Joan’s story is one of the sadder ones in the annals of the Beats. As a bright and vivacious Columbia student in the early 1940’s, she was considered by some to be even smarter than her odd older boyfriend, William S. Burroughs. She lived in an off-campus apartment with Edie Parker (later, briefly, the wife of Jack Kerouac) that became a second home to Kerouac, Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and others in their crowd. But when they all began taking Benzedrines for kicks Joan became tragically attracted to the uppers, and degenerated into a state of addiction that saddened and disappointed her friends.
Joan Vollmer (who had became Joan Vollmer Adams after a brief marriage) carried on a sexual relationship with Burroughs, despite the fact that he was overwhelmingly gay. They had a son together, William S. Burroughs Jr., who went on to write two books before dying in his thirties. Joan also had a daughter from her first marriage.
After the Columbia crowd dispersed, Burroughs left New York to become a farmer in Texas and New Orleans, and sent for Joan to join him. The change of scenery did not cure her addiction to bennies. The rather pathetic figure she had become is searingly depicted in the New Orleans scenes in Kerouac’s ‘On The Road.’ She and Burroughs lived together for many years in the South, occasionally travelling to Mexico. Burroughs loved guns, and one day in Mexico he tried to show off his marksmanship to a group of friends by asking Joan to place a glass on her head for him to shoot off. She did as he asked and he shot her in the head, killing her instantly.
The circumstances of this death form the central motif in David Cronenberg’s film inspired by ‘Naked Lunch.’ Joan is played by Judy Davis, who is excellent in the role (as she is in almost every role she plays). The facts of Joan Vollmer Adams’ murder or accidental death (depending on you look at it) have also become a major part of William S. Burroughs’ public persona — causing many to despise him without ever reading his works and, even more disturbingly, causing some to choose him as a favorite writer, also without reading his works.