In 1960, Allen Ginsberg wrote a letter to Timothy Leary, then a professor at Harvard. Leary had invited the poet to Cambridge to participate in his studies of the newly synthesized chemical psilocybin. Ginsberg responded with enthusiasm, then listed his qualifications: LSD in 1959, as a subject in a research study at Stanford University; ayahuasca on a trip to South America the following year; nitrous oxide; ether; mescaline; marijuana; datura; opiates. Part II of “Howl,” he added, was “Peyote writing.” His motivation in all this, he explained, was to recover a lost feeling, a “series of mystical experiences—connected with reading Blake” that he had gone through when he was younger.
Leary’s life has been covered extensively, not least in his own memoirs. Trained as a psychologist, he was forty years old and a professor at Harvard when he went to Mexico, in 1960, and tried psychedelic mushrooms for the first time. He returned to Harvard, placed an order with Sandoz, which then manufactured LSD and psilocybin (the synthetic version of the chemical in the mushrooms), and began the Harvard Psilocybin Project with his colleague Richard Alpert (now known as Ram Dass). The invitation to Ginsberg was one of several overtures by Leary to recruit poets and artists for his experiments. After Ginsberg’s visit to Cambridge, he offered to introduce Leary to interested friends, a group that included the publisher of Grove Books, Barney Rosset, the poets LeRoi Jones (later known Amiri Baraka), Muriel Rukeyser, and Robert Lowell, the painters Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, and the jazz musicians Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.
The exchanges between Leary and Ginsberg are collected in a new book, “The Timothy Leary Project: Inside the Great Counterculture Experiment,” compiled by the archivist Jennifer Ulrich, who was put in charge of Leary’s papers when the New York Public Library acquired them, in 2011. Ulrich collects several trip reports here, from Ginsberg and his partner, the poet Peter Orlovsky; from Jack Kerouac; from graduate students and academics; and from Leary himself. They are proto-versions of Internet forums like Bluelight and Erowid, accounts of wonder, awe, and love. “I was experiencing, if not the future, the evolution of our species,” a graduate student named George Litwin wrote of his encounter with otherworldly beings while high on psilocybin. “They were extraordinary people, beautiful, gentle, graceful and full of light.”
“I came home and had the first serious long talk with my mother, for 3 days and 3 nights,” Jack Kerouac reported to Leary. “I learned I loved her more than I thought.”
“Are we Gods ball in his back pocket or are we God with this sun in our heart brain that beams high when on psilocybin,” Orlovsky wrote. “Something beautiful happens & I want more of it.”
As is now well known, Leary soon abandoned clinical protocols, distributing LSD and psilocybin to students and his friends. Leary and Alpert’s nine-page 1962 summary of their initial research, “Americans and Mushrooms in a Naturalistic Environment: A Preliminary Report,” may have been interesting to read, but in response to another proposed study Leary’s supervisors argued that the cause of long-term observational data was not well served by terms like “groovy” and “love engineer.” (Ulrich includes a letter to Leary from a Harvard faculty member instructing him to stop telling Sandoz that his experiments were for the academy.) Harvard fired Leary, in 1963, when his informal dispensary attracted too much controversy. With assistance from the heirs to the Mellon fortune, Leary moved what was still nominally a research institution to Millbrook, in upstate New York. Ulrich includes documents about workshops and courses at Millbrook, as well as an “Experience Planning and Recording Chart” with categories organized into “bardos,” the netherworlds of the Tibetan Buddhist afterlife—the beginnings of a theory that would coalesce into “The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead,” Leary and Alpert’s 1964 book with their Harvard collaborator Ralph Metzner. In 1965, Leary and Alpert went on a lecture tour, but it wasn’t until 1966, after several run-ins with the law, that Leary started earning his reputation as the “pied piper of LSD,” cultivating the media, saying things like, “To learn how to use your head, you have to go out of your mind,” and “Turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Many blame the federal ban on psychedelics, in 1970, at least in part, on the role Leary played in feeding a moral panic.
Ulrich’s selections, many of them previously unpublished, round out the trajectory of Leary’s life from professor to guru to fugitive to a nostalgic caricature of himself. The documents span Leary’s days at Harvard to his days as an Internet evangelist, when his aphorism became “the PC is the LSD of the nineteen-nineties.” (Messianic pronouncements came easily to him.) Ulrich concludes that if Leary had only “quietly conducted his drug studies at Harvard under controlled medical supervision, his story and that of the counterculture might have looked very different today.”
Ginsberg was pleased with the results of his experiments. He wrote in his January, 1961, trip report for Leary that “psilocybin seems to me to be some sort of psychic godsend.” He was not alone in wanting to re-create a mystical experience. As Oliver Sacks wrote in “Hallucinations,” published in 2012, “To live on a day-to-day basis is insufficient for human beings; we need to transcend, transport, escape; we need meaning, understanding, and explanation; we need to see overall patterns in our lives.” It is in large part because of their ability to offer such insights that LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline, ayahuasca, and other chemicals have retained a significant influence in American culture since their modern introduction, in the nineteen-fifties. The 1970 federal ban moved them underground. But, according to a 2010 survey, despite the laws that make such experimentation illegal, around thirty-two million Americans have tried LSD, mescaline, or magic mushrooms in their lifetimes.
