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A Burnt-Out Case | The Nation

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A Burnt-Out Case

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My intersection with LSD came at a time when Dr. Timothy Leary's legacy had been watered down to near-flavorlessness. It went as follows: One tab of acid at a late-era Grateful Dead show at Soldier Field, where I hallucinated a giant eagle and got mocked by a nurse for wearing a necklace made of Fimo beads that I'd bought in Oregon; another tab two nights later, followed by eight hours of seeing vampires crawl across a leaky apartment ceiling in Evanston, Illinois; and about a quarter-tab in the spring of 1994, which led to a night of then-stereotypically freaky New Orleans French Quarter tourism. While Leary was going about the slow process of dying online in Beverly Hills, surrounded by web geeks who hadn't been born when he began to expand his consciousness, I felt like I was sucking the fumes from a bus that had long since left the station.

About the Author

Neal Pollack
Neal Pollack is the author of The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, Never Mind the Pollacks and Alternadad...

In these wretched drug days of widespread crystal-meth addiction, transcontinental Xanax-popping and speed-laced Mexican ditch weed posing as The Chron, it's harder than ever to swallow the idea that mind-altering drug use could transform our staggering society. That prospect becomes even harder to entertain when you consider the most famous proponent of narcotics-fueled social change. Robert Greenfield's comprehensive biography of Leary is an epically thrilling, wicked epitaph for the vain, bizarre, self-promoting guru who, depending on your perspective, either poisoned or blessed our culture with his ridiculous "turn on, tune in and drop out" mantra. As Greenfield boldly and correctly asserts, Leary was the "wrong man" to inherit the future of psychedelic research. Psychiatrist Humphry Osmond, who coined the term "psychedelic," even compared Leary to Hitler--not for the magnitude of his crimes (which were absurd and, other than escaping from prison, arguably not even criminal) but for the transcendent quality of his sociopathic megalomania, which he parlayed into drug guru status.

This 600-page tome doesn't really begin to percolate until Leary starts taking drugs. Until then, it's standard biography: Thoughts of an absent alcoholic father traumatize an intelligent but self-absorbed West Point dropout. A sad childhood leads our protagonist down the path to unfaithful husbandry. His first wife, the mother of his two children, commits suicide. That terrible event, which would shatter an ordinary life, barely seemed to affect Leary; if psychedelics are supposed to destroy the ego, they didn't do a very good job with Tim Leary. The book quotes an anthropologist, experienced with tribal drug-taking cultures, who in the fall of 1960 said that peyote had "no place in our culture or our mythology. We don't have anything that enables us to explain or deal with this and therefore I don't think it is something we can introduce." But by then it was too late. Leary had already slipped acid into the well.

In Greenfield's telling, the great decade began as self-parody in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while Leary was still a lecturer at Harvard. More specifically, it was Halloween, 1960. Leary was conducting sleazy, absurd drug "experiments" at his house. A houseguest ingested a lot of psilocybin. Meanwhile, Leary's preteen daughter Susan was having a slumber party upstairs. The guest went upstairs and lay in the bed in the middle of the room. When Leary pulled him out, his guest referred to the girls as "middle-class bitches" who needed him to "stir them up a little." Leary almost let him, deciding at the last second that the party was Susan's "trip." He said, "You have the right to do anything you want so long as you don't lay your trip on anyone else." What Greenfield refers to as "the first commandment of the psychedelic era" was actually born as a way to keep a guy from sexually molesting a bunch of girls. I suppose Leary should, at least, get credit for preventing that.

Greenfield systematically shatters the still-self-perpetuating myths of what was once called the counterculture, portraying it as little more than a freaky mirror image of mainstream celebrity-obsessed America. He's brilliant at charting the course that self-styled 1960s rebels took toward careerism and self-aggrandisement, though certain characters, like Ken Kesey and Richard Alpert/Baba Ram Dass, come off better than others. A little more than halfway through the book, as the tumult of 1968 swirls around Leary, Greenfield pinpoints the birth of the "speaker-leader phenomenon, which made stars out of the leading counterculture figures":

Tim was a pioneer of the lifestyle. His view of what was going on in America was restricted to what he saw on his way to and from the airport, the questions he answered after his lecture, and whatever happened at the party that followed. Like a rock star, Tim appeared, performed, and then left. Between his own life and the lives of those more than twenty-five years younger than he, there was virtually no connection.

Throughout, Leary comes off as a political flake, with the notable exception of his futile but passionate attempts to get the Yippies to call off the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests. Otherwise, he was either behind the times or way off in his assessments. He didn't attend his first peace rally until 1969. His meandering testimony in front of Ted Kennedy at the 1966 Senate LSD hearings (which Greenfield re-creates brilliantly) hurt his cause, though maybe his cause was always self-promotion anyway. He allowed the Weathermen to break him out of prison and then escaped to Algeria, where he aligned himself with a clearly insane Eldridge Cleaver.

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