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Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Harvard Psychedelic Club

By Don Lattin


New York, Harper One, 2010

Week 48 Non-Fiction

The Harvard Psychedelic Club is an absolutely delightful account of the invention of the 1960s-era psychedelic movement and four of the men who were involved—Timothy Leary (of course), Huston Smith, Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), and Andrew Weil.

Timothy Leary
Richard Adkins (Ram Dass)
Lattin has monikers for each of these men, whose lives he follows during this time: Timothy Leary is called the Trickster, Richard Alpert, the Seeker, Huston Smith, the Teacher, and Andrew Weil, the Healer. For these four men and others on the periphery of the movement (names such as Aldus Huxley, Allen Ginsberg, Alan Watts, and William S. Burroughs), it all began with some mushrooms. Timothy Leary was a psychology researcher at Harvard along with Richard Alpert. They had both had experience with sacred mushrooms, and later LSD, and they believed that all kinds of society’s ills could be solved by using these drugs to reform behaviors. Huston Smith, a Methodist minister and religious scholar was interested from the standpoint of religious experience, and Andrew Weil was an undergraduate Botany major, who was also interested in holistic healing.

Huston Smith
Leary and Alpert had the OK from Harvard to experiment with LSD on graduate students, and the very first time they gave LSD to a group was on Good Friday of 1962 in a small sanctuary at Marsh Chapel on the campus of Boston University. Huston Smith had gathered a group of graduate students and seminary students from BU, Andover Newton, and Harvard. While the traditional Good Friday service was being held in the large chapel upstairs, a Good Friday of an entirely different sort was being held in the basement sanctuary.

This story was quite incredible to me. I was at Boston University School of Theology just three years later and never once heard about the Good Friday experiment. I knew about LSD being available on the Quad outside of the chapel, but not about that infamous day. I have emailed a friend from graduate school to ask her if she remembered anything. We’ll see what she says. Maybe I was just too na├»ve and too in love with a farm boy from Indiana to know about such things.

Andrew Weil
It wasn’t long before the scientific experiments with LSD began to include a lot of recreational use and Leary and Alpert entered a whole different realm, an East Coast version of the scene that was developing in San Francisco. Leary and Alpert were fired from Harvard when Andrew Weil told the Harvard Administration that they were giving LSD to undergraduates. At that point, the illegality of drugs became a major issue, and the scientific nature of therapy using LSD and other psychotropic drugs lost its momentum. Lattin says: "One of the ironies of this story is that the excesses of Leary and Dass in the whole LSD crusade prompted this backlash, not just against drugs as recreation, but a backlash against serious scientific research into what beneficial uses they have. And not just LSD. There are dozens of designer psychedelics that have been developed: ecstasy, MDMA, stuff most people had never heard of. Only now, 50 years later, is there research on their use for the treatment of depression, posttraumatic syndrome, alcoholism, end-of-life use for people who are facing their own mortality. Even Harvard is studying LSD again, with government money. There's been a whole renaissance of serious, reputable, legitimate research into psychedelic drugs; it's taken that long to get over Leary."

Lattin follows these four men through the next few years. Leary became the guru of the psychedelic movement with the mantra “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Alpert became a guru of another sort when he realized that one couldn’t find wholeness with LSD and found solace in Hinduism and Buddhism. He changed his name to Ram Dass and gathered many followers through the years. Huston Smith remained a renowned scholar of world religions and wrote a signal book on the subject, The World’s Religions. Andrew Weil is respected in the field of holistic healing and is a purveyor of vitamins and natural foods.

Three of the four are still alive. Huston Smith is 91 and has just written his memoirs. Ram Dass is 89 and remains a teacher via the Internet. Andrew Weil is 67 and still very active in his businesses. All were interviewed for this book. Timothy Leary died in 1996.

The Harvard Psychedelic Club is a trip down memory lane, and certainly for anyone of my generation, it is a fun read. It is full of interesting characters and stories. When Leary was arrested for possession of marijuana, G. Gordon Liddy was the federal marshal involved. John Lennon wrote Leary’s campaign song when Leary ran for Governor of California – Come Together! There is lots of invented dialogue, but Lattin did interview many of the survivors of the sixties, and he apparently had enough experience with LSD as a young man to know what he is writing about.

Is this a profound or important book? No, of course not. Is if a fun read? For sure! I found a short review of it in The New York Review of Books which convinced me to read it.

A review in the New York Times:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/08/books/08book.html

An interview with Don Lattin in Time Magazine:
http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1952812,00.html

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