When I came across an article titled, “A Great Artist Kills his Wife–Now She’s Just a Quirky Footnote in his History,” I thought certainly it would be about Carl Andre murdering Ana Mendieta, Andre threw his wife the artist out of a high-rise window in 1985 yet was celebrated by Dia: Beacon with a retrospective last year. Or the article could’ve been about Sid Vicious, who after stabbing his girlfriend Nancy Spungen said she “fell on the knife.” Or perhaps Robert Blake, the creepiest of all actors who was acquitted of his wife’s 2001 murder. Alas, the article in question is about William Burroughs murdering his wife, the Beat poet Joan Vollmer; a story I had never heard before. Apparently Burroughs and Vollmer were playing a game of William Tell at a party, only Burroughs fatally shot Vollmer in the head. Oops.
The list of creative men doing awful things to their wives and family is a long one, yet the way in which we deal with female and family violence in mainstream media is by largely ignoring it, or chalking it up to a quirky bump in the road in the lives of important men. Leela Ginelle writes of Burroughs in the above-mentioned article “A Great Artist Kills his Wife…”:
Scholars commented on Burroughs’ paranoid, futuristic voice, his connection with Beat generation writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and his noted drug habits, all of which, along with his privileged background, make up his public face. They also spoke matter-of-factly about his shooting and killing his wife Joan Vollmer, as though it was just one more eccentric, quirky footnote in the life of a “great writer.”
For instance, Peter Schejeldahl [sic], writing in the New Yorker about the new biography Call Me Burroughs, called the shooting “the most notorious event” in Burroughs life, but passes no judgment on the matter. He describes the writer as being “devastated” by the murder, and, in a nice bit of victim blaming, repeating the theory that the death was “an indirect suicide, which (Vollmer) had willed to happen.”
This brings to mind the accusations of molestation against Woody Allen by his daughter, Dylan Farrow, who has called for a reappraisal of his work considering he is an incestuous child molester. As Ginelle writes in Bitch, Farrow was met with “a mixture of guilt and annoyance” by the public:
When Dylan Farrow’s New York Times op-ed suggested a reappraisal of Woody Allen’s films in light of her allegation that he molested her, it was met with some ambivalence. Even those who supported her asked aloud, in a mixture of guilt and annoyance, if this meant they couldn’t watch his movies anymore. Farrow had forced them to connect a male artist’s private and, allegedly, criminal acts with his creative output, and question whether their enjoyment of the latter implied a condoning of the former. In doing so, she broke with centuries of tradition.
I wish biographers would begin placing as much emphasis on the morality of artists like Burroughs’ actions toward the people in their lives, and the place of those actions within our all too hidden culture of patriarchal violence, as they do extolling the aesthetics of their creations.
If they would start, it wouldn’t feel so novel when people like Farrow did so with Allen, or when rock critic Jim Derogatis asked listeners to reconsider R. Kelly’s work in the light of his alleged crimes against underage girls.
This begs the question: to what extent do we connect creative producers’ personal lives–however unethical–with their work? What cognitive dissonance must we display in order to continue enjoying the films and music of child molesters, or the artwork of murderers? On a personal level, I became thoroughly uninterested in watching Woody Allen movies after Farrow’s op-ed, but on another hand, I find it a slippery slope to connect personal judgments with aesthetic or professional ones. I also find it a loathesome idea to purchase or in any other way support the work of a murderer or child molester and put more money in their hands.
*Image caption: WS Burroughs and Joan Vollmer, East Texas, August 1947. c Allen Ginsberg Estate via ginsbergblog.wordpress.com