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Mentored By A Madman


A.J. Lees: ‘Mentored By A Madman, The William Burroughs Experiment’.
Forward by James Grauerholz. 2016, Notting Hill Editions, UK, 213 pages, ISBN 978-1-910749-10-4



Bookshop browsers did a double-take when they happened on ‘Mentored By A Madman, The William Burroughs Experiment’. That wasn’t because they didn’t know that William S. Burroughs had been the elder statesman of the American ‘Beat’ writers who had set the tumult of the 1960s whirling. His new way of storytelling, lifelong substance abuse, and books full of drug subculture and homosexual fantasy had entered literary history. But how could he have mentored A.J Lees? Doctor Andrew Lees is Professor of Neurology at London’s National Hospital, one of the three most highly cited Parkinson’s disease researchers in the world and the recipient of countless scientific honors. One would have thought his only dealing with madmen was in curing them.

Lees’ fascinating memoir dispels the mystery. In 1964 at seventeen, Lees, a studious boy from Leeds with a strong northern accent began his medical apprenticeship at the London Hospital Medical College in Whitechapel. It was where Joseph Merrick, ‘The Elephant Man’, had received hospitality in 1886. Fighting off homesickness with a heavy program of study, he had little time for the vibrant youth culture that was taking shape in ‘Swinging London’. He was, after all, a ‘nerd’. He grew his hair long only to be instructed by a head nurse to have it cut. However, he did see the album cover of the Beatles’ ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. It was decorated with the photo of pop celebrities including William Burroughs of whom Lees knew nothing. He made inquiries and was soon reading ‘Naked Lunch’.

It was the beginning of Lees’ dialogue with Burroughs’ writing that would last a lifetime. The student couldn’t escape the rebellious air of the times. He now had a second and secret life that would keep him from being overwhelmed by the medical establishment that he was beginning to find decidedly backward. It was clannish, a closed confraternity. Only seven of his class of eighty were women. The curriculum was outdated. There was no room for dissent. He watched his old-school surgical teacher doing ward rounds. The man bullied his staff and his patients, showing zero empathy as he moved, intimidating, from bed to bed.

Lees had a passion for individual research that involved experiments on himself in areas considered out of bounds by the cumbersome structure of the establishment he was now part of. Breakthroughs in Parkinson care would involve risk-taking in setting up projects. He knew that discoveries often came by accident in research that at first seemed speculative and random. He believed firmly that in cases of neurological illness the patient’s own story, his account of what was happening to him, had to be carefully listened to. One of his more enlightened teachers told him to read the Sherlock Holmes’ stories, and Lees became convinced that their author Conan Doyle was “a neurologist manqué”.

Now Burroughs too was a storyteller. He had tried numerous drugs and just as many addiction cures, always noting his experience with precision in his writing. Drug addiction like Parkinson’s disease concerned the workings of the brain. In a treatment devised for Parkinson’s patients, Lees incorporated with L-Dopa the drug apomorphine that Burroughs thought the “junk vaccine”, the best cure for drug addiction. Burroughs, the one-time medical student, and Lees, the renowned neurologist, had followed the same path. They hadn’t disdained the byways of research that seemed farfetched and unprofessional by conformists of the medical bureaucracy.

In 2013 at sixty-six Andrew Lees, still seeking cures for Parkinson’s, reaffirmed his tie with Burroughs dead in 1997. He set up a project in South America that took him to the Amazon where he was administered the drug yagé. Burroughs had wandered there in search of the same drug fifty years before. His account from letters to Allen Ginsberg was published as ‘The Yagé Letters’ by City Lights Books in 1963.

Peter Byrne

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