Timothy Leary: Turn On . . . Tune In . . . Drop Out . . .
Timothy Francis Leary (October 22, 1920 – May 31, 1996), born in Springfield, Massachusetts, was a highly influential American psychologist and writer considered one of the most prominent figures of the 1960s counterculture, and once described by President Richard Nixon as "the most dangerous man in America.”
A hugely controversial figure during the 1960s and 1970s, Leary opening endorsed the use of LSD for its therapeutic, emotional, and spiritual benefits, and believed it showed incredible potential in the field of psychiatry.
While mainstream America--which was already reeling from the cultural impact of the Hippie movement--had assumed Leary’s views were a radical departure from the general scientific community, most were unaware that there had been ongoing experimentation with LSD for at least a decade, most visibly involving veteran actor Cary Grant who’d taken LSD more than fifty times under clinical supervision.
But when Leary came forward and openly supported its use, the medical community disavowed him, allowing him to take the brunt of the negative publicity, derailing any potential medical uses the drug may have held.
A gifted child from a prominent family, Leary attended West Point Academy at the age of twenty (but was forced to resign after being court marshaled in his second year), received his bachelor's degree in psychology in 1943 from University of Alabama (his New York Times obituary said he "finally earned his bachelor's degree in the U S Army during World War II,” but I can find no verifiable proof of this), completed his master's degree from Washington State University in 1945, and then earned his PhD at the University of California in 1950.
After holding a number of positions at Berkeley and Harvard universities, Leary was ultimately fired from Harvard due to his ever-vocal advocacy of the then-legal use of LSD and peyote among Harvard students and faculty members.
An event that would come to have a great influence on Leary’s life stemmed from a Life magazine article written by R. Gordon Wasson (see the Scared Mushroom and the Cross) published in May of 1957, in which the author documented the use of psilocybin mushrooms in the religious ceremonyies of the Mazatec people of Mexico. Anthony Russo, a friend and colleague of Leary's, had experimented with psychedelic mushrooms during a trip to Mexico, and described the experience. Subsequently, in August 1960, the two traveled to Cuernavaca, Mexico where they ate psilocybin mushrooms for the first time.
Upon returning to Harvard in 1960, Leary and his colleagues established a research program known as the Harvard Psilocybin Project, aimed at analyzing the effects of psilocybin, using a synthesized version of the drug.
Hearing of the experiments, the famous Beat poet Allen Ginsberg asked Leary to be part of project, the two subsequently promoting the benefits of psychedelics to other intellectuals and artists, urging them to “turn on” (meaning to discover a higher level of consciousness). (In 1965, Leary would comment that he "learned more about... (his) brain and its possibilities... (and) more about psychology in the five hours after taking these mushrooms than... (he) had in the preceding fifteen years of studying and doing research in psychology.")
After losing his position at Harvard in ‘63, Leary was invited to resume hisexperimentive work at an estate in Millbrook, New York, owned by Peggy, Billy, and Tommy Hitchcock, heirs to the Mellon fortune. Of this time, Leary later wrote: “We saw ourselves as anthropologists from the twenty-first century inhabiting a time module set somewhere in the dark ages of the 1960s. On this space colony we were attempting to create a new paganism and a new dedication to life as art.”
In 1964, Leary co-authored (with Alpert and Ralph Metzner) the now monumentally-important book The Psychedelic Experience, a Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In it, they wrote, “A psychedelic experience is a journey to new realms of consciousness. The scope and content of the experience is limitless, but its characteristic features are the transcendence of verbal concepts, of spacetime dimensions, and of the ego or identity. Of course, the drug does not produce the transcendent experience. It merely acts as a chemical key—it opens the mind, frees the nervous system of its ordinary patterns and structures.” (It was this book that inspired John Lennon to write the highly experimental, “Tomorrow Never Knows.”)
On September 19, 1966, Leary founded the League for Spiritual Discovery, a religion declaring LSD as its holy sacrament. Although he genuinely advocated the use of LSD, he did this in part in an attempt to maintain legal status for the use of LSD and other psychedelics based on the "freedom of religion" argument. On October 6, 1966, however, LSD was made illegal in the United States and subsequently controlled so strictly that not only was possession and recreational use criminalized, all but legal scientific research programs in the US were shut down as well. (Most in the know had no doubt but that this legislation was in fear of Leary's influence.)
