Chapter 12 and 13
The Harvard Psilocybin Project
Inside the small building at 5 Divinity Avenue it was like watching a science fiction novel unfold before your eyes. The plot went something like this: good solid scientists embark upon interesting research program involving native drugs. Come back babbling about love and ecstasy and insisting you haven’t understood anything until you’ve been there, to the Other World, beyond the Door. It was a little like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a cult movie favorite of the Fifties, in the sense that every day the crowd in Leary’s shoebox office grew larger, graduate students and junior faculty members, all with these soft intense voices and glowing eyes, talking about the death of the mind, the birth of the uncensored cortex … . And it had all started out so innocuously—what research project doesn’t?
Summer had always been a time when professors recharged their mental faculties; they always returned full of ambitious plans, full of tasty little experiments that had popped into their heads as they lazed in the hammock, with something other than an undergraduate theme folded against their chest. So Tim’s enthusiasm tended to blend in. Everyone knew he was doing something with Mexican mushrooms; they couldn’t help but know, owing to the rather grandiose claims (Galileo’s telescope was mentioned a lot, and once or twice the invention of fire) that were issuing from the converted closet at 5 Divinity Avenue; but they didn’t pay much attention. Something big had bitten Tim, that was clear, but Mexican mushrooms? Sounded more anthropological than psychological. Still it might be fun to watch Leary try to make his case; it might prove whether that big reputation for clinical cleverness was deserved or not. But they couldn’t get too excited about it. When Leary offered to run a Psilocybin session for any of the senior faculty members who were interested, everyone refused with the exception of the septuagenarian Harry Murray. And even Murray’s tale of being transported back to the Egypt of the pharaohs, of actually standing in front of one of the recently completed pyramids, with a fountain of gold geysering to a great height, failed to move them.
Leary had always talked a great game about the deadening effect of the “adjust or else” brand of psychology that had held sway over the Fifties, but he hadn’t realized just how dead in the water most of his colleagues were until he offered them psilocybin, and they refused to try it. My God, these were psychologists yet they lacked the slightest curiosity about their own unconsciouses! And if you made the mistake of rhapsodizing about the marvelous world that was somehow locked up inside their minds, then they treated you with the kind of disdain mature people usually reserve for those who still believe the fairytales of adolescence.
Niels Bohr, the great quantum physicist, made a comment in his autobiography that sheds a little light on Tim’s frustrating attempts to get a hearing from the senior psychology faculty. “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light,” Bohr wrote. “But rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”1
Leary had better luck with younger colleagues like Michael Kahn, and with the doctoral candidates, either those who had already attached themselves to the personality clinic, or those who were just arriving, and had wandered in to check things out. George Litwin was an example of the first. He and Tim had had a fairly warm relationship prior to Leary’s summer vacation; enough so that when Litwin had been experimenting with mescaline the previous spring, Tim was one of the few faculty members he told, and one who had responded with a short lecture about “chemical meddling.” So Litwin was a little surprised when he ran into Tim that September and Leary began raving about the mushroom project.
Litwin immediately signed on, trotted down to his cubicle, and trotted back with slim copies of Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. Essential reading, he told Tim.
Then there were the raw recruits, like Gunther Weil. Weil was just back from a stretch in Europe as a Fulbright scholar. He bumped into Leary the first time he stuck his head into 5 Divinity Avenue: “Tim was in a converted closet, which was in keeping with Tim. It didn’t bother him. He shot me a big smile, a very warm handshake; very engaging, tremendously engaging, very warm, very funny. He invited me to participate in the project. I said yes.”2
It was like watching a master salesman at work; before long Tim had smilingly collected an eager platoon of graduate students, which meant a diminution in the amusement of the senior psychology faculty. It was an unwritten rule that graduate students were community chattel, with everyone receiving a couple to do their research donkeywork, and some receiving more than others owing to their senior stature. By cheerfully urging everyone he met to participate in his psilocybin project, Leary was breaking this unwritten rule. Barron, who was far more experienced in academic protocol, urged Tim to keep things small; he was creating a needless and potentially dangerous jealousy. But Tim couldn’t help himself: these drugs were the cutting edge of the future; how could he turn away the very people who were going to create that future?
At its peak, the psilocybin project numbered about two dozen, mostly graduate students and junior faculty, but with a sprinkling of nonacademics, usually creative types like the poet Charles Olson, who had been drawn in by Barron’s creativity experiments. Once or twice a week they gathered at the rambling old colonial that Leary and Barron were renting in Newton from an MIT professor who was on sabbatical. Before taking the drug everyone filled out set and setting questionnaires, outlining such variables as specific fears or expectations, plus any other data (such as “Gunther and I had a huge argument yesterday”) that seemed pertinent. Then they swallowed the pills and waited for the Door to slide open. During the first several experiences there was always a moment of panic as they passed through to the Other World, but with time the transition became almost routine.
“This is no field for the faint of heart,” Leary lectured them. “You are venturing out (like the Portuguese sailors, like the astronauts) on the uncharted margins. But be reassured—it’s an old human custom.”3 “There were no freakouts, there were no bad trips in those days,” remembers Michael Kahn. “We didn’t know what a bad trip was. In hundreds of psilocybin trips, I never saw one. Those were benign, life-changing, growth experiences because Tim’s presence was so involving.”
In their first experiment—a naturalistic study similar to what Oscar Janiger had done with LSD—they gave psilocybin to 175 different people, to writers, housewives, musicians, psychologists, graduate students. Most were male and young, the average age 29.5 years. Over half claimed they had learned a great deal about themselves, and about the same percentage felt that psilocybin had changed their lives for the better; 90 percent wanted to take it again. Leary interpreted these figures as tentative proof that he was producing a vitalizing transaction about half the time, which was incredible for a preliminary investigation. Every time they ran a session they learned a little more about the delicate calibration between set, setting, and psilocybin.
But if psilocybin promised to make behavior change a practical reality, it didn’t diminish for one instant the mysteriousness of what went on in the vitalizing transaction. “I looked in a mirror and was delighted to see that my skin was dissolving in tiny particles and floating away,” wrote one female graduate student in her postsession account. “I felt as though my outer shell was disintegrating and the ‘essence’ of me was being liberated to join the ‘essence’ of everything else about me …” And while these essences were commingling, she was “drifting about in a wondrously beautiful heaven of visual imagery and music …”4
Another graduate student took a massive dose and lost his mind, which did not strike him as a bad thing to have happen. He felt “cosmically alone” and came to the conclusion that “the only reasonable way to live in the same world was to love … love and faith in love keeps us from being cosmically alone.”
Now when Leary read through anecdotal material like the above, he tended to underscore words like “essence,” “liberated,” “beautiful heaven,” “cosmically,” “love.” But when others who weren’t involved in the psilocybin project read them, they tended to focus on the governing metaphors, in the first case a presumably level-headed young woman disintegrating, and in the second an equally upstanding young man losing his mind! Those were the sorts of analogy one usually associated with breakdowns, not with attaining mental health. Was Tim? … no, impossible. But what about those intense voices and glowing eyes, what about the way the members of the psilocybin project were always hanging out in a group, either crammed into Leary’s ridiculous office or monopolizing a corner of the Social Relations cafeteria? Of course the members of the psilocybin project saw nothing sinister in the fact that they were always together—”taking the drug is such an overwhelming experience that we soon realized that those of us who had done so had something wonderful in common. We wanted to be together constantly, to share time and space,” one later explained.5 But it struck the rest of the faculty as abnormal: whatever else it was doing, Leary’s psilocybin research seemed to be promoting a narcissistic self-absorption, with a tendency toward aggrandizement.
One was either fascinated or repelled. A Social Relations doctoral candidate named Ralph Metzner was fascinated. A graduate of Oxford, Metzner had been in his second year when Leary arrived from Italy, and unlike many of his peers he had been unimpressed with Tim’s flights of existential-transactive theory; with his “detached quizzical air” and tennis shoes, Leary was just another absentminded professor to Metzner. But there had been nothing detached about the man who had come back from Mexico. Leary had come back obsessed, true, but it wasn’t the usual scientific monomania, the jockeying for tenure, the jealous protection of one’s turf. He was urging everyone to try the psilocybin and then lend a hand building a model that would explain the effects it produced in the mind. But even more dramatic, as far as Metzner was concerned, was the way the graduate students were changing. Suddenly all they could talk about was love and sharing, the ecstasy of being alive—topics that were “extremely unusual in the austere and cynical atmosphere of the Center for Personality Research.”6
Metzner was fascinated. But he was also scared of drug addiction. So he did the logical scientific thing: he perused the literature and found, much to his surprise, that there was no evidence of physiological damage or addiction associated with any of the hallucinogens. Then he sought Tim out and offered his mind to the psilocybin project. And was almost refused. Leary thought him “too academic, too dainty-British, too ivory tower.”7 But eventually he relented, perhaps because it occurred to him it might be interesting to measure psilocybin’s effect on the famous English reserve. Metzner proved a natural, however.
To the world the alchemists were buffoon chemists looking for a way to turn lead into gold, but that was only the cover story. The real lead that concerned the alchemists was ordinary consciousness, and the gold they sought was the golden brilliance of cosmic consciousness. That’s the way it has traditionally been with mystery cults—they’re Janus-faced, presenting one image to the world and another to their followers. And that’s the way it was with the Harvard psilocybin project. When Ralph Metzner joined in the spring of 1961, he discovered that its air of harmonious scientific purpose was an illusion. Beneath the surface it was difficult to tell whether Tim was running a scientific experiment or starting a cultural revolution—a confusion of aims that was symbolized by the “crashing disagreement over the conduct of the sessions” that had sprung up between Leary and Barron.8
To fully appreciate the nature of this disagreement, it is necessary to backtrack to those first weeks after Cuernavaca, when the psilocybin project was still an embryonic gleam in Leary’s eye. Some serendipitous and ultimately fateful collisions had occurred during those early weeks. The first was probably Leary’s reunion with Litwin, when Litwin had jogged off to get his copies of Huxley’s psychedelic essays. The sense of recognition, when Tim finally dipped into them, had been profound: here was a man who knew exactly what it was like to travel through the Other World. And then someone at a cocktail party had mentioned that Huxley was spending the semester at MIT, as the Centennial Carnegie Visiting Professor in Humanities, a title almost as big as his fee—nine thousand dollars for nine weeks’ work.
Leary sat down and wrote Huxley a letter about being bemushroomed in Mexico, and the project he was setting up to study the therapeutic effects of psilocybin. He was rewarded almost immediately with an excited phone call and an invitation to lunch.
The fall of 1960 was an equivocal time for Aldous Huxley. His lectures on visionary experience were jammed. And not just by students. The public ones at night caused traffic problems more appropriate for the Harvard-Yale game. Huston Smith, who taught religion at MIT, considered it the crowning moment of Huxley’s career as a public philosopher. Huxley was less sanguine. For twenty-five years, ever since he had joined Gerald Heard in support of Dick Shepperton’s Peace Union, he had been chipping away at his loathing for the public soapbox; in the last twenty years he had addressed everyone from Rotarians to nuclear scientists; so by the time he reached MIT he was in top oratorical form. But he found he had little to say. “It’s a bit embarrassing,” he confided to Huston Smith, “to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than Try to be a little kinder.’ “9
It was the sort of gentle resignation one might expect from a man who had recently been diagnosed as having cancer of the throat.
Health problems, which he blamed on his string bean lack of robustness, had always been a complication of Huxley’s life; his letters are peppered with self-mocking references to his hypochondria, his blindness, his lack of stamina. But cancer was Maria’s disease, there was a finality to it, which may be why Aldous told no one except Humphrey Osmond, whom he swore to secrecy.
With death on his mind, Huxley redoubled his efforts on his recalcitrant Utopian novel, which now bore the working title Island. Every morning he wrestled with the literary problem of how to portray a psychedelic Utopia without boring the reader. “It may be that the job is one which cannot be accomplished with complete success,” he confessed to his son. “In point of fact, it hasn’t been accomplished in the past. For most Utopian books have been exceedingly didactic and expository. I am trying to lighten up the exposition by putting it into dialogue form, which I make as lively as possible. But meanwhile I am always haunted by the feeling that, if only I had enough talent, I could somehow poeticize and dramatize all this intellectual material.”10
It was a losing battle. Despite his best efforts, Island was becoming a thinly fictionalized anthology of final thoughts on topics that had occupied Huxley for forty years: on education, psychology, metaphysics; on the place of art and creativity in life, and the role of psychedelics in exploring the mind’s potential. To dramatize this last theme, he had invented a new mind drug, which he called moksha, “the reality revealer, the truth and beauty pill.”
His Utopian islanders, the Palanese, used moksha in a carefully modulated system of psychedelic education. Children took the drug once a year, beginning in adolescence and continuing into adulthood. Great stress was laid upon the use one made of these visits to the Other World. “For a while, thanks to the moksha-medicine, you will know what it’s like to be what in fact you always have been,” Huxley’s doppelganger. Dr. Roberts, tells a class of Palanese children who are awaiting their first dose of moksha. “What a timeless bliss!”
But like everything else … it will pass. And when it has passed, what will you do with the experience? What will you do with all the other similar experiences that the moksha-medicine will bring in the years to come? Will you merely enjoy them as you would enjoy an evening at the puppet show, and then go back to business as usual, back behaving like the silly little delinquents you imagine yourselves to be? Or, having glimpsed, will you devote your lives to the business, not at all unusual, of being what you are in fact … All that the moksha-medicine can do is to give you a succession of beatific glimpses, an hour or two, every now and then, of enlightening and liberating grace. It remains for you to decide whether you’ll cooperate with grace and take those opportunities.11
For Huxley, Tim Leary was like a strong breeze in a sail that had started to sag. His enthusiasm, his theoretical orientation, and most of all his connection with Harvard, made him the perfect man to advance Aldous’s psychedelic scenario. One night when they were lying in front of the fire at the Newton house, having taken psilocybin, the conversation turned to the proper way to introduce the concept of mind expansion to a culture of organization men. It wasn’t something Aldous had to think twice about: turn on the elites, he urged Leary. The artistic elite, the intellectual elite, the economic elite. “That’s how everything of culture and beauty and philosophic freedom has been passed on.”12 Use Harvard’s prestige to artfully spread the word about these mind-changers. But do it shrewdly and cautiously, always staying within the medical model. “You must expect opposition,” Aldous cautioned. “There are people in this society who will do everything within their considerable power to stop our research.”
It didn’t take much to win Tim over. Like the Palanese, his own encounter with the moksha medicine had made it impossible for him to return to the limited world of academic psychology. He was ripe for something Big, and Huxley’s vision, delivered in that wonderfully ironic Oxonian accent, was nothing if not Big: turn on the Best and the Brightest and transform the world! What was, from one angle, a research project into personality and creativity, quickly became, from another perspective, “a pretty good cover for giving drugs to rather famous writers and painters … if someone turned up on the doorstep who had written speeches for FDR, he would most likely be invited for a session.”13
It was an exhilarating feeling to think one might be playing a crucial role in the evolution of the species, a giddy feeling that intensified as the various members of the Huxley circle made their way to Harvard. “Our project was being contacted and visited by many from this extraordinary network of prominent people, all aware of the potency of Harvard’s name,” Leary recalled. “The message was clear. Let’s keep this knowledge to ourselves. Don’t go public or you’ll bring down the wrath of the custodians of society.”14
Gerald Heard stopped by and entertained with a typical Gerald dissertation on the role of drugs in the ancient mystery cults. Following the meandering river of his voice, the graduate students found themselves back in ancient Greece, joining the Athenian elect as they were inducted into the Eleusinian mysteries. And then they were shot forward to the present, which was a new age according to Gerald, a psychological age when Homo sapiens would finally figure out what they really were. “They are mines of energy,” Heard said. “They are unfinished.”15 Figuring out how to tap those energy fields, how to finish the human masterpiece, that would be the responsibility of the young men of the psilocybin project.
Heard called them intranauts, as opposed to the astronauts of the Mercury space program. And like the investigation of outer space, inner space had its own rigors. “A training is necessary,” he stressed. “One has to know the kind of country one is going through, one has to take the kind of supplies, the rations which are necessary, and one has to have the health and the resistances which are necessary to probe through into a world with which we are not wholly familiar.
“We know this is worthwhile doing. This is the future of the human race.”
At the other end of the spectrum, but equally compelling, was Al Hubbard. Hubbard came bouncing into Boston with his leather bag and told Leary: “Timothy, you are the key figure; I’m just old deputy dog Al at your service.”16
Even Humphrey Osmond put in an appearance, arriving in November to attend a psychiatric conference, and joining Aldous and Tim for dinner. After Leary had left, Huxley had pronounced him a capital fellow and predicted that the Harvard connection would do wonders for psychedelics. Osmond, reflecting upon Tim’s formal tweeds and short hair, had agreed that the professor was a very nice chap, but didn’t Aldous think he was a little bit of a square? “You may be right,” Huxley had replied. “Isn’t that, after all, what we want?”17
Years later Osmond was still telling this anecdote as an illustration of just how wrong these two students of the human temperament could be. It was immediately clear to Alan Watts, when he met Leary a few months later in New York City, that Huxley had completely misread Leary’s character. From the “detached and scholarly flavor of Aldous’s account of his work,” Watts had expected a serious and rather pedantic scientist, “but the man I first met in a New York restaurant was an extremely charming Irishman who wore a hearing aid as stylishly as if it had been a monocle.”18 Watts recognized a kindred spirit.
