Timothy Leary: America Surrounded

How Timothy Leary Changed America

Eddie J. Girdner

John Higgs. I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary. Barricade Books, 2006.

In l971, the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, thought that Timothy Leary was “the most dangerous man in America.” Leary appeared to be a peaceful man, always smiling. Why was he considered more dangerous than the most brutal and violent killer one could find in America? Anger and brutality seemed to be no threats to the United States of America. But spreading sentiments of love and peace among the larger population was seen to be the gravest threat. Indeed, the threat of peace is so serious that it threatened the very social, economic, and political fabric of America at its root. Sentiments of love and peace are the gravest threats to capitalism and imperialism.

In the sixties, it was imperative for the American system and the American Empire that those who wanted to “give peace a chance” had to be crushed, destroyed, rooted out. The cultural revolution of the sixties in the United States was dangerous to the ruling class when peace was about to break out at the time America was waging a colonialist war against Vietnam.

Just when the US needed soldiers to kill communists in Asia, people’s minds were being blown, or rather expanded, all across America. A cultural revolution was beginning in the l960s, leaving the “square” and normal fifties generation behind. Not only was a new generation going to the universities in greater numbers, many began to discover that there were ways to expand their consciousness far beyond anything that they could learn from the books.

Timothy Leary thought that society could be changed through psychedelic substances, particularly LSD.

Leary said: “The kids that take LSD aren’t going to fight your wars, middle class, middle age, whiskey-drinking generals. They’ll not join your corporations, middle class, middle age, whiskey-drinking corporation presidents.”    

But telling young people to reject the values of their parents was equivalent to declaring war on American society as it existed in the sixties. Leary told students to start a drop-out movement on their college campuses. He said: “Our aim is to transform American society. In the next five to ten years we expect that between twenty and thirty million Americans will be taking LSD regularly in their spiritual development and psychological growth.” 

Looking back on the situation, the ignorance of American society rather boggles the mind.  The attempt by courageous individuals to open the minds of America and expand their consciousness met with crushing reaction. At the forefront of this movement was a figure perhaps not well recognized by the youth of today. Timothy Leary became the pivotal figure and the old established system predictably came down upon him very hard. He found himself in prison.

This book is a very informative biography of Timothy Leary, the “mad scientist” of the sixties. I had known about him, but did not know the inside story and what really happened. When the information one gets is filtered through the corporate press, one gets mostly lies about a figure like Leary that goes against the mainstream society. One comes to think of the person as a dangerous crackpot who is not only evil, but also insane.

Leary’s life is quite mixed. Sometimes quite wild. Sometimes an active professor at Harvard University receiving research grants and constructing a path-breaking theory of human behavior and at other times engaged in wild sexual orgies. It has been said that his life was “flat out epic grandeur.” Being so unconventional, he became alienated from mainstream society. In many ways, he was a pioneer in attempting to understand the brain in a scientific way and pushing the frontiers of consciousness.

Predictably, with President Richard Nixon out to get him, he ended up in prison in California in l970, given a long prison sentence for having one eighth of an ounce of marijuana. It seems that he was too smart to stay in prison. His wife and friends vowed to get him out and organized a jail break. It could work only because Leary was not in one of the high-security prisons. On the night he busted out, he wrote a note for the prison guards. This was in l970.

“In the name of the Father and Mother and the Holy Ghost, Oh Guards, I leave now for freedom. I pray that you will free yourselves. To hold man captive is a crime against humanity and a sin against God. Oh Guards, you are criminals and sinners. Cut it loose. Be free. Amen.”

Leary was at the California Men’s Colony at San Luis Obispo, a low security prison. At this time, he was a 49 year old academic. He was not considered an escape risk because of the results of some psychological tests he was given. When Leary saw the questions on the exam, he realized that he had, himself, written the questions years ago, and so he knew how to answer them to fool the authorities.

In his youth, Leary had joined the US Army, He went to the military academy at West Point, New York. But he was not cut out for military life and got into trouble. He wanted to think for himself and question authority. But in 1942, he was back in the Army and became a psychologist. It was here that he began to question the psychological model that was used in the United States up through the l950s.

In this view, there were two types of behavior, the normal and the abnormal. Abnormal meant those who were unmotivated, homosexual, radical, and so on. There were various ways to deal with “deviant behavior.” Two methods were electric shock and drugs such as thorazine.

When the war was over, in l946, Leary went to the University in  Berkeley, California, and got a Ph.D. in psychology. He had the IQ of a genius and published many papers while still a student. At the same time, he wrote a book, which changed the field of psychology with ideas that were considered radical then. The book was: Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality: A Functional Theory and Methodology for Personal Evaluation. (1957)     

The book contributed some important new ideas. “Normality” just reflects white, middle-class values. The environment and circumstances are important factors. “Abnormal” was just a healthy pro-survival adaptation. The patients must assume responsibility for their lives.

The discipline was in crises, as psychotherapy was not working. Those who got counseling were no better off than those who got none, on the whole.

At the time, Leary was thirty-five years old. His first wife committed suicide due to Leary’s unfaithfulness. He left Berkeley, remarried, and took the two children to Europe. He worked on another book in which he argued that the psychiatrist must get out into the real world and be involved with the patient. He realized that observation changed the situation.

After falling ill and seeing the healing as spiritual, Leary met a professor, David McClelland. He was offered a job at Harvard. While at the university, he met Richard Alpert. An old friend, Frank Baum, talked of magic mushrooms that could give one a psychedelic experience. R. Gordon Wasson had researched the mushroom cult back to four-thousand years. He had discovered ecstasy with a mushroom called teonanacatl (God’s Flesh).

Timothy Leary thought this might be a key for behavioral change. In the summer, he went with Alpert to Mexico to find some of these mushrooms. Timothy and his friends ate the mushrooms sitting around the swimming pool. After half an hour, they began to laugh uncontrollably. Then Leary’s mind split open. The experience altered his brain. His concept of time and space changed. Leary recalled that he saw the world with clarity and learned more about the mind in four hours than ever before. This is, of course, very much the experience called enlightenment in Eastern religions.

Leary decided that this discovery would allow him to explore the methodologies he wrote about in his book. The doctors would take the psychedelic drug with the patient. But for society, the possibilities were just too explosive. They had the possibility of releasing people from the repression of authoritarian religious dogma and accepted political ideology.

Now Leary had a new mission. The Harvard Psychedelic Research Program was set up.

The active component of the magic mushrooms was psilocybin. It was available from Sandoz laboratories in Switzerland in the form of pink pills. Professors and students would take the pills together with observers and see what happened. Hundreds of students volunteered. It was found that the experience was one of broadening awareness and increased insight. There was humanistic interchange. The little pink pills were teaching the students more than their professors could. If more people could have the experience, it was thought, maybe it would end war.

The experience was nothing new, in fact. It was just that the ignorance about it was just too vast. It had been around for thousands of years, not only in India among the sadhus, but in many tribal societies. American Indian tribes used peyote in the same way. It was known in Europe and England, but here, the experience was kept among the elites. It was not to be used by the masses. The British novelist Aldous Huxley had experimented with psychedelic substances and wrote about it in his novel Brave New Worlds. He had written about it in The Doors of Perception. William James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902 after experiments with nitrous oxide. Other such drugs were mescaline and LSD.   

The researcher, R. Gordon Wasson had claimed that psilocybin had the potential for social change in society and could overturn existing scientific paradigms. There were also religious implications, namely evidence that religion was actually caused by psychoactive fungi in all corners of the globe.

Huxley came to Harvard and met Timothy Leary.  For Huxley, the psychedelic substances would be used by giving them to powerful people, such as businessmen, politicians, artists and intellectuals. They would be kept away from the population as they could threaten a stable functioning civilization. Huxley thought that they offered a way out of war and oppression. Powerful men had to understand how to use them and the leader of the experiments had to be “respectable” members of society.

One of Leary’s friends was Allen Ginsberg, a poet of the sixties who wrote “Howl.” Ginsberg’s mother had been in the Communist Party USA. Ginsberg argued that everyone had the right to the psychedelic experience so the drug should be given to the masses. Leary would start to argue the same thing.

Leary and Richard Alpert set about to collect data after running experiments on some 200 colleagues and volunteers. To gain more scientific data, Leary went to the Massachusetts prison system and asked to give psilocybin to inmates who were about to be released. It was part of the prisoner rehabilitation program to see if the recidivism rate could be lowered. At the time it was running at seventy percent. After receiving psilocybin, the rate dropped to only ten percent among Timothy’s inmates. It was a phenomenal success, but it was not clear if this was the result of the drug or because inmates gained a better understanding of life’s problems and were given extra support.

Not everyone liked the experimentation, however, and opposition began to arise.

Another experiment was the Good Friday Miracle. At an Easter religious service, half the members of the audience were given psilocybin and half a placebo. Of those who took psilocybin, ninety percent had a religious experience. This experiment offended some people as it seemed to undermine their religious beliefs. It seemed that the experiences of the great Christian mystics could be obtained by just taking a pill.

It was in l961 that Timothy Leary was introduced to LSD. Lysergic acid diethylamide-25 was invented in l943 by Albert Hofmann at Sandoz Pharmaceuticals. It was derived from ergot, a rye fungus that is rich in alkaloids. Hofmann had taken 250 micrograms and experienced a wild ride on his bicycle on the way home. He called it his “problem child” because it had great potential for medical use, but got out of control when masses of young people started to use it as a recreational drug. 

In the USA, the Central Intelligence Agency thought that LSD might be useful as a “truth drug.” The US carried out experiments in l954, but found it useless after hundreds of CIA employees had taken the drug. The US military also experimented on 1500 people and called the experience “a trip.” That is where the term came from. Further CIA programs were carried out with the drug as part of the research into chemical and biological weapons. The MK-ULTRA program gave LSD secretly to people in prisons. The CIA also operated a brothel in San Francisco where they secretly watched the behaviors of people after taking the drug. But the effects were so unpredictable that the CIA seems to have given up on it. It seems, however, that they may have used it for torture.

It was not long before LSD began to be used by famous people in Hollywood.

Leary got his first LSD from Michael Hollingshead. He obtained one gram of LSD from Sandoz, which was enough for five thousand doses. When Leary took it, he found it much stronger than psilocybin. He said it was “the most shattering experience of my life.” He understood that “everything within and around me is a creation of my own consciousness… Everyone lives in a neural cocoon of private reality.” All behavior patterns are just games that people are taught to play. There is no such thing as “normal” and “abnormal.” He realized that normal consciousness was not the ultimate reality. He had just created it himself. Or in the Indian context, the world is Maya.

These mental models that people create were called “reality tunnels” by Leary. Whatever one believes imprisons them. This explained the post-modern move away from the Enlightenment ideas of the eighteenth century which viewed reality as absolute. It was necessary for the mental world to undergo a revolution. Religion, social movements, and political movements try to synchronize the minds of large numbers of people. This is actually an attempt to prevent them from using their own brains. Leary asked people to take control of their own brains.

Meanwhile at Harvard University, things were starting to become wilder in the Center for Personality Research. Leary’s house had become a sort of commune. The CIA and university officials were watching and becoming more concerned. The influence of Leary and Richard Alpert was spreading first to Hollywood and also to Washington, DC. This was likely where it was needed the most.

An acquaintance of Leary was Mary Pinchot Meyer. Her husband, Cord Meyer, was a CIA agent in covert operations. Leary trained her to guide people on LSD trips. She was also believed to be a mistress of President John F. Kennedy and it is believed that President Kennedy took LSD while in the White House. She was murdered in 1964.

These insights that LSD revealed to Leary were actually very old ideas. The illusions of the world are the shadows on the cave wall in The Republic of Plato. The world is just illusion, or Maya. One might discover this through years of meditation or years of prayer to God in the case of Christian saints seeking mystical experiences. Sadhus smoke gung to focus their mind. But LSD was a sort of short-cut to these insights. There was no need to spend years in meditation. Just take the drug and get the same result in about half an hour. The experimenters realized that the experience was an old one in India. But not just India. It had been used in the West too, but the truth had remained largely hidden and dismissed as it was not seen as scientific. It did not fit the academic scientific paradigm.

There were an infinite number of realities or reality tunnels that one could use to reprogram their brain. LSD now seemed to be the key to this reprogramming operation. But academics saw it as unscientific. Where was the hard data? This was their question. Leary began to be seen as a flake and it did not help when Swami Vishnudevananda performed a head stand on the conference table of the Harvard Center, dressed only in his loin cloth.

Those who took LSD also discovered that it heightened the sexual experience. The hedonism, sexual liberation, and intellectual expansion increased awareness and those who took trips somehow came across as wiser. Some students started to drop out to study Yoga on the Ganges, which did not please the parents who paid thousands of dollars for them to attend the university.

The shit was about to hit the fan, as they say. As often happens in academia, a committee was about to emerge which came under the rubric of “the get-Leary committee.” Some faculty began to complain about Leary and said that the work of the personality center did not have scientific validity. Leary was also accused of corrupting students. He had become a modern-day Socrates. Richard Alpert was fired from Harvard. Higgs says that Leary was fired too, but this is not certain. In any event, when Alpert left Harvard, Leary also left.

The two went private and formed an organization called IF-IF, the International Federation for International Freedom and began to publish a journal. They had help from rich friends and opened up a center at Millbrook in New York State. The large house was owned by two grandchildren of the founder of Gulf Oil.  

Leary and Alpert set up a commune in the place. In LSD sessions, Leary said, set and setting was important for the experience of getting a “glimpse of utopia.” Set meant being in a good frame of mind. Setting meant being in a harmonious location with trusted friends.

LSD became illegal in l966 but a large amount was being produced underground. It was taken by at least seven million Americans. Leary called it “deprogramming oneself.”

Leary went to India and lived for four months near Almora in the Kumaon Hills. Alpert also went to India and eventually became Baba Ramdas. He came back to the US to teach Yoga to Americans.

Leary, however, was never sold on established religion and told people to establish their own religion. Leary founded the League of Spiritual Discovery taking the name from Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East. For Leary, the Divine was a product of the mind. There was no “higher power” external to the nervous system. “God” is the mind and “sentient chaos.”

One of Leary’s friends began his own religion, called the Neo-American Church with the motto: “Victory Over Horseshit.” One can say “Amen” to that.

Millbrook was declared to be a monastery. At this stage Leary advanced the principle that “Thou shalt not alter the consciousness of thy fellow man.” This seemed to change later, however. At the center of the movement, Leary came to be called a guru. He said the revolution was entirely spiritual and that LSD was a religious sacrament. Leary was also called the “High Priest.”

For some it seemed to be just thumbing one’s nose at square middle-class society and having a lot of fun. But someone had to be paying the bill, of course. Perhaps it was only the relatively affluent kids from middle class families who had the luxury to goof off for a number of years before settling down to make a living.

I remember that in the sixties, my struggle was not against the establishment but just getting through the university. If I did not make it, there was nothing to fall back on. In the summers I had to raise crops on the farm to have some money to pay my way through the university. While the hippies were seeking enlightenment, I was plowing corn. The looming threat from the establishment was the Vietnam War that could get one killed. But students in my situation did not have any money to travel across the country and have fun experiences with drugs. I did not have the luxury of spending time to find enlightenment. This was probably true for most. Because of that, I never experimented with drugs.

The fun aspect of it was seen in the “Merry Pranksters” and Ken Kesey, who wrote the book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, after taking LSD in a secret CIA experiment at Stanford University. Kesey and others bought an old bus and drove across American taking LSD and making fun of square Americans they met along the way.

Bringing the spiritual revolution to America was not as easy as Leary imagined, as it turned out. Just because the blinders fell from his eyes, did not mean that the institutional structures of society were about to collapse. The old society fought back. The US authorities moved against the drug culture. In particular, they were out to get Leary. Once they did, they would try to put him away forever.

The District Attorney in New York was G. Gordon Liddy. He raided Millbrook with his men. Leary knew the raid was coming, so they were mostly clean, but Liddy got the commune closed down and went on to the White House to carry out the Watergate burglary for President Richard Nixon.  

Fake stories were made up and published about the dangers of drugs in the press. It was said that it damaged hormones. This was pure fiction. Leary argued that LSD is “non-toxic, non-addictive, and anti-narcotic.” Nevertheless, Congress passed a law to make it illegal in l966.    

Leary kept telling people to “turn on, tune in and drop out.” By this he meant to drop out from the social norms of society. But without a job, most people could not even pay their rent.

When Richard Nixon was elected President in l968, he started to wage a war against Leary and the free-love, anti-war hippies. Nixon was paranoid and thought the Communists were trying to destroy America with drugs. Leary won a case against his marijuana conviction in the US Supreme Court and announced that he would run for Governor of California. He said there was no excuse for the people of California not to be happy and smiling if they followed the movement. John Lennon wrote the song “Come Together” for Leary’s campaign, but before the election could happen, he found himself in prison in 1970.

Leary’s political ideas came across as extreme libertarianism. He called his party FERVOR: Free Enterprise, Reward, Virtue and Order Party. There would be no taxes and a free market. Schools and prisons would be privatized and run for profit. It sounds quite naïve. Well, at least the last two have come true.

Now busted again, Leary was refused bail. At the trial, the judge called him an “insidious menace” and the “most dangerous man in America.” America was out to burn Leary at the stake, after a fashion. It was the old inquisition once again. Leary smiled through it all as his years of prison sentencing built up. The heavy sentences were obviously political. He had preached expanded awareness and now said that it was his duty to escape. But in the end, “you can’t outrun the long arm of the law.”

In 1970, after seven months, his wife Rosemary was able to arrange it. The radical group, the Weather Underground, was paid twenty-five thousand dollars to hide Leary and get him out of the country, once he escaped. One member of the group, Bernadine Dohrn declared war on the United States. They were inspired by Marx, Che Guevarra and psychedelic drugs.

Being in a low security prison, Leary was able to pull off the miracle and escape. The Weathermen hid him and helped him make it onto a flight to Paris and later Algeria. In Algiers, Leary and Rosemary linked up with Eldridge Cleaver who was a member of the radical Black Panther Party. The Algerian Government recognized Cleaver as the US Ambassador. Leary declared, along with the Panthers, that the US Government had to be overthrown. Now it seemed that Leary had changed from being a peacenik to wanting to use force and militancy against the USA. It was the purist lunacy. He made the statement that “every policeman is an armed, fascist, bully murderer.”    

The panthers, however, did not like drugs and hippies. They imprisoned Leary and his wife, in an attempt to get money from them. But Leary was able to trick them and escape to Switzerland. Here he was protected by a wealthy arms dealer. The US application for extradition of Leary was rejected by the Swiss and he stayed, enjoying his life in exile for a time and having a luxurious life with famous people from around the world.

Leary worked out his model of the human brain outlining the seven levels of consciousness. Level one was the basic survival circuit. Level two was the power level. Above that was the third level of social awareness and politics. The fourth level was the sexual circuit. These were the levels normally used by one living a normal life. The fifth level was the hedonic circuit. This was pure pleasure that could be activated by cannabis. The sixth level is super-awareness, the realization that we are all one and this could be reached with the help of LSD. The seventh was the neurogenetic level that transcends space and time. These are the pure forms of Plato and Jung’s “collective unconscious.”

From Europe, Leary was persuaded to go to Kabul by a friend. From there he planned to travel overland to India. But the US arranged with the Afghanis to arrest Leary in Kabul and put him on a Pan Am flight back to California. Nixon was out to get him. His friend was probably secretly working for the US Government.

Back in the US, Leary was tried for his escape and argued that he was not responsible because he was someone else when he escaped. This defense carried no weight with the court. The judge added another five years to his sentence and sent him to Folsom Prison. In solitary, Leary wrote another book on the back of legal briefs and smuggled it out of prison. At Folsom, he was right next door to the famous murderer Charles Manson.

In prison again, Leary constructed his Starseed Theory. The idea originally came from the British mathematician, Lord Kelvin. The idea was that the seeds of life on earth came from outer space. These seeds were nucleotide templates that evolved into nervous systems. They could switch onto higher levels. When a comet was approaching the earth, Leary began to think that it was coming to take him out of prison. He would be leaving the planet and a “New Age” of spiritual awakening would take place. The age of Aquarius would be dawning to lead the world to peace and enlightenment. It never happened, of course.

Faced with something like seventy years of prison sentences, there was only one way that Leary was ever going to see the light of day outside of prison. That was to turn state’s evidence. If he would sing for the officials they would let him out. It shows the power of the state to destroy the most creative people in society and the US authorities were about to destroy Leary and his reputation for good. No matter what he did, they were going to destroy him.

Leary agreed to the deal to provide information to the Government, but managed to get word out to the Weatherman that he was going to talk to the Feds. For most, this was the end of Leary’s popularity and his reputation. He had joined with the enemy of those who wanted to be free. He had turned against his friends. They could never trust him again.

By the mid-seventies the hippie movement in America was dead. The Punk Movement that took over was of young kids who cared nothing about enlightenment. They just wanted to sniff glue and take cocaine in a mindless buzz. They wanted to kill all the hippies. By the eighties, the materialism of the Ronald Reagan era was taking over America.

The historical dialectic had swung sharply back to the right. But American society had nevertheless been changed by the mass numbers of individuals who had psychedelic experiences. Just how this affected society is not often realized. It brought in the PC, the personal computer. Both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs took LSD. It led to the discovery of chaos theory in mathematics. Francis Crick invented DNA while on an LSD trip. Several other Nobel prize winners made their discoveries as a result of LSD. Post-Modernism came about as a result of DNA. There was a paradigm change in theory. Relativism became widespread. Identity politics arose along with the gay movement. The eighteenth century rationalist models were increasingly questioned. Where LSD was used the most in the US, these states became more open and more democratic. They were less politically conservative and less likely to support US imperialism.

When Timothy Leary died in l996, he had made a quite significant impact on American society and culture. Everyone who loves freedom should still get a big charge out of seeing Tim Leary telling the corporate chairmen and the generals to go to hell. Give peace a chance. We will not be a part of your wars. A portion of Leary’s ashes were launched into outer space.

America today may be a more chaotic and fragmented society as a result of all the minds that were expanded on LSD in the sixties but in my view it was a great and necessary development. Unfortunately, the sixties struggle for freedom had to be crushed brutally as it was a dangerous threat to corporate capitalism and the American Empire itself. In a serious empire, it is not possible to give peace a chance. It is something for which the people always have to struggle.  

Eddie J. Girdner is author of Global Political Economy. (Denver, USA: Outskirts Press, 2015).

February 4, 2015