At 12:44am on the 31st of May 1996, Dr. Timothy Leary sat bolt upright in bed startling the small group of friends and family who had gathered to keep him company during his final days. He had been diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer the previous year and it had finally run its course. “Why not?” he asked those keeping vigil. Again, louder, “Why not?” He repeated the question a third time. “Why not?” Then, lying back down, Dr. Leary whispered his final word… “beautiful”… and slipped into death. He was 75 years old.
It’s hard to think of many public figures who split opinion to the degree that Leary did, and still does. Hailed by some as one of the most important philosophers of his generation, by others as a visionary scientist centuries ahead of his time, and by some as a prophet, a mystic, a guru, even a saint. While still others denounce him as a fool, an ego-maniacal charlatan and even – in the words of President Richard Nixon – “the most dangerous man in America”. As is so often the case, the truth is far more complex than the simple narratives produced by those who worshipped or abhorred him. In fact Leary’s life and work encapsulate perfectly the chaos and ambiguity; the heady highs and crashing lows; of the psychedelic counter-culture he – more than any other single individual – helped to create.
As a psychology professor at Harvard University in the early 1960s, Dr. Leary would exhort his students to “Always question authority. Even the authority of your psychology professor”. And this anti-authoritarian attitude can be seen all the way back to his childhood. Born into a wealthy, conservative Irish-American family, the young Tim Leary rebelled from an early age. Exasperated by his attitude, his parents sent him to a strict Jesuit College and later forced him to enrol in West Point (the US military academy responsible for officer training). He lasted just over a year before being dragged up in front of a court-martial. Although he was acquitted, Leary was discharged from West Point and although technically still a member of the Army Medical Corps for a couple of years, he finally rejected the demands of his family and signed up for a psychology degree.
In 1943 he received his BA in psychology, and by 1950 had earned his Master’s and completed his PhD. His academic career blossomed and he spent the next 13 years teaching at two of the most prestigious universities in the United States as well as being appointed Director of Psychiatric Research at the renowned Kaiser Family Foundation. A combination of personal charisma and obvious talent allowed Leary’s career to maintain an upward trajectory despite his often abrasive attitude towards the academic establishment. However, it was an event in 1960 that would radically alter Leary’s life and career. It would lead directly to his dismissal from Harvard in 1963 and his permanent exile from the mainstream. Because it was in 1960 that Dr. Timothy Leary, professor of psychology, would have his first psychedelic experience. And despite being the experience of a single individual, it would end up having a profound and revolutionary impact on global culture.
It was Leary’s friend and Harvard colleague, Anthony Russo, who first introduced him to psychedelics. He’d invited Leary to spend some time at a villa he’d rented in Southern Mexico. On August 9th, 1960 as they lounged by the pool with a small group of friends, smoking and drinking tequila, Russo told the others about his recent encounter with the mushroom, Psilocybe mexicana. He’d been studying the religious rituals of the local Mazatec people who consumed the mushroom to induce visions. Fascinated by what he was hearing, Leary asked Russo whether he could get his hands on any more. One brief trip to the local market later, and the group were in possession of a large bag of the powerful hallucinogen. They washed down the dried mushrooms with local beer and the whole world shifted a little on its axis.
Later, Dr. Leary would declare
it was the classic visionary voyage and I came back a changed man. You are never the same after you’ve had that one glimpse down the cellular time tunnel. You are never the same after you’ve had the veil drawn. I learned more about psychology during the 5 hours of that trip than I had in 15 years of studying the subject as an academic.
A few days later Leary would return to the local market and purchase a very large quantity of Psilocybe mexicana. He brought the mushrooms home with him to Harvard University and the focus of the psychology department shifted in a radically new direction. Leary’s initial research and experiments were lauded by the faculty and the wider academic community. He gave the mushrooms to hundreds of academics, writers, philosophers and religious leaders. The poet Allen Ginsberg asked to be part of the experiments and within a year Leary had accounts from poets, professors and priests all attesting to the positive life-changing qualities of psilocybin. Under controlled conditions he administered psilocybin to prison inmates and reported that his test group had a 20% rate of re-offending; a massive decrease on the an average rate of 60%. He administered a course of the drug to alcoholics and reported astonishingly positive results. Later as a concerted effort was made to discredit Dr. Leary’s work, the experiments were repeated and while the huge improvements in re-offender rates were not achieved, “statistically significant” reductions were nevertheless reported.
Within three years however, news of the Harvard experiments (which by then had expanded to include LSD) had spread far and wide, and interest was growing in these “new” drugs. With the official experiments massively over-subscribed, a black-market in LSD and psilocybin flourished around Harvard and although these substances were still perfectly legal, the university administration were less than happy with the psychedelic explosion within the undergraduate population. Claiming that he was neglecting his teaching duties in order to conduct his research – a charge that he vigorously denied – Harvard University fired Dr. Leary signalling the decline and eventual end of serious clinical research into these incredibly promising chemicals (though recent years have seen a tentative and hushed revival).