So it was probably inevitable that Tim, the champion of cultural hybrids, would rebel against the policy of reserving the psychedelic experience for an elite. But it was Osmond, ironically, who precipitated his change of heart. Osmond’s main reason for coming to Boston had been to attend a symposium sponsored by GAP—the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry. GAP symposiums were liberal and topical, having debated in the past such trenchant issues as the Negro crime problem and the immigrant assimilation problem. This year, 1960, they had trained their sights on the beatnik problem, and among those invited to address the psychiatrists was Allen Ginsberg, who was just back from South America, where he had retraced Burroughs’s route in search of the visionary vine ayahuasca.
Ginsberg had wondered what the psychiatrists would say about his drug-induced poetry, so he treated them to renditions of “Laughing Gas,” “Mescaline,” and “Lysergic Acid.” The reaction was depressing. While a few of the older analysts had been intrigued—reflecting, perhaps, their upbringing in the golden age of Freud and Jung, when it was still possible to explore mental phenomena without a lot of dogmatic baggage—the younger ones had dismissed him as crazy, possibly schizophrenic, certainly psychopathic—the whole “conform or else” litany. Among the intrigued, however, was Osmond, who, perhaps thinking to extend Ginsberg’s poetic oeuvre, suggested he might want to contact a Harvard psychologist by the name of Timothy Leary, and try psilocybin.
Allen Ginsberg descended on the Psilocybin Project like a visitation from Leary’s personal unconscious. Here was a bona fide arrogant disdainer, “the secretary-general of the world’s poets, beatniks, anarchists, socialists, free-sex/love cultists,” as Tim affectionately described him.19 He arrived with his lover, Peter Orlovsky, and with the light bouncing off his black-rimmed glasses, over introductory tea, he began describing his recent cosmic adventures in the Peruvian jungle. He told of spending the month of June in the village of Pucallpa, attending all-night sessions with a curandero, “a very mild and simple seeming cat of 38 or so,” drinking a mixture of ayahuasca and the leaf of a local plant, mescal.20 The effect was devastating—”the strongest and worst I’ve ever had,” Ginsberg had written to Burroughs. A classic Dark Night of the Soul, with snakes writhing across his body and Death, “that single mysterious Thing which was our fate and was sooner or later going to kill us,” making an appearance. And not just some abstract nothingness kind of death, but a powerful, vital Death that covered him like a heavy blanket. And it had been clear that he could die right there, just turn off the body/mind circuit, no more rotting old Ginsberg. But then he had flashed on the grief his friends would feel; that had pulled him back; he had chosen to live.
It was a powerful story, full of the sort of heroic adventuring Leary craved. And full of confirmation. Ever since Mexico, and Braun’s Aztec tales of teonanacatl, Leary had harbored the suspicion that it was the shamans and mystics of the world who knew how to use these drugs, and not the psychologists. That simple seeming cat had been a maestro of set and setting! We should be setting up seminars with wise old Indian medicine men and mystical Tibetans. Leary felt this in his bones, yet he accepted Huxley’s and Barron’s argument that staying within the accepted medical model was crucial. But listening to Ginsberg it was borne home to him (yet again) just how culture-bound Western science was. It was all so frustrating, so beside the point …
Ginsberg and Orlovsky took the psilocybin the next day. Leary made them comfortable in an upstairs bedroom and then retired to the study to talk with Barron. Both expected a replay of the quiet, contemplative sessions that had become the norm. So they were unprepared when the study door banged open, and two naked poets danced in. “I’m the messiah,” Ginsberg announced to the startled professors. “I’ve come down to preach love to the world. We’re going to walk through the streets and teach people to stop hating.”21 Barron went and drew the shades.
Persuaded that this was not the best moment to march naked through the streets of Newton preaching love, Ginsberg decided to telephone Kennedy and Khrushchev and “settle all this about the Bomb once and for all.” But he was unable to get the two most powerful men in the world on the phone, and had to settle for Jack Kerouac, who was suffering through a boozy retirement in a village on Long Island’s north shore. After a lengthy argument that had an anxious Leary mentally totaling his next phone bill, Kerouac had agreed to donate his research services to the psilocybin project. The whole afternoon had been like that, one crazy funny scene after another. Graduate students dropped by to chat and found the house filled with hairy naked people, laughing and kissing. Even the most liberal were scandalized. Tim loved it; he had been in danger of becoming solemn.
By midweek the Social Relations department was buzzing with bowdlerized versions of Tim’s beatnik drug orgy. Colleagues who had heretofore been ignorant of his earthly existence looked up from their research protocols and wondered, briefly, whether this psilocybin thing of Leary’s was really the sort of research Harvard should be involved in. There was a feeling, not really articulated but certainly there, that Leary had crossed some crucial line.
Which, in a way, he had. As the psilocybin wore off, everyone had gathered in the kitchen, and with Tim bustling around pouring hot milk into cups, Ginsberg had proposed an alternative psychedelic scenario:
Allen, the quintessential egalitarian, wanted everyone to have the option of taking mind-expanding drugs. It was the fifth freedom—the right to manage your own nervous system. The Grand Plan seemed quite logical. First we would initiate and train influential Americans in consciousness expansion. They would help us generate a wave of public opinion to support massive research programs, licensing procedures, training centers in the intelligent use of drugs.22
Sipping his hot milk, Leary realized that Huxley’s way was not his. “It was at this moment,” he later wrote, “that we rejected Huxley’s elitist perspective and adopted the American open-to-the-public approach.”23 Ginsberg had further awakened the rebel within Tim.
Ginsberg’s own recollection of the weekend, while considerably less apocalyptic, offers a nice cameo of Leary, who struck the Beat poet as a basically nice but naive scientist. “Like he had no idea that every poet in San Francisco had lived with Indians and taken peyote and mescaline long ago. Or that everybody was smoking pot. He’d never smoked pot… Leary had this big beautiful house, and everybody there was wandering around like it was some happy cocktail party, which was a little shocking to me at first because I still thought of myself as a big, serious religious meditator. And they were all so cheerful and optimistic and convinced that their kind of experiment would be welcomed as a polite, scholarly, socially acceptable, perfectly reasonable pursuit and would spread through the university and be automatically taken on as part of the curriculum. Like Leary couldn’t conceive of meeting any academic opposition. I kept saying, ‘You have no idea what you’re going to meet, what you’re up against,’ but he was already thinking in terms of, ‘We’ll turn on Schlesinger and then we’ll turn on Kennedy’—in terms like that. So I wanted to calm him down a little, and I said, ‘Why not begin by turning artists on?’ “24
But the weekend chez Leary did confirm one of Ginsberg’s pet intuitions: everybody was becoming hip. “Something big is happening consciously to consciousness,” he told an interviewer a few weeks later.25 And at the center of this change were the new “wisdom drugs,” which were responsible for an emerging spirituality that, as Huxley had predicted, was also a revolution. “People are beginning to see that ‘the Kingdom of Heaven is within them, instead of thinking it’s outside, up in the sky and that it can’t be here on earth,” Ginsberg said. “It’s time to seize power in the Universe, that’s what I say—that’s my political statement. Time to seize power over the entire Universe. Not merely over Russia or America—seize power over the moon—take the sun over.”26
Ginsberg began promoting Leary’s psilocybin project with the same application he had once brought to the unpublished manuscripts of his friends. “I spoke to Willem de Kooning yesterday,” he wrote in January 1961, “and he was ready to swing, too, so please drop him an invitation. I figure Kline, de Kooning, and [Dizzy] Gillespie are the most impressive trio imaginable for you to turn on at the moment, so will leave it at that for a while, till they can be taken care of.”27
Leary began weekending in New York. He gave psilocybin to Jack Kerouac, who came away with the enigmatic, “walking on water wasn’t built in a day.”28 Robert Lowell took a small dose and concluded “amor vincit omnia.”29 Dizzy Gillespie tried it, then ordered enough for his entire band. A supply was dispatched to Burroughs in Tangier. This was a potentially rich alliance for Leary, since Burroughs had a much more scientific approach to drugs than either Ginsberg or Kerouac, and was working on a theory of neurological geography that divided the cortex into heavenly and diabolical areas. “My work and understanding benefits from Hallucinogens MEASURABLY,” he wrote Tim. “Wider use of these drugs would lead to better work conditions on all levels. Might be interesting to gather anthology of mushroom writings. I will be glad to send along my results.”30 (Later he sent a warning about DMT, which a friend of his had synthesized. Like Oscar Janiger and Watts, Burroughs had been overpowered by DMT. It was like “fire through the blood,” he warned, plunging one into the diabolical latitudes.)
Leary’s entanglement with the Beats ultimately produced mixed results. Ginsberg, after lining up dozens of prospective research subjects, decamped to Paris in the spring of 1961, where he was being considered for the editorship of a “big-time sexual magazine.”31 The salaries would be “vast,” he wrote Tim; they would be able “to print anything mad we want.” But Orlovsky was lobbying for India, and Allen was torn between pursuing the ancient heavenly connection or the possibility of a real job. His letter concluded with a plea for more mushrooms. “I am looking for French connection, no success yet but have not looked extensively. Can use all you can send.” Leary later rendezvoused with Ginsberg in Tangier in the summer of 1961, for a hash-dazed tour of the Kasbah. But after that Allen was gone, vanished into the Orient on an inward journey that would climax in satori on a train traveling between Kyoto and Tokyo.
As for Jack Kerouac, whatever he was looking for he didn’t find it in the Other World, or in this one. Fame had not proved an unguent for his problems. Indeed, it only exacerbated them. The reading public regularly confused Jack with Dean Moriarity, his Cassady-like creation; they expected him to be the high-octane hipster, not this alcoholic manic depressive who was given to interminable boasting. “I’m king of the beatniks!” he had roared at Leary when Tim had arrived with the psilocybin. “I’m Francois Villon, vagabond poet-rogue of the open highway. Listen while I play you hot-lick spiral improvisations from my tenor typewriter.”32 But the fact was the tenor typewriter was silent, and had been for months. Leary found it depressing. It was his first bad trip. Later, when he asked Kerouac if he could publish a report of the session, Jack refused, although it would still be some time before he began comparing psychedelics with communist brainwashing.
A similar contretemps occurred with Burroughs, whom Leary first met in Tangier with Ginsberg. Burroughs appeared with Leary on an APA panel on psychedelics in the fall of 1961, and then spent a few weeks at the Newton house, never removing his fedora, inhaling gin and tonics and exhaling a mordant commentary that mocked the lovey-dovey softness of the psilocybin project. “He left silently without farewell,” Leary wrote in High Priest. “And then rumor drifted up like damp smoke from New York that he had published a no-thank-you letter denouncing the Harvard psychedelics.”33
The letter parodied Leary’s claims for psilocybin: “Listen to us. We are serving the garden of delights immortality cosmic consciousness the best ever in drug kicks. And love love love in slop buckets.” But what they were really offering. Burroughs wrote, was a “terminal sewer.”
In the end it didn’t matter. Through Ginsberg Leary was introduced into that curious milieu wherein wealth and avant-garde art find each other mutually amusing; a psilocybin weekend at Newton became the in thing to do among the New York jet set. Michael Kahn remembers being “absolutely dazzled” the first time he dropped by the house and found it filled with these larger than life creatures.34 “I’d never seen women that kind of tough, hard, beautiful, and I’d never seen that kind of casual dyke scene that a lot of those girls were into, sort of exciting to me and very mysterious.” For Tim, who preferred the brassiest big city girl on the block, it was heaven. More than once he found himself on the receiving end of declarations of undying love, an aphrodisiacal byproduct of the psilocybin that everyone who used psychedelics was aware of, but one that was seldom mentioned. “I strongly urge you not to let the sexual cat out of the bag,” Huxley cautioned. “We’ve stirred up enough trouble suggesting that drugs can stimulate aesthetic and religious experiences.”35
But the lush life was tempting. One weekend a woman named Flo Ferguson arrived to try the psilocybin, and when her session was over she drew Tim aside and invited him to spend a weekend at her house. “I could arrange experiments with some interesting subjects,” she said. “And show you what life is like in the first class lounge.”36
Flora Lu “Flo” Ferguson was the wife of big-band leader Maynard Ferguson, and like Mabel Dodge before her she was one of those women whose genius expresses itself in the organization of a salon. Artists, philosophers, scientists, the bohemian rich—Flora Lu Ferguson made it her business to invite the most incandescent minds around to her house in the shady Westchester suburb of Bronxville. And what a house. It was a large, roomy Tudor completely filled with wood paneling, rich carpets, abstract paintings. There was an enormous stone fireplace in the living room and a whole wall full of recording equipment with tens of thousands of records. Upstairs the sheets were silk, the floors fur covered. Walking into that house, Leary later claimed, was his first introduction to “hedonic consciousness … pleasure as a way of life.”37 And he loved it.
But it also involved him in a number of balancing acts, not least of which was his prohibition of marijuana. One day Michael Kahn was at Tim’s house with a bunch of the beautiful people when someone pulled out a bag of marijuana and began to roll joints. An obviously agitated Leary ordered that the bag be put away. “Dave McClelland has been a loyal and good friend to me,” he said. “And I’m not going to get busted out here with a lot of people smoking grass and violate my contract with him. Psilocybin is legal in this house. Everybody knows I’ve got it. I get it from Sandoz. I’m doing a research project. Grass is against the law. I’m not going to get busted and do that to him.”38 Everyone was astonished at this outburst; Gunther Weil thought it was the first time he had ever seen Tim lose his cool.
But could you truthfully call it a research project? With so many people dropping by to take the drug—vital people in terms of the Grand Plan—science tended to get lost in the glamorous shuffle. For a while Leary drove himself crazy trying to make sure that everyone filled out a set and setting questionnaire and took a Personality test or two, but then he gave up. Most weekends everyone in the house was beyond the Door, both researchers and subjects. Which wasn’t a unique situation as far as the psychedelic research community went, although it certainly would have raised eyebrows back at 5 Divinity Avenue. Early on, researchers had discovered that communication improved if both people were at least partway into the Other World; Osmond’s group in Canada had gotten so they could function perfectly fine on 100 milligrams of LSD. But no one, anywhere, had a research program quite like Leary’s; with all the dazzle and excitement of those exotic weekends, it was understandable that some of the finer points of scientific method got overlooked.
But science was still one of Leary’s main motivations. He really did want to know what was happening beyond the Door, in the Other World. He had a theory, of course, one that owed equal debts to Huxley, transactional analysis, and the fact that the Harvard psychology department had just purchased its first computer—its first artificial mind. From Huxley he borrowed the “reducing valve” analogy that had the brain screening out the millions of messages that arrived every second. But from there he modified Huxley to fit his own theoretical vocabulary:
Let’s assume that the cortex, the seat of consciousness is a millionfold network of neurons. A fantastic computing machine. Cultural learning has imposed a few pitifully small programs on the cortex. These programs may activate perhaps one-hundredth of the potential neural connections. All the learned games of life can be seen as programs which select, censor, alert and thus drastically limit the available cortical response. The consciousness-expanding drugs unplug these narrow programs. They unplug the ego, the game machinery, and the mind (that cluster of game concepts). And with the ego and mind unplugged, what is left? … What is left is something Western culture knows little about. The Open brain. The uncensored cortex, alert and open to a broad sweep of internal and external stimuli hitherto screened out.
So if that was theory, then ask yourself what would happen if you began to disconnect the game structure of Western culture? What would happen if you began to systematically unplug the egos of America? These were the questions Leary was asking himself, and the answer he arrived at was that whatever happened, it would be for the best. It was time to unplug the old mind of Homo sapiens, so a new one could take shape. This was the psilocybin project’s hidden agenda, and the odd thing about it was that it seemed to come from a higher level of consciousness, a higher power. “We began to see ourselves as unwitting agents of a social process that was far too powerful for us to control or more than dimly understand,” was the way Leary described the sensation. “A historical movement that would inevitably change man at the very center of his nature, his consciousness.”39
They had glimpsed the future, and it was themselves.
