Aldous Huxley's creative powers were at their peak in 1960, some three years before his death. The public lectures given by the author of Brave New World and The Doors of Perception were filled to overflowing and never had a parapsychologist been so acclaimed and had a larger following.
But Huxley was perplexed. As had so many other great minds before and after him, becoming immersed in taking and studying the effects of psychedelic drugs had produced an embarrassing consequence: The more he tripped, the more he traveled to the so-called Other World and the more that he mused over the profundities of these voyages and how they could improve mankind's lot, the less insight he had to offer.
As Huxley confided to a friend: "To have been concerned with the human problem all one's life and find that at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than 'Try to be a little kinder.' "
What Huxley was intimating is that while LSD, psilocybin mushrooms or peyote buttons could make individual homo sapiens better people, the psychedelic revolution would not make terra firma a better place.
It wasn't that people didn't try.
Albert "Captain Al" Hubbard, who is said to have given LSD to 6,000 people beginning in the early 1950s until it was outlawed in 1966, believed that if he could provide a psychedelic experience to the executives of Fortune 500 companies, he would change the whole of society.
Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who had tripped on psychotropic plants in South America and later took psilocybin and LSD, declared that the psychedelic movement was an opportunity "to seize power in the Universe . . . not merely over Russia or America -- seize power over the moon -- take the sun over."
But as big thinking went, it was hard to top Timothy Leary, a psychologist and psychedelic avatar whose increasingly manic quest to get people to "turn on, tune in, drop out" more or less led to the federal prohibition against not just the possession of LSD, but a halt to virtually all research into promising uses of the drug in treating chronic alcoholism, psychoses and other illnesses.
If Leary hadn't led the way to LSD being outlawed, someone else's antics certainly would have. After all, how could the government not ban the use of a non-addictive substance that could do such wonderful things, let alone have astonishing curative powers?
Leary's initial foray into psychedelics was innocent enough -- the Harvard Psilocybin Project -- which during its 15-month existence in 1960-61 showed convincingly that the comparatively mild psychedelic was a positive agent for behavioral changes even in prison convicts.
Writes Jay Stevens in Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream:
"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 [to the psilocybin sessions] became paranoid and decided the whole thing was a fiendish police trick to get him to all the crimes he had never been caught for. . . . But then 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 study did have a drawback. The prisoners were indeed changing, but they were changing in ways that made science uncomfortable. As Stevens puts it, "They were getting religion. And if psilocybin could do that to hard-core cons, imagine what it was doing to members of the psilocybin project."
Indeed, the cautious optimism among Leary's professorial peers that the drug could be an extraordinary addition to the psychiatric tool kit turned to anxiety as Leary and many of his graduate students began binging on psilocybin and immersing themselves in mystical texts. What controls their experiments had went out the window and raw data was no longer being collated and written up.
The project's death blow came when the Harvard Crimson ran a story on a drug orgy at Leary's house with students that was picked up by the Boston papers and then the wire services. After confiscation threats from the feds, the Harvard administration put Leary's psilocybin stash under lock and key and promised that when the drug was dolled out in the future there would be close supervision. The scandal had been contained, but it was obvious to all that Leary's contract would not be renewed.Leary rolled with that punch and soon he and colleagues Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner were deeply involved with LSD, a substantially more powerful psychedelic that for them was less about love than death and rebirth.
Some LSD therapists were showing remarkable results. Hubbard's work with chronic alcoholics at Hollywood Hospital in British Columbia showed an 80 percent success rate, while a research program at the Veterans Hospital in Palo Alto, California showed promising results for psychotic vets. That also is where Ken Kesey, future leader of the Merry Pranksters, tripped while writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
These results notwithstanding, therapists struggled to figure out why LSD could do what it did.
Stevens presents this analogy in Storming Heaven:
"Imagine the self as an oxbow lake, which is formed when a meander is cut off from the main body of a shallow, slow-moving river. Over time, unless fresh sources of water are found, the oxbow begins to stagnate, becoming first a marsh, then a swamp, as vegetation (thickets of received ideas, neuroses, etc.) starts to compete for oxygen. Psycholytic therapy, you might say, contented itself with removing the vegetation; psychedelic therapy, on the other hand, operated by dynamiting the obstruction and restoring the oxbow to what, in fact, it had always been: a lazy curve in a broad, flowing river." Most of these therapists used small doses of LSD on their patients in charting a path to consciousness before any deep exploration began, but from the outset Leary administered massive doses to both patients and himself.
Perhaps inevitably a man with the brightest of futures in psychiatry began to think of himself as a prophet. By the spring of 1962 he was deeply into Tantric Buddhism and was referring to his acclaimed pre-psychedelic work as "antediluvian stuff."
