The adepts of the Free Spirit did not form a single church but rather a number of likeminded groups, each with its own particular practices, rites, and articles of beliefs; and the links between the various groups were often tenuous. But these people did keep in touch with one another; and the Free Spirit was at all times recognizable as a quasi-religion with a single basic corpus of doctrine… . They divided humanity into two groups—the majority, the “crude in spirit,” who failed to develop their divine sensibilities, and themselves, who were the “subtle in spirit.” … The heart of the heresy was in fact not a philosophical idea at all but an aspiration; it was a passionate desire of certain human beings to surpass the condition of humanity and to become God.
—Norman Cohn,
The Pursuit of the Millennium

For us the planet was without Original Sin, designed for our sacramental pleasure.
—Timothy Leary,
Flashbacks: An Autobiography

No account of America’s cultural revolution can omit the career of Timothy Leary, “promoter, apologist, and high priest of psychedelia nonpareil,” as Theodore Roszak put it in The Making of a Counterculture (1969). Dr. Timothy Leary, Ph.D., had his first experience of LSD in the spring of 1962 when he was forty-two and teaching in the psychology department at Harvard University. In the summer of 1963, Leary and his colleague Richard Alpert—who would later turn himself into a guru and take the Hindu name Baba Ram Dass—would be expelled from the Harvard faculty for disseminating drugs to students. But in the meantime they were sedulous in “researching” the effects of these drugs. For the previous two years, Leary and Alpert had eagerly “experimented”—to use the preferred euphemism —both on themselves and on hundreds of others with various hallucinogenic drugs, especially psilocybin. But LSD was something new and much more powerful. It had, Leary knew, been secretly tested by the CIA in the late 1950s for possible use in interrogations and unconventional warfare. In the words of an official intelligence document, LSD was “capable of rendering whole groups of people, including military forces, indifferent to their surroundings and situations, interfering with planning and judgment, and even creating apprehension, uncontrollable confusion and terror.”

Leary’s introduction to the drug came through an English academic named Michael Hollingshead. “On the basis of his claim to have ingested more LSD than anyone in the world,” Leary recalled in Flashbacks, the autobiography he published in 1983 (new edition, 1990), “I invited him to stay at our house and act as a project consultant.” A short while before, Hollingshead had inadvertently taken a large dose of LSD with a colleague. “They became,” Leary wrote, “mystics on the spot.”

Like so many apostles of mind-altering drugs, Timothy Leary was very big on the idea of becoming a mystic on the spot. He did it hundreds, indeed thousands, of times. Leary first sampled hallucinogenic drugs in Mexico in 1960 (more “research” for his new job at Harvard). Describing the experience years later, he wrote that

I gave way to delight, as mystics have for centuries when they peek through the curtains and discovered that this world—so manifestly real—was actually a tiny stage set constructed by the mind… .

Starting back to the terrace. Hello, my walk had changed to a rubber-leg slither. The room was apparently filled with invisible liquid. I undulated over to Poet Betty. Her classic face unfolded like a sunflower. She was in some sort of bliss… .

Next came a trip through evolution, guaranteed to everyone who signs up to this Brain Tour. Slipping down the recapitulation tube to those ancient mid-brain projection rooms: snake-time, fish-time, down-thorugh-giant-jungle-palm-tree-time, green lacy fern leaf-time. … Hello, I am the first living thing.

The journey lasted a little over four hours. Like almost everyone who has had the veil drawn, I came back a changed man.

Among other things, he discovered that “the world was divided into those who had had the experience (or were eager to have it) and those who had not (and shuddered at the possibility).”

Like so many apostles of mind-altering drugs, Timothy Leary was very big on the idea of becoming a mystic on the spot. He did it hundreds, indeed thousands, of times.

Such pronouncements are a wearying staple of Leary’s many books and pamphlets about the “mind-expanding” properties of hallucinogens. The Psychedelic Experience (1964), Psychedelic Prayers from the Tao Te Ching (1967), How to Start Your Own Religion (1967), The Politics of Ecstasy (1968), High Priest (1968), and on and on. They all revolve around Leary’s reports of the life-changing enlightenment that he enjoyed thanks to drugs. When he was finally introduced to LSD, he found it “the most shattering experience of my life.”

I have never recovered from that ontological confrontation. I have never been able to take myself, my mind, or the social world quite so seriously. Since that time, I have been acutely aware that everything I perceive, everything within and around me, is a creation of my own consciousness. And that everyone lives in a neural cocoon of private reality. From that day I have never lost the sense that I am an actor, surrounded by characters, props, and sets for the comic drama being written in my brain.