The role of unwitting social agent, however, didn’t appeal to Frank Barron, who was alarmed by the way his friend was consuming psilocybin. By March of 1961, Leary had taken the drug fifty-two times, which factored out to a little less than once every three days. And the more he took the drug the less concerned he was in dotting the scientific i’s and crossing the experimental t’s. Which was a tactical mistake as far as Barron was concerned; he agreed with Huxley that one shouldn’t needlessly create trouble by scorning the accepted scientific models. He also, if pressed, favored Huxley’s elitist perspective over the democratic visions of Ginsberg and Tim. Their differences became obvious whenever they argued about nuclear disarmament, a political cause that Barron was particularly passionate about. It was his position that the Bomb had been made by an elite and it would take an elite to unmake it, albeit one with a fundamentally altered consciousness, which was where psychedelics came in. But Tim disagreed. America’s nuclear madness was a symptom of the elite’s quest for power: to truly remake a society you would have to begin from the bottom up. Which meant everyone should have the right to take psychedelics. But what about the casualties, Barron always protested. “A weakened ego, forced to drop all its defenses suddenly, would shatter.”40 To which Tim usually replied that everyone had the right to go out of their mind, to have a psychosis, if that was their future.
It was, Barron later decided, a species of military thinking. Leary was arguing that it was foolish to quibble over a few lost souls when the stakes were the literal salvation of the world. But Barron was unwilling to take that kind of responsibility, and he began to distance himself from the psilocybin project.
His place as senior advisor to the project was filled by an up and coming member of the psychology department named Richard Alpert. Alpert took his first psilocybin in early March 1961, on the night of the winter’s worst blizzard. At five the next morning he trudged the several miles through the snow to his parents’ house. Grabbing a shovel, he began clearing a path to their door, which woke them up. Rushing to the window, they peered down at their son, the Harvard professor, laughing and flinging shovelfuls of snow into the air.
“Come to bed, you idiot! Nobody shovels snow at five in the morning.”41
It was his mother. Raising the shovel above his head, he danced a little jig and then went back to shoveling. It’s okay to shovel snow, he thought, and it’s okay to be happy.
Those transforming pink pills had claimed another.
When Richard Alpert was a teenager he wore double Z pants with balloon seats. He was an extremely fat kid and at Williston, the Massachusetts private school he attended, the seniors used to tease him mercilessly. He was bookish, bad at sports, Jewish. Once he was caught wrestling with another boy and word went around that he was queer. Ostracized by most of his classmates, it had seemed for a time that he might leap from the roof of one of Williston’s dormitories. Instead he became a grind, one of those compulsive fourteen-year-old intellectuals who has read all of Dostoevsky and who plans to become a brain surgeon.
“Until you know a Jewish middle-class, upwardly mobile, anxiety-ridden neurotic,” Alpert wrote years later, “you haven’t met a real achiever.”42
He got that from his father, who started life as the son of an immigrant junk dealer in Boston’s West End. George Alpert’s passport was education—first Boston University, then law school. By the time Richard, the third of his sons, was born in 1928, George Alpert had become wealthy by speculating in railroads and real estate. Weekends and vacations were spent on a 190-acre New Hampshire farm, a portion of which had been converted into a three-hole golf course. A temple trustee and a founder of Brandeis University, George Alpert was also influential in Boston’s Jewish community, although his Judaism tended to be social rather than spiritual. If he believed in anything, it was the sanctity of a professional career, and he encouraged his sons to become doctors and lawyers. He showered them with reinforcements, giving Richard a biography of the Mayo Brothers for his Bar Mitzvah.
Like a lot of youngest sons, Alpert was particularly close to his mother, who wanted more than anything else for her son to go to Harvard. But Harvard rejected Alpert and he was forced to enroll at Tufts, in nearby Medford, where he embarked on a rigorous program of self-improvement. He dieted and exercised until the fat preppy became boyishly handsome. He made a rigorous study of wine and antiques, and he began spending vacations in Hemingwayesque pursuits, motorcycling in New England, scuba diving in the Caribbean. As his self-esteem increased, so did his sex life: Alpert was furtively bisexual.
The only sour note during this period were his grades. Deciding he had no chance of being accepted at any of the top medical schools, he decided to pursue graduate work, a decision that was strenuously opposed by his father, who refused to pay for anything but medical school. No doubt this wasn’t the first clash of wills between Alpert and his father, but it was probably the first time that young Richard emerged the victor. On his own he had applied for and received a research assistantship in psychology at Wesleyan University. And the man responsible for this assistantship, the chairman of Wesleyan’s psychology department, was Dr. David McClelland.
Over the years McClelland would spend considerable time pondering the personality of this “charming, intelligent, witty” young man who had become first his protégé, then his very good friend.43 Early on in their relationship Alpert struck McClelland as being “unusually sensitive to the opinion of others, he generally tried to please people and make them happy.” And he was a natural nuturer—what Alpert always referred to as his Jewish-mother condition. When McClelland’s twin sons were born, he asked Alpert to be their godfather, and Alpert turned out to be a wonderful one: “It gave him great pleasure to provide them with new and wonderful experiences, to take them up to his family farm where they could tear around the lake in his speedboat or play the slot machines all night long; or he would give them a ride in his airplane and land on the fairway of the Alpert private golf course.”
Alpert went to Stanford for his doctorate. He spent long hours in the library carrels, mastering Freudian theory and motivation, which was one of his specialties. For his thesis he chose academic anxiety and devised a test capable of predicting whether a student was the sort of personality that thrived on exams regardless of preparation, or whether he belonged to the camp that broke out in a cold sweat and could barely remember his own name. If you guessed that Alpert belonged to the latter category, you’d be right. Despite his academic success, he felt like a fraud, particularly when he began working as a therapist at the Stanford Health Service (where his very first patient, a kid named Vie Lovell, turned him on to marijuana). But he liked the image, and he became a fixture at the wilder Stanford parties, slouched in the corner, listening to the inevitable jazz, feeling a little superior, “the shrink.”
George Alpert had become president of the New Haven Railroad while Richard was still at Stanford. When the railroad encountered financial difficulties, he turned to his youngest son for advice. Alpert began flying to New York to attend corporate meetings. It was his first taste of real power—”in Palo Alto I had a job buying coffee cups for the student lounge, in New York I was advising my father on deals worth millions”44—and it was sufficiently alluring for him to consider abandoning psychology for business. What changed his mind was an invitation from David McClelland to join him at his new post, which was director of Harvard’s Center for Research in Personality. It was a dream come true, at least for Alpert’s mother.
Harvard was a paradise after the cramped graduate cubicles of Stanford. Alpert had a corner office with windows overlooking Divinity Avenue, plus two secretaries to handle his correspondence. He surprised himself by becoming a popular lecturer, and before too long there was a small platoon of graduate students eager to handle the tedious aspects of his research projects. He got on well with his colleagues, particularly McClelland, and within three years held appointments in four Harvard departments. He wasn’t even thirty.
Most of Alpert’s colleagues attributed his swift rise less to an ability to do original work, than to an almost uncanny skill in the academic bureaucracy game; he was exactly the sort of smart professor-politician who ended up department chairman, or even dean. And he knew it. “I wasn’t a genuine scholar but I had gone through the whole academic trip,” he later wrote. “I had gotten my PhD; I was writing books. I had research contracts … I was living the way a successful bachelor professor is supposed to live in the America of ‘he who makes it.’ ” He drove around Cambridge in a Mercedes sedan when he wasn’t out for a spin on his Triumph motorcycle or cruising the Eastern seaboard in his Cessna. He had an antique-filled apartment where he “gave very charming dinner parties.”45
And underneath he was disintegrating.
Whenever he lectured he got diarrhea. He was drinking heavily and his sex life, when he had a sex life, was a sham. His sporadic attempts at heterosexuality only confirmed what he had suspected since his classmates at Williston had called him a queer: he preferred men. Although he concealed his growing despair behind a convivial facade, a curious double bind was developing: craving affection and approval, Alpert felt angry whenever these were given. You like me, went his logic, but you like a me that isn’t me. On top of this he was becoming increasingly skeptical about the profession of psychology: “All the stuff I was teaching was just like little molecular bits of stuff but they didn’t add up to a feeling of anything like wisdom. I was just getting more knowledgeable. And I was getting very good at bouncing three knowledge balls at once. I could sit in a doctoral exam, ask very sophisticated questions and look terribly wise. It was a hustle.”
Part of the problem was analysis. Alpert had been in psychotherapy since Williston. His analyst, during his five years at Stanford, had collected close to twenty-six thousand dollars in fees, and when he learned Alpert was bound for Harvard, he urged him to find a new therapist as soon as possible. “You’re too sick to leave analysis,” he had said.46
If a dozen years of analysis had not helped him, how could he possibly hope to help others?
This was Alpert’s mood when he returned to Harvard in the fall of 1959. Entering 5 Divinity Avenue for the first time, he noticed that one of the closets had been converted into an office. The place was ridiculous—barely big enough for a desk and bookshelves—and it was occupied by this trim, tanned guy with a bright grin who was studying a map of Europe. “I’m just back from Europe,” Tim Leary had said to him, “where I spent a lot of time bouncing checks.”47
“He was capable of taking wild risks in his thinking,” was the way Alpert later explained the powerful attraction he had felt for Tim; hanging around with him restored Alpert’s enthusiasm for psychology. Leary, for his part, considered Alpert an “ambitious, academic-politician—engaging, witty, a big tail-wagging puppy dog.”48 But he also intuited that, like himself, Alpert was an outsider. His homosexuality, combined with his Jewishness, gave him “that precious alien perspective.” They became frequent drinking companions and co-taught a course in existential psychology, and when it came time for summer vacation, Leary suggested they fly Alpert’s Cessna to Mexico and points south. But Alpert had to lecture at Stanford during the early part of the summer, so the plan was revised to have him rendezvous with Tim in Cuernavaca, and go ad venturing from there.
But the aerial tour had been scrapped. Alpert had landed a few days after Tim had been bemushroomed, and all his risky-thinking friend could talk about was getting back to Harvard and getting to work. Since Alpert had contracted to spend the fall semester at Stanford, there was nothing for him to do but listen to Tim rhapsodize about devolving back to the primordial soup. The whole thing reminded him of the few times he had smoked marijuana.
How wrong he had been, he discovered that first night at Newton. The crucial moment of Alpert’s session happened when he was sitting all alone on a couch and suddenly a curtain in his mind whisked open to reveal a vaudeville comedy act. Alpert the professor came out in cap and gown, mouthing profundities, followed by Alpert the social cosmopolite, Alpert the airplane pilot, Alpert the lover, and Alpert the little boy who had wanted to please his parents by becoming a brain surgeon. One by one they appeared, then vanished. It was like riffling through a deck of cards at high speed and at first Alpert had been amused. “I worked hard to get that status but I don’t really need it,” he’d thought as the professor swished off.49 But then he started to panic. If all his roles disappeared, what would be left?
The answer, when the last shreds of his ego had vanished, was his body. At least I’ve got my body, Alpert thought. I can always get a new identity. But then his body vanished. Alpert knew this because there was a mirror on the far wall and whenever he snuck a look at it the couch was empty! What if his body never returned? A simple enough question when you read it on a page like this, but when it flashed through Alpert’s mind it triggered the most intense adrenalin rush he had ever experienced. He opened his mouth to scream, but just as the howl was about to burst from his lungs, this soft, pleasant voice inside his head asked, “who’s minding the store?” And like magic the scream died, the adrenalin rush bursting like a soap bubble. If his self had disappeared, and even his body, then where was that voice coming from?
When I could finally focus on the question, I realized that although everything by which I knew myself, even my body and this life itself, was gone, still I was fully aware! Instantly with this recognition I felt a new kind of calmness-one of a profundity never experienced before. I had just found that “I”‘, that scanning device—that point—that essence—that place beyond.50
Laughing happily, he dashed outside into the snowstorm.
“We made a straight out deal,” Leary had said of Alpert’s role in the psilocybin project. “He said, ‘Listen, I’m better at handling the outside world, let me do that and I’ll protect you/ That was a very explicit contract we made. And he was incredible at it. I can remember staff conferences where we’d be kind of sitting around and he would walk in and have a list in his pocket of the agenda or of the students he thought we should work with. He was like our majority whip.”51
Alpert worked hard. On weekends they climbed into his Cessna and sailed off as far as North Carolina, where they ran some sessions for J. B. Rhine’s parapsychology institute at Duke. But their usual destination was New York, where they participated in a series of cocktail parties designed to explain the possibilities of mind expansion to selected intellectuals, artists, and socialites. Of all the socially prominent people that they met during these months, the most important, in terms of our story, was Peggy Hitchcock, the artistically inclined twenty-eight-year-old jet-setting heir of the Mellon millions. Peggy, as Leary later wrote, “was easily bored, intellectually ambitious, and looking for a project capable of absorbing her whirlwind energy.”52 Mind expansion fit the bill and she joined Flo Ferguson as the unofficial patronesses of the psilocybin project.
Ironically, in the midst of this social whirl, Leary dreamed up an experiment that actually had the potential of proving his contention that psilocybin was a powerful behavior-change tool. One day, purely by chance, he noticed a flyer from the Massachusetts Department of Corrections soliciting psychology interns to work in the prisons—a request that routinely provoked little response, prison psychology being comparable, in terms of prestige, to working in a leper colony. Leary contacted the Massachusetts Department of Corrections and invited the appropriate officials to lunch at the Harvard Faculty Club. There he made his proposal: clear up the red tape involved in giving convicts drugs and he would supply more graduate students than they could handle. A week later he was on his way to Concord State Prison.
The beauty of the prison project was this: where else could you find an environment of such experimental cleanliness, with limited variables, rigidly defined roles and, the coup de grace, a statistical measure of just how dismal the current rehabilitative techniques really were: the recidivism rate in the Massachusetts prison system was running close to 70 percent. Using psilocybin, Leary told the prison officials, he could cut that rate. Privately, to his grad students, he joked, “Let’s see if we can turn the criminals into Buddhas.”53
Taking psilocybin at Newton had been one thing, but ingesting it with a bunch of hardened criminals in a locked room in the prison infirmary was quite another. The prison psychiatrist had cheerfully provided Leary with a cross-section of criminal types: two murderers, two armed robbers, an embezzler, and a heroin addict. They reminded Metzner of “big cats in a zoo,” the way they glided nervously around the room.54 The psilocybin was in a bowl on the table. Leary took six of the pink pellets and passed the bowl to one of the cons. The man hesitated and then downed six of his own. The arrangement was that Leary would guide a session for three of the men in the morning, to be followed by Metzner, Gunther Weil, and three others in the afternoon.
As the drug took hold (“the loosening of thought, the humming pressure in my head, the sharp, brilliant, and then brutal intensification of the senses”) Leary began to feel dreadful. “Why is that, doc?” asked one of the prisoners. “Because I’m afraid of you,” Leary finally admitted. The man started laughing. “Well that’s funny, doc,” he said, “because I’m afraid of you.” “Why are you afraid of me,” Leary asked. “Because you’re a fucking mad scientist,” came the answer, which started everyone laughing, and broke the ice.55
As the prison gates clanged shut behind them that evening, it was hard not to whoop and yell. “We had put our faith in human nature and the drug experience on the line,” Leary later said. “A bit of pagan magic had occurred … . It was a heroic moment in our lives.”56
After that they were back at Concord several times a week, sometimes just to talk, other times bringing personality tests whose rationale had to be patiently explained to the suspicious inmates. And every few weeks they ran another session. The changes, whether measured by the tests or simply by their own perceptions, were dramatic. Within a month these hardened convicts were talking about love and ecstasy and sharing, concepts that were as rare at Concord prison as they once had been at the Center for Personality Research.
Word began to spread that there was a weird shrink thing going on in the infirmary that could get you off work duty. One day two of Concord’s biggest and meanest cons cornered Leary and announced they were joining the project. The others were dismayed. These guys were fearsome presences in the prison power hierarchy, they warned Tim; ignoring them could be dangerous, but including them would ruin the project’s increasingly spiritual tone. Tim listened to their concerns, and then pointed out that before these guys could join the group, they were going to have to take psilocybin. As the implications of this sank in, the other inmates began to smile, then laugh.
Imagine the Humphrey Bogart of Angels with Dirty Faces suddenly transported into Alice in Wonderland and you will have some idea of what transpired. One of the newcomers became paranoid and decided the whole thing was a fiendish police trick to get him to confess to all the crimes he had never been caught for. He stared murderously at Gunther Weil, which worried Weil quite a bit, although he would have been more unnerved if he had known that the man was feverishly working out all the steps he would have to take to arrange an accident for this smart-aleck Harvard punk who had outwitted him. But then—smart manipulation of set and setting—his paranoia vanished, he forgot about revenge, forgot about his standing in one of Boston’s Irish Mafia families; he started thinking about love, about how everyone was really the same, no difference between him and this Harvard boy, really.
The early results of the prison study were so promising that Leary flew to Washington to discuss the possibility of introducing psilocybin to the criminal justice system.
What Happened at Harvard
Sitting in the Copenhagen audience was a colleague of Leary and Alpert’s named Herb Kelman, who was the Clinic’s resident social psychologist and who, for the past year, had been on sabbatical in Norway. Having known Alpert for several years and Leary for a few months and having thought them both charming and competent, Kelman was astonished at the direction the panel on New Directions was taking. Up on the stage Leary was thanking Barron for turning him on to the sacred mushroom, and Alpert was thanking Leary, and the whole thing was sounding more like a convention of evangelists than a scientific symposium. One amazed listener later told Kelman that Leary acted as though he were brain damaged.
