her?”

“With them all.”

As Miss Jessell spends time with the little girl, the boy, Miles, “went off with” Quint and “spent hours with him”.

Now, as the new governess comes to the house, she sees Miss Jessel and Quint, both of whom are supposed to have died in curious circumstances. They appear to be re-exerting their evil influence upon the children.

“For the love of all the evil that, in those dreadful days, the pair put into them. And to ply them with that evil still, to keep up the work of demons, is what brings the others back.”

Soon, Miles is seen out on the lawn in the middle of the night. Asked why he went out, he only says “to show I can be bad”. Flora, the little sister, is seen out rowing on the pond unattended; the same pond across which our protagonist sees Miss Jessell so often.

It’s a chilling tale, balancing ghost story aspects with the best of James’ allusive style. It’s short too, which is why it was so popular back on Eng Lit syllabi back when they actually required the students to read books.

So, is it likely that Burroughs (a mummy’s boy with a hidden “bad” side, just like Miles) misremembered James’ novel as his own life?

Well, he had previously “remembered” himself as the character Scobie from Greene’s The Heart of the Matter (while auditing), he dreamed a recollection that turned out to be Almayer’s (either from Almayer’s Folly, as Stevens says, or, more likely, from An Outcast of the Islands – both Conrad). He also uncovered a past life memory set in Ancient Egypt, spoke about being taught a mob technique first hand that he’d actually got from Jack Black’s book, and had, throughout his life, a philosophy that refused to draw a line between fiction, dream and reality.

There will never be any way to prove or disprove Burroughs’ story, but it seems to me that there is something going on here. Perhaps it’s just another of Burroughs’ “possessions” by a fictional character, or perhaps Burroughs is legitimately uncovering repressed memories and doing so through the Freudian “material” provided by James’ book.

Both are possible, and both have yet to be picked up, to my knowledge, by any Burroughs scholar.