Review of Mentored by a Madman: The William Burroughs Experiment
Widworthy Barton Honiton Devon: Nothing Hill Editions, 2017
236 pp. Trade, $18.95
Although it tells the story of a great man, one of the most famous British neurologists in recent history, in his journey to ground-breaking treatments for Parkinson’s disease, Mentored by a Madman is a horribly depressing book. The life narrative of A.J. Lees, as told by himself, reads like a long series of ups and downs, with the downs growing dramatically strong over the last two or three decades. The book is a lament on a type of medical research – theory, method, ethics as well as practice – that is no longer possible or accepted in modern research management and administration, where the emphasis is put on management and administration and no longer on research. For Lees the diagnosis – no pun intended – of this frustrating situation can be summarized as follows: Research is now seen as a form of production of wealth; public concerns with the health system have been replaced by lobbying of private companies and their stakeholders; research itself, more specifically trial-based research, has become the slave of a crippling systems of bureaucratic and ethical rules that slow down the work while making it so expensive that only very big companies can afford and maintain it; the legal obstructions to experiments are so rigid that any risk-taking, even if patients and doctors are willing to take is, is about to disappear; finally, modern medicine has stopped putting the patient and his or her stories and experiences in the center of the medical act.
These complaints are not new. Neither is the way in which Lees tells his story in a way that is both extremely individualized (although the author stresses the importance of team work and the input of his collaborators, this aspect is hardly foregrounded) and paradoxically rather abstract (one has the impression that many things remain untold and things in Lees’s life simply seem to happen one after another). Thanks to the actor network theory way of storytelling and reconstructing the life of researchers in their laboratories and times, we have been familiarized with more holistic ways of narrating science, a way that no longer follows the thoughts and actions of great men and women but focuses instead on the multiple and sometimes conflicting interactions between objects, institutions, machines, traditions, external and unforeseen events, and of course people, Mentored by a Madman offers almost nothing of this kind. It is a quite old-fashioned, linear, single perspective description of the professional career of an exceptional and admirable individual struggling with the unfathomable suffering of his patients and the cruel obstacles of his environment. To give just one example: the book systematically refers to negotiations at the moment of obtaining or not ethical approval for the launch of a new trial or the commercialization of new medicines, but how all this works in practice and how all this has changed over time, how it has been perverted at the expense of the needs of patients, doctors, and researchers, is not something that one will learn from this book, elegantly written and clearly addressing a broader audience, yet not providing the reader with some of the necessary information one needs to actually understand what is at stake and how it really functions.
What is new however in this book is Burroughs. His life, work and ideas –at least those related to drugs, mores specifically to non-orthodox methods and substances to cure drug addiction– have been a permanent source of inspiration to Lees’ own practice and thinking. Mentored by a Madman is thus a vibrant tribute a man whose name will not often be quoted in positive terms by doctors and scientists: a mentor for Lees, a madman for his colleagues. Lees considers Burroughs a visionary prophet in the fight against the high jacking of patient-oriented medicine by corporate interests and antidemocratic state control and he discusses his writings and personal drug experiments as a positive shortcut to alternative ways of discovering, exploring, and implementing certain drugs in the life of neurologically suffering patients, if not society at large. This part of the book –more precisely, this intermittent thread within it– is extremely convincing and Lees’s plea favor of Burroughs’s drug experiments is extremely well argued as well as empirically evidenced. It is also perfectly honest, as demonstrated by the personal commitment of the author to test certain substances and practices himself, including those who brought him to astonishing field-trips in Latin America. More generally, Burroughs is framed by Lees as an illustration of what today’s medical research is cruelly lacking: a dialogue between science and imagination, that is between theory and method on the one hand and intuition and art on the other hand. This remains an important message, and Lees is its inspiring messenger.