Issue 2, Spring 2007


Beaten and Driven: The Cruel Paradox of Jan Kerouac
by Shauna Rogan

In this world where women’s identities often hinge on either their familial or occupational status, Jan Kerouac had neither. A talented author, she traveled extensively, publishing two autobiographical novels and numerous poems. Her lively writing is infused with vivid imagery and inventive turns of phrase. Her literary accomplishments are especially remarkable considering her limited and frequently interrupted education. Yet she lived in abject poverty her entire life and died in relative obscurity. The Kerouac name was a simultaneous gift and curse. Were she not the unacknowledged daughter of Jack Kerouac, she may have grown up to be a celebrated author, or she may have never picked up a pen.

Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road is often cited as the defining work of the Beat literature canon. Published in 1957, it’s characterized by a freeform writing style combining the informality of everyday vernacular with a lyricism evocative of jazz. His words inspired countless young people to take to the highway in search of America. Kerouac is considered to be the father of the Beat movement, to generations of youth yearning for adventure who claimed him as their spokesman. I was one of them. In junior high, On The Road and Dharma Bums catapulted me out of my small town, into the dream of a kinetic America; an America of wide highways and lean back roads, peppered with smoky music and esoteric midnight conversations. I told one of my brothers I wanted a U-Haul and a tank of gas for my seventeenth birthday. He told me I should graduate high school first, which I did. I was hungry for freedom, but the America I discovered was nothing like Jack’s. My America was roaches haunting leaky roofs and splintered floorboards, junkie roommates, posting bail for schizophrenic magicians in icy halogen-drenched jails, a job in a strip club and a shoplifted Oreo cake on my eighteenth birthday. Life quickly became an endless string of last calls and America the hostess who caught my eye but refused to serve me. After several months that felt like years, I’d lost most of my material possessions, pieces of my mind trailing behind them like breadcrumbs. When a last-ditch attempt to live with one of my brothers in Chicago failed, I slunk back to my parent’s house, strung-out and feral. I’d had plenty of adventures, but unlike Jack I didn’t thrive on them. I wondered if it was because the times had changed too much, or if I just wasn’t cut out for life on the road. I felt like a failure. Bitterly, I licked my wounds and got a job in a video store.

Later that year I stumbled on a copy of A Different Beat: Writing by Women of the Beat Generation. Though technically not of the Beat Generation, Jan Kerouac was included in the anthology. I read an excerpt from her 1981 ‘autobiographical novel’ Baby Driver where she describes a series of acid trips with an older boyfriend. I read it several times. Her writing had a three-dimensional quality to it. I was transported into the scenes; her spirit nearly leapt off the page. Her biography mentioned she was the daughter of Jack and his second wife, “but her father refused to acknowledge her as his offspring. She met Jack Kerouac for the first time in 1962…and only saw him one other time before his death…At the time of her death, she was working on Parrot Fever, about her mother” (228). Reading this filled me with affinity and rage; not only was she unacknowledged by her own father, but her talent was unacknowledged by the literary world. It just didn’t seem fair, or right, that this woman should live and die in obscurity. I hunted down Baby Driver and devoured it in one long sitting. Having been abandoned by my own father, and having tried (and failed) to find my own America patterned on Jack Kerouac’s adventures, I felt a passionate kinship with her. Baby Driver haunted me. Her stories mirrored my own experiences and left me wondering how Jan Kerouac navigated a world that compelled her to live in her father’s shadow? How did the absence of her father influence her upbringing and development of her identity? How is a women’s life ‘on the road’ fundamentally different than a man’s?

Jan’s life on the road was a miscarriage at fifteen in the jungle of Yulapa, drinking snow in an adobe house in New Mexico, shoveling hay before dawn, go-go dancing, escorting, wild goose chases through Costa Rica, escaping from a schizophrenic boyfriend down a river in Peru, and almost joining a convent in Lima. It was dive bars and rickety buses, Spanish card games and peyote, pride in strong arms from chopping firewood and moments of balmy serenity staring out at an endless blue sea. Life on the road was dependence on wits and the body as methods of survival, a constant ‘flight or fight’ adrenaline rush. If Jan had not grown up in squalor, accustomed to deprivation and uncertainty, had her survival skills not been acutely developed at a young age, she would have lacked the fortitude to survive the roads her journey took her down. Writing of the first time she met Jack:

Towards late fall my mother was going to court all the time to try and get child support from our fathers. She must have gotten fed up with waitressing…I remember a certain gullible part of my young mind thinking that nine and a half must be the age when one was grown-up enough to meet one’s father for the first time…the lawyer nervously suggested we go somewhere for lunch, and was about to walk into a restaurant when Jack…steered us to a bar across the street. I thought it was a great idea, wanting…to be in accord with this naughty bummish fellow (63).

