A journey through space & time

Posted on June 2, 2006

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By Susan Tomaselli


“Timothy Leary’s dead. / No, no, no, no, he’s outside looking in.”
– The Moody Blues

Dr Timothy Leary PhD encompassed many disciplines: psychologist, philosopher, Harvard professor, author and revolutionary. In her introduction to John Higgs’ new biography on the ‘Galileo of Consciousness’, goddaughter Winona Ryder is at pains to stress that though “it’s easy sometimes to get lost in all the drug stuff that Tim’s famous for…especially in a society that loves a sound bite,” drugs were not his only legacy. William Burroughs said of Leary: “It may be another century before he is accorded his rightful stature. Let his detractors shake their heads, a hundred years from know.” Burroughs could well be right. At this juncture though, Ryder looks optimistic — Leary’s main distinction came from going public with his observations of the mind as altered by narcotics and for now, it is for the drugs that Leary is best remembered.

Flunking a career in the military, Leary, a proponent of The Existential Transaction, embarked on a brilliant career in Harvard, arguing that “psychologists shouldn’t stay inside clinics, but needed to venture out into the real world and see patients in real-life situations, as the act of going inside a hospital and seeing a doctor changes the patients psyche” and that “the psychologist himself should not try to be a neutral observer.” It seems logical that for a man losing faith in his profession, who “would use his intelligence, drive and potential to raise himself into lofty situations which he then allowed the rebelliousness part of his nature to hijack,” new methods of experimentation and analysis would strike a chord with him—it was only a question of time before he found LSD.

On taking his first trip, Leary commented: “In the four hours by the swimming pool in Cuernavaca I learned more about the mind, the brain and its structures than I did in the preceding fifteen as a diligent psychologist.” Impressed by what he considered to be a spiritual high, Leary changed his course in the field of psychology and established the Harvard Psychedelics Research programme in 1960, proposing A Study of Clinical Reactions to Psilocybin Administered in Supported Environments, a programme Higgs tells us, unsurprisingly “raise[d] a few eyebrows, for ultimately it was a license for a bunch of academics to hang out in nice places, take as many drugs as they want and learn how to have a really wonderful time.”

It was around this time that Leary met with a keen advocate of LSD, one ‘founding fathers of psychedelia’ Aldous Huxley, “delighted” it was to be researched in Harvard. To Huxley’s colleague Dr Humphry Osmond, Leary looked “a little bit square” — which Osmond was later to describe as “a monumental ill judgement” — though perfect to front the campaign as he was charming and respectable. Huxley wanted psychedelics to be better known and understood, and advised Tim to give the drug to powerful and important people. Allen Ginsberg, an early convert to the campaign, threw his weight behind Leary but clashed with Huxley on accessabilty: “Drugs like this had to be wretched away from the self-serving elites and scattered amongst the masses,” says Higgs. “It was Leary’s job, Ginsberg argued, to make sure everybody knew about what he was doing, and had access to the drugs in order to do the same themselves.”

Leary’s experiments, at this stage still endorsed by the academic community, included administering psilocybin to inmates of the Massachusetts prison system, as an attempt to find out what caused the original crime to be committed and as a remedy for rehabilitation. The windowless environment of the prison was not conducive to positives trips and on one occassion Leary and the prisoner were both afraid of one another:

‘Why are you scared of me?’ the convict asked.
‘Because you’re a criminal. Why are you afraid of me?’
‘I’m afraid of you ’cause you’re a fucking mad scientist.’

Leary continued his research into psilocybin—including the Good Friday Miracle were 30 students and guides reported religious revelations—moving from project to project, and was met with waves of disapproval and criticism until he was eventually kicked out. Setting up a non-profit organisation called IF-IF with HQ at Millbrook, New York, the haven provided drugless seminars, but, as Higgs puts it, “nothing could put this genie back into its bottle,” and the place became a hang-out for the hip and elite with the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Ginsberg, Cary Grant, Charles Mingus, Willem de Kooning, Huxley, Thelonious Monk and William Burroughs all scaring the locals at one time or another. Research now focused on eradicating previous mental conditioning, ending at the Human Be-In of 1967, with Tim uttering the legendary ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out.’