Untangling everything that is incoherent and preposterous about such reports would require many pages. Just for starters, one might ask why, if everyone is trapped in the cocoon of a private reality, anyone bothers to write books advertising the fact. Who could read them? And if Leary’s amateur solipsism were right, how could such a thing as a book even exist? Think about how much solid social reality there must be before books could be written, printed, circulated, read. And on the question of mystical illumination, what depths of credulity must be plumbed before someone could mistake a deliberate pharmacological assault on the nervous system for an experience of divine truth, a chemical emergency for an “ontological confrontation”? Among other things, such credulity reminds one of how elaborate are the excuses one can generate and embrace for the sake of a hedonistic evasion of reality. Leary’s perception that he had become an actor in a comic drama of his own making has a little more to be said for it, though it would be more accurate to describe the situation he created as a tragedy with distinctly farcical elements. In any event, histrionics, not to say melodrama— not to say outright hucksterism—played a prominent part in Leary’s activities from the beginning.

Long before his death in 1996 at the age of seventy-six, Timothy Leary had become an absurd, indeed a pathetic, figure. The absurdity and the pathos culminated in the gruesome theater of his death. Leary directed that his brain be cryogenically preserved “with the expectation of reanimation and brain-transplant to a healthy body in the future.” (“It seems to me,” he explained, “that the person who dies a ‘natural’ death is a deluded victim of state-managed suicide.”) His final moments and the surgical removal of his head were captured on video tape for the edification of his acolytes.

Leary’s preposterousness did not make his influence any less widespread or any less malign. His life was in many respects a cautionary tale—not least as an example of the extent to which it had become possible to be ridiculous and profoundly destructive at the same time. This in fact was an amalgam that the Sixties rather specialized in. Like many of his peers, Leary illustrated the fact that being an object of pity does not necessarily exempt someone from being also an object of censure.

His advocacy of hallucinogens was, as Theodore Roszak put it, the advocacy of a “counterfeit infinity.” Roszak was himself an apologist for many aspects of the counterculture. But like many politically committed Leftists, he understood that Leary’s obsession with drugs was not aiding the cause of political revolution and that his assurance that “the LSD trip is a religious pilgrimage” was a gross, psychically maiming deception—of himself, possibly; certainly of the thousands upon thousands whom he seduced with his gospel of instant ecstasy. Leary produced an endless stream of books, pamphlets, and manifestos (his annotated bibliography runs to 305 pages). But his teaching—if “teaching” is the word—is accurately epitomized in his most famous slogan: “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” a pithy formula he came up with in 1966 after Marshall McLuhan (himself a false prophet of considerable influence) advised him that “your advertising must stress the religious.”

Three decades on, it is difficult to recapture the peculiar intensity of Leary’s presence in the 1960s and early 1970s. A popular rock band, The Moody Blues, wrote a hit song about him; he fraternized with the super-chic from New York to Hollywood and San Francisco; in 1970, when he planned to run for Governor of California, John Lennon of The Beatles wrote a campaign song for him; President Nixon described him as “the most dangerous man in America.” For a brief period in the mid- to late Sixties, Leary was ubiquitous: a beaming, gurulike presence at the first Love-Ins and Be-Ins, barefoot and ponytailed, dressed in white duck trousers and flowing white silk shirt, spouting such nostrums as “Laws are made by old people who don’t want young people to do exactly those things young people were meant to do—to make love, turn on, and have a good time.”

A bit earlier, it was Leary the clean-cut Harvard specialist who first introduced Allen Ginsberg—another self-described “student of altered states”—to psilocybin. (It was Leary also who first gave the drug to Arthur Koestler, Robert Lowell, Maynard Ferguson, and Jack Kerouac. He even traveled to Tangier to introduce it to William S. Burroughs.) Reflecting later on his experience of psilocybin with Ginsberg and two friends, he announced that “the four of us had reached a place where we were momentarily beyond social roles, beyond normal strivings. We had apparently tapped some meditative overview circuit of our brains that allowed us to share a moment of philosophic understanding.” This, he concluded, “suggested exciting social applications.”