Sitting there, Kelman suddenly understood what his friends had meant in their letters when they had alluded to strange doings at 5 Divinity Avenue. But even so he was unprepared for what he found when he returned to Cambridge: instead of being roundly criticized for sloppy science, Alpert and Leary had become powerful influences. Leary acted as though he had discovered the master reconceptualization of late-twentieth-century psychology. It would have been laughable but for the fact that everyone involved with the psilocybin project seemed so confident. This included not only some of the sharper graduate students, but also faculty members like Alpert and Kahn. On top of this, Leary and Alpert were team-teaching the seminar in introductory clinical, which was arguably the most important course a psychology doctoral candidate would take at Harvard, and they were using that forum to imply that the old methods of doing psychology were obsolete: the future belonged to the new behavior-change drugs like psilocybin.
There was always the possibility, of course, that Leary might actually be on to something. Who could forget that Freud had been hissed by his peers, and now he was legend and they mere foolish footnotes. But the corollary didn’t necessarily follow. Not all men with novel ideas were Freud. Most were quacks and charlatans, and the more Kelman learned of the psilocybin project, the more certain he became that Tim belonged in this category, however brilliant and personally attractive he might be. In fact, the more Kelman studied the psilocybin project, the more convinced he became that it was just a clever excuse for a drug party.
This was not a new criticism, per se. Since day one Leary had had a difficult time persuading his colleagues that candles, mattresses on the floor, and Hindu ragas on the stereo were the stuff of Great Science. He’d usually responded with a short lecture on set and setting, and that had been enough at least to earn him the benefit of the doubt. But by the fall of 1961 it was no longer possible to conceal the dual purpose of the project. “I began to realize,” David McClelland later told a magazine reporter, “that there were only a few subjects and many researchers, which meant that the researchers were taking more of the drug than anybody else.”1
McClelland’s initial attitude of cautious optimism—he’d brought Tim here to shake things up, after all—was turning to anxiety. Instead of producing oneness and love, psilocybin was causing dissension and fear. It was dividing 5 Divinity Ave. into two camps: those who had had the experience and those who hadn’t, with the former displaying a “blandness, or superiority, or feeling of being above and beyond the normal world” that bordered on the pathological. But even more troubling were the persistent rumors that, contrary to Tim’s hearty assurances, some subjects were ending up in the hospital. Although McClelland was never able to prove any of these rumors true, one of Tim’s graduate students did confess that “she knew she was becoming psychotic, but she’d never been so happy in her life.”
McClelland aired his reservations at a faculty meeting in October, passing around a memo entitled “Some Social Reactions to the Psilocybin Research Project”: “The history of the project has been marred by repeated casual ingestion of the drug, group decisions made which are not carried out etc. One can hardly fail to infer that one effect of the drug is to decrease responsibility or increase impulsivity.”2 He also took a poke at Tim’s recent infatuation with the mystic East:
It is probably no accident that the society which most consistently encouraged the use of these substances, India, produced one of the sickest social orders ever created by mankind, in which thinking men spent their time lost in the Buddha position under the influence of drugs exploring consciousness, while poverty, disease, social discrimination, and superstition reached their highest and most organized form in all history.3
Give me proof, McClelland was saying, and not just some narcissistic comparison with the Mercury astronauts.
Realizing that the heart of McClelland’s critique—the lack of controls, the scarcity of hard data—was unimpeachable, Michael Kahn said to Alpert, “Timothy is like a great director who has lost touch with the realities of the theater. He needs a production manager who will remember to get the props to the theater on time.”4 Together Kahn and Alpert began tidying up Tim’s professional life, copy editing his grant proposals, making sure that data was collected, collated, and written up. In February 1962 they distributed a thirteen-page memo that apologized for “the inadequate communication on our part” that had led “to a number of rumors and speculations concerning the purposes of this research.” They were patiently gathering evidence, the memo continued, which would prove their assertion that “psilocybin has the potential to facilitate major insight of an intellectual-emotional nature, which, if guided properly, could lead to genuine behavior change.” So far, ninety-one out of ninety-eight subjects reported “pleasurable experiences,” with sixty-one experiencing “insights that resulted in positive changes in their lives.”5 Of the thirty-four prisoners who were now taking the drug at Concord, most showed marked increases on the MMPI in the categories of responsibility, socialization, tolerance, and achievement.
The memo also touched upon their growing interest in the religious implications of the psychedelic state, what McClelland had scornfully dismissed as “undergraduate navel-gazing.” In December, they reported, they had begun a series of informal seminars with local theologians like Huston Smith, Huxley’s friend who taught religion at MIT, and Walter Houston Clark, a sexagenarian psychologist who was teaching at Andover-Newton seminary. Nine of these religious experts had taken psilocybin, with the result that four underwent a classic mystical epiphany. “I think religion will neglect the consequences of this powerful instrument, with its implications, at its peril,” one was quoted as saying in the memo. “The experience recalls Otto’s mysterium tremendum. It was awesome.”
But whatever qualms the memo soothed were quickly resurrected on February 20, when the Harvard Crimson printed a story about the psilocybin project that contained this worrisome paragraph: “The directors of the Center envision the use of psilocybin in a ‘mushroom seminar’ for graduate students in theology, behavioral science and philosophy; the course would be based on taking the drug once a month and spending the intervening sessions applying the insights gained to problems in their respective fields.”6
Apparently, despite the warnings of everyone around him, Leary still found it impossible to believe that any university could turn its back on a teaching tool like psilocybin. During the fall semester he had urged all his introductory clinical students to avail themselves of a trip or two. Only one had refused.
But this one exception was an advisee of Herb Kelman. Brooding that his refusal to take psilocybin might weigh against him (certainly it marked him as a retrograde psychologist in Tim’s eyes), he finally went to Kelman and confessed his fears. Kelman was outraged. Leary and Alpert were blurring the lines between what was optional and what was required; they were becoming advocates, not educators. Kelman interviewed other introductory clinical students. Some admitted feeling pressured, others told scary anecdotes about what had happened in the Other World. Armed with these stories, Kelman went to McClelland and demanded a department meeting in which the psilocybin project could be freely debated. McClelland consulted Leary, who agreed it was a good idea. Notices were posted, the rumor mill began to hum, and on March 16, 5 Divinity Avenue’s “psychodrama room” was standing room only.
David McClelland moderated the debate, which went on for about ninety minutes, and he strove to maintain a posture of skeptical support. The most vigorous opponent was Kelman, who demanded that the psilocybin project either be radically restructured or terminated. “I wish I could treat this as a scholarly disagreement,” he said. “But this work violates the values of the academic community … the program has an anti-intellectual atmosphere. Its emphasis is on pure experience, not on verbalizing findings. It is an attempt to reject most of what the psychologist tries to do.”7
Kelman’s critique was echoed by others in the room. “Have you bothered to read the literature in your field?” demanded Brendan Maher, whose debating style reminded Leary of a prosecuting attorney.
“Yes, I’ve read those papers.”
“Then how can you continue administering these drugs outside a mental hospital?”
Although he had expected criticism, the vehemence of the attack surprised Leary, and he had to work at remaining outwardly unruffled. The same couldn’t be said for Alpert, whose reaction was described as cold anger. Leary later claimed that before the meeting Dick had been drawn aside and told that “nothing could be done to save Tim, but if he kept quiet his career could probably be salvaged.”8 Whether this was true or not, Alpert did remain silent for about half the meeting before jumping to his feet and attacking Kelman and Maher. In the end, the conflict was resolved, in true academic fashion, with the recommendation that a committee be appointed to thoroughly investigate the differences. “The meeting ended on a note of civilized calm,” Leary wrote in Flashbacks.9
The calm lasted less than twenty-four hours. Next morning the biggest thing on the frontpage of the Harvard Crimson was “Psychologists Disagree on Psilocybin Research.” From the Crimson the story jumped to the Boston dailies and thence to the wire services, the combination of Harvard’s prestige and experimental mind drugs proving irresistible. But that was only the preliminary hoopla. Suddenly agents of the Bureau of Narcotics were calling at 5 Divinity Avenue and the local office of the Food and Drug Administration was making investigatory noises.
Harvard reacted with suave demurrals. The problem had been taken care of, they told reporters. The psilocybin project was now under the supervision of a faculty committee, and the project’s supply of psilocybin had been turned over to Dr. Dana Farnsworth at the University Health Service, to be released only with the committee’s approval. In addition, Leary and Alpert had been asked to turn over all personal supplies of the drug, a request that raised interesting questions about academic freedom, but one to which Leary had cheerfully acquiesced. Indeed, by the end of spring term, 1961, it seemed that the problem of the psilocybin project had been artfully contained, if not solved. All that remained was to wait until Leary’s teaching contract expired the next spring, and then they would be rid of him and his band of applied mystics forever.
Unfortunately, Harvard was not in full possession of the facts. For all Leary cared. Dr. Farnsworth could lock up the psilocybin and throw away the key. Psilocybin was passé, it had been for months, ever since Leary had scooped a teaspoonful of LSD paste out of Michael Hollingshead’s mayonnaise jar and soared off the map. Later he wrote: “From the date of this session it was inevitable that we would leave Harvard, that we would leave American society.”10
He was English, of course, a tall, balding man in his mid-thirties with peculiar scars on his forehead and a plummy upper-class accent. An accomplished mimic, he told hilarious stories about public school and psychoanalysis with Anna Freud. Leary called him a “divine rascal” and was endlessly entertained by his “witty, multi-reality tales.”11 Others considered him a sociopath. “Getting involved with Hollingshead was one of the worst mistakes Tim ever made,” said one.12
In his first telephone conversation with Tim, Michael Hollingshead introduced himself as a protégé of the British philosopher G. E. Moore. He was in Boston, he said, because Aldous Huxley had mentioned Tim as a man who understood psychedelics. Leary invited him to lunch at the Harvard Faculty Club, where he spent most of the time outlining the plot of a novel he planned to write. He also boasted of having ingested more LSD than anyone else in the world. Tim politely listened, wished him luck, paid for the meal and returned to his office. The phone rang. It was Hollingshead: he needed help, he was suicidal, he had no place to stay. Leary brought him back to the Newton house and called a New York connection for information on his new lodger: stay away from Hollingshead was the message, he’s a con man. But he was a con man with a mayonnaise jar full of LSD.
How Hollingshead came to possess that mayonnaise jar illustrates how quickly the psychedelic ripples were spreading out from the epicenter of our story. Hollingshead came to New York in 1953, and for most of the decade was associated with an organization known as the British-American Institute for Cultural Exchange, which was supposed to promote amity between the English-speaking cousins and the continent. Huntington Hartford was on the board, so was the poet W. H. Auden. One of Hollingshead’s acquaintances, another British expatriate, was a young doctor named Michael Beresford. And Beresford, an admirer of The Doors of Perception, was part of a small psychedelic cadre whose community center was an obscure store in Greenwich Village that sold all kinds of native roots and potions, peyote, harmaline, ibogaine, some mescaline, all legal. Hollingshead joined Beresford in a number of experiments that finally culminated in their joint purchase of several grams of LSD. Hollingshead came out of the deal with one gram (at a cost of $285), which factored out to about five thousand doses. Back at his Greenwich Village apartment he proceeded to dilute the chemical with distilled water and then poured in a box of confectioner’s sugar. When this mess was thoroughly mixed, he transferred it to an old mayonnaise jar, and then unthinkingly he licked the spoon. Now 250 millionths of a gram, which is a healthy dose of LSD, is little more than a speck, so you can imagine what happened to Hollingshead after his impulsive lick. He went roaring off to the Other World, where he experienced a rare but not unknown problem: he couldn’t come back completely. It was as though he were lost midway between this world and the other one, a little like a spirit who ends up in limbo because of improper burial. Hollingshead eventually wrote a letter to Huxley (who was interested in the problem of reentry) and Aldous responded with Leary’s name and address. “A splendid fellow,” he wrote.
Despite the warnings from New York, Leary invited Hollingshead to stay at the Newton house as a kind of unofficial babysitter for Susan and Jack. Metzner thought he performed his duties rather well, “considering what he was pouring into his system all the time.”13 A typical day started with a spoonful of LSD icing, a drink, and a few hours of TV. Hollingshead called LSD his daily consciousness vitamin.
Leary wouldn’t touch the stuff at first. He was too busy shepherding the psilocybin project, worrying about the mounting criticism within the Social Relations department. Despite Hollingshead’s insistence that it was like comparing a house cat to a lion, Tim stuck to his belief that there was no difference between psilocybin and LSD. And it was only after Maynard and Flo Ferguson arrived for a weekend and agreed to try some of Hollingshead’s LSD, that he relented. “You gotta try this,” Flo had whispered, and he had.14
It was the most shattering experience of his life.
Metzner ran into him the next day and was appalled. He barely recognized Tim. He had the “blank look of someone who is seeing too much” and he kept babbling about the “plastic doll world” and the “total death of the self.” And he was following Hollingshead around like one of Konrad Lorenz’s imprinted goslings. “We’ve lost Timothy,” Alpert warned, don’t touch LSD.15 But eventually Leary snapped back to normal. “Wow,” he said.
If psilocybin had been about love, LSD was all death and rebirth, and it quickly changed the tone of the psilocybin project. Everyone began taking massive dosages and going off on solitary treks that no one else could share. The sense of community crumbled. “We got snotty, we got put-downy, we got ‘in’ and ‘out,’ ” Kahn remembers. “We got looking at the people who hadn’t had ‘the experience’ as though they were inferior to us. We would go to parties and there would be ‘drug people’ and ‘non-drug people,’ and we would be in little groups and we would tell ‘in’ jokes, and we would be groupy, and we’d put down people who tried to get in with us.”16
Alpert, in particular, was dismayed by LSD’s arrival. Psilocybin was a comfortable experience; after a year of work they were close to creating a manageable model of what happened; the trip through the Door had become almost routine. But LSD … LSD threw you back into the chaos. It was too much! There was no way they could wrestle this explosion into the available psychological categories. The whole thing made him nervous. Of course it was possible—this being a story about psychologists—that subconsciously Alpert recognized that if he followed the lure of LSD then it might be goodbye Harvard, goodbye Nobel Prize, possibly even goodbye Dick Alpert.
But Tim urged them on. New circuits, he exulted, a better broom to sweep the cortex clean!
Actually, if anyone symbolized the changes brought about by LSD, it was the bringer, Michael Hollingshead. In a matter of weeks Hollingshead acquired a status coeval with Alpert. Metzner felt he was a disruptive presence who loved to mock the spirituality of their little family. To share a session with Hollingshead was a dangerous thing, for he loved to manipulate the suggestibility of the state. Watching Hollingshead, Metzner realized for the first time that psychedelics didn’t necessarily make you holy or wise. But whenever he confronted Hollingshead, the latter would blink and proceed to deny it in “such a guileless, humorous, friendly manner, that it was impossible not to like the man.”17 Plus he had the wholehearted support of Leary, who, as a consequence of that shattering first trip, believed him to be an agent for some higher intelligence who had been sent to earth to … well, possibly to guide Tim Leary onto the chosen path.
One of the difficult questions to answer in Tim Leary’s biography is the question of when he first began to think of himself as a prophet. At what point did the guru game begin? Where did the transformation that culminated in High Priest start? Leary, of course, always denied that it ever did. Outwardly he always ridiculed the suggestion that he was divinely elected. Tim would “laugh and laugh,” remembers Kahn, “he never for a moment got thinking of himself as a guru.”18 But Metzner believed differently: “I know that inwardly, starting at an early stage of our work together, he saw himself as a prophet. And the growing attacks on him and his actions by the authorities and the media only confirmed this, because he believed that a prophet is always misunderstood and hounded by his contemporaries.”19
And this prophetic mission was assuming an increasingly spiritual tone. If psilocybin had progressively weakened the foundations of what Leary liked to call “the Tim Leary game,” LSD had swept it away in an “ontological confrontation” from which “I have never recovered.”20 Although it would still be several years before he could pronounce the word God without wincing—such was Aunt Dudu’s legacy—for the first time in his life Leary understood why competent people like Ginsberg and Watts had chosen the spiritual game.
By the spring of 1962 Leary was deep into Tantric Buddhism. During this period a young psychologist named Stan Krippner arrived to take the psilocybin. Although Tim was supposedly in the middle of negotiations with Harvard, the PDA, and the State Bureau of Narcotics concerning the future of the psilocybin project, and although he had reportedly turned over his entire supply to Dana Farnsworth, he scared up some of the drug for Krippner, telling him, “You’re exactly the sort of person we want to have this experience.” Later, when Krippner had time to reflect upon his whirlwind visit to Harvard (the high point of his session was a clairvoyant foreseeing Kennedy’s assassination) one of the things he remembered most clearly was the thematic tension of Leary’s desk. Half had been littered with protocols bearing those peculiar concentric circle graphs Leary had popularized in The Interd¡agnostic of Personality. But when Krippner had complimented him on the success of that book, Leary had waved his hand dismissively and said, “That’s antediluvian stuff.”21 The drugs, he implied, were taking him in wholly revolutionary directions, and although he didn’t specify what these were, it had been impossible not to notice that the other half of the desk was piled high with books on Buddhism and Hinduism.