For all the peer pressure I’d been taught to resist in public-school D.A.R.E. lessons, nobody invited me to drop acid as a high-school or college student. As a young adult living in Little Rock, Miami, and New York in the aughts, LSD did not factor into the casual drug use of my friends, who tended to use alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, or shared-out Adderall and Xanax prescriptions. (In the early two-thousands, a major federal bust greatly reduced the national supply, but I also didn’t try very hard to find it.) As Tao Lin writes in his new book, “Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change,” “I more than half-believed the stereotypes I’d absorbed throughout my life about psychedelic drugs—that they caused insanity and out-of-control behavior and were hazardous and uninteresting. People on psychedelics, when not going insane, seemed to laze or frolic or dance in fields and not worry or think about anything but only (somewhat pointlessly, I’d always felt) look at things, which they usually described as geometric.”
In “Trip,” Lin describes his life from 2012 to 2016, a time when he began a deliberate inquiry into psychedelics. Following the publication of his novel “Taipei,” in which the characters consume MDMA, Xanax, heroin, mushrooms, and more, and which Lin has said that he wrote using a “ ‘whatever it takes’ attitude regarding amphetamines and other drugs,” he attempted a shift from pharmaceutical to psychedelic drug use as part of a “sustained, conscious effort” to “not drift toward meaninglessness, depression, disempowering forms of resignation, and bleak ideologies like existentialism.” Lin’s eighth book is his first work of nonfiction—a mix of memoir, trip reports about substances like psilocybin, DMT, and salvia, and digressions on botany, health, and human evolution. Lin avoids writing in figurative language, and there is little hyperbole in these reports, nor references to nineteen-sixties-era acid metaphysics. “Trip” is, if not a guide to self-help, a book about a person trying to be happier, in part by changing the kinds of drugs he uses.
It is also a biography of the lecturer and writer Terence McKenna, whose discourses on psychedelics from the nineteen-eighties and nineteen-nineties have been preserved on YouTube since McKenna’s death, in 2000. McKenna, Lin writes, was against gurus, and disparaged the New Age self-help cults of his time. I listened to McKenna’s lectures on the recommendation of Lin, whom I met and befriended, in the summer of 2013, in the middle of my own experiments with psychedelic drugs, which I tried for the first time at the age of thirty-one. I spent that late summer and fall listening to McKenna’s lectures when I went running. He seemed to me, too, as Lin writes, “more earnest and sophisticated and undeluded than anyone I’d absorbed this much information from on nonmaterial topics like consciousness and imagination.” Not all of McKenna’s theories about language, evolution, psychedelics, and the acceleration of history were empirically provable, but it was relaxing to contemplate the cosmos via his droll jokes.
When I started reading the canon of psychedelic literature, I better understood how, contrary to the propaganda of our elementary-school educations and the example set by Leary, one could be a thoughtful, reality-abiding, and even professionally successful person and also take LSD, psilocybin, or ayahuasca. Some of the books I read were self-published, had copy-editing errors, or proposed top-down theories, but most of them were more instructive and trustworthy than the information on the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Web site. I felt at times that I was discovering a parallel history of culture, like the time I read a passage in Carlos Castaneda’s “The Teachings of Don Juan” and realized that it must have influenced one of my favorite children’s books, a novel about witches set in the dark ages, called “Wise Child,” by Monica Furlong, an Anglican who was Alan Watts’s biographer and had tried acid. The more I read about drugs, the more the paradigm by which they were controlled in the United States appeared not just unjust but illogical. In 2013, I attended the annual Horizons conference on psychedelics, in New York City, then in its seventh year. I went to ayahuasca ceremonies.
Some of these choices now seem clichéd, part of a widespread cultural reëvaluation. Father John Misty was talking about mushrooms and Chance the Rapper about LSD; RuPaul and Steve Jobs were reminiscing about youthful trips; research about the medical potential of psychedelics was getting attention on the front page of the Times; and Hamilton Morris had started documenting his psychoactive adventures for Vice. From the online communities of drug geeks that were formed during the nineteen-nineties, a group of organizations had coalesced, dedicated to correcting what they saw as the worst errors of American drug policy, including the failures of the “war on drugs”: DanceSafe, the Drug Policy Alliance, the Council on Spiritual Practices, the research think tank the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, and the encyclopedic drug Web site Erowid (which I wrote about here), among others. These formed the foundation of what is now known as the enlightened drug movement, a multipronged approach to reëvaluating America’s legal, medical, educational, and social relationship to psychoactive chemicals.
