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The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America Hardcover – January 5, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. It's hard for folks who didn't live through the 1960s to imagine what it was like to live in a drug- and sex-soaked culture, one where traditional values were drowned in a rush of hedonism and hippiedom. Names like Timothy Leary and Ram Dass bring back all the memories and all the conflicts. In this beautifully constructed study, Lattin (Jesus Freaks) brings together four of the most memorable figures from that period. Each comes across as a flawed genius and irrepressible fanatic. The author says of Leary that he activate[d] conservative anxiety in America, but this could easily describe any of the players in this grim and gritty story. Laying out their stories side by side in roughly chronological form, the author traces the lives of each of the players, exposing a kind of dysfunctional relationship among them that is not part of our corporate memory. This is a fast-moving, dispassionate recounting of a seminal period in our history, and all in all, a wonderful book. (Jan.)
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*Starred Review* This would be a terrific social history of a fascinating historical period even if it didn’t star some of the most important influences on today’s culture. But Andrew Weil remains a guru of alternative medicine and nutrition, and Huston Smith’s books on world religion are required reading at almost every college, while Timothy Leary and Ram Dass are icons of consciousness exploration through drugs and Eastern religions, respectively. So this energetic study of the time all four were together at Harvard tells much about today’s culture. Lattin’s quasifictional techniques (most notably, reconstructed dialogue) bring to life the antics of trickster Leary, who once said that he’d turned seven million people on and only 100,000 ever thanked him, and seeker Ram Dass (originally Richard Alpert), who helped bring awareness of meditation and other Indian religious techniques to the West. Smith, son of Christian missionaries in China and early on a fellow traveler with Leary and Alpert, determined that drugs constituted but a shortcut to the religious ecstasy he sought, while Weil’s opposition was instrumental in ending Leary’s and Alpert’s tenures at Harvard (although he was himself experimenting with the same drugs). Some laugh-aloud passages make this an entertaining read, but the underlying exploration of the sociocultural reasons for the extravaganza that was the 1960s merits attention, especially from those interested in the period. --Patricia Monaghan
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Top Customer Reviews
I just finished the book and was struck (though not too surprised) to see reports of formative episodes in the lives of authors and others whose work has influenced me. It was a big "a-ha" to see Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dan Millman, Daniel Goleman, writers who I don't immediately associate with psychedelics, and Mirabai Bush, who led a training I attended, tied to the Fab Four protagonists. The twin lenses of biography and religion are used very effectively. This text paints a vivid picture of how people blessed and cursed with extraordinary intellects responded to the question, "Is this all there is?" when graced with the means to explore it, and how they shared the results of their inquiry with the rest of us mortals. The writing is sharp, fun, and clear with a strong narrative arc. Highly recommended.
For Timothy Leary, the journey began on the afternoon of August 9th, 1960, when he ingested some psilocybin mushrooms. That trip changed his perception of reality, and convinced him psychedelic drugs would soon become an essential tool in the psychologist's toolbox.
Huston Smith had written the book on world religions, The Religions of Man, later republished as The World's Religions. He was introduced to Leary by Aldous Huxley, another Harvard Man, who'd written The Doors of Perception, a book based on his experiments with mescaline. Leary introduced Smith to his "magic mushrooms" on New Year's Day in 1961. It was a bad trip, but it opened him up to the possibilities of what Huxley called these "heaven and hell" drugs.
Richard Alpert was late to the party. By the time he arrived in Mexico, the "magic mushrooms" were gone, and no one knew how to find more, so he had to wait for his conversion. He took his first trip in early February of 1961.
After he was turned onto psychedelics, Leary got the crazy idea the drugs would revolutionize the way we see ourselves. The only thing he was certain of at the time was, psychedelics weren't for everyone. He wanted to feed them to the best and the brightest - graduate students, poets, philosophers, and men of science. People he was sure would be enlightened by the experience. Among those he recruited to his project were Allen Ginsberg, Maynard Ferguson, William Burroughs, and Alan Watts, all noted artists in their fields.
By the spring of 1961, Leary had named his project the Harvard Psilocybin Project, and taken a complete 360 degree turn on who could benefit from his "magic mushrooms." He worked out a deal with Concord State Prison, and began doping prisoners in an attempt to retrain their brains, by essentially washing away their criminal tendencies. It was a good idea, but the results weren't that impressive. Leary claimed 75% of those taking his mushrooms, never returned to crime upon their release. Prison officials believed the numbers, but not the reason. They were sure the reason the prisoners didn't return to a life of crime was the attention they received, not the medicine.
In the summer of 1963, Leary turned to a stronger drug for his research - LSD-25.
Andrew Weil was the graduate student who brought down the Harvard Psychedelic Club. He wrote a story for the Harvard Crimson that denounced Leary's research. He also convinced the father of Harvard student, Ronnie Winton, to tell school authorities Leary and Alpert gave him psychedelics against the University agreement not to include undergraduate students in their research project.
As a result of Weil's article, and Winton's confession, the project was shut down, and Leary and Alpert were booted out of Harvard.
It was a wild ride.
Leary went to Mexico, and continued his experiments with LSD. Eventually he would be thrown out of Mexico, and removed from several Caribbean Islands for throwing his wild drug parties.
Leary and Alpert's next move was to a commune in Millbrook, New York.
But, to find out the rest of the story, you'll need to read the book.
Like I said at the beginning of this review, it's a fascinating look at Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, Huston Smith, Andrew Weil, and how they helped turn the world onto mushrooms, mescaline, and LSD.
Along the way, you will be introduced to Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, their Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the Grateful Dead, and Dr. Max Rinkel and Dr. Robert Hyde, the men who conducted the first CIA tests of LSD-25 in the early 1950s.
The author's final take was,
"Timothy Leary did not inspire the war on drugs all by himself. Yet he was largely to blame for the crackdown on responsible psychedelic drug research in the United States."
It's not the whole story, but it's enough to make you want to learn more. For anyone who grew up in the sixties and early seventies, it's an interesting look back.
Lattin understands that the key conflict in the 1960s wasn't so much between those who took LSD and those who didn't, but rather between those who felt that the revolution would occur if enough people took psychedelics and re-calibrated their perceptions; as opposed to those who felt that change would happen only if enough people agitated and protested, radically altering political and social structures. Lattin also understands that among those who took a great deal of LSD, there were two main outcomes: having been exposed to mystical/psychotic experiences, you either looked for ways to change your life according to what you'd seen and learned while on psychedelics; or you got hooked on the high itself, trying to repeat that experience as often and intensely as possible.
The Harvard Psychedelic Club is a wonderful book, full of insight and compassion. It also casts a cold eye on what those events mean when looked at now, 50 years after they occurred.