But books were no substitute for direct experience. In early 1962 a former Air Force major turned Hindu monk named Fred Swain arrived at the Newton house. Swain was associated with Boston’s Vedanta ashram, although he was not adverse to seeking higher awareness through drugs, and had once spent a bemushroomed night with Gordon Wasson’s curandera in the hills outside Oaxaca. Swain took LSD at Newton and reciprocated by inviting Tim to the ashram. Leary the atheist was amazed. “The ashram itself was a turn-on,” he later wrote. “A serene, rhythmic life of work and meditation all aimed at getting high.” He eagerly conducted an LSD session for the ashram members and they responded in much the same way that he had with Hollingshead: “The monks and nuns treated me as a guru. To them it was obvious. I was not a Harvard psychologist with a staff of research assistants. Come off it, please. I was, like it or not, playing out the ancient role.”22
Despite Kahn’s observation that whenever the ancient role came up, Tim would laugh uproariously, his religious pose became more pronounced with time. Was it a sham? A clever public relations ploy? Or was Tim serious? Had he tapped into that ancient heavenly connection and received the usual message: go forth and spread light! Something Alan Watts once wrote about himself should be kept in mind when considering these questions:
On the one hand I am a shameless egotist. I like to talk, entertain, and hold the center of the stage, and can congratulate myself that I have done this to a considerable extent—by writing widely read books, by appearing before enormous audiences. On the other hand I realize quite clearly that the ego named Alan Watts is an illusion, a social institution, a fabrication of words and symbols without the slightest substantive reality; that it will be utterly forgotten within five hundred years, and that my physical organism will shortly pass off into dust and ashes.23
As Watts realized, few professions are as ambiguous as the philosopher of egolessness who achieves fame. The I who writes the books and gives the lectures is merely a player in the theater of the self, and, from that perspective, life becomes a tragic-comedy whose merit is enhanced by the amount of wit and grace one brings to the playing.
Actually, when it came to pointers on how to play the “ancient role” in modern dress, there was no better teacher than Alan Watts. He was a generation younger than Huxley, yet he had the same English fluidity of mind, the same noble dedication to a life of ideas. But unlike Huxley he was a bohemian, although here he personified a rather more elegant conception of bohemian style than Ginsberg or the beatniks. One of Watts’s quibbles with the Beats, besides their near-beer brand of Zen, was their dowdy attitudes; they “lacked gaiete d’esprit, he felt. When he wasn’t globetrotting around as a freelance philosopher. Watts lived on a houseboat in Sausalito Bay. He was a wonderful entertainer. His days with the London Buddhists, plus his years as an Anglican clergyman, had left him with a talent for ritual and mystery. One Easter Sunday he stage-managed an entire psychedelic ceremony at Leary’s Newton house, offering a liturgy composed of readings from the New Testament interspersed with parables and Zen jokes. The sacrament—LSD—was served in goblets along with French bread. Then he led them outside to chase snowflakes. Everything about Alan was balanced yet refreshingly different. Watching him, Leary was envious; he too wanted to be a freelance philosopher, living off his intellectual wits.
Watts was a frequent presence at Harvard. He was always turning up at the Divinity School, although he was equally at home at the psychology department. With the exception of Harry Murray, he considered the psilocybin project people to be the liveliest on campus, although Tim’s recklessness worried him: “It seemed to [Tim] more and more that, in practice, the procedures of scientific objectivity and rigor were simply an academic ritual designed to convince the university establishment that your work was dull and trivial enough to be considered ‘sound.’ “24 Although he sympathized with the dilemma. Watts repeated Huxley’s counsel: don’t abandon scientific principles, transcend them.
Tim did manage to come up with an experiment that approached Watts’s ideal. The stimulus came from a medical doctor turned theologian named Walter Pahnke, who for his doctoral thesis wanted to give twenty theology students psilocybin and then measure their reactions against a nine-category model of mystical experience that he had derived from the work of Princeton philosopher W. T. Stace. At first Leary balked, but he was soon won over by the combination of Pahnke’s “fresh-faced, gee whiz” enthusiasm and his careful experimental design.25 What Pahnke proposed to do was divide the twenty students into five groups, with two members of the psilocybin project assigned to each group. No one, neither the students, nor Pahnke, nor the grad students, would know who had received psilocybin and who the placebo. Afterward, the students would fill out a 147-item questionnaire, with another to follow in six months. To evaluate their answers, Pahnke had lined up some housewives who were all ex-schoolteachers. A double blind study. It was the most scientific thing the psilocybin project had ever attempted. Unfortunately, Harvard refused to release the drugs.
The ad hoc committee, less than a month old, felt it needed more time to evaluate the request. This angered Leary, although he was certainly aware that the committee’s main brief was the containment and elimination of the psilocybin project. Yet they had said again and again that legitimate research would be allowed to continue. And if Pahnke’s experiment didn’t meet that condition, then nothing would. Irritated and feeling obligated to Pahnke, Leary scrounged around and came up with enough psilocybin, and on Good Friday, in Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, with twenty divinity students from Andover-Newton (supplied by Walter Houston Clark) on hand, the experiment commenced. Half the young theologians were given psilocybin, the other ten nicotinic acid, a substance that caused one’s face to flush, but nothing else. No one knew who had what at first, but within an hour the division was clear. While half sat attentively listening to the Easter service that was being piped in from the main chapel, the others were all over the place, lying on benches moaning, or wandering around fixating on the various religious icons. One sat at an organ, playing “weird, exciting chords.”26 Of the ten receiving the nicotinic acid, only one reported experiencing anything that fell within Pahnke’s nine categories; of those who took the psilocybin, nine reported four or more categories of mystic experience.
For Harvard, the “miracle of Marsh Chapel,” as it became known, was final proof that Leary had no intention of abiding by the rules. It was rumored that the Divinity School was going to reject Pahnke’s thesis, and there were demands for the immediate firing of Walter Houston Clark at Andover-Newton. For Leary, it was further confirmation of what might be called the finger syndrome. A man points at the moon, do you stare at his finger or do you look at the moon? Harvard was a finger watcher; it didn’t care about the moon. My God how could you give those kids that dangerous drug, was all it could say. The fact that everyone had had a perfectly fine time, on top of which nine of those kids had seen God, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, was entirely beside the point.
To hell with Harvard and psychology, Leary wanted to shout, to hell with boring old bourgeois science. To hell with boring old bourgeois religion. Mind-expanding drugs were going to be the religion of the twenty-first century (“Pursuing the religious life today without using psychedelic drugs is like studying astronomy with the naked eye,” Leary remarked)27, and he was going to be chief avatar. “He began to turn into a mystic and a poet,” remembers Walter Houston Clark. Tim became Prometheus, “with a prophetic sense of mission to change others as he had been changed through profound religious experience.”28 Harvard was too small to contain him; science was too small. According to Michael Kahn, Tim “wanted out of science. I said to him, as I have always said to him and I guess always will, ‘wherever you’re going, I want to go there too. Go ahead and I’ll move right along.'”29
It was a feeling shared by many of the other members of the psilocybin project. The adventures of the past fifteen months had made it impossible for them to return to traditional psychology, despite the warnings that their professional prospects were nil if they didn’t renounce Leary. Most finished their doctorates quickly and readied themselves to follow Tim, in this case to Mexico. What Leary had in mind was a summer retreat, far from the pressures and hyperintellectuality of Harvard. He wanted to find an isolated research station, maybe a deserted hotel, somewhere warm and lazy where there would be no interruptions and they would have the leisure to venture as deeply into the Other World as possible. Aldous Huxley’s novel. Island, had just been published, with its dreamy evocation of a psychedelic Utopia isolated from (and ultimately destroyed by) the world of the Organization Mad. Tim was looking for something comparable and he found it in the faded Mexican resort town of Zihuatanejo, which was a couple of hours up the coast from Acapulco. It was a twenty-room, slightly seedy hotel called the Catalina, run by a Swiss émigré. And it was free for the summer.
Leary didn’t fly immediately to Zihuatanejo when the semester ended. First he went to California and made the rounds of the research community. In Los Angeles he attended a number of parties that were similar to the ones he and Alpert had organized in New York, full of literate, intelligent seekers quietly discussing their trips to the Other World. One night after one of these affairs, a sloshed Marilyn Monroe slipped into Tim’s bedroom and asked him to turn her on. There were moments when Leary had to agree with Allen Ginsberg: everyone was becoming hip.
This was an illusion, of course. Maybe 10 percent were becoming hip, the rest were getting nervous. And one of the focal points of their anxiety was LSD.
1 “I began to realize …”
2 “the history of the project…” Xerox of McClelland memo.
3 “it is probably no accident…” Xerox of memo.
4 “Timothy is like a great director…” Kahn intv.
5 “pleasurable experiences … . I think religions will neglect these experiences …” Newsletter #1.
6 “the directors of the center envision …” Harvard Crimson, February 20, 1962.
7 “I wish I could treat this as a scholarly disagreement…” Harvard Crimson, March 15, 1962.
8 “nothing can be done to save Tim …” Leary intv.
9 “the meeting ended on a note of civilized calm …” FB, p. 122.
10 “from the date of this session …” HP, pp. 256-57.
11 “divine rascal … witty multi-reality tales …” FB, p. 116.
12 “getting involved with Hollingshead …” Krippner intv.
13 “considering what he was pouring …” Metzner mss.
14 “you gotta try this …” FB, p. 117.
15 “we’ve lost Timothy …” Metzner mss.
16 “we got snotty, we got put downy …” Kahn intv.
17 “such a guileless, humorous …” Metzner mss.
18 “laugh and laugh … he never for a moment…” Kahn intv.
19 “I know that inwardly, starting at an early age …” Metzner mss.
20 “the Tim Leary game … ontological confrontation … I have never recovered …” FB, p. 119.
21 “that’s antediluvian stuff …” Krippner intv.
22 “the ashram itself …” HP, pp. 297-300.
23 “on the one hand I am a shameless …” Alan Watts, In My Own Way, p. 55.
24 “it seemed to Tim …” Watts, p. 406.
25 “fresh faced gee whiz …” FB, p. 102.
26 “weird exciting chords …” HP, p. 311.
27 “pursuing the religious life today …” Tim Leary, Politics of Ecstasy, p. 38.
28 “he began to turn into a mystic …” Walter Houston Clark. Chemical Ecstasy,
29 “wanted out of science …” Michael Kahn intv.
If the psychedelic movement can be said to possess a nostalgic highpoint, it would probably be those weeks at Zihuatanejo in the summer of 1962, when thirty-five experimenters (and nine children) arrived at the Hotel Catalina for a collective assault on the Other World. Leary had gathered together a fascinating mix of psychologists, artists, jet-setters like Peggy and Tommy Hitchcock, and his Harvard graduate students, their wives and friends; an agglutination of talents and temperaments poised for an Everest expedition of the mind. They had come together to push the envelope of consciousness as far as it would go, although this didn’t mean that they intended to ignore the Mexican dolce vita: Tim had left plenty of time for baking on the beach, ordering drinks from the Catalina’s bar, which would come rumbling down the little funicular railway a few minutes later.
The Catalina, two miles outside of Zihuatanejo, at the end of a long dirt track, was built into a steep hillside, with cabanas at various levels. Except for the lazy curve of the Pacific to the west, with its miles upon miles of virgin beach, the hotel was completely surrounded by jungle, “We were swimming in a sea of tropical energy,” remembers Gunther Weil, who attended with his wife and baby daughter. “Cut down a banana plant and 24 hours later it would be an inch out of the ground.”1
In any given day approximately a third of the group were off to the Other World, with another third acting as guides, and a remaining third recuperating and writing reports about what they had seen during their voyages of the previous day. The sessions were under the nominal control of Metzner and Alpert, while Leary acted as a kind of psychedelic pater familias— his first crack at the ancient role. Actually, Tim was curious to see whether he could create the kind of community that Huxley had only imagined in Island, a transpersonative community (transpersonative was the newest buzzword among the Harvard group), which meant a group of people who had evolved past the ego, who were living beyond “the persona, the role, or mask, which we normally are compelled to exhibit socially.”2
Could he take three dozen high-powered egos and meld them into a true spiritual brotherhood?
A month was certainly not sufficient time to prove anything, but it was a start, and with a few notable exceptions—Myron Stolaroff being one—it promised to be a good one. Stolaroff had met Leary in the spring of 1962, had been charmed and impressed by him, and had quickly assented when Tim invited him to join the Zihuatanejo project. But now he was regretting it. He felt completely at sea in Tim’s transpersonative community: the women were moody, the men aloof. Some of Stolaroff’s negativity derived from the fact that he was forever having to defend his Foundation against the charge that it was selling enlightenment the way you would a dinette set—five hundred bucks a pop! Disgraceful! Whenever he tried to explain the difficulties involved in financing research the health bureaucracy chose not to support, he was met with an indifference that verged on the hostile. There was an us-against-them quality to Zihuatanejo that perplexed Stolaroff, particularly since the us faction, the Learyites, never tired of talking about the love and openness LSD supposedly inspired. And he was equally disconcerted by all the “in phrases, in concepts, in ways of describing experiences. I couldn’t understand a lot of it and I thought I had a pretty good handle on the psychedelic experience.” Having struggled long and hard to build a model of the psychedelic experience that would be acceptable to mainstream psychology, Stolaroff was unprepared for Leary’s infatuation with religious terminology. Everything was bardo this, bardo that, soon we’ll be Buddhas.
The word bardo came from one of Huxley’s favorite books, the Bardo Thodol or Tibetan Book of the Dead. It described the stages the soul presumably passes through after leaving the dead body. One day, while guiding a session for Metzner, Leary had opened up the Tibetan Book of the Dead and read a few pages, and Metzner, after initially fighting the strange Tibetan concepts, had felt his mind go lifting up through the layers of consciousness just as the Tibetan lamas had written. Everyone had been stunned. Had they unwittingly stumbled across an ancient psychedelic guidebook? As Alpert later put it, the Tibetan Book of the Dead contained “the most vivid descriptions of what we were experiencing with psychedelics but hadn’t been able to describe. We were saying it was ineffable, and there it was, described in this book that was 2,500 years old.”3
It quickly became one of Leary’s main props (rather in the way Hubbard used Christian iconography and texts), albeit one that was freely translated to fit the moment. “O nobly born, you have departed from your own self,” the guide would chant. “Even though you cling to your mind you have lost the power to keep it. You will gain nothing more in this plastic doll world … Remember, when your body and mind were separating, you must have experienced a glimpse of the pure truth. Be not daunted thereby, nor terrified, nor awed. That is the radiance of your true nature. Recognize it.”4
However odd it sounded to Stolaroff, it seemed to work, and in the back of his mind Tim was considering modernizing it and publishing it as the first psychedelic Baedaker to the Other World.
But Myron wasn’t the only source of negativity that Leary had to contend with. There was also Alpert, who was filled with an unspecified dread, a feeling of impending calamity, whether for himself or the whole group, he couldn’t say. One night he swallowed a massive dose of LSD and walked into the surf and remained there until morning, teetering on the brink, wondering whether he would live or die, and not caring which way the decision went.
The last few months had been both hard and ironic for Alpert: ironic because his meteoric career had stalled at the very moment when he was at last doing some original work (“This was the most exciting thing we’d ever been involved in,” he later told a reporter. “And here were all these people putting obstacles in our way.”)5; and hard because the people putting obstacles in their way were friends whose good opinion he coveted. Although Alpert rationalized the criticism of the Kelmans of the world as simple colleague jealousy, he couldn’t use that excuse with McClelland. From the moment he’d leaped to Tim’s defense, it had been clear to everyone that he’d chosen a new mentor. And to his old one he’d said, “I’ll help him with pleasure because he’s that great a being. And I’d help raise money and run the kitchen and clean the house and raise the children.”6
But would he leave Harvard for Tim? Having concluded that the tensions within the Social Relations department were what anyone with the temerity to introduce a “powerful, nonverbal, meta-intellectual agent into a community which is fervently dedicated to words and intellectuality”7 should have expected, Leary was planning to leave Harvard when his teaching contract expired in June 1963; the future of psychedelic research lay outside the ivory tower. Thus Alpert was faced with a dilemma: abandon academia and continue as first lieutenant to a man he considered one of the wisest in the world, or remain safely in his comfortable professorial niche.
It was all LSD’s fault, Alpert decided. The drug was more powerful than they guessed. “I think we’re pushing the edge of this system,” he told Leary, after Metzner and another man found him standing in the surf the next morning and led him back to the hotel. “I think we better cool it, because otherwise we’re going to blow it somehow or other.”8
Unperturbed, Leary suggested a long shower and some hot tea.