"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 . . . and he was going to be the chief avatar."
As Stevens notes, Leary's escapades, including the creation of a psychedelic circus known as the International Foundation for Internal Freedom (IFIF), highlighted what by 1963 was a turf war over who would control traffic to the Other World.Medical doctors believed that mere psychologists like Leary and Al Hubbard, let alone an engineer like Myron Stolaroff, did not have the competencies to examine the extremes of consciousness.The rap on Stolaroff was misplaced. He was an assistant to the president for long-range planning at Ampex Corporation, which was a leading maker of magnetic reel-to-reel tape recorders and an incubator for pioneering engineers.
Stolaroff was making big bucks but felt that his life was empty. It was through an acquaintance that he learned of a new drug called LSD and an unusual man from Canada who was administering the substance to Aldous Huxley and others. Stolaroff was skeptical, but then one day in 1956 he looked up from his desk at Ampex to see Hubbard standing in the doorway.
Several weeks later, Stolaroff took 66 micrograms (a moderately heavy dose) of LSD-25 in Hubbard's Vancouver apartment that had been manufactured by Sandoz, the Swiss firm where biochemist Albert Hoffman had stumbled upon the drug's psychoactive properties in 1943.
Stolaroff found his first trip to be a deeply religious event that took him far into his own unconscious mind and he returned to California an LSD zealot. He soon founded the International Foundation for Advanced Study and over the next several years led several hundred people, including Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and 30 or so other young engineers in what came to be known as Silicon Valley, on trips closely supervised by experienced therapists.
The engineer was well aware of the dangers of LSD and was horrified when Leary founded IFIF. "It will wreak havoc on all of us doing LSD work all over the nation," Stolaroff correctly predicted in a letter to Leary. "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."
"In 1961," Leary's wrote of his master plan in High Priest, one of his two autobiographies, "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."
After Leary and his IFIF cadre were kicked out of Mexico and two Caribbean nations they landed at Millbrook, a huge estate in Dutchess County in upstate New York.
Millbrook was many things, but to consider it an ashram as many IFIF adherents did is misleading insofar that the leader of a typical ashram doesn't ride around on a horse painted blue on one side and pink on the other and brag about screwing every woman who comes through the door, including his future second wife. Then there were the gold painted ceilings, mandala filled walls and antique furniture with the legs cut off so the residents could live on the floor.
The IFIF spun its wheels, beginning many experiments and programs but finishing none, before succumbing a year later. Out of its ashes rose Leary's next ego trip, an organization called Castalia that was to set up shop on a tropical island a la Huxley's Island, a utopian counterpoint to Brave New World where a drug he called soma was used for enlightenment.
The name Castalia came from Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game. The IFIF crowd was convinced that the German author was a psychedelic adept from an earlier age who had succeeded where Huxley had failed in that his books were accounts of the internal drama of the psyche.The Millbrook era ended with a bang in April 1966 with a raid by a law enforcement team led by former FBI agent and future Nixon White House Plumbers unit operative G. Gordon Liddy of Watergate scandal fame, whom in but one of many bizarre plot twists in Leary's life was to become a friend who 15 years later would go on a national speaking tour with him.Undeterred, of course, in September 1966 Leary segued to his next ego trip and created the League for Spiritual Discovery, a religion declaring LSD as a holy sacrament. The league also was, in part, an attempt to maintain legal status for the use of the drug, which was outlawed the following month.
Leary was arrested nine more times over the next two years, and while his craving for attention would not diminish until he drew his last breath in 1996 at age 75, he spent much of his last three decades dodging the law and doing prison time.It is hard to tell whether Timothy Leary ever understood his role in outlawing a drug that he tirelessly advocated and ingested, but he carried some sense of irony into his dotage, so he probably did, although the Sixties certainly ended with a whimper and not a day-glo bang.
Writes Stevens: "And so the psychedelic movement ground to a close. The drugs were still available, more so than ever, but it was a rare person who took them to push the envelope. For the kids, a trip to the Other World was like a trip to Disneyland, lots of scary rides and laughs, but no wisdom.
"Kesey, Owsley, IFIF, the Acid Tests, Castalia, the Trips Festival, the Harvard Psilocybin Project, the Be-In -- it had receded into memory so fast it was almost as if it had happened to an older brother, or an uncle, or maybe they'd read about it in some book or magazine -- it didn't seem real. Had they really thought they could transform Uncle Sam into the Buddha? The fact was, the good times were too painful to talk about because they always led to the bad times, to all the people who had been left behind, either burned out or in prison or on the run or irrevocably lost. . . "