In the late 1960s, Leary moved to California and became involved in Hollywood circles. In 1965 he was busted for possession of marijuana, and again in March of 1966. This time he was convicted under the Marihuana Tax Act and sentenced to 30 years in jail, given a $30,000 fine, and ordered to undergo psychiatric treatment. Soon after, he appealed the case, claiming that the Marihuana Tax Act was unconstitutional.
On January 14, 1967, Leary spoke at a gathering of 30,000 Hippies in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco at the now historic event called the Human Be-In, where he first uttered the famous phrase, "Turn on, tune in, drop out.” (Several who attended this event confirm that over ten thousand free hits of acid were distributed to the crowd.) During this same time period, he toured college campuses, presenting a multi-media performance called, "The Death of the Mind,” which attempted to artistically reenact the LSD experience. Later in 1967 Leary published a pamphlet called, "Start Your Own Religion."
On December 26, 1968, Leary was arrested again, this time for possession of two marijuana roaches. On May 19, 1969, the Supreme Court concurred with Leary that the Marihuana Tax Act was unconstitutional, overturning his 1965 conviction. That same day, Leary announced his candidacy for Governor of California, running against Ronald Reagan. His campaign slogan was "Come together, join the party." On June 1, 1969, Leary joined John Lennon and Yoko Ono at their world-famous Montreal Bed-In, with some insiders confirming that Lennon subsequently wrote the famous Beatles song "Come Together” as a campaign song for Leary.
Bed-In, Leary, foreground
On January 21, 1970, Leary was sentenced to ten years in prison for his 1968 arrest, with ten more tacked on for the 1965 arrest. In prison, Leary was given the standard psychological tests used to assign inmates to appropriate work details, unaware that he had actually helped design them. Able to answer the questions such that he appeared to haves a great affinity for gardening, he was assigned to a low security gardener detail from which he escaped in September 1970. Friends smuggled him out of the United States and into Algeria.
From Algeria, Leary fled to Switzerland, Vienna, Beirut, and finally Kabul, Afghanistan, where, in 1973, US authorities used a loophole in International Law to arrest him. Facing a total of 95 years in prison--and a whole slew of State, Federal, and International charges--Leary was put into solitary confinement at Folsom Prison, CA. There he became a prolific writer, planting the seeds for his incarnation as a futurist lecturer with his StarSeed series of texts, transitioning from beliefs based in Eastern philosophy to a belief that outer space is a portal for spiritual transcendence.
Released from prison on April 21, 1976, (essentially pardoned by Governor Jerry Brown), Leary continued to write books while appearing as a guest lecturer for the next several years. While it is said that he continued to use drugs frequently in private, he no longer preached the use of psychedelics, but rather the importance of space colonization as a means to extend human existence.
By the mid-1980s, Leary begun to incorporate computers, the Internet, and virtual reality into his other-worldly concepts, establishing one of the earliest sites on the World Wide Web, and was often quoted as describing the Internet as "the LSD of the 1990s.”
Beginning in 1989, Leary began to establish himself with non-mainstream religious movements, with a renewed interest in altered states of consciousness. In spite of his declining health, Leary maintained a regular schedule of public appearances through 1994, continuing to spread his message.
In early 1995, Leary was informed that he was terminally ill with inoperable prostate cancer, but did not reveal his condition until after the death of Jerry Garcia in August of that year. Until the final weeks of his illness, Leary gave many interviews discussing his new philosophy of embracing death, reportedly excited by the possibility of freezing his body in cryonic suspension. Even so, he ultimately requested that his body be cremated and his ashes divided among his close friends.
Also at his request, Leary's death was videotaped for posterity. After repeating "Why not?" in different intonations to his son Zachary, his last word was, "beautiful."
Seven grams of Leary's ashes were buried in space aboard a Pegasus rocket on April 21, 1997 carrying the remains of 24 other free-thinkers including Gene Roddenberry (of Star Trek), space physicist Gerard O'Neill, and rocket scientist Krafft Ehricke. It remained in orbit for six years until it burned up in the atmosphere.
(Leary had married three or four times, and had three or four children, which I cannot verify.)
The Psychedelic Experience, Leary, Alpert, and Metzner
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