“Cool it” was the opposite of what he was planning to do. For months he had been kicking around the concept of internal freedom. In a speech to the Harvard Humanists he had proposed that one’s right to do what one wished with one’s own consciousness was in effect a “fifth freedom,” and one that ought to be amended to the Constitution. Congress shall make no law abridging the individual s right to seek an expanded consciousness. This fifth freedom was necessary, Leary told the Humanists, to prevent America from becoming “an anthill civilization,” in which all of us were “mere puppets playing out roles in complex games.”9 We were all becoming Organization Men, but this wasn’t the only choice. Through a judicious use of psychedelics, Americans could recover a spiritual dimension that would free them to do great things—to explore the stars, conquer disease, eliminate poverty—in short to attain the goals of Kennedy’s New Frontier while eliminating the greed and self-serving motives of the old frontier.
When he closed his eyes and fell into dreamy reverie on the Zihuatanejo sand, Leary saw a world modeled after Huxley’s Island, in which the educational potential of psychedelics was obvious. But Huxley’s fantasy had offered no guidance on the important problem of how the moksha medicine could be introduced to a complex society like the United States. Tim had already rejected the notion of turning on just the Best and the Brightest. And he was already bored with the Bohemian and the Beautiful. What was needed were more people like Ralph Metzner or Gunther Weil, a corps of well-trained guides capable of training others in the techniques of psychedelic guidance. The key to the psychedelic revolution, Leary realized, was the guide:
A medical degree doesn’t equip one to pilot a jet plane, or to understand the incredible complexities of consciousness. The LSD experience is so novel and powerful that the more you think you know about the mind, the more astounded and frightened you’ll be when your consciousness starts to flip you out of your mind. A new profession of psychedelic guides will inevitably develop to supervise these experiences. The training for this new profession will aim at producing the patience of a first-grade teacher, the humility and wisdom of a Hindu guru, the loving dedication of a minister-priest, the sensitivity of a poet, and the imagination of a science fiction writer.10
Later, in The Politics of Ecstasy, he compared the psychedelic guide to
… control tower in La Guardia Tower. Always there to receive messages and queries from high-flying aircraft. Always ready to help them navigate their course, to help them reach their destination … the pilots have their own flight plan, their own goals, and ground control is there, ever waiting to be of service.
“We’re through playing the science game,”11 Leary told McClelland when he returned to Harvard that fall. Instead they were going to play the social movement game, and their chief counter was going to be an organization with a serious-sounding name: The International Foundation for Internal Freedom, IFIF for short. In theory, IFIF would be a cluster of autonomous cells, each built around the nucleus of an IFIF-trained guide. These cells, as they grew, would divide, forming other cells, until the world was speckled with mini-Islands. IFIF central, in Boston, would train the guides, supply them with LSD, and act as a clearinghouse for the various research reports that each cell would be required to send in. This was crucial. Due to the recent law requiring PDA approval for all experimental drugs, IFIF was going to have to cultivate the appearance of a legitimate research project in order to receive LSD or psilocybin.
Addressing the Harvard Humanists a few weeks after his return from Mexico, Leary described his decision this way: “very tricky social and cultural dilemmas emerge if your consciousness extends beyond the language you know and the culture in which you exist. The question has been: do you attempt to harness the ongoing cultural games to the possibilities of expanded consciousness or do you attempt to set up new social forms?”12
In Mexico they had opted for the new form, that small transpersonative band of evolutionary pioneers, the psychedelic cell.
“It tears my heart out to see what’s happened to them,” was McClelland’s reaction to IFIF. “They started out as good scientists. They’ve become cultists.”13 Andrew Weil, who was following the psilocybin project story for the Crimson, felt that Leary and Alpert had become glorified salesmen, therefore sacrificing any claims they might have to traditional academic freedom. And when John Monro, one of Harvard’s deans, asked the Crimson to keep him informed of their findings, Weil acquiesced without too much professional soul searching. For Dean Monro, and by extension the Harvard administration, IFIF was further proof that Leary wouldn’t abide by his promise not to involve Harvard students with psychedelic drugs.
Although what remained of the psilocybin project was safely off campus, flyers promoting IFIF were a common sight on university bulletin boards. To drum up readers for IFIF’s house journal. The Psychedelic Review, one enthusiast had scattered mimeos proclaiming “MESCALINE! EXPERIENCE OF MYSTICISM! ECSTASY! LSD-25! EXPANSION OF CONSCIOUSNESS! PHANTASTIKA! HASHISH! VISIONARY BOTANY! OLILUQUI! PHYSIOLOGY OF RELIGION! INTERNAL FREEDOM! MORNING GLORY! POLITICS OF THE NERVOUS SYSTEM!” throughout the dormitories. Indeed the debate over mind drugs threatened to overtake the Harvard-Yale game as a topic of undergraduate small talk. The street price of a sugar cube laced with LSD was said to be five dollars, and if you believed the rumors, every third person in Harvard Square had them for sale.
This was the situation Dean Monro and Harvard’s chief health officer. Dr. Dana Farnsworth, hoped to defuse when they published a letter in the Crimson warning that LSD and psilocybin “may result in serious hazard to the mental health and stability even of apparently normal persons.”14 Although no fingers were pointed, the Dean later told the Medical Tribune that the letter had grown out of the need to respond to a “fairly persistent campaign to interest students in such drugs.”15 A few days later the Crimson carried a response from Leary and Alpert, which brushed aside the question of health hazards to focus on the Fifth Freedom. “A major civil liberties issue of the next decade will be the control and expansion of consciousness,” they warned. “Who controls your cortex? Who decides on the range and limit of your awareness? If you want to research your own nervous system, expand your consciousness, who is to decide that you can’t and why?”16
The argument jumped from the pages of the Crimson to those of the New York Times. (Harvard men told of mind-drug peril, read one headline; use of mind-distorting drugs rising at Harvard, another.) Dean Monro told the Times that Harvard’s problem could be traced back to “the interest shown by Aldous Huxley and others” in these drugs, which was surprisingly astute, but also a little unfair.17 Because the Huxley circle was even more alarmed by IFIF than Harvard.
Osmond visited Boston soon after the first public statements regarding IFIF, and reported back that no amount of argument could shake Tim’s conviction that everyone could safely take psychedelics. This confirmed what Huxley had felt during his last trip to Harvard, when Tim had “talked such nonsense … that I became quite concerned. Not about his sanity— because he is perfectly sane—but about his prospects in the world; for this nonsense-talking is just another device for annoying people in authority, flouting convention, cocking snooks at the academic world.”18
But however outrageous Tim became—and with IFIF he was endangering Aldous’s whole vision of legitimizing psychedelics—Huxley couldn’t bring himself to dislike this “mischievous Irish boy.” Instead he tried guile. When the Maharajah of Kashmir sent him an admiring letter about Island and expressed a personal interest in trying psychedelics, Aldous recommended that he contact Tim Leary at Harvard; should his Highness put a house at Leary’s disposal, he wrote, it was likely Tim would jump at “an opportunity of working with the psychedelics in relation to subjects brought up within another culture than his own.”19 Owing to Tim’s recent passion for the mystical East, it was a shrewd gambit, but it came to naught.
Myron Stolaroff took a much more direct approach, firing off a letter that described IFIF as “insane.” It will “wreak havoc on all of us doing LSD work all over the nation,” Stolaroff predicted. “The medical profession in this country has had these materials available for years. Yet outside of the Canadian groups, and a very few individuals in this country, no one has really learned how to use these materials and get the benefits from them in spite of years of trying.
Tim, I am convinced you are heading for very serious trouble if your plan goes ahead as you have described it to me, and it would not only make a great deal of trouble for you, but for all of us, and may do irreparable harm to the psychedelic field in general.
But, as Stolaroff admitted in his closing paragraph, “I suppose there is little hope that with the bit so firmly in your mouth you can be deterred.”20
In early January 1963, IFIF filed incorporation papers with the state of Massachusetts. Leary was designated president, Alpert, director, with Gunther Weil, Ralph Metzner, George Litwin, Walter Houston Clark, Huston Smith, and Alan Watts listed as members of the Board of Directors. In February it began the difficult job of wooing followers and generating revenue. Thousands of information packets were mailed out, each including a resume of the psilocybin project—”91% of our subjects enjoyed pleasant experiences; about 66% reported insights and positive life change”—and a membership blank charging ten dollars per year in dues. Money, if it didn’t exactly pour in, didn’t trickle in either. Although some of the beautiful people made nice donations, the bulk came in ten- and twenty-dollar increments-dues from the hundreds of people who responded to IFIF’s first membership drive.
Alan Harrington, who was profiling IFIF for Playboy, attended a New York fundraiser, along with a few dozen “rich people, aficionados of psychoanalysis, editors and writers, and a few others who just wanted to be saved.”21 Leary and Alpert worked the crowd like “two fatigued basketball players, passing off the ball to one another,” Watching them, Harrington was particularly impressed with Tim, who struck him as a man who “would never be without disciples.” Leary had that “abstracted look of a person who can see with absolute clarity what no one else will believe is there”; he was playing the ancient game, and he was doing it with style. After the sales pitch a dazzling young girl, part of the IFIF entourage, entwined herself around Leary and gazed soulfully into his eyes. As for Alpert, Harrington dismissed him as a “quick and kindly young man,” a useful appendage to the main prophet.22
Harrington, who later went up to Boston and visited the Other World under the guidance of Ralph Metzner, was right on target when it came to IFIF’s unpublicized agenda. “In my opinion,” he wrote in his Playboy article, “the IFIF people are social revolutionaries with a religious base using these extraordinary new drugs as both sacramental material and power medicine. I think they hope to establish a Good Society in the United States … . It may seem ridiculous to take a fledgling group so seriously, but Christ and Hitler started small; all revolutionaries meet initially in ridiculous barns and barrooms. So what is especially minor league about a hotel on the Mexican Coast that sleeps forty?”23
With a twenty-two-month lease on the property, Leary intended to convert the Hotel Catalina into a year-round psychedelic research center and academy. For two hundred dollars, interested researchers and apprentice guides could spend a month at Freedom Center (the hotel’s new name) learning how to guide high-flying internal aircraft. In travel brochure prose, Zihuatanejo was described as “unspoiled by commercial civilization … the inhabitants are friendly, honest and happy … life is open, and is close to the sea, palms and sun.”24 Prospective seminarians were instructed to pack a dozen or so of their favorite paperbacks for the library.
Because Freedom House would occupy most of his energies for the next several years, Leary announced that he was severing his connection with Harvard when his contract expired in June. And he was also saying goodbye (temporarily, everyone hoped) to Alpert, who had decided to stay on at Harvard for at least another year, having finagled an extension of one of his four teaching contracts. Whether Dick would eventually follow Tim down the path of freelance philosopher was unclear, but for now he was content to stay in academia.
Later, writing in High Priest, Leary was retrospectively blunt about what he hoped to accomplish with IFIF: “In 1961 we estimated that 25,000 Americans had turned-on to the strong psychedelics … at that rate of cellular growth we expected by 1967 a million Americans would be using LSD. We calculated that the critical figure for blowing the mind of the American society would be four million LSD users and this would happen by 1969.”25
That was IFIF’s hidden agenda. It was time for the old mind to die, so that a new one, with expanded sensitivities, could be born.
Now one might think that this was a pretty aberrant notion in a culture whose generalized symbol of the Übermensch, the Overman, was still James Bond, and in that sense it certainly was, but the important thing to remember is that it made perfect sense to the kids! News of IFIF crackled through the hipper filaments of the student subculture. Out at Stanford a young writer named Kesey was writing to another young writer named Ken Babbs, who had been temporarily displaced to the Republic of South Vietnam, about this wild thing that has descended on the land: IFIF.
Reporters began beating a path to Cambridge; radio stations called for interviews; TV producers asked to be put on the IFIF mailing list. As Michael Hollingshead (who was back in New York and busy with a multitude of schemes, one of which involved the inclusion of a mind-expansion pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair) put it. Internal Freedom was this year’s Zen. And that meant trouble. “Even in the hands of Tim, the external juggler, things began crashing about their heads as ‘news’ about IFIF circulated in the media and through casual gossip, which may or may not have been true but was certainly extravagant, contradictory, scandalous, libelous, comic and inspirational.”26
The best tidbits were usually about what went on at the two old colonials—”colonies for transcendental living”—that IFIF had rented in Newton. In the IFIF literature, these ménages were described as having been influenced by the ideas elaborated in Aldous Huxley’s recent novel, Island. A serious attempt is made in these communities to develop an atmosphere of transcendental and genuinely self-giving relationships. Raising children in such an atmosphere has proven to have many advantages, and has been enthusiastically accepted.27
That was the theory. The reality was what was later referred to as the standard hippie commune. Sometimes a dozen stereos were going at the same time, Hindu ragas flowing out of one room to merge, in the hall, with Tibetan bells and Thelonious Monk. The cumulative din drove the neighbors crazy, as did the sight of bare-chested young men practicing yoga in the yard. “They all wear a beatnik uniform—tight pants and jerseys, no shoes or stockings,” complained one neighbor, who compared the Leary-Alpert house to a weekend motel. “One young man in his twenties is letting his blond hair grow down to his shoulders; every time I look at him I want to vomit.”28 Then you had the decor. There was something about the psychedelic experience which stimulated the urge to decorate, particularly if there were any white or monochromatic walls in sight. The kitchen was filled with Rorschach’s inkblots and the rest sported collages that daily grew more bizarre. The one in the living room consisted of nudes clipped from magazines, with a single solitary bra pinned to it—a visual non sequiturthat strengthened the impression that underneath the rhetoric about consciousness expansion and mystic enlightenment, a lot of uninhibited sex was taking place. About the only room at all congruent with the contemplative tone of Island was the meditation room, a quiet little nook of wall to wall mats, smelling of incense, with the dim mysteriousness of “a gypsy tea-leaf reader’s tent.”
As might be expected when a dozen individuals live in close proximity, there were times when people failed to live up to the transpersonative ideal. Indeed, not all the inhibitions released by LSD were life affirming; some were downright antisocial. The most dramatic example of this developed after Alpert fell in love with one of his housemates, a married student with a history of mental illness and a wife and child who also lived in the house. In many ways it was a replay of the Lucien Carr-David Kammerer affair, and it threatened to have the same tragic consequences. According to Metzner, “on certain days the tension lay in the air like dynamite with a crackling fuse. Foster threatened to burn the house down. We had a tribal meeting to try to talk him out of it, but he claimed not to know why he wanted to do it.”29
Ultimately the situation fizzled out, to be replaced by other minor tempests. It was exhausting, it was exhilarating. As with any group who lived together and took LSD regularly, the outlines of a group-mind began to form, with all the strange nonverifiable phenomena (precognition, telepathy, ESP) that that implies. One byproduct of this phenomenon was a quantum increase in the us-versus-them mentality. When Barron returned for a visit in late 1962, he was alarmed at how much they resembled a cult—and one that excluded him. Suddenly he was an outsider. The implication was that they had gone so far into the Other World that it was useless trying to explain to a relative naif like himself. Barron was unimpressed: “They were all standing around saying ‘wow’ and this expletive never sufficed for me.”30
Unable to tolerate further degradation of the neighborhood—Leary’s dog was rumored to have bitten seven people—the citizens of Newton Center circulated a petition urging the town to enforce the zoning laws, which stipulated one family per dwelling. A hearing was scheduled. IFIF hired Alpert’s father, who was a member of the Massachusetts bar, to be their defense attorney, and he carried the day by pointing out that the law didn’t specify that the families had to be consanguineous—related by blood.
When Leary left Boston in April, bound for Zihuatanejo, he left behind an increasingly tense situation. Not only was IFIF under investigation from the Massachusetts Office of Public Health, but it was also out on the street, having been evicted from the suite of offices it had rented in Boston’s newest medical building. The other occupants had protested to the landlord after reading about their new tenant in a Boston Globe story entitled “Banned Drug Research Crosses Charles,” and the landlord had tossed them out so fast their furniture hadn’t even arrived. Eventually IFIF found an apartment a few blocks from Harvard Square and hung out its shingle, but it was a far cry from the headquarters Tim had had in mind.
But these were minor quibbles compared to the situation at Harvard itself. For months Crimson reporters like Andrew Weil had been hanging around the Newton houses, picking up whatever tidbits happened to drop from the unguarded lips of the transcendental colonists. Now they were ready to turn over their findings to Dean Monro. According to the Crimson’s evidence, which was all hearsay, Leary and Alpert had broken their agreement with the advisory committee at least twelve times. Dean Monro called the various individuals involved in these infractions into his office and asked them to implicate Leary and Alpert. With one exception, all showed “absolute allegiance to the two psychologists.”31 That one exception was a young friend of Alpert’s, whom Dick had given psilocybin to, long after he was supposed to have turned over his personal supply.
