While William S. Burroughs is increasingly regarded as one of the most important writers of the 20th century, but his artistic genius is often overshadowed by tales of his outlaw lifestyle. Of all the wild stories in Burroughs’s life, the best (and...
William S. Burroughs holding his cat Ginger in the backyard of his home in Lawrence, Kansas.
Author William S. Burroughs made his love for all things feline known in his book The Cat Inside, in which he refers to cats as “psychic companions” and innate “enemies of the state.” In his final journal entry, written just before he died, Burroughs discusses love as the ultimate cure-all. I feature the quote in my documentary William S. Burroughs: A Man Within. What I fail to mention in the film is that the specific love he is referring to is what he felt for his cats. The more complete journal entry reads:
Only thing can resolve conflict is love, like I felt for Fletch and Ruski, Spooner, and Calico. Pure love. What I feel for my cats present and past.
Love? What is it?
Most natural painkiller what there is.
Burroughs also subscribed to Cat Fancy for many years, saving hundreds of issues for his personal library. In May 2010, his manager, James Grauerholz, pitched a story to the pussy-friendly publication about the writer’s unwavering love for his kitties. The editors of the magazine must have been startled by the pitch, which began:
While William S. Burroughs is increasingly regarded as one of the most important writers of the 20th century, his artistic genius is often overshadowed by tales of his outlaw lifestyle: founder of the Beat movement; his drug addictions and homosexuality; the accidental shooting of his wife in a drunken William Tell routine; and, later in life, his unofficial status as the godfather of the punk rock movement. Of all the wild stories in Burroughs’s life, the best (and most secret), came last: That he did indeed find love and redemption before he died—through his cats
The magazine’s editors (foolishly) said they would pass, and that was that. It seems Burroughs got the last laugh, though. A quick internet search for Cat Fancy’s HQ results in the address 3 Burroughs Drive in Irvine, California (the number 3 was thought to hold special powers by the author).
Near the twilight of their lives, poet Allen Ginsberg asked Burroughs whether he wanted to be loved. “Depends… by who or by what?” he replied. “By my cats, certainly.” Based on statements like this one, it’s no surprise that over the years he cared for a long list of cats at his home in Lawrence, Kansas. Once, when discussing the possibility of a nuclear attack with a young lover, Burroughs claimed that what he worried about most after the fallout was what would happen to his cats.
Besides his devotion to his four-legged friends, Burroughs also maintained a serious love of all things related to science, the occult, magic, and the subversion of tradition and control systems. He received a formal education at Harvard University and briefly studied at medical school in Vienna before dropping out to begin his life as a writer.
Roger Holden, who lives in Lawrence and was a good friend of Burroughs’s, is an inventor who shared the writer’s love for cats, science, and challenging conventional ideas. Roger first became interested in science by way of computers, specifically “audio-digital sound synthesis and hands-on exposure to the world’s first video-frame buffer based on silicon-chip memory (i.e., digital television).” He subsequently invented a robotic animation-camera system that was used to film shots of featured books on Reading Rainbow and for years has been working on an R2D2-inspired holographic-projection system, which he hopes to finally unleash on the public before the end of 2012.
The pair collaborated on a few projects during the author’s Kansas years, including 3-D stereograms (what later came to be known as Magic Eye pictures—that ubiquitous 1990s phenomenon) that were eventually exhibited at the 1996 art show Ports of Entry at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Even more important to their close friendship, when Burroughs’s beloved white cat Marigay became ill, Roger took it upon himself to bypass the traditional medical establishment and save the life of the creature Burroughs believed to be “the sacred cat” using alternative methods.
Roger Holden at his home in Lawrence, Kansas. Photo by Barrett Emke.
VICE: How did you come to take care of Burroughs’s cats?
Roger Holden: I would drop by about once every two months or so with friends, and we’d have dinner and discuss things—UFOs and mutual interests. William discerned that I really cared for cats, and he asked me, “Would you ever be interested in having a cat someday if I gave you one?” I said I certainly would. One day he called and said he had a cat that had showed up on his front porch. It had been in an automobile accident of some sort, and he told me he took it to a veterinarian, who nursed it back to health. Then he offered me the cat, and I accepted. He named the cat Porch because he found the cat on his porch. Over the following years and up until the cat’s death in 1995, William took care of the veterinary bills for Porch. The veterinarian—whenever he would send out a medical report or a bill—would refer to the cat as Porch Burroughs, so I refer to the cats that William gave me with the last name Burroughs. Porch came down with feline leukemia. It was sad to see. We tried to heal him through traditional means, but he eventually succumbed to the illness. I told myself that if I received another cat from William, and if the cat did turn out to have some sort of ailment, that I would try to seek some type of alternative treatment.
Many locals know the story of how you came to posses Marigay, Burroughs’s “White Cat.” How did this happen?
In January of 1997, I received a call from William saying that he was trying to find a home for a great white cat. He asked if I would be able to help out because apparently the cat did not get along with the others. I went by his place a couple days later to pick the kitty up, and he went to his bookshelf and pulled out a book called Cat in the Mysteries of Magic and Religion by M. Oldfield Howey. He opened to a chapter about the history of cats in ancient magic and said, “This is Margaras, the White Cat—the sacred cat,” and that I should read a bit in this book about the overview of this cat in regard to magic and history. Immediately I realized that this “White Cat” he had found was very special in William’s viewpoint. Some knew the cat as Marigay, but later I nicknamed the cat Butch Burroughs. I let Butch roam the streets of Lawrence, and he was quite active outside and a pushy bully of a cat. But indoors he was really friendly.
