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Mentored by a Madman: The William Burroughs Experiment Hardcover – September 12, 2017
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“Lees takes the reader on an extraordinary journey inside and outside the brain. His deep humanity and honesty shines throughout. The inevitable comparison with the late, great Oliver Sacks is entirely just.” —Raymond Tallis
“[Lees’s] book is not just a wonderfully unexpected addition to the Burroughs literature, but an important polemic for more humane and imaginative medical research.” —Phil Baker, The Times Literary Supplement
"It is hard to believe that this extraordinary memoir is not fiction, but every word turns out to be rooted in hospital life and literary experience. Andrew Lees is an internationally distinguished neurologist, Britain’s leading Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s expert. Mentored By a Madman is both an exotic memoir and a passionate appeal for a more humane approach to bio-medical research. In associating himself with Burroughs, Professor Lees is arguing that potential breakthroughs in the treatment of neuro-degenerative diseases are most likely to come from a relaxation of the stringent controls surrounding the profession.” —Robert McCrum, The Observer
"Mentored by a Madman is an original and interesting book from one of the world's leading experts in the field of movement disorders...The beautiful prose and original contents suggest comparisons with the writings of authors of the calibre of Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, and Oliver Sacks...Surely this is the kind of book that curious readers who are used to thinking outside the box enjoy the most." —The British Journal of Psychiatry
"This book encourages us to keep an open mind and to explore both sides of the path…We would recommend the book as an enjoyable reminder of why we practice medicine, why clinical research and medicine complement each other so well, and as a reflection on the endless and fascinating variation of human experience.” —Practical Neurology (UK)
"Andrew Lees has written a fascinating and provocative memoir.”— Jon Palfreman, Journal of Parkinson’s Disease
“This book is highly recommended to anyone who wants to reimagine the magic of neurology, science, life, the universe and everything." —Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry
"A.J. Lees' Mentored by a Madman is a kaleidoscopic mix of his experiences as a neurologist, his private passions and how they have informed his career, as well as his thoughts regarding some of the bureaucracy that limits research and medical practice today. What gives this book such a unique perspective is the part played by the titular 'madman'...It is a rare thing to find a book with such a unique perspective and accompanying content; however, this is exactly what Mentored by a Madman provides...The book is also reminiscent in some ways of the literary work of Oliver Sacks...As well as a personal account of Lees' experiences, this book also serves as a call for more open-mindedness and freedom in our exploration of medical science." —The Lancet
About the Author
A. J. Lees is a professor of neurology at the National Hospital, London. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the American Academy of Neurology Lifetime Achievement Award, the Association of British Neurologists’ Medal, the Dingebauer Prize for Outstanding Research, and the Gowers Medal. He is one of the most highly cited Parkinson’s disease researchers in the world and is the author of several books, including Ray of Hope, which was short-listed for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year, and The Silent Plague.
James Grauerholz is a writer, editor, and the biographer and literary executor of the estate of William S. Burroughs.
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As a Burroughs nerd I was surprised and impressed by this book. I also note that it has the approval of the William S. Burroughs Trust and an introduction by James Grauerholz. To my mind, Burroughs is more elusive, more difficult to get a sense of where he is coming from, than the other “Beats”. Much of the writing on the Beats has tended to focus on his relationship with them in the 1940s/1950s and chooses to gloss over or ignore the continued creativity of the next thirty years of his remarkable life. Lees was first subverted by the Burroughs mindworm as a medical student in the late 1960s, and this has clearly continued to eat away at his reality-perspective ever since, and I think that this enables him in this book to make a very real contribution to the better understanding of this unusual individual. I feel that I understand Burroughs a little better having read this. For example, I appreciated Lees account of the common ground that he sensed, as a medical student, in Burroughs’ writing of the distancing effect on the human psyche of extensive corpse dissection, something that Burroughs would have experienced as a medical student himself in pre-war Vienna. In addition, Lees brings some sort of completion to Burroughs’ championing of Dr Dent and the apomorphine treatment, which as anyone familiar with the Burroughs saga knows, was, for him, the only significantly effective treatment for opiate addiction in his long life. It had always mystified me why the medical profession seemed to have ignored this intervention, and it is most interesting to read Lees’ discussion of this and how he realises that this drug was clinically relevant to his own work. I also enjoyed the details he gives of Burroughs’ own apomorphine cure. By the end of the book Lees has made it to Columbia, following the trail blazed by Burroughs back in 1953, to experience ayahuasca/yage for himself. This last adventure is not that surprising as nowadays such experiences are well-established on the backpacker trail in South America, but what is truly exciting is Lees’ account of how he realised that this drug also has great potential in the treatment of Parkinsons.
Lees also writes at some length, and with great frustration, at the hold that the drug companies have in the UK on research, the universities and the medical profession, and the difficulty in today’s ultra-cautious ethics-dominated world of getting any original research off the ground that does not fit the preconceived opinions of the powers that be. Having worked for many years in the UK in the parallel NHS profession of psychiatry (retired psychotherapist), sadly I can confirm this seemingly mindless inertia. While it has been essential to protect the vulnerable from the misguided and the exploitative, at the same time it seems that the attempt to control and homogenise all therapeutic intervention has also had the subtext of attempting to suppress any spark of originality. For me, this book is a classic illustration of how the truly creative process works through channels of inspiration that are as yet uncharted, and any organisation or society that seeks to develop and blossom must allow room for these pathways that exist out of time and space.