A Burnt-Out Case

A Burnt-Out Case

A new biography of Timothy Leary reveals the mixed-up sociopath behind the “turn on, tune in, drop out” mantra.


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.

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.

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.

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.

Leary’s life was one of those rare American ones with a second act. After the 1970s he moved to Beverly Hills, went on a political minstrel-show lecture tour with G. Gordon Liddy, snorted coke in the Playboy Mansion with Hugh Hefner and hung out at the Viper Room. He also developed some of the earliest interactive computer games. What lessons are we to learn from such a life? Obviously, the specifics don’t apply to us ordinary mortals. And we certainly don’t want to follow Leary’s lead in terms of family life. As Greenfield painstakingly details, he was a serially bad husband and an even worse father. Leary’s careerism, while quintessentially American, was corrosive and destructive, another warning siren against the false promises of celebrity-obsessed modernity.

Yet his life contained surprising pockets of peace, extraordinary grace notes. When Leary’s famous commune in Millbrook, New York, wasn’t being raided by local authorities or invaded by trashy jet-setting hipsters, people achieved transcendence there, or at least had a lot of fun. As Greenfield writes, “When Charlie Mingus heard the tap in the sink yowling, followed by banging noises, he took out his bass and began playing counterpoint.” Of all the crazy scenes in the book, that’s the one I would have most liked to see, though I also enjoyed the one where Leary’s wife attempts a seduction of Jerry Brown in order to blackmail Leary out of prison.

Used in the right doses by the right people, under controlled circumstances, certain drugs have creative potential. Despite Leary’s many ego-fueled missteps, his ideas about the transformative powers of psychedelic drugs still hold some water. In his mind-bending book Breaking Open the Head, Daniel Pinchbeck–who is rapidly becoming our generation’s foremost proponent of controlled psychedelic experimentation–called Leary the “central villain in the psychedelic saga…naïve, charismatic, sloppy, self-promotional and out of control.” It’s hard to argue with that assessment, but in later interviews, Pinchbeck softened this view, saying that Leary was a product of his time, a temporal blip in human understanding of psychedelic substances.

While I find Leary’s writing bloated, self-absorbed and, let’s face it, hippy-dippy and dated, Pinchbeck makes a far more persuasive, modern case for psychedelics. Breaking Open the Head is The Doors of Perception written from a skeptical East Village perspective. Pinchbeck’s latest book, 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, expands on his thesis, arguing that psychedelics may be opening a portal to a transformation of consciousness that has the potential to change the world forever. I can’t say whether I believe that or not, and I certainly hope the Phoenix Suns win an NBA title before this evolution happens, but Pinchbeck’s skeptical, analytic reportorial approach to the subject appeals to my brain far more than Leary’s musty counterculture rhetoric.

It was, in fact, Pinchbeck who led me to start experimenting with psychedelic drugs again last year. I had neither the time, the resources nor the physical energy to go on an acid trip again, and I didn’t have much interest, either. But I was really into the idea of trying something called Salvia divinorum. Salvia is a branch of the sage family that has long been known to have psychotropic qualities. According to Pinchbeck, the trips are short, pleasant and revelatory (though not to be taken lightly), and they don’t cause much of a hangover. Salvia visions tend to center around a whimsical spirit that appears to be half-woman, half-plant. She occupies a domain that appears as a combination of fairy garden wonderland and surrealist painting. That sounded interesting to me.

I did some research and found the dosage I thought would suit me best. Though the drug is still legal where I live, it’s sold in some pretty sketchy stores. I found one and made the buy. Later that night, I settled into my easy chair with a big cup of water by my side and smoked a bowl. Immediately, I felt myself being pressed back into my chair, and then I closed my eyes. I traveled through a series of doors that slammed behind me as I passed them, while hearing a strange, but not scary, rhythmic chant, something along the lines of “welcome, welcome,” and then I was hurtling through space. I landed in a garden, and sure enough I met the spirit. She showed me around for a couple of minutes, and then I opened my eyes. The trip was over.

About ten days later I went on another voyage, which proved pretty similar. Another night I smoked the Salvia; it seemed to have little effect. I fell asleep instead of tripping. In the middle of the night, I perceived that a flash of light had filled the room, though it didn’t wake up my wife. I heard, and even felt, an enormous thud. A squat, thick stone warrior was standing at the foot of my bed, unmoving, unspeaking. It was like he’d been sent to me as a gift or an offering, or maybe a warning.

Dude. That was freaky.

Salvia has definitely altered my perception of the world. I now walk around wondering if there really are other dimensions out there, untouched and unnoticed by our under-used brains. Timothy Leary would have been proud. But if we can learn anything from Leary’s experience, it’s that we don’t need drug prophets, and that collective tripping isn’t going to transform reality; it’s just going to shift our present reality around a little. I share my experience because I think it’s interesting, not because I recommend it. This is my trip, and I’m not going to lay it on anyone else.

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