Different though their backgrounds were, Leary and Ginsberg exerted a similar influence on the counterculture. By the mid-Sixties, both had emerged as iconic figures. For both men, drugs were a central part of their gospel of liberation. But drugs were not the only part; promiscuous sex was also crucial. Leary was not quite in Ginsberg’s league here, but he did his best. He appropriately titles one chapter of Flashbacks “The Ultimate Aphrodisiac,” referring to LSD. Again and again in his autobiography Leary doses himself and some friends with hallucinogens and then treats his readers to passages like this: “My eyes connected with hers. We rose as one and walked to the sun porch. She turned, came to me, entwined her arms around my neck. …” Or this, about his honeymoon in the Far East with his second wife:

Ever since my Easter Sunday session at the Millbrook Meditation House I had been convinced that the linkage of opposites was the key to personal evolution. Nanette shared this belief that a man and a woman who learned how to shift realities in unison, moving from one level of consciousness to another together, were a powerful creative force… . Nanette and I had one more LSD session in the Himalayas to see if we could get fused again.”

(They didn’t, alas, and the marriage soon ended.)

Then there was rock music. Ginsberg and Leary both wholeheartedly embraced its Dionysian promise. Leary dedicates High Priest to a dozen rock groups—The Beatles, The Byrds, The Rolling Stones, etc.—as the “authentic priests, the real prophets” of “the psychedelic revolution.” Finally, there was the bogus embrace of Eastern religion: the chanting, the incense, the pilgrimages to India and Tibet, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, assorted Hindu and Buddhist scriptures—a nauseating goulash of pseudo-spirituality. There was Allen Ginsberg with his finger-cymbals chanting Hare Krishna and antiwar slogans, and Leary filling his books with snippets from the I Ching and dismissing “the Judeo-Christian commitment to one God, one religion, one reality that has cursed Europe for centuries and America since our founding days.” It was all window-dressing, really, for at bottom Leary’s attitude toward religion was summed up in another chapter title in his autobiography: “Drugs Are the Origin of Religion and Philosophy.” His own “church,” incorporated in New York in 1966, was called the League for Spiritual Discovery—LSD for short, “an orthodox, psychedelic religion” whose “sacraments” “are psychedelic chemicals which at every turning point in human history have been provided by God for man’s illumination and liberation.”

The chief difference between Ginsberg and Leary was what we might call the direction of their influence. Ginsberg brought the existential sanction of bohemia: here he was, a poet, a denizen of New York’s East Village, taking on the stuffy middle-class morality of white-collar America. Leary was white-collar America. Even if his childhood and college years were far from placid, he radiated patrician confidence and good looks. From his perch at Harvard, the young, handsome, charismatic psychologist brought the authority of the Ivy League to the ingestion of mind-altering drugs and the hedonism of the counterculture.

He also brought the authority of science —or more accurately the appearance of that authority. Looking back on his writings now, one sees that one of their most peculiar features is the oscillation between the vocabulary of science and the grammar of intoxication. Leary met few drugs he did not like. He has some mildly disapproving things to say about heroin in his autobiography: he found it a “euphoric downer” of “no appeal” but noted that his “experiments” with it were “useful in the context of my work as a drug researcher.” The word “research” covered a multitude of sins. Leary was always on hand with “research projects,” “content analyses,” and plans to “develop a scientific classification model of the levels or circuits of the nervous system.” Of course what he was really talking about was mind-shattering inebriation from the most powerful psycho-active agents known to man:

Training centers like ours, we believed, could be set up in any medical school, in any divinity school, in the psychology, philosophy, anthropology, sociology departments of every college in the land. In another year or two anyone with philosophic ambitions and a thoughtful desire to increase intelligence could learn how to use drugs effectively. Freshman courses in college curricula could train students to activate their own nervous systems according to instructions of the manufacturers.

It is hard to know what is best about this typical paragraph: the invocation of “training centers” or the casual reference to “anyone with philosophic ambitions.” In any event, it is worth noting that Leary the “researcher” was never content simply to dispense drugs to others and record their reactions; right from the beginning, he was a participant, eagerly seizing every opportunity for intoxication, even when he experimented with psilocybin on prisoners in the Concord State Prison. (“The bowl of pills was placed in the center of the table. To establish trust I was the first to ingest.”) It should be noted, too, that Leary got his wish: it really was only a year or two before college students became quite expert at “activating their own nervous systems” with drugs. There was nothing to it, really. The manufacturers didn’t need to supply elaborate “instructions.”

If Leary brought the authority of Harvard and the Ivy League to the counterculture, he brought it as a chastened, a dethroned authority. That is part of what made him so seductive. Leary was a Harvard professor who had seen through the “superficialities” and conventions of the hidebound academic establishment:

I was at that time a successful robot—respected at Harvard, clean-cut, witty, and, in that inert culture, unusually creative. Though I had attained the highest ambition of the young American intellectual, I was totally cut off from body and senses. My clothes had been obediently selected to fit the young professional image. Even after one hundred drug sessions I routinely listened to pop music, drank martinis, ate what was put before me.