It was an ironic turnaround, in the sense that Alpert, by wrangling an appointment with the Education Department, had in effect chosen Harvard over IFIF and Tim. Frank Barron, who ran into him at a National Education Association meeting in Washington, remembers him turning ashen whenever the subject of the Dean’s investigation came up: “He was being brave about it and going to see it through, but I could tell that that was not what he wanted to have happen.” There was an inevitable bitter confrontation with McClelland and then the dead days while he awaited Harvard’s decision. In particularly despairing moments, Alpert was convinced he was going to be censured by the American Psychological Association. “Not because we’re dirty boys doing dirty things,” he told a magazine reporter, “but on the grounds that we have failed to concern ourselves with behavioral toxicity and emotional side-effects of the drugs. This is not true. We are watching these things very closely. We don’t deny that personality changes are occurring. But we think they are changes for the better.”32 To the same reporter he complained that he had been so good. “I turned down over two hundred guys,” he said. “But my friend had a buddy who got very irate and went to the authorities. Some day it will be quite humorous that a professor was fired for supplying a student with ‘the most profound educational experience in my life.’ That’s what he told the Dean it was.”33
Alpert was fired on May 27. At the same time, Leary was relieved of his teaching duties for “failure to keep classroom appointments,” and his pay was docked as of April 30. As Leary had no classroom appointments, and had already publicly severed his ties with Harvard, this was more face saving than punitive. The Crimson devoted most of its front-page to a recapitulation of the psilocybin project and the investigation that had brought it to a crashing end. It was the first in a small anthology of articles devoted to IFIF and Harvard, and in many ways it was the best. Unlike most of the big-league journalists, the Crimson writers at least understood what Leary was planning:
The shoddiness of their work as scientists is the result less of incompetence than of a conscious rejection of scientific ways of looking at things. Leary and Alpert fancy themselves prophets of a psychic revolution designed to free Western man from the limitations of consciousness as we know it. They are contemptuous of all organized systems of action—of what they call the “roles” and “games” of society. They prefer mystical ecstasy to the fulfillment available through work, politics, religion and creative art.
Leary and Alpert left a response of sorts, written before their dismissals, in the summer issue of the Harvard Review. “The game is about to be changed, ladies and gentlemen,” they wrote in a cheery nose-thumbing at the Harvard Corporation. “Man is about to make use of that fabulous electrical network he carries around in his skull. Present social establishments had better be prepared for the change. Our favorite concepts are standing in the way of a floodtide, two billion years building up.”34
A lot of Tim’s friends thought he was making a bad mistake by not returning to Boston to contest, or at least correct. Harvard’s version of his firing. But Leary couldn’t be bothered. Harvard was part of his past; Zihuatanejo and IFIF were the future. And they were, for at least two more weeks, which was when the Mexican government closed Freedom House and deported everyone involved with IFIF.
1 “we were swimming …” Gunther Weil intv.
2 “the personal, the role …” IFIF literature,
3 “the most vivid descriptions …” Richard Alpert, The Only Dance There Is, p. 114.
4 “Oh nobly born …” Saturday Evening Post, September 1963.
5 “this was the most exciting thing …” Reporter, August 15,1963.
6 “I’ll help him with pleasure …” McClelland, Power, p. 209.
7 “powerful, nonverbal, meta-intellectual …” Solomon, LSD, p. 84.
8 “I think we’re pushing the edge …” Stafford, The Magic Gram.
9 “an anthill civilization … mere puppets …” Harvard Crimson, April 23, 1962.
10 “a medical degree doesn’t equip … control tower at La Guardia …” Politics of Ecstasy p. 72.
11 “we’re through playing the science game …” Reporter, August 15,1963.
12 “very tricky social and cultural dilemmas …” Harvard Crimson, October 25,1963.
13 “it tears my heart out …” Cashman, LSD, p. 58.
14 “may result in serious hazard …” Harvard Crimson, November 26,1962.
15 “fairly persistent campaign to interest …” Solomon, LSD; The Consciousness-Changing Drug, p. 86.
16 “a major civil liberties issue …” Harvard Crimson, Dec. 13, 1962.
17 “an interest shown by Aldous Huxley …” New York Times, Dec. 11,1962.
18 “talked such nonsense …” Huxley, Letters, p. 945.
19 “an opportunity of working …” Huxley, Letters, p. 946.
20 “wreak havoc … Tim, I am convinced … I suppose there is little hope …” Stolaroff archives,
21 “rich people, aficionados of psychoanalysis …” Solomon, p. 88.
22 “would never be without… abstracted look … quick and kindly young man …” Solomon, p. 88.
23 “in my opinion …” Solomon, p. 78.
24 “unspoiled by commercial civilization …” IFIF literature,
25 “in 1961 we estimated …” HP, p. 132.
26 “even in the hands of Tim, the eternal juggler…” Michael Hollingshead, The Man Who Turned on the World, p. 77.
27 “influenced by the ideas elaborated …” IFIF literature,
28 “they all wear a beatnik uniform …” Reporter, August 15,1963.
29 “on certain days the tension …” Metzner mss.
30 “they were all standing around …” Barren intv.
31 “absolute allegiance to the two psychologists …” Crimson, May 28, 1963.
32 “he was being brave about it…” Barren intv. Not because we’re dirty boys …” Reporter, August 15, 1963.
33 “I turned down over two hundred guys …” Reporter, August 15, 1963.
34 “the game is about to be changed …” Leary, Politics of Ecstasy, p. 57.
Memoirs of Millbrook are rarely coherent. What is offered is a series of snapshots: Tim astride a horse painted blue on one side, pink on the other; Tim popping into the kitchen exclaiming, “Jesus Christ, do I have to fuck every girl who comes into this place”;1 Metzner tinkering in his electronics laboratory, producing eight-hour tapes that Leary and Alpert would listen to in the meditation room, waiting for the whispered instructions to lift their imprints; R. D. Laing performing a sufi ballet in the kitchen; Alan Watts interpreting the I Ching, fire crackling in the huge central fireplace, shadows dancing like Tibetan temple gods across the ceiling; or Maynard Ferguson standing on the rooftop sending long trumpet rills snaking out over the gardens, in which another jazz legend, Charlie Mingus, could sometimes be found pruning the rosebushes. “A golden year,” was Alpert’s memory of those first months at Millbrook. Leary, characteristically, was more dramatic: “On this space colony we were attempting to create a new paganism and a new dedication to life as art.”2
In some accounts Millbrook resembles an ashram or monastery, a refuge for seekers on the higher paths of consciousness; in others it emerges as a unique research institute, a place where psychologists frustrated with the accepted models of mind could pursue their research in peace. Both descriptions are correct, as far as they go. But Millbrook was also a school, a commune, and a house party of unparalleled dimensions. Mel Brooks would have had no problem casting a movie there, recalled one habitué. Others, echoing the movie analogy, felt Fellini a more appropriate director.
At the center of all these memoirs is the astonishing Victorian labyrinth that was Alte Haus, the Big House, dark and mysterious, the halls carpeted with a frayed red fabric, the walls covered with psychedelic frescoes. Marya Mannes, who spent a memorable night there in 1966, described Dietrich’s dream house as “unparalleled ugliness—the nadir in turrets, porches and fretted woodwork”;3 while the assistant district attorney for Dutchess County, making an unannounced call late one night, was appalled to find almost no furniture, aside from the carcass of a seemingly dead (actually he was only stoned) dog. Millbrook was a “strange mutation of Thoreau’s Walden and a Tantric Buddhist temple,” wrote an anonymous reporter for Time. “In the drafty hall of the main house, part of a grand piano sits on its side, its strings waiting to be plucked. The rooms are furnished with legless tables, bedless mattresses and mandalas on which the eye of the true believer is supposed to ‘lock’ during drugless exercises.”4
That is a future snapshot. With less than a dozen occupants, the rhythm of that first autumn is peaceful, almost scholarly, the days spent browsing through the library (which already contains an impressive collection of esoteric and scientific texts) or writing: the second issue of The Psychedelic Review is in the works, and the updated version of the Bardo Thodol is almost ready for the printer. As autumn deepens into winter, the long meditative walks in the woods give way to afternoon skating parties on frozen ponds. At night, after dinner, there is talk and games, sometimes poetic little psychodramas of Tim’s devising, and sometimes actual poetry, like the Japanese renga, with everyone contributing a line.
From the towers, on a clear night, across acres of pine, the village of Millbrook twinkles, while up above, the galaxies of the Milky Way wheel through limitless space. It is as though, after the upheavals and uproar of the past few months, they have stumbled across a fairytale castle, entering a timeless dimension where the gap between psychedelic time and real time doesn’t exist. They were “anthropologists from the twenty-first century,” wrote Leary, “inhabiting a time module set somewhere in the dark ages of the 1960s.”5
One of the first things they do is convert one of the tower rooms into an experimental laboratory. They paint the ceiling gold and install unobtrusive speakers so that music and whispered instruction can be piped in from below, the ultimate in unobtrusive guiding. (They favor Indian or classical music, for nothing is more, jarring to psychedelic balance than a three-minute rock song about hormonal lust.) Next to the bed are statues of Shiva and the Buddha.
Once a week each member of the household ascends the tower and embarks upon a carefully programmed “ontological adventure.” The objective is the complete mapping of the Other World. Leary dreams of the day when it will be possible to program any trip—early childhood? the Dark Wood? an afternoon of archetypes?—just tell the guide where you wanted to go, what mental spaces you wished to explore and then lie back and watch the Door open. But before this can happen, the Other World has to be charted, guidebooks assembled and published. This is the rationale behind The Psychedelic Experience, which is what they’ve renamed the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and which is now merely volume one in an extended guide to psychedelia; there are plans to work similar transformations on Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and the Tao Te Ching.
“It became apparent that in order to run exploratory sessions, manuals and programs were necessary to guide subjects through the transcendental experience with a minimum of fear and confusion,” Leary writes in The Psychedelic Review. “Rather than start de novo using our own minds and limited experiences to map out the voyage, we turned to the only available psychological texts which dealt with consciousness and its alterations.”6
Momentarily free from the political and professional disputes that have drained so much of his energy during the past eighteen months, Leary returns to his old love, behavior change, and to his old problem: how to explain, in scientific terms, the mechanism that allows psychedelics to change behavior. Convinced psychology offers few fruitful avenues, he begins exploring the latest discoveries in genetics, quantum physics, and biology, and eventually zeroes in on ethnologist Konrad Lorenz’s theory of imprinting. Lorenz happened to be present one day when some goose eggs hatched in an incubator. Consequently he was the first large thing the goslings saw after pecking their way out of the eggshells. To his utter astonishment they reacted by treating him as their mother. The attachment was irreversible: Lorenz’s goslings would have nothing to do with other geese. It was as though, in those first moments of consciousness, the mind had taken a snapshot of reality—”a sudden, shutter-like fixing of the nervous system” was the way Leary described it—that was inalterable:
Once taken, the picture then determines the scope and type of subsequent “lawful learning.” Imprinting, a biochemical event, sets up the chessboard upon which slow, step by step conditioning takes place.
Aldous Huxley had theorized that psychedelics temporarily disrupted the mind’s reducing valves, thereby allowing information that was usually screened out to flow freely into consciousness; Leary was now proposing that these same drugs momentarily neutralized those primary biochemical imprints, those deep behavior patterns, those metagames. But as every psychedelic therapist knew, the open cortex lasted only so long before the patient started to slide back into old behavior patterns, before the imprints reasserted themselves.
But was this inevitable?
Leary doesn’t think so. Why can’t they amuse themselves trying to find a way to lift their own imprints and reinsert new ones? They do this by creating, after much trial and error, eight- and ten-hour tapes. For a time, it is routine to find Tim and Dick lying with their heads touching in the meditation room, gazing up at the golden ceiling, while from all sides come whispered instructions and pulses of music, the work of Metzner who spends long days making guide tapes in his little laboratory.
But it soon becomes apparent that tapes are not enough to weaken all their behavior patterns. They need to develop additional techniques that will undermine their normal conditioning when they are not in the drug state. This becomes known as “breaking set,” and in the early months a number of experiments are devised to jar them out of their usual habits. The first involves communal child rearing, which sounds ideal in theory and which Huxley has heartily recommended in Island. Besides easing the parental burden, it is thought that everyone will profit from proximity with that state of spontaneous innocent curiosity that children are so famous for. In practice, however, Alpert and Metzner end up as full-time nannies, which they endure for a few weeks before rebelling, thus ending the communal child-rearing experiment.
Thereafter the kids are left to shift for themselves, an increasingly out of place element in the adult funhouse that Millbrook is becoming.
The next experiment might be called the desert island strategy. In this one, two names are drawn at random and the couple is obliged to spend the next five days alone together in the little coach house that contains a bowling alley, sometimes tripping, sometimes straight, but always seeking new levels of friendship. Although this experiment is soon abandoned as too artificial, it paves the way for what becomes known as “the third floor experiment.” This one focuses on sexual possessiveness and includes anyone who wants to move onto the third floor where beds were communal property, available to anyone who wanted to climb between the sheets. Except for a “bisexually promiscuous lesbian,” most of the participants find the experiment more daunting than they expected: “We did a lot of sitting in bed and talking about how it felt,” writes Metzner. “It was unsettling not to know where you could go to sleep, or who you would be sleeping with, when you were tired. So this experiment also was discontinued after a week or two.”7
In November they announce the death of IFIF. “In the evolutionary sense,” Tim writes in the final IFIF newsletter, it was “too soon, too-weak, and too-rigid to deal with the external pressures. Rather than limp along as a bypassed species, we believe it better that the form be scrapped.”8 But while he is happy to forego the bureaucratic headaches involved in an international organization, Tim is reluctant to relinquish his dream of a tropical island. A committee, he assures the IFIF membership, is already vetting possible locations. If all goes well, an island institute will be operational by the summer of 1964. Meanwhile IFIF has mutated into a new organization: Castalia.
The name comes from an obscure novel. The Glass Bead Game, written by an obscure Nobel prize winner named Herman Hesse. Although Hesse’s work attracted admirers like T. S. Eliot and Thomas Mann, he is unread in the United States, an obscurity that the New York Times, in its obituary, attributed to his “profound spiritual themes” and the “melancholy mandarin quality” of his heroes—precisely the qualities that attracted first Metzner (who was part German), then Leary. Reading novels like Steppenwolf, The Glass Bead Game, and A Journey to the East, they became convinced that Hesse was a psychedelic adept from an earlier age. And one who had succeeded where Huxley had failed, in the sense that while his books were about the internal drama of the psyche, they were also compulsively readable stories. Narcissus and Goldmann, read on one level, was the story of two medieval friends, one a monk, the other a man of the world. Taken on another level, it was a parable about the personality and the soul.
A Journey to the East began: “It was my destiny to join in a great experience. Our goal was not only the East, or rather the East was not only a country and something geographical, but it was the home and youth of the soul, it was everywhere and nowhere, it was the union of all times.”9
At first only the mailman disrupts their solitude. He brings huge cartons of mail, the fruits of a clipping service that Leary has engaged to keep them abreast of developments concerning psychedelics. The volume is extraordinary—by summer the service will be billing them for so much work it will have to be discontinued—and although the tone is largely negative, the sheer magnitude of product indicates that psychedelics have touched a nerve, has awakened something powerful in the American psyche. As word of Leary’s whereabouts spreads, cartons of letters begin arriving, soliciting information, offering advice, asking for drugs.
Quietly, almost secretly, they begin training guides. Some are the result of the short-lived IFIF, but others simply write requesting information and are invited for a visit. Art Kleps, a school psychologist in upstate New York, was leafing through the New York Times one day when he came across an article about Castalia. Having previously experimented with mescaline, Kleps was astonished to discover that “a group of perfectly respectable intellectuals were taking LSD and psilocybin and apparently functioning with great practical efficiency at the same time, having a ball, setting out on great adventures and taking over mansions in Dutchess County.”10
Kleps drops Tim a note expressing his interest in psychedelics and is rewarded with a postcard invitation. He arrives a few days after Christmas, 1963, joining several other psychologists and an artist who is about to undergo his first ontological adventure in the tower.
Although there is some grumbling over accommodations—”Making your own bed and helping with the dishes?” groused one of the psychologists. “I have always been very happy to pay for that kind of service.”—it is more than compensated for by the air of harmonious pleasure that fills the Big House. It seems to Kleps that the quality of life at Millbrook is “better, more lively, more meaningful, funnier, happier … Timothy Leary, I thought, was a magician who seemed to change life as it was lived.”11
Kleps is in the kitchen drinking coffee when the artist appears after his first session in the tower. He drifts in “like a ghost, his big brown eyes shining and dilated,” murmuring “beautiful, beautiful … but I seem to have switched sides. My left side is now my right side and my right side is my left side. As a matter of fact I think I left part of myself up in the tower. I have to go back and get it.”12
Watching him drift off, it occurs to Kleps that there is a deeply serious side to all the talk about behavior change. The idea of taking LSD is beginning to “scare the living piss” out of him.
A common enough reaction. It is Castalia policy that a beginner needs at least fifteen carefully guided trips before even the most modest level of proficiency is attained.
