Acid Redux

HIGH PRIEST, PUBLISHED IN 1968 when Timothy Leary was forty-seven, is an account of Leary’s life from 1959 to 1962, a period when his research and social work was funded by Harvard, then transformed by psychedelics. Before reading the book, I had heard Leary dismissed as hedonistic and irresponsible. I came away from it with a different view of him—as a serious, careful, and inspiring thinker.

The book is divided into sixteen chapters, or “trips.” It begins with a thirty-five-year-old Leary leaving his job and “stage-prop home” in Berkeley, where he thought, acted, and drank martinis “like several million middle-class liberal intellectual robots.” Bringing his two children and “a trunk full of psychological data—thousands of test scores and numerical indices,” he traveled to Spain, where he attempted to prove “psychotherapy was an arduous, expensive, ineffective, unimaginative attempt to impose the mind of the doctor on the mind of the patient.”

In 1959, Leary was hired by Harvard’s Center for Research in Personality to “introduce existential-transactional methods for behavior change”—“existential” meant the doctor should be in the field where the patient was having their unique problem; “transactional” meant the doctor should stop being a doctor and “join the other person actively and collaboratively” in figuring out their problem. As part of this work, Leary spent one night a week in “a slum-housing district in a Boston suburb,” teaching residents to “become psychiatrists for each other.”

The following August, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Leary had his first psychedelic experience, via psilocybin-containing mushrooms. He next tripped in October, then November. His trip reports, which he viewed as literary challenges (“The psychedelic experience is indescribable, ineffable, but so is every other experience”) are moving, funny, and analytical. On injecting DMT: “There could be no memory of the sequence of visions because there was no time—and no memory of structure because space was converted into flowing process.”

After deciding to model his research on shamanism, which he saw as akin to the existential-transactional methods he’d introduced at Harvard, Leary realized his “days as a respectable establishment scientist were numbered.” From then on, his “energies were offered to the ancient underground society of alchemists, artists, mystics, alienated visionaries, drop-outs and the disenchanted young.” He and graduate students began to trip with inmates: “In session after session the inmates guided the Harvards, and the Harvards guided the convicts,” he writes. They set up AA-like meetings, and worked to get the inmates jobs at construction sites and restaurants. Recidivism rates dropped. Personalities changed, with “less depression, hostility, antisocial tendencies.”

Leary used LSD for the first time in November 1961. High Priest ends seven months after that, in June 1962, with an account of a strong LSD trip in Tepoztlán, Mexico, and Leary’s recommendation that we drop out of “the external social drama which is as dehydrated and ersatz as TV” and start our own tribes and our own religions, using psychedelics as the sacrament.

Leary was fired by an increasingly cautious Harvard before he could begin researching LSD. Richard Nixon, who called Leary the “most dangerous man in America,” passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, making psychedelics Schedule 1 drugs, like heroin and ecstasy. By the end of his life, Leary had served time in thirty-six different prisons. He died in 1996—ten years before the next wave of scientific research on the effects of psychedelics on humans began, in 2006, with psilocybin studies at Johns Hopkins and New York University.

Tao Lin is the author of Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change (Vintage, 2018).