Leary, however, saw his dismissal as both a challenge and a vindication. In the three years since he’d first taken mushrooms in Mexico he had become convinced that the psychedelic experience would reshape western culture in a powerfully positive manner. This conviction led him to become openly evangelical about LSD and other psychedelics. Released from the confines of academia, his experimentation continued at a large estate called Millbrook in New York. It was to be his home for the next five years and is often seen as the epicentre of the psychedelic counter-culture that sprang up in the mid 60s. His evangelising took the form of interviews and articles in mainstream magazines, lectures to packed halls and eventually a series of books.
His first two books, High Priest and The Politics of Ecstasy were massive cultural events. They would influence the direction of the 1960s counter-culture as much as any musician, writer or activist. As someone born just as the 1960s had drawn to a close, I didn’t encounter the two books until I hit my teens in the 1980s, but just as with a generation of teenagers in the sixties, they had a huge impact on me and profoundly influenced my intellectual development. Make of that what you will.
However, Leary’s LSD proselytising in the mid 60s was making him as many enemies as it was friends. And not merely within the mainstream establishment he was overtly attempting to destabilise. Some of his colleagues became concerned – as it turns out justifiably so – that his personal mission to “turn on” the world would end in a backlash that would see psychedelics driven so far underground that they could no longer be openly studied. They saw Leary’s charismatic public performances as little more than self-publicity and his writing as irresponsible and dangerous. In reality, there’s plenty of truth in that assessment. But it’s far from being the full story.
Reading, for example, The Politics of Ecstasy you’ll be hard-pressed to name a single essay or interview which extols psychedelics without also urging caution. That the media chose to highlight his extolling of LSD while the cautionary words were ignored is perhaps not surprising. But nor is it Leary’s fault. He can certainly be accused of a singular naiveté in that respect but I challenge the notion that he was knowingly irresponsible. Yes, Leary urged us to “Tune in, turn on and drop out”. But he also wrote very clearly that “Of course you can not be turned on all the time. In fact, you cannot even be turned on most of the time”. He insisted that LSD – when used responsibly – was a tool that could help people fulfil their potential and change their lives for the better, but he also made it clear that when used irresponsibly it could have dreadful consequences.
Indeed, Leary went so far as to suggest that the use of psychedelics should be permitted only by “licensed individuals”. In The Politics of Ecstasy he writes
The licensing for use of powerful psychedelic drugs like LSD should be along the lines of the airplane pilot’s license: intensive study and preparation, plus very stringent testing for fitness and competence…
He insists that “anyone who wants to have a psychedelic experience… should be allowed to have a crack at it” but that first they should be “willing to prepare for it and to examine [their] own hang-ups and neurotic tendencies”. It’s easy to grab chunks of Leary’s work in which he vigorously promotes the use of psychedelics, but we are being dishonest and do him a great disservice if we fail to acknowledge the cautionary context into which he placed that “promotion”. To claim that he argued for some sort of psychedelic free-for-all is simply wrong. When Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters showed up at Millbrook, Leary refused to give them any LSD precisely because he felt their philosophy of dolling it out to all-comers was potentially dangerous.
But of course, cautionary statements or not, Leary’s anti-establishment rhetoric was starting to worry the establishment. His “tune in, turn on, drop out” message and his exhortations to “tear down the American TV studio reality” didn’t play well in the power structures he argued should be replaced by a new psychedelic consciousness. And so, by the late 60s the worst fears of those who saw him as a demagogue had come to pass. Psychedelics had been outlawed and draconian punishments were being visited upon those caught producing or possessing them. Violent criminals were given more lenient sentences than those caught with LSD and even cannabis – long prohibited – was seen as an integral part of this revolutionary subculture and a nationwide crackdown was ordered.
So it was that Leary found himself arrested and charged for the possession of a single joint. His sentence? Thirty years in prison. He appealed the sentence and spent the next few years in and out of the courts. In the meantime he continued his transformation from respected academic into counter-cultural icon. Not only does he get a name-check in John and Yoko’s Give Peace A Chance but he was part of the famous bedroom recording session in Montreal and can – legend has it – be heard providing percussion by banging on a wardrobe door. He opposed Ronald Reagan in the race to be Governor of California and Lennon wrote his campaign song, Come Together. But the noose was tightening around Leary’s neck and while he successfully appealed the thirty-year sentence, he found himself back before the courts on charges of marijuana possession once more and in January 1970 finally lost his legal battles and found himself behind bars for 25 years.