As the months pass, occupancy of the Big House becomes increasingly fluid. Maynard and Flo Ferguson arrive with their five kids to occupy a suite of rooms on the second floor. A few doors down is a young friend of Alpert’s who is reportedly having adjustment problems, and a young woman who was one of their research assistants at Harvard. Michael Hollingshead makes a reappearance, as do a number of old friends from the Harvard and IFIF years-Frank Barron, Walter Houston Clark, Alan Watts.
The weekend parties are famous. For a time a weekend at Millbrook with the cosmic Castalians is de rigeur if you are a member of the wealthy New York young adult set and know any of the Hitchcock kids. The Hitchcocks don’t stay at the Big House; they all have their own places on the grounds. The most spectacular, in the sense of driving home how the rich really are different, is Billy’s little copper-roofed bungalow, with servants’ quarters, swimming pool, tennis courts, billiard room, formal library.
Billy Hitchcock is new to the psychedelic movement. He has been working in London for Lazard Freres during the IFIF years. Tall and blonde, with an uncomplicated and rather nice attitude toward the world. Billy reminds Art Kleps of a “Frank Merriwhether type who had somehow fallen into a pool of gold and came up smelling of marijuana.”13 Before guiding an LSD session, Tim usually asks the person what they hope to accomplish in the Other World. Most reply that they are seeking ego loss or cosmic unity. But not Billy. “How can I make more money on the stock market,” was his answer.
Had Aldous Huxley lived to attend a Millbrook weekend, he probably would have been reminded of those epic houseparties during the First World War at Garsington. Of course in those days the elixir had been conversation, witty and heretical and always elegantly phrased. At Millbrook the weekends are powered by an expanding shelf of party favors-hashish, DMT, psilocybin, LSD, mescaline, peyote, mushrooms, marijuana (Tim has gotten over his paranoia), and alcohol. Although the media will shortly dub him the high priest of psychedelia, Leary still likes his Jameson’s.
Some weekends Metzner counts over a hundred new faces: “jazz musicians, avant-garde painters, underground filmmakers, high level procurers, mysterious Orientals, night creatures with huge eyes and chromatic chiffon dresses floated softly through the house, carrying large chunks of hashish … sometimes Millbrook felt like a kind of orbiting astral space station, where beings on different levels of consciousness converged to exchange communications.”14
Once a novice who is undergoing his inaugural session in the tower blunders into the middle of one of these frolics. He stands there transfixed, and then blurts out, “Christ, it’s crazy enough up there. But down here it’s completely insane.”15
How to describe the feeling that steals over them that winter? It is like a melody whose vibration is felt rather than heard, a tune that grows stronger as the weeks pass, until it blots out all the theories about imprinting and breaking set.
The Buddha, after six years of meditation and fasting, sits down under a Bo tree and after forty-nine days of mental struggle pierces the final veil, attaining enlightenment. That’s what the melody says to them: it’s time to sit under the Bo tree and push the envelope to its final limit; it’s time to storm heaven.
Imagine a climbing expedition that is trying to scale Everest. Hundreds of people are involved: Sherpa guides and technicians and porters, who drop away as the goal nears, until it is just the one or two climbers who try for the top.
Tim is the first climber. On March 21, the Vernal Equinox, they escort him to the meditation hut with a torchlight parade. Alan Watts consecrates the moment with a candlelight reading of the I Ching, then everyone files out, leaving Tim alone for a week of solitary voyaging. Swallowing his first LSD, he wraps himself in a heavy winter coat and walks outside into the late-winter chill. There is a full moon. He howls at it. The Big House is dark, remote. He lies down on one of the hills and stares at the stars, listening to the wind in the pines, an antenna tuned into a million channels of information.
The days pass. The envelope holds.
Leary is granted a vision, though, an intuition, which seems to tell him that mankind must link up with womankind; only when these two specialized consciousnesses are psychedelically entwined can the next stage of evolution occur.
The attempt on the envelope also pushes him deeper into the ancient role, which is perhaps to say it burns out a lot more of his old imprints. Talking with Tim becomes an exercise in indirection:
“Tim, is anything more important than anything else?”
“Look at the way the snow shines in the moonlight. Beautiful isn’t it?”16
One day he is in the orchard with an enthusiastic market gardener who wants to cut down the twisted old apple trees and replace them with some hybrids. “You realize this is a very reckless conversation you’re involved in,” Leary says. The gardener, unsure if he is being spoofed, says “Yeah, the trees can hear, right?” “You notice that I’ve said nothing except friendly and protective things about these trees,” Tim says. “There’s no testimony from me.”17
Is he serious? It’s impossible to fathom his almost perpetual smile. Here is a man who has been fired from Harvard and ridiculed by most of the major media; he should be despondent, depressed, repentant, yet he is smiling broadly and surrounded, as often as not, by beautiful women.
But are any of them suitable dyad material?
With the warm weather they purchase a lawn mower and mow the enormous lawn. They restore the formal flowerbeds, one shaped like a moon, the other like the sun. They prune the maple trees and whitewash the stones along the drive, an act which prompts Alpert to remark that the place is starting to look like a Jewish country club. They plant a vegetable garden. The Millbrook Round Table runs a picture of Tim pushing a power mower with the caption: “Woodchucks in his Fields.”
Their industriousness is not lost on the villagers of Millbrook, many of whom are related to the craftsmen that Dietrich imported to build the Big House. Art Kleps observes that “in town Tim [is] greeted warmly by storekeepers and townspeople and he seem[s] genuinely happy playing the role of one of the boys, fellow villager and good neighbor with a few easy bantering words for one and all.”
Luckily the locals haven’t seen the interior improvements that have been taking place at the Big House. Most of the furniture has been thrown out, or the legs cut off so that you can live right down on the floor. Ceilings are in the process of being painted gold, walls are filling up with mandalas, and corners are becoming impromptu shrines, mingling Hindu and Tantric symbols with whatever esoteric practice is ascendant this week. Georges Gurdjieff is a new discovery, and several times a week a group drives into New York to attend a lecture on “the work,” which is what the Gurdjieffians call their assorted exercises.
Alpert is off to Canada in his Cessna, ostensibly to rendezvous with a shipment of Czechoslovakian LSD, most of which is going to Millbrook, but a small portion will be distributed to researchers whose work has been curtailed by the FDA. But Alpert is also scheduled to meet with a wealthy dowager who has become interested in using LSD as a possible preparation for death—Eric Kast, at the University of Chicago, was doing the best work in this area. Castalia was happy to oblige the old lady’s curiosity. Wealthy old dowagers frequently leave nice bequests in their will, and right about now Castalia could use a nice bequest.
Lack of money, that eternal foe of Utopian dreams, has once again shown its craven face.
One obvious solution is to charge an admission fee to visit Castalia, a popular proposal since the weekend crush has become so intense that a few of the regulars have taken to camping out in the woods, appearing only for meals. They could resurrect the old Freedom House plan and turn the Big House into a summer academy that would give seminars in nondrug ways of expanding consciousness and breaking set. A reporter from Newsweek is lured up to publicize the academy, and while the tone of the eventual piece is mocking (“Now, after fighting their way to a commanding height hard by the Catskills, the two tanned and sinewy proponents of better living survey an empty plain.”)18, it serves its purpose. It also reveals a growing canniness on Leary’s part concerning the media. The previous autumn, when Time ran a dismissive piece on IFIF, they illustrated the story with a picture of Alan Watts and Tim bending over an extremely glamorous research subject. Although the text was negative, the context implied that beautiful women and psychedelic drugs went hand in hand. A similar bit of message mixing was prepared for the Newsweek writer, who couldn’t help but remark how “girls in bikinis … prowl loose-limbed” throughout the Big House.19
The summer sessions pose a number of interesting problems: to wit, how in thirty-six hours can you accomplish your stated aim of altering the consciousness of these refugees from the normal world? How can you awaken them to the rich mental experiences that are normally ruled out of bounds by the rational, nine-to-five mind?
Thinking it better to ease them slowly into the looking-glass world of the Big House, they decide to hold a get-to-know-one-another cocktail party for the first group. Bad mistake. “The straights immediately plunged into the cocktail party game of which they were experts,” remembers Hollingshead. ” ‘Hi, I’m Jack Smith from Denver, who are you?’ ‘Jack Smith, eh?’ And so on. As we were novices in the cocktail party game we were completely flattened.”20
To compensate they decide to “break set” as soon as the weekenders arrive. Social roles, titles, and habits will be checked at the door. No talking the first night. Everyone will wear identical white robes. Art Kleps is there when one of these Friday-night transformations takes place: “I had seen perhaps twenty of them, mostly conservatively dressed and middle-aged, come in the front door, smiling grimly but with fear in their eyes, to follow a silent but beaming Dick Alpert up the stairs. When they came down a couple of hours later, however… I could hardly believe my eyes. They were all wearing white robes made out of bed sheets. The robes were intended to obliterate social distinctions. It was like a gathering of the Klan.”21
Hollingshead is a genius at ingenious ways to break set. His most famous suggestion was the food-dye-in-the-breakfast-food suggestion. “We are very much affected by the imprints we have, particularly those of color associations,” Metzner says as the guests contemplate their green eggs and black milk. “When someone says sky, we think of blue, when someone says meadow we think of green, when someone says scrambled eggs we think of yellow. But this is a mental hang-up. It doesn’t really make any difference whether scrambled eggs are green, as they are today, or whether they are yellow.”22
Although great pains are taken with explaining the theory here, appetites tend to vanish along with the imprints. Which prompt certain wits to point out that regardless how useful the dyes are in “breaking set,” they are a financial godsend, since food consumption always drops considerably.
Visitors arrive daily. A writer named Robert Anton Wilson arrives to do a piece on Castalia for the Realist, a satirical magazine edited by Paul Krassner. He finds everyone out on the lawn playing baseball, although Maynard Ferguson is standing on the roof playing jazz on his trumpet. Wilson is probably the only journalist who has ever read Tim’s first book, and Leary responds to his obvious passion.
“LSD takes you out of the normal space-time ego,” he says. “I always go through a process in which the space game comes to an end, the time game comes to an end, and then the Timothy Leary game comes to an end. This is the peak, and at this point a new neurological imprint can be made, because all the old imprints are suspended for a while then.”23
Warming to the topic, Tim outlines one of his current fantasies: a national chain of imprinting clinics. Prospective patients would meet with a behavior change expert who would explain the pros and cons of psychedelic imprinting. Loaded with literature, the patient would take a week to think it over, then meet a second time with the behavior-change expert and work out exactly what program they want to pursue. “The most important rule,” Leary keeps stressing, “is that the tripper decides what behavior change is desired. Nobody else has the right to decide for him.”24
Another time two FDA officials drop by. “We are shocked by what you people are doing,” Leary remembers them saying. “For centuries drug taking has been considered a vice. Now you are not only defending it, you’re suggesting it’s moral, educational, even religious. Maybe Kennedy went along with this kind of thinking, but Johnson is different.”25
“The people in law enforcement—and believe me, they have the power—can’t wait for these drugs to be illegal so they can bust your ass.”
An acquaintance of Myron Stolaroff arrives for a visit and sends letters to the West Coast describing daily life in the Big House: “Our days pass like any other Charles Addams family—with some people on a macrobiotic diet, the family around the fireplace smoking pot after dinner (dinner being served from 10:30 to midnight), palm reading, the reading of Jung, Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, Tantric chants, bells continually ringing, wrestling matches, children, popcorn, motorbikes, raccoon coats.
“Emotionally the place is satisfying. There is a middle-aged Baronessa from Sweden and she is teaching me to cook and we spend time together—she’s Mother. Tim is Father, and when I ask him what I am supposed to do he says ‘Be happy, for once in your life.’ There are numerous brothers and sisters and, as I say, emotional needs are fulfilled. They don’t know it, but Millbrook is really a transcendent therapeutic community.”26
The middle-aged Baroness is actually Tim’s future mother-in-law. Her daughter, Nena, is locally famous as the striking blonde who comes sailing up the Hudson in a Viking warship in the Eric the Red cigar commercials. She is, according to Harpers Bazaar, “an avid concert and ballet goer … born in Mexico and raised in Peking, she became a seasoned traveler at a youthful age, so today it’s only natural that she spends much of her time jetting from her New York base to various and sundry European and Asian destinations.”27
Tim met her at Millbrook’s huge Fourth of July party and instantly knew she was the long-lost other half of his personal dyad. Their lovemaking in the afternoon is so vigorous that Alpert, who occupies the room below Tim’s, can’t meditate. But it is obvious that it’s less the lovemaking than the love that bothers Dick. “In many ways I was like Dick’s father,” Leary later writes. “In our household, Dick, who was extremely close to his mother, took on what he has often described as the maternal wifely role. He was definitely closer to Susan and Jack than I.”28
For a time it seems Alpert might boycott the planned nuptials, which are set for December 12, 1964. But then he agrees to act as best man and begins “treating the ceremony as high camp.”29 Leary plans to honeymoon in India, which means that Dick will be in complete charge of Castalia.
Ralph Metzner is already in India, having left early in autumn with members of the same Boston Vedanta ashram that Tim had given LSD. His letters paint an idyllic portrait: “This morning I sat in the woods with a far-out German book on Tibetan medicine, written by a Benedictine monk, which Lama Govinda loaned me. The landlady’s dog was chasing monkeys up the tree … .”30
Tim couldn’t wait to go. Writing to Metzner, he confesses that he is eager to surrender his responsibility and settle into connubial bliss in the Himalayan foothills, pursuing “the incredible complexities that develop when two people begin to explore their potentialities together.” His one fear is that there won’t be enough senior staff at the Big House to keep Castalia on track, but “Richard has mutated. He has taken over ‘Tim’s role’ whatever that means and is genial, hospitable, radiating plans and welcomes. He is filling the house with creative and beautiful women.”31
In the same letter he describes two recent lectures he has given in Palo Alto and San Francisco. Overflow crowds, he writes. And in cynical New York he packs the one thousand, three hundred-seat auditorium at Cooper Union, forcing hundreds to stand in the back. “It was like whispering things in your lover’s ear … the political-educational battle over psychedelics has been won. From now on it’s just a matter of time.”
That’s the official Millbrook slideshow, ending with Tim and Nena’s wedding, a completely surreal affair that saw the happy couple showered with drugs, instead of china and silver patterns. This was not going to be a Blondie/Dagwood dyad.
But there are other snapshots of those first few months that have been left in the drawer, because no one knew their significance at the time. The most interesting of these was taken in August. It was a hot, calm day. People were sunning themselves on the lawn. Leary was upstairs in the middle of a three-day trip when this fever on wheels came tearing up the drive, its progress punctuated by the green smoke bombs its occupants kept tossing from the windows. It was a school bus, true, but the sort of school bus Hieronymous Bosch might have produced had he been a tormented maintenance man at a local high school. The thing seethed with color. Sliding to a stop, it broke open and disgorged some equally loud and obnoxious hatchlings.
The sun bathers scurried for safety.
Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters had arrived.
1 “Jesus Christ, do I have to fuck …” Art Kleps, Millbrook, p. 19.
2 “a golden year… on this space colony ..” FB, pp. 190.
3 “unparalleled ugliness ..”Reporter, May 19, 1966.
4 “strange mutation of Thoreau’s Walden …” Newsweek, May 19, 1966.
5 “anthropologists from the 21st century …” FB, p. 190.
6 “it became apparent…” Psychedelic Review #4.
7 “we did a lot of sitting …” Metzner mss.
8 “in the evolutionary sense …” IFIF newsletter,
9 “it was my destiny to join …” Hesse, Journey to the East.
10 “a group of perfectly respectable …” Kleps, p. 16.
11 “making your own bed … better, more lively …” Kleps, pp. 23,33.
12 “like a ghost… scare the living piss …” Kleps, pp. 27.
13 “Frank Merriwhether type … how can I make more …” Kelps, p. 51.
14 “jazz musicians, avant-garde …” Metzner mss.
15 “Christ it’s crazy up there …”
16 “Tim is anything more important than anything …” Kleps, pp. 25-26.
17 “you realize this is a very reckless conversation …” Leary, P of E, p. 165.
18 “now, after fighting their way …” Newsweek, July 27,1964.
19 “girls in bikinis …”Newsweek, July 27,1964.
20 “the straights …” Hollingshead, p. 88.
21 “I had seen perhaps twenty of them …” Kleps, p. 71.
22 “we are very much affected …” Metzner mss.
23 “LSD takes you out…” Robert Anton Wilson, Cosmic Trigger, p. 21.
24 “the most important rule …” Wilson, p. 27.
25 “we are shocked …” FB, p. 197.
26 “our days pass …” Stolaroff archives,
27 “an avid concert and ballet goer…” Slack, p. 27.
28 “in many ways I was like …” FB, p. 206.
29 “treating the ceremony as high camp …” FB, p. 206.
30 “this morning I sat …” Metzner mss.
31 “the incredible complexities … like whispering in your lover’s ear…” Metzner mss.