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A Burnt-Out Case | The Nation

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A Burnt-Out Case

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When Leary arrives in Algeria for a period of "exile" after his dramatic California prison break, Greenfield's book really takes off. Zonked on more drugs and booze than seems humanly possible, Leary continually misread his own surroundings. In an October 1970 letter to Allen Ginsberg, he described Algeria--an austere Muslim state ruled by a military dictatorship--as "perfect. Great political Satori.... Socialism works here.... Young people smiling...no irritation...no money hustle, spirit of youth & growth." He started carrying guns and advocating violence, praising dynamite as "the white light, the external manifestation of the inner white light of the Buddha." He encouraged the Weathermen to start hijacking planes and kidnapping "prominent sports figures." Then the zeitgeist shifted. Leary became a bit of an underdog. The trip may be enjoyable and enlightening, but the hangover is always more dramatic.

About the Author

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

At this point, Greenfield's portrayal softens. Leary suddenly becomes a figure of pathos, a cocaine-snorting Willy Loman who can't understand that the world has no more use for him. Under the strange thrall of an international arms dealer in Switzerland, Leary runs into Andy Warhol at a party. "There are only three real geniuses in America," Greenfield quotes him as saying to Warhol. "You and me, and the third changes all the time." Less true words were never spoken.

No scene in the book captures that lost hope better than an encounter between Leary and Charles Manson, who occupied an adjacent room in solitary confinement at Folsom Prison in the mid-1970s. Compared with Manson, Timothy Leary was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The transcription of their conversations comes from Leary's own writings and therefore isn't particularly reliable, but it still illuminates.

Manson: "We were all your students, you know. You had everyone looking up to you. You could have led the people anywhere you wanted.... And you didn't tell them what to do."

Leary: "I didn't want to impose my realities. The idea is that everybody takes responsibility for his nervous system, creates his own reality. Anything else is brainwashing."

Manson: "That was your mistake. No one wants responsibility. Everyone wants to be told what to do, what to believe, what's really true and really real."

More than anyone else, Leary embodied the mixed-up dreams of the '60s. It's sad that Charles Manson saw into the American psyche more accurately than he did. If Leary's ideals got flushed away so quickly, like a stash in an airport bathroom, he couldn't possibly have been right.

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