In August 1997, William passed on, and coincidentally—for three days exactly during the period of William’s death—Butch disappeared. We later found him at a local animal shelter. After Butch’s return I still let him roam the streets; however, one day in the spring of 1999, he was attacked by a German shepherd and chased under my front porch. I thought everything was OK, but the next morning I noticed that he had been badly bitten so I took him to William’s favorite veterinarian. The vet nursed Butch back to health, but during the same visit they discovered that Butch had advanced terminal feline leukemia. I was told he only had a matter of weeks to live. I decided, as I had promised myself, that this time I was going to search for an alternative treatment. Essentially I went into a period of deep meditation: contemplation regarding my faith in the universe and friendship with William. I was hoping that somehow, perhaps via intuition, an answer would come to me. I searched the internet and found various complicated solutions and treatments proposed by people of all sorts. I ran into an obscure statement by someone about how they had attempted to treat their cat with an herbal blend called essiac tea, and that it had remarkable healing effects.
Last known photo of Butch Burroughs, taken just weeks before he died. Archival image courtesy of Roger Holden.
As I understand it, essiac tea is a Native American treatment. It’s also worth noting that the cat was found at Burroughs’s house, which was very near to Haskell, one of the only indigenous and Native American universities, correct?
Yes. I researched this tea further and found out that it was based on a Native American formula specifically developed by an Ojibwe Nation medicine man. It seemed to me that one brand of it named FlorEssence would be the best way to start treatment. It’s a blend of eight herbs, and I consulted with specialists at the company to ask for help. They recommended that I give Butch a tablespoon or two of it per day, either with a medicine dropper or by mixing it in with soft food.
If there were any beneficial results, then down the road I could cut the dose significantly. Three weeks later the veterinary hospital conducted blood tests on Butch and determined that the white blood cell count was remarkably improving. So much so that the doctor said that Butch Burroughs was being called “the miracle cat.”
How did you react to that?
I was very, very excited about the initial news. I gave myself two or three months to actually determine whether it was going to be a full success or not. By then Butch was almost completely healed. From 1999 to 2005 Butch lived a very robust life, which was directly attributable, in my view, to the use of the essiac tea. They told me he was supposed to live less than three months at the most, but he lived for over five more years.
You took the cat’s health and well-being into your own hands, which is a very Burroughsian concept—namely, to short-circuit control structures in order to discover alternative methods of treatment. Burroughs pursued this line of thinking through things like magic, the orgone box, the Wishing Machine, the Dream Machine, apomorphine and yage as treatments to addiction, etc. I think he would have really liked and supported your approach to Butch’s treatment. What a success!
I look at it as a success due to William, the cat, and myself. I consider the approach that I took to be directly inspired by Burroughs. We had many discussions about the exploration of suppressed and little-known methods for enhancing bodily health. For example, we discussed orgone, vitamin B1, Rife energy beams for healing, and certain yoga abdominal exercises. Our discussions primed my mind to really look for such solutions for the White Cat. If William were still living on the physical plane, I am quite sure that he would want the word to get out about the potential great benefits of subverting approved methods of healing.
An extreme close-up view of feline leukemia, a common, usually fatal disease that Roger Holden cured with the help of essiac tea. Photo courtesy of the CDC.
Do you think your ordeal with Butch exposes flaws in the traditional medical establishment, at least when it comes to veterinary medicine?
Yes, I do look upon my experience with the White Cat and essiac tea as a contribution to the scientific research of its remarkable potential use for the treatment of chronic ailments. I believe it can be of great benefit to people and pets. Standards of bureaucratic science stand in the way of the acknowledgment of the true effectiveness of such treatments. It is unfortunate that today we are constantly inundated with the message that the only type of real medication contains dangerous chemicals that produce terrible side effects. What good is supposed “better access” to health insurance if our only choices for treatment are the standard types from big pharma? Wouldn’t it be great if the legacy of the White Cat, Marigay, indeed was the symbolic searing white light of truth that challenges the all-powerful control board?
It would. It seems to me that Burroughs viewed doctors, veterinarians, and priests as possible agents of a control system that was set up long ago to keep people obedient and happy through various money-generating means, including antidepressants and religion. I guess in order to advance so-called science we must sometimes do our own investigations outside the system of accepted thinking.
I would agree with that fully. At the same time, I would mention that he had the highest respect for the veterinarian and had very good experiences with him. The science that I perform is a type that people can explore and are exploring on their own. For example, I encourage people to research the recent news of the use of bee-propolis extract potentially helping to reduce the size of prostate-cancer tumors.
As Burroughs wrote in The Cat Inside, “Joe places a cat box on the board room table. Gently he removes a white cat. The board members crawl under the table, screaming, ‘THE WHITE CAT! THE WHITE CAT!’” The addendum to that phrase would now be: “The White Cat has exposed the fraud, the poison, the filth deals—our money and power and control will melt away.”
Where was the White Cat laid to rest?
He is buried alongside William’s other cats, in his cat graveyard in his backyard.
Want more Burroughs? Check these out: