The Acid Guru's Long, Strange Trip
Walker, Jesse, The American Conservative
[Timothy Leary: A Biography, Robert Greenfield, Harcourt, 689 pages] The Acid Guru's Long, Strange Trip
IN SEPTEMBER 1970, the Weather Underground helped Timothy Leary escape from a federal prison. It wasn't a natural alliance. Leary was a hippie icon, but he usually kept the Left at arm's length, preferring psychedelic spirituality to armed revolution. The Weathermen, meanwhile, came from the most Stalinist recesses of the New Left. Their heroes included Kim Il Sung and Mao Zedong, and their methods were aimed less at blowing people's minds than at blowing people up.
Nonetheless, Leary played his new role with gusto, issuing a "P.O.W. Statement" that reads like a parody of revolutionary rhetoric. "Brothers and Sisters," he wrote, "this is a war for survival. Ask Huey and Angela. They dig it. ... To shoot a genocidal robot policeman in the defense of life is a sacred act."
Less than six years later he wrote another essay, this one gracing the less Mao-friendly pages of National Review. It was an unrestrained attack on the '60s and its celebrities. The Weathermen who rescued Leary were dismissed (accurately) as a "bewildered, fugitive band of terrorists." John Lennon was accused (less accurately) of ripping off the slogan of Leary's aborted gubernatorial campaign in California, "Come Together." (In fact, Lennon had written "Come Together" to be Leary's campaign song.) Pages of bile were directed at Bob Dylan and his "snarling, whining, scorning, mocking" songs. At one point Leary declared, "Squeaky Fromme stands in a Sacramento courtroom ... for believing exactly what [Dylan] told her in the Sixties" and blamed her attempted assassination of Gerald Ford on the fact that "she was unlucky enough to have owned a record player in her vulnerable adolescence."
In 1997, reviewing a hagiographic documentary called "Timothy Leary's Dead," I cited those two essays as evidence that Leary was "a con man at heart, the counterculture's own Madison Avenue huckster." Now that I've read Robert Greenfield's Timothy Leary: A Biography, I feel a little less confident about that conclusion. The book paints a deeply negative portrait of Leary, but it also reminds us of the context that produced those extraordinarily odd pieces of writing. At the same time, it makes it clear that there was more than a little Madison Avenue in Leary's DNA.
A decade before his jailbreak, Leary was a respected Harvard psychologist known for his work in personality assessment. He was also one of several researchers around the world who were exploring the effects and potential benefits of psychedelic drugs, which still were legal at the time. It gradually became clear that where other scientists tried to maintain their traditional objectivity, Leary was an evangelist eager to spread the good news of acid and shrooms. His new enthusiasm eventually led to scandal, and he happily left Harvard behind. Soon he was preaching the virtues of LSD to every audience he could find, even as the government and the media started to view the drug as the nation's leading menace.
Scholars today generally regard the LSD scare of the '60s as a classic social panic. "Of all the widely used recreational drugs," the sociologists Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda note in their 1994 book Moral Panics, acid "is the one taken by users most episodically and occasionally, least regularly and chronically." It certainly poses risks, but the most disturbing rumors about its effects-that it causes chromosome damage, that it prompts teens to blind themselves by staring at the sun-turned out to be false. What's more, the media scare arrived at a time when LSD use was at a relatively low level; the hysteria actually faded as the drug grew more popular.
What's fascinating is Leary's relationship to that panic. Leary has written that his best-known slogan-"tune in, turn on, drop out"-was inspired by a lunch with the media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who told him, "You call yourself a philosopher, a reformer. …