After the hearing, they went to a liquor store. Jan kept the cork from his bottle of sherry. This event, in conjunction with two other experiences that occurred when Jan was twelve I believe are pivotal moments in the formation of her future identity:

…while wandering in Greenwich Village I ran into Henri Peu, an old friend of my father’s…Henri became a kind of platonic sugardaddy…He bought me a pair of red, thin strap high heels, which he called ‘traffic stoppers’ and treated me to his special home-cooked dinners…He also introduced me to booze, which, compared to methedrine was like milk and cookies. The first night I met him, he kept filling my glass to the brim with rum, probably in attempt to make me seem more like my father. Henri must have seen in me a smaller female replica of his old drinking buddy, for he always wanted me to shout “KEROUAC!” out in the hall when I knocked on his door (148).

A short time later she’s sent to Spofford Detention Hall and wakes one morning to discover ‘pink raised splotches’ on her face. She’s taken to Lincoln Hospital and diagnosed with hepatitis. The doctor asked if she was any relation to Jack, and if she’s read his books. She says she hasn’t, and the next day he brings her a copy of On The Road, which she read
…all in one night instead of ringing for a Seconal. And I was happy to know that my father’s thought patterns were so similar to mine. Also, now that I had a picture of what he’d been doing all this time, all over the country, it made more sense that he hadn’t had the time to be fatherly (157).

In a study conducted in 1972, E. Mavis Heatherton divided three groups of firstborn females aged 13-17 from lower middle class homes according to father presence. Group one was from a home where both parents were present, Group two were daughters of divorcees who had limited contact with their fathers after the divorce, and the third group lost their fathers through death. When they were interviewed by males, the girls with fathers absent from divorce tended to sit in the chair nearest the interviewer, and “sprawl in the chair with an open-arm-and-leg posture, often leaning slightly forward with one or both arms hooked over the back of the chair.” They also “showed more eye contact and smiled more” than daughters of widows or from intact homes. Additionally, daughters of divorcees reported more heterosexual activity and lower self-esteem than girls from father-present and widowed homes. The main finding of Heatherton’s study was that “the effects of father absence on…adolescent girls were manifested by an inability to relate appropriately to men and to male peers” (Lynn, 261-262).

Jan’s relationship with Henri Peu (a boyhood friend of Kerouac’s, who’s real name was Henri Cru) is emblematic of the findings of that study, but also carries additional burdens due to the unique nature of their circumstances. She is seeking attention and validation from an older male by reading his cues and adapting her personality to the traits of her father he is projecting onto her. His signals carry the unspoken implication that in order to be found worthy of his attention, Jan must embody her unknown father’s most unsavory qualities. Enmeshed in this was the contradictory acknowledgement that she was also a sexual being. Interacting on these superficial characteristics did not allow Jan the space to explore who she was. Henri may have provided Jan with food and booze and clothes, and served as a father figure in addition to a ‘platonic sugardaddy’ but the implied roles projected onto her were infused with loaded messages for a girl of twelve, uncertain of how to relate to males and just beginning to develop an awareness of herself as a woman.

Shortly thereafter she finds herself alone in a hospital room, reading a book given to her by a stranger, where she discovers her strongest connection to her father up to that point in her life. In his words, she hears her thoughts. In his adventures, she finds an explanation for his absence and inspiration in his thought patterns ‘so similar to hers.’ I believe these events merged in her forming consciousness of her place in the world, of her sense of purpose as both a woman and a writer. Jan’s discovery of On The Road in the hospital is where the seeds of her identity as a writer planted themselves. Here is where she learns of a way to establish a connection to her father, in a way that would not only attract his attention, but prove her worthy of it as well. Her need to write was born from a desire to be acknowledged. The desire for acknowledgement also lead her to consort with seedy characters in co-dependent trysts. Charles Horton Cooley established the theory of a ‘looking-glass self’ whereby ‘The social order of [self] comes by the pathway of intercourse with other persons. There is no sense of “I”…without its correlative sense of you, or he, or they…’ (255). Throughout Baby Driver I was struck by the ways Jan describes herself. She is alternately a doll (26), a servant (45), a neglected pet (51), a clamorous ghost (51), the fool in the tarot card (53), a human broom. (132) These metaphors imply her sense of self in relation to other people is subservient and insubstantial. Her relationship with Henri Cru is emblematic of her future relationships: none of the men she connects with allow her the space to be herself irrespective of their needs and projections. Her relationships run the gamut from co-dependant to physically and emotionally abusive.

Jan’s only other meeting with Jack was when she was fifteen, pregnant with a drug dealer’s child and on her way to Mexico with her boyfriend:

In Lowell…we looked up my father in the phone book. I was astonished to see a whole list of Kerouacs…I began by calling the ones spelled like mine, and before I knew it, we were…amid a crowd of stocky French-Canadian relatives…we arrived at the house where Jack lived…My father sat in a rocking chair about one end from the TV, upending a fifth of whiskey and wearing a blue plaid shirt…the relatives stormed in with boisterous good cheer, berating Jack for not telling them he had a daughter. They all evidently recognized me as a Kerouac from my face…Jack’s reaction was shrugs and uncertain smiles. He said ‘Hi’ but didn’t make much of a fuss…I could see the painful recognition in his eyes…each time our gazes met (183-184).

