Rabbits Full of Magic

08 June 2010

 

The Jetset Life of Timothy Leary



While on tour with the Back Pockets I stumbled upon Leary's autobiography Flashbacks in a Chicago vintage store, for sale at the heavenly price of 50 cents. While it's always fascinating to read about the 1960s, I don't know if I've ever read a more manic account. This book has tremendous highs and lows. One day Leary is running around New York City with Allen Ginsberg, directing acid trips to all manor of hip post-beat intelligentsia. Another day he is escorted to LA County Jail, cheered on by maximum security prisoners, and handed a newspaper with the headline "76 MILLION DOLLAR TAX-SUIT AGAINST DRUG-KING LEARY". He is seduced by beautiful women, he is partying with rock stars, he is breaking out of jail via telephone high-wire, he is jetting around for 5 years from country to country in Europe evading the FBI, CIA, and all sorts of international police. Timothy Leary, international man of mystery.

When I got this book my opinion of him was more or less unformed, but what I thought of him was what I had heard from pop culture, that he was acid casualty espousing incoherent radical politics, probably dealing all manner of illegal drugs, being a general nuisance and danger to society. Which is exactly what the government & media portrayed him as. Of course, this is hardly the case at all. Well, some of it is. But he's not an acid casualty, or if he is then his literary skill is one thing the LSD didn't disintegrate.

Leary got his start as a psychologist, and his initial drug of choice was the mushroom psilocybin, then a legal hallucinogen. While employed at Harvard he tested the drug's ability to facilitate positive behavioral changes ("imprints" he calls them) by using a combination of new psychological methods, including having both subject and scientist taking the drug, and putting an emphasis on proper set and setting.

He reasoned that the early CIA-leaked horror stories about psychedelics were due to the fact that subjects were kept in basically lab-rat conditions, under the severe psychological strain that must come with being a medical experiment with no control over what is happening to you. Leary eventually deployed his methods at Concord State Prison with violent criminals and successfully cut return rates from 70 percent to 10 percent. His research was cut short when Dr. Leary discovered the last thing the prison industry wants is less prisoners.

Eventually Harvard came under pressure and began to turn on him, and more and more of his professional contacts followed suit. Kicked out of the laboratories and classrooms, he began hanging out more and more with movie stars and rock stars. He started doing LSD, began a few hippie communes where Alan Watts and Ram Dass would hang out and discuss the future evolution of the human mind, the place for drugs in the search for spirituality. The threats kept coming and the bigger his public profile, the more scrutiny he came under. The big mistake he made was running for governor of California in 1969, using "Come Together" as a campaign slogan (inspiring the Beatles song), against b-movie actor Ronald Reagan. He was soon sentenced for an 1968 arrest to twenty years in total to be served consecutively for less than a half ounce of marijuana.

The next ten years he would be running from the authorities all over the world, held hostage by the Black Panthers in Algeria, blackmailed by a small-arms dealer in Switzerland, cornered in Afghanistan, essentially running for his life, all because of half an ounce of marijuana. When he got to Fulsom he was placed in the cell next to Charles Manson and mainstream & underground newspapers promptly spread libel that he had squealed on many of his former friends.

Timothy Leary was more or less the first big example made in the War On Drugs, which is something that he was around to see begin, much to his dismay. Flashbacks portrays this encounter he had with a pair of FDA agents right before the start:

"We are shocked by what you people are doing," said the medic. "For centuries drug-taking has been considered a vice. Now you are not only defending it, you're suggesting it's moral, educational, even religious. Maybe Kennedy went along with this kind of thinking, but Johnson is different."
Then the other spoke. "The people in law enforcement-and believe me, they have the power-can't wait for these drugs to be illegal so they can bust your ass."
I shrugged. "Making drugs illegal isn't going to stop their use. If anything prohibition will makes the drugs more attractive. Remember the rum runners? Drugs are going to happen no matter what the government does-especially with the younger generation."
"Wrong. Kids always latch on to fads. Hula hoops. Davy Crockett caps. Rock and roll. Drugs are just another trend."
"No, this one is different. Drugs are going to become a permanent part of American culture. Thr kids are learning abilities that adults can't handle."
"Like what?"
"The ability to change the way they think. The government shouldn't let drugs become a monopoly of the young."
"Are you saying that we should throw in the towel on drugs?"
"No. The government should license, supervise, and educate people to use drugs effectively."
The FDA doctor laughed. "Do you think these old Southern senators who run Congress are going to go for that?"



-Timothy Leary, Flackbacks, p. 197-198

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