Dose of Reality
The tangled legacy of the psychedelic movement.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll – it seemed like such a good idea at the time, at least to some of us. But like most slogans (with the possible exception of giving peace a chance, which remains an option worth exploring), reality is more complex than comfortably rebellious-sounding formulas.
In his new book, The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America, Don Lattin, a former religion reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle (where we were colleagues) explores just how complicated life can be, even between those who see themselves as avatars of the future.
No mean sloganeer, Leary originated the phrase “tune in, turn on and drop out” at San Francisco’s Human Be-In in 1967. His message of walking away from the corporate rat race and finding better meaning through chemistry resonated with untold trippers, then and now.
“TIM LEARY WANTED SO MUCH TO AVOID THOUGHTS OF DEATH THAT HE TRIED TO KEEP HIS LIFE GOING PERMANENTLY.”
Fittingly, Lattin ends his book with a description of a glorious acid trip in Big Sur with an ex-girlfriend. Encapsulating the highs and lows of the experience, it was followed shortly after by a life-changing bad trip. “It was my version of the hero’s journey, but not one I recommend for the faint of heart,” he writes.
Leary was definitely not fainthearted.
After the drug was accidentally discovered by Swiss scientist Albert Hoffman, Leary and Richard Alpert (who later changed his name to Ram Dass and renounced psychedelia) popularized LSD’s long, strange trip.
Leary studied with child psychologist Erik Erikson at UC Berkeley, but quickly discarded traditional psychotherapy after participating in a Kaiser Hospital study showing it had limited value for the patients under observation.
Returning East after experimenting with mushrooms in Mexico, he started the Harvard Psilocybin Project, giving students and faculty samples in the hopes of blowing their minds and revolutionizing traditional psychology. Alpert, then with Harvard’s Department of Social Relations, enthusiastically joined the party, and the two embarked on experiments like the Concord Prison Project, to show how opening the doors of perception could lower recidivism, and the Good Friday Project, which drew the interest of religious scholar Huston Smith.
The unlikely Cambridge adventures also attracted attention from natural health guru Andrew Weil, then a Harvard undergraduate.
But here’s where the story heads south.
According to the book, Weil wanted to join Leary and Alpert’s psychedelic club, but was turned away because they didn’t trust him. Their fears were justified, apparently, because he then turned around and wrote an exposé on their activities for The Harvard Crimson, without revealing that he had a personal agenda and was also heavily involved in the student drug scene.
It was the beginning of the end for Alpert and Leary’s academic career. Although they probably wouldn’t have lasted much longer regardless, the publicity gave administrators the excuse to boot them off the faculty, despite protestations from the duo that they were merely following in the tradition of eminent Bostonians like William James, author of The Varieties of Religious Experience.
What’s interesting about the whole saga are the themes going beyond the proposed panaceas of the psychedelic revolution: Jealousy. Betrayal. Ambition. Ego. Not coincidentally, they embody elements of human psychology Leary blithely threw overboard after leaving Berkeley. After returning from globetrotting speaking engagements to the family he’d left largely in Alpert’s care, Leary turned on his protégé, who was soon to take on a new spiritual path, along with a new name. They reconciled before Leary’s death, but the relationship had irrevocably changed.
“Tim wanted so much to avoid thoughts of death that he tried to keep his life going permanently,” Ram Dass told Lattin. “I tried to talk to him about it, but I couldn’t break through.”
Ram Dass, who has since suffered a stroke, is still bitter about Weil’s long-ago betrayals. And Huston Smith walked away from the scene long ago, deciding there were no short cuts to spiritual enlightenment.
But the medical marijuana movement, chronicled in Robin Urevich’s cover story, is alive and well. Just this week, backers say it qualified for the November 2010 ballot. Thousands get badly needed pain relief from the dispensaries. If some also use their cannabis mix recreationally, it hardly seems a major law enforcement issue. With California in fiscal disarray, the way out of our budget shortfall just might be through the pot fields of Monterey, Humboldt and Mendocino counties.