Before they leave, she asked to see his hands. They’re identical. He told her to go to Mexico and write a book. She went to Mexico and delivered a stillborn baby two months prematurely. In the book her father told her to write, she says: “With the rains came also an aching flow of milk, and the name Natasha, but it was too late for that” (8). This loss was to haunt Jan for the rest of her life, and when she hears of Jack’s death on the radio in 1969:

…the understanding of it had been like an egg cracked over my head, dripping down slowly…People watched for my reaction, and seeing no tears thought me cold. But I had never known him very well, so it took time for the tears to come. Several days later…I felt the sorrow. Just like Natasha, I thought. Both my father and my daughter had been half formed, then lost (203).

Jan recounts all her adventures with a vivid candor. Her stories are told with incisive attention to detail and lovingly inventive turns of phrase, but have been criticized by some for being unemotional. In the introduction to Baby Driver, Kerouac biographer Gerald Nicosia recounts how he denigrated Jan for that flaw:

I felt…an acute sense of disappointment…I kept wondering where are her emotions? She was recounting some of the worst horrors a person can experience—abandonment, poverty, beatings, imprisonment, loneliness, madness, and sexual and psychological abuse—but to read her chronicle, you’d never…see where she’d been wounded and scarred, and I took her to task for omitting these parts (xvii).

What Nicosia and many others failed to understand, was that by simply the act of writing about her horrors she was reliving them. Channeling her emotions into vivid description was not only characteristic of her writing voice, but also a psychic shield. The idea of a polarization between male and female intellects that ‘…the masculine intellect (is) swift to register information, organize it and produce results. The feminine intellect prefers first to let that which is to be understood enter the mind and become permeated with emotion’ (Lynn, 190) is deeply ingrained; women are expected to be more emotional, and when one is not, it is seen as indicative of a flaw in the woman, or her work if she is an artist.

Jan was insistent that her first novel be titled Everthreads. For her it was reminiscent of her mother’s sewing and the threads of her life that could be wound and re—wound. Editors argued this with her. She gave in, and eventually they agreed on Baby Driver, a title of a Simon and Garfunkel song (Baby Driver, xvi, xvii). I can’t help but wonder what this experience meant to Jan; that she was not capable of devising an ‘appropriate’ title for her own life? That the title of her life was somebody else’s song? The cover of the Thunder’s Mouth Press hardcover edition has a small oval portrait of her in the center, superimposed over a sepia toned photo of Jack looming in the background. The top left corner contains a quote by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, former poet laureate of San Francisco and founder of City Lights Books: “The reader will know Jan Kerouac to be the true daughter of old sweet Jack on her own wide road.” Here is where the ‘Catch-22’ of Jan Kerouac’s circumstances become achingly apparent: in order to connect with her father, she believed she must travel and write. In doing so, she sets herself up for later condemnation by the literary establishment who are predisposed to see her as an imitation of him. Jan bore a stunning physical resemblance to her father in photos, inheriting his glossy dark hair, square jaw and burning eyes, but despite her attempts to tell her own story, even on the cover of her own book she could not escape his shadow.

Jack denied her the title of daughter. The literary establishment denied her the title of writer. Deprived of those identities, she nevertheless strove to claim them for herself. Her legacy, sadly, does not live on in her words, but the bitter battle she was locked in with the executors of her father’s estate, who refused to acknowledge her as his legal heir, and grant her royalties from his work. After a life of illness exacerbated by poverty, she died of kidney failure on June 7, 1996 at the age of 44, ignored by a world that was not interested in ‘On The Road’ with Kerouac’s Daughter’(xvi).

In 2002, I attended a screening of Who Owns Jack Kerouac? Jack Shea’s documentary about the battle over Kerouac’s estate. During the course of the film, I became agitated. The filmmaker included poems being read by peripheral characters, and even some people who had no part in the film, talking in great detail about their work. There was one clip of Jan, shot from a distance, with poor sound, reading a brief poem not indicative of her talents. When the film was over and Mr. Shea took Q&A, I asked why, since Jan was a pivotal character in the film, as well as a talented author in her own right, did he not include more footage of her reading when he had allotted so much time to other writers? He shook his head and said that was something he genuinely regretted. A short time later, Gerald Nicosia stormed down the aisle distributing photocopies of a letter denouncing Shea’s film. There was an argument. Nicosia refused to leave, but retreated to the back of the theater for the rest of the evening. On my way out he stopped me and said he loved my question and asked what prompted me to ask it. “It’s an abandoned daughter thing. You wouldn’t understand” I told him. Four years later on the Who Owns Jack Kerouac? website, her name is not listed under ‘Poets, in order of appearance.’ This is an extraordinary oversight, because if there was ever a born writer, it was Jan Kerouac.


Works Cited

Cooley, Charles Horton. “Looking-Glass Self.” The Production of Reality, 4th Edition Ed. Jodi O’Brien. California: Pine Forge Press, 2006.
Kerouac, Jan. Baby Driver. 1981. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press 1998
Lynn, David. The Father: His Role In Child Development. California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, Inc. 1974.
Who Owns Jack Kerouac? dir. Jack Shea. Carpe Diem Productions. 2002.