As an estimated 3.6 million Americans began experimenting with LSD, in part because of Leary’s publicised advocation, Richard Nixon proclaimed him “the most dangerous man in America”. Leary’s response was to warn the public: “Acid is not for every brain—only the healthy, happy, wholesome, handsome, hopeful, humorous, high-velocity should seek these experiences.” As Higgs reminds us, Albert Hofmann‘s creation in 1943, while looking for a stimulant more efficient than aspirin, was not only used by the CIA as ‘unconventional warfare’, but was taken by hundreds of CIA staff which, Higgs suggests, “may be lnked to some of the more bizarre CIA programmes” — ESP, a plan to blow up Fidel Castro‘s beard, and the MK-ULTRA programme.

The growing sense of fame and notoriety that Leary relished was to eventually land him in trouble, and jail. For the non-psychedelic public, their fear was amplified by a generation gap, and of course ever quick to harness public fear, the politicians jumped to condemn it, leading to LSD being illegalised in 1966. Refusing to abandon what had opened his mind, Leary went down. In prison Leary had to sit the mandatory psychological tests that he himself had invented and was witness to the generation gap once more — he was a hero to the younger inmates and was feared and reviled by the older ones: “If I had teenage kids and they were into drugs and I thought that you encouraged them, I’d have no hesitation in shooting you in cold blood.” With Leary looking at a long stretch inside, well-wishers conspired to break him out, which Higgs documents in the exciting, and slightly farcial, opening pages. Of the break, Leary said: “I wanted Errol Flynn and came out Harold Lloyd.”

Aided by the Weather Underground, Leary became a fugitive taking refuge with the Black Panthers in Algiers and entering a bizarre period in his life, his politicisation and advocacy of guns alienating a lot of former supporters, which ended with Leary and his wife being kidnapped and held to ransom by Eldridge Cleaver in a power struggle in the Panther movement. One unwavering supporter throughout was Allen Ginsberg who rallied P.E.N. behind the man on the run.

Leary was at every iconic Sixties event, a figurehead of the psycodelic culture who, stubborn and bloody-minded, continually taunted the older generation. Support came from the length and breadth of America, from Ken Kesey who was having his own Acid Tests with the Merry Pranksters, and Leary’s path crossed with many counter-cultural icons: Michael Hollingshead, psycodelic historian and Winona Ryder’s father Michael Horowtiz and Brian Barritt, friend of Alexander Trocchi and author of Whisper a book of prison writing, who became psychedelic consultant to Leary and other half of a terrible twosome who saw themselves as a continuation of Aleister Crowley‘s work. And then there were the flirtations with religion — the League of Spiritual Discovery, inspired by Hermann Hesse, which believed the LSD movement was entirely spiritual and the perfect mode to reduce individualism. Tim believed LSD allowed you to reject a personal reality and imprint a different one.

Higgs’ book provides a rich cultural backdrop, the highs, the lows and the sort of unbelievable situation that only happens to people like Timothy Leary, without skipping the bad parts of Leary’s chameleon-like personality, for example when he trades Third-world Marxism for a luxurious lifestyle in Switzerland. Leary was not a modest man, and as Higgs says, there were others who did more with LSD, but Leary’s place is rightly there with theirs. As friend Lisa Bieberman says, “To attribute Leary’s personality to acid is absurd, for there have been millions of LSD users, but only one Timothy Leary.”

The only criticism of I Have America Surrounded — and it’s a small one — is that the book is more focused on Leary’s earlier years. Winona Ryder says: “He really understood my generation. He called us ‘free agents in the Age of Information’.” The later years — as a stand-up philosopher and his work with R.U. Sirius on the internet (“the greatest thing since acid”) — are skimmed over as Higgs rushes to the end and Leary’s ‘ultimate escape’, his blast-off into space. Aside from that, Higgs makes the Leary story an exhilarating read, a must-have for those with more than a passing interest in the counter-culture or those, ahead of the proposed films on Leary, looking for an introduction.

I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary by John Higgs
The Friday Project
400 Pages

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Posted in: Reading