Or he would have done had his life not turned into something out of a spy novel at this point. Although originally sentenced to a maximum security institution, Leary – like most prisoners at the time – was asked to sit a psychological profile test to establish the most appropriate prison regime for him. The name of the test was “The Leary Interpersonal Behavior Test”. He’d designed it himself a decade previously and knew exactly the right answers to give to ensure he ended up on gardening duty at a minimum security facility. Meanwhile his wife enlisted the help of the revolutionary organisation, The Weather Underground, and together they broke him out of prison and smuggled him to Algeria.
Dr. Leary spent the next three years on the run from the US authorities. Nixon took a personal interest in his case and provided practically unlimited resources to those hunting him. From North Africa to Europe the chase continued. Through Europe to Beirut and finally to Afghanistan where he was intercepted and dragged back to the United States to face punishment. Leary was told that not only would he never see the outside of a prison again but vague threats were made against his family including a promise to resurrect an old marijuana possession charge against his daughter.
However, Leary didn’t waste his time in prison and was prolific in his writing. His psychedelic experiments had led him to propose a radical new model of human consciousness (the “8-circuit model”) which he detailed in his book Exo-Psychology (later revised as Info-Psychology). This was hugely influential, albeit not within the mainstream, and was the catalyst for much of Robert Anton Wilson’s work, including the seminal Prometheus Rising. In prison Leary also wrote Intelligence Agents and Neuropolitics among other books. And he used the time to develop many of the themes that would dominate his later work… a complex and occasionally confusing fusion of mysticism, technology, psychedelia and about a dozen different schools of philosophy.
Nixon’s spectacular fall from grace meant that Leary ceased being public enemy number one and the new administration offered him the chance to “buy his freedom” by informing on others in the underground. This controversial period in his life is often raised by his critics. What’s interesting, however, is that the criticism never came from those he allegedly “informed” on. In fact, as An Open Letter from the Friends of Timothy Leary makes it clear, Leary managed to clear all of the information he passed on to the FBI with those on the outside before he passed it on…
- Nobody was seriously injured by Leary’s interaction with the FBI, with the exception of a former attorney, who received three months in prison after being set up on a cocaine bust by a girlfriend of Leary working on the outside, not from Tim’s testimony. The lawyer has never come forward to express any anger toward Leary. Two other former lawyers of Leary were placed at risk, as were his estranged wife and his archivist, but nothing came of it because of the absence of corroborating testimony from people who Tim well knew had been underground for years.
- The Weather Underground, the radical left organisation responsible for his escape, was not impacted by his testimony. Histories written about the Weather Underground usually mention the Leary chapter in terms of the escape for which they proudly took credit. Leary sent information to the Weather Underground through a sympathetic prisoner that he was considering making a deal with the FBI and waited for their approval. The return message was “we understand.”
In 1975, two years after providing this information to the FBI, Leary was released. While he continued to write, to lecture and to make public appearances, his experiences in prison left him understandably cautious and less willing to poke the establishment with a stick. His ideas were no less radical, he was just more careful about how he presented them.
An advocate of space exploration and an early internet enthusiast, Leary’s final decade was spent producing illuminated manuscripts such as Chaos and Cyberculture and The Game of Life. He collaborated with artists, scientists and philosophers as diverse as William S. Burroughs, William Gibson, David Byrne, Johnny Depp, Bruce Campbell, Gerard O’Neill of NASA, Brenda Laurel (the Virtual Reality pioneer) and countless others. He argued in favour of a kind of technological paganism, or techno-shamanism; aware that although the religious experience had been swallowed up by the tyranny of monotheism, it was nonetheless an essential part of being human and we faced disaster unless we found a way of reintegrating it with our modern, technological culture. “The Purpose of Life is Religious Discovery” he wrote. On the surface, a rather conservative statement. But, typical of Leary, it appears in an essay entitled “Start Your Own Religion”.
Ultimately, no short article can even begin to capture the life and work of Dr. Timothy Leary. For better or worse (I’d argue “better” but I guess that’s a judgement call), partly by design and partly by accident he brought psychedelic drugs to the masses. He was one of life’s genuine pioneers. A radical thinker who was larger than life. And yes, that magnified his flaws just as much as his virtues, but in the 75 years he spent on this small planet, he arguably changed western culture as much as any single individual during the same period. Re-reading his writing can be a little sad in these dark times. The joyous optimism; the belief in a brighter, better future; the conviction that the psychedelic explosion would usher in an unprecedented global creative revolution that would sweep away the power structures, hierarchies and oppression of the past… liberating us all and allowing the dawn of a new age of exploration. “The future is not a place we travel to”, Leary famously said, “it’s a place we build”. And for all Leary’s faults he wanted nothing more than to build a better future for himself and us all. And for that, Dr. Leary, I’d personally like to thank you.
Tune in. Turn on. Drop out.
[Written by Jim Bliss]