One of the most effective fronts of this movement has been scientific research. In “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence,” Michael Pollan dates the “modern renaissance of psychedelic research” to 2006, the centennial birthday of Albert Hofmann, who first synthesized both LSD and psilocybin. Hofmann was still alive and, that year, had a birthday party in Geneva, which then turned into a conference, where researchers from the United States and Switzerland at the vanguard of government-approved experimentation met and discussed their findings. Also that year, the Supreme Court ruled that a religious group, a branch of the Brazilian-based church the União do Vegetal, could legally import ayahuasca for use as a sacrament, which opened up a possible religious path to the legalization of psychedelic drugs.
The third event Pollan finds significant in 2006 was the publication of a paper in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, entitled “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-type Experiences,” which was, he writes, “the first double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical study in more than four decades—if not ever—to examine the psychological effects of a psychedelic.” What Ginsberg had sought almost fifty years before had now been “scientifically proven”—although, as Leary might have argued, what could the research reveal that hadn’t already been discovered by millions of others?
Pollan was born in 1955, “halfway through the decade that psychedelics first burst on the scene.” From the nineteen-fifties through the mid-sixties, thousands of experiments, many of them government-funded, tested LSD’s efficacy at treating schizophrenia, alcoholism, and other psychological problems. Pollan was only twelve years old during the Summer of Love. “By the time the idea of trying or not trying LSD swam into my conscious awareness, it had already completed its speedy media arc from psychiatric wonder drug to countercultural sacrement to destroyer of young minds,” he writes. It wasn’t until he was in his mid-fifties, when an article about psychedelic research made the front page of the Times, that Pollan decided that he was ready to rethink his abstinence.
“How to Change Your Mind” attempts to present the possibilities of psychedelic drugs, without overly challenging the consensus reality of your average NPR listener. Pollan consistently emphasizes the academic credentials and staid wardrobe choices of his sources. He apologizes for talking about unreal visions and emotional moments in his own trip reports, which document his experiences with mushrooms, LSD, and a substance called 5-MEO-DMT, which is made from the venom of the Sonoran desert toad. “Do I need to say that I know how crazy this sounds?,” he writes of a mushroom trip, and, later, “It embarrasses me to write these words; they sound so thin, so banal.” He consults his cardiologist before trying LSD for the first time. (His doctor assures him that the classical psychedelics have little impact on the cardiovascular system.)
But there are upsides to Pollan’s commitment to science. He interviews Robin Carhart-Harris, a British neuroscientist whose research indicates that psilocybin dampens activity in a part of the brain called the default-mode network, which Pollan describes as “the conductor of the symphony of brain activity.” The brain, he learns, is an “uncertainty-reducing machine” that depends on known patterns. As Pollan writes, “When the grooves of self-reflective thinking deepen and harden, the ego becomes overbearing. This is perhaps most clearly evident in depression, when the ego turns on itself and uncontrollable introspection gradually shades out reality.” It is here that the medical promise of psychedelics comes in. “By quieting the default-mode network,” Pollan theorizes, “these compounds can loosen the ego’s grip on the machinery of the mind, ‘lubricating’ cognition where before it had been rusted stuck.”
In the United States, we have a long tradition of separating our psychoactive chemicals into “medicine” or “drugs.” Pollan hesitates to advocate for legalization, which reveals the unexamined privilege of a person who repeatedly broke the law to write his book. His suggestion that psychedelics like mushrooms and LSD are moved back into the medicine category could also be questioned. With other controlled substances, this has tended to cause confusion: the chemical and clinical differences between the prescription amphetamine Adderall and a “street drug” like methamphetamine are slight, but one substance is prescribed to children and the other is highly criminalized. The similarities in habit formation and physical effects between prescription opioid painkillers and heroin are now well known, but were obscured in the marketing for many years.
There is also more to psychedelics than introspection. Early in his book, Pollan interviews a scholar of psychedelics named Bob Jesse, who stops the author mid-sentence when he refers to “recreational” drug use. “Maybe we need to reëxamine that term,” he tells Pollan. “Typically, it is used to trivialize an experience. But why? In its literal meaning the word ‘recreation’ implies something decidedly nontrivial.” People take psychedelics to listen to music, to dance, to connect with their friends, to enhance sexual experiences, to create, and for pure pleasure.
Lin looks at the history of how psychedelics became illegal more carefully than Pollan does, particularly in a chapter where he describes serving on a special narcotics grand jury in Manhattan. He quotes McKenna: “Psychedelics are illegal not because a loving government is concerned that you may jump out of a third-story window.” They’re illegal, McKenna said, because “they open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.” It’s certainly true that after I took psychedelics, it turned out that most of what I thought I knew about them was wrong. Lin concludes that the prescription uppers and downers he has taken had greater negative effects and were more difficult to stop using than psychedelics, and were not nearly as therapeutic. “Peaking on large doses of Adderall alone in my room, I’ve never sobbed while thinking fondly and lovingly about my parents, as I have on cannabis and psilocybin,” he writes. Leary pretended that psychedelics had the power to rewrite society. It turned out not to be true. In these three books, another theory of psychedelics emerges, which suggests that the most mystical revelations concern earthly themes: birth, death, and the body; family, friends, and love.
By New Yorker