Leave aside the sillinesses in this passage. The important thing is that Leary had discovered how to have the best of both worlds. He could enjoy the prestige of being a Harvard professor and the delicious frisson of rejecting it all at the same time. His expulsion from Harvard further burnished his image: now he was a martyr as well as a witness for a truth too dangerous for “the establishment” to accommodate.

In fact, despite attaining an appointment at Harvard, Leary had always been at odds with the world. An only child, he was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1920. He describes his mother’s family as dour Irish Catholic, his father’s as “urban, urbane, well-to-do.” (Leary’s paternal grandfather was thought to be the richest Irish Catholic in Western Massachusetts.) The expected inheritance had all but evaporated by the time Leary’s grandfather died, however, and this disappointment sent Leary’s father—a drunken, part-time dentist—around the bend and away from the family. Still, Leary seems to have harbored warm feelings about his irresponsible father: “during the thirteen years we lived together he never stunted me with expectations.”

Unstunted by expectations, Leary did not find the discipline required by school and college an easy matter. Nevertheless, he was voraciously curious and often excelled in his studies. After a year at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, he transferred to West Point. Within a year he found himself in punitive isolation and soon agreed to leave. He then enrolled at the University of Alabama, but was expelled for spending the night in the girls’ dormitory. Drafted, he worked at an army hospital where he finished his B.A. and met his first wife, Marianne. He took an M.A. at Washington State University and his Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley. On his thirty-fifth birthday, he woke up to find that Marianne had committed suicide by shutting herself in the garage and starting the car. Leary suggests that the suicide was the result of postpartum depression—they had two children, then six and eight—though he does acknowledge that Marianne was less than happy about his long-term affair with the wife of a friend. (“For two years Delsey and I met three or four times a week… . We really liked each other.”)

If Leary brought the authority of Harvard and the Ivy League to the counterculture, he brought it as a chastened, a dethroned authority. That is part of what made him so seductive.

Leary worked for several years as a psychologist at the Kaiser Foundation Hospital in Oakland, California. In 1959, disillusioned with the profession, he quit his job and moved to Florence. It was there that he met the director of Harvard’s Center for Personality Research, impressed him with words like “existential” and “transaction,” and landed himself a job.

The name of Harvard naturally provided Leary’s activities with a patina of respectability. It also assured that his exaltation of drugs would cause a major scandal when it finally became apparent that this young researcher was passing out powerful mind- altering substances to almost anyone who asked for them. It is difficult to say exactly which of Leary’s outrages sealed his fate with the Harvard authorities. Maybe it was his collusion in the “medically supervised, double-blind pre- and post-tested” experiment of dosing thirty students with psychedelics at a Good Friday church service while thirty received placebos. (The placebos were a waste of time, Leary tells us: “After thirty minutes everyone knew who had taken the pill.”) Or perhaps it was his letter, written with Richard Alpert, to the Harvard Crimson in the Spring of 1963 outlining plans to establish a nationwide drug research project called the International Foundation for Internal Freedom: “The national headquarters would publish a scholarly journal, … help locals to obtain good quality drugs, and coordinate summer workshops in Mexico.”

Whatever the back-breaking straw, Leary and Alpert found themselves expelled from the Harvard faculty in the summer of 1963. The news came when Leary was “coordinating a workshop” in Mexico. Far from impeding him, though, the widely reported firing added luster to his reputation as a psychedelic guru. Leary managed to get himself deported from Mexico and the Caribbean island of Dominica that summer; but by September things were looking up. Two rich Americans lent Leary and Alpert a huge estate in Millbrook, New York, and gave them money to establish a new foundation and pursue their “studies.” Millbrook, as Leary notes, soon became a preferred retreat for “jet-setters, celebrities, curious aristocrats. A weekend at Millbrook was the chic thing for the hip young rich of New York. At the same time we entertained biologists from Yale, Oxford psychologists, Hindu holy men.” Soon, he was catapulted from notoriety to real celebrity. By the mid-Sixties, Leary boasted, “I had become a nationally recognized symbol of change.”

Leary was also becoming a nationally recognized concern of the police. At the end of 1965, he was arrested with Rosemary, his new girlfriend, and his two children in Laredo, Texas, for possession of a small amount of marijuana. (It was actually in the possession of his daughter, but he claimed responsibility.) He was initially sentenced to thirty years in prison and a twenty thousand dollar fine.

Back in Dutchess County, New York, Leary’s neighbors were exceedingly displeased by the sordid goings-on at the Millbrook estate. That winter, the estate was raided by a team from the Dutchess County sheriff’s office led by G. Gordon Liddy, later of Watergate fame. In 1967, Leary moved to Los Angeles. One of his first acts was to marry Rosemary (number three of four wives). The service took place on a mountaintop in the Joshua Tree National Monument. A Plains Indian medicine man presided. “We partied until midnight,” Leary recalled, and then the assembled company, “numbering fifty, dropped large doses of acid and reclined on soft ledges to talk things over with the stars.”

Leary’s campaign to be Governor of California two years later was interrupted by another arrest for possession of marijuana. This time, he was not only found guilty but also was remanded to jail immediately. Leary’s career now rapidly devolved into melodramatic farce. In September 1970, he managed a daring escape from his minimum-security prison in San Luis Obispo. By prearrangement, he was picked up by members of the Weather Underground, one of the most violent of American radical groups. He was disguised, given a new passport, and bundled out of the country to Algeria, where he and Rosemary enjoyed the hospitality of the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, who was presiding there over a “government in exile.” Not surprisingly, Leary did not get along with Cleaver and his thugs. Within a few months, he left for Geneva; pressure from the U.S. government then forced him to leave Switzerland for Afghanistan. In 1973, he was arrested at the Kabul air terminal and returned to the United States, where he was shuttled among various prisons (including a brief spell with the notorious LSD-crazed murderer Charles Manson) until Edmund Brown became governor of California and released him in 1976. After that, he became an early devotee of computers and “cyber reality” as well as a fixture on the lecture circuit, where he frequently appeared debating G. Gordon Liddy, also lately released from prison.

It is easy to dismiss Timothy Leary as a misguided crank, a period figure whose relevance disappeared with bell-bottoms and love beads. This would be a mistake. Leary was undoubtedly a crank, and he was assuredly profoundly misguided. But his example was immensely influential. His importance extends far beyond the thousands of lives he blighted with drugs. As much as anyone, he helped to change the moral temper of the times. Long after taking psychedelics ceased to be a preferred recreational pastime, the rationale that Leary provided for indulging in such drugs retained a large measure of credibility: they “increased sensitivity,” even “increased intelligence,” they freed one from “conventions” and produced “mystical” feelings of unbounded ecstasy. “With the aid of these drugs,” Leary wrote, “I was exposing myself to the most intense emotions available to the human nervous system.” In fact, he was exposing himself to a seductive counterfeit of emotion: a spiritual, soul-withering lie in capsule form. In “The Legacy of the Late Sixties,” the philosopher Harvey Mansfield observes that the phrase “mind-expanding” as applied to drugs is intended to mean

something grander than merely opening a mind previously closed by prejudice or superstition. It means actually expanding what the mind can grasp and conveys the excitement … [of] freeing oneself not only from conventions but even from one’s nature. Man is an animal that naturally lives by conventions, so denying his conventions is denying his nature and replacing it with the desire to go beyond whatever has been fixed, crossing all boundaries, breaking all rules. The appeal of drugs is that of infinite power together with infinite desire. No doubt there is in human nature a yearning to rise above conventions, on occasion to get high. Previously this was thought necessary to control; now it was let loose among the young of the elite and invested with the moral superiority that comes from knowing that the system was corrupt.

Leary and his fellow champions of chemical emancipation helped to acclimatize our entire culture to a demand for blind emotional transport: a feeling of illumination vouchsafed by darkness. Drugs opened up one road to this goal; rock music, as Leary understood, opened up another. Allan Bloom was quite right when he noted, in The Closing of the American Mind, that “rock music provides premature ecstasy and, in this respect, is like the drugs with which it is allied. It artificially produces the exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavors—victory in a just war, consummated love, artistic creation, religious devotion, and discovery of the truth.” It was hardly surprising that Bloom’s attack on rock music was one of the most widely castigated sections of his book. Writing in the mid-1980s, Leary reported that some 80 percent of the American public was “currently involved in personal fulfillment projects, most of which involve some form of re-juvenilization.” No doubt he was right. And that, finally, is what Timothy Leary was all about: rejuvenilization. What he offered was not greater intelligence, feeling, and sophistication, but a permanent holiday from those virtues for the sake of a delusion as toxic as it is widely embraced.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 Number 9, on page 4
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