Timothy, bleary

Michael S. Roth is president of the California College of the Arts in the Bay Area.

“TURN on, tune in, drop out.” With these words, Timothy Leary confirmed his place in the hall of fame of snake-oil salesmen, carnival barkers, cult leaders and good ol’ American hustlers. His hustle was to convince a significant number of Americans that getting off on drugs was a spiritual experience. Americans like to see most pleasure, but especially drugs, in moral terms. Sure, it’s fun, but is it the right thing to do? Is it good for you, and is it good for the world?

Leary graduated from alcohol to psychedelics and discovered that moralism and getting high worked well together. Yes, he declared, getting high was a moral, even spiritual, issue. Tripping wasn’t just fun, it was a journey for the soul. Since he was really good at getting high, this made Leary a spiritual leader. Jeez, for a while he even styled himself the founder of a new religion. Defending your right to pursue your religion might keep the authorities at bay more effectively than defending your right to experiment in the name of science. Leary tried both; then he tried combining them. Whatever it took. The point was to get high again.

Leary was born in 1920. His father was a dentist and an abusive drunk, his mother a devout Catholic with ambitions for her son. He tried West Point but was kicked out after a drinking incident; he became a psychometrician in the Army, conducting a variety of routine mental tests, during World War II. It is symptomatic of Robert Greenfield’s approach in “Timothy Leary: A Biography” that we learn almost nothing about Leary’s views of World War II or the threats of Nazism and fascism. We hear more about Leary’s letters to his mother concerning football games and dances than we do about his politics or what was going on in the world that might have affected his personal tastes.

Leary spent most of the 1950s on the West Coast; in Berkeley his lifestyle experimentation had more to do with sexuality than with drugs. His first wife, Marianne, after having two children with the newly minted PhD in psychology, committed suicide in 1955. When he paid attention to his kids, Leary tried to convince them that they were on a grand adventure rather than being the casualties of his needy, reckless behavior. But even in this earnestly sympathetic biography, their lives seem like hell.


Leary found his snake oil at Harvard, where he went to teach in the psychology department in 1960. The product he was selling was the experience of altering your reality, not by changing anything in the world but by changing the way your brain takes in the world. Make a revolution while gazing at the stars, listening to music or watching TV. His first step on the path to fame, and toward making getting high a professional project, was experimentation with psychedelic mushrooms. “Experimentation” is used loosely, as his senior colleagues would eventually discover, since Leary believed in experiencing the phenomenon along with his subjects. The good doctor also discovered that he could meet really interesting people when he brought psychedelic drugs with him. They too wanted to change their world by eating a mushroom or, later, by dropping some acid.

The perspective Greenfield offers on the 1960s by way of Leary’s life is narrow: The reader is offered endless pages on who took which drug when, and how this writer met this artist who slept with this professor who got high with Leary. Just as Greenfield never asks if the Depression or a world war had an effect on his subject’s formative years, he doesn’t connect the early years of the psychedelic movement with what was going on in the culture. There is little consideration of the civil rights movement; the growing involvement of the United States in Vietnam didn’t arouse the concern of the psychologist, nor does it seem to interest his biographer.

After Harvard there was a commune in New York, encounters with the law on the Mexican border and in Dutchess County, N.Y. (where then-assistant district attorney G. Gordon Liddy had it in for the hippies). Lovers and friends might get damaged along the way (and those poor children!), but Leary stayed on message: No guilt trips, not too much work, expand your mind by narrowing your obligations. In the radical polarization of the late 1960s, Leary joined in the sloganeering of the violent left: After a wondrous escape from a California prison, he hoped to turn on Black Panther activist Eldridge Cleaver while in exile in Algeria: Instead, Leary became Cleaver’s prisoner. Leary’s obliviousness to what was around him -- whether it was his family or the Arabs of his host country -- is almost comical. When in 1973 he was recaptured and incarcerated, he tried to bargain his way out by becoming an informer on old comrades. But he kept smiling (now through face-lifts) and tried to convince everyone he really meant no harm. It seems to have worked on this biographer.

Greenfield squints at Leary, and he sees little else. Leary could have been an interesting lens through which to view changing cultural trends between World War II and the end of the 1960s. We are still fighting over the meaning of the ‘60s, but this book offers no help toward understanding why the fight goes on. The biography is flawed by a lack of perspective and an inability to separate trivia from substance. How meaningful is it that William F. Buckley “ended his note by sending Tim his best wishes”? Why is it worth noting that Leary had acute observational powers because he could recognize actress Joan Collins from the back at some cool Hollywood club?


Leary described himself as a “pure hedonist,” but he was able to convince others that the pursuit of pleasure had political and spiritual value. David McClelland, the chair of Harvard’s psychology department, thought the young professor he hired pursued “alienated ecstasy,” but alienation was something Leary avoided at all costs. He understood early on that if he appeared to be on “the cutting edge of something” -- call it science, call it consciousness, call it religion -- if he appeared to be “with it,” other people would pay good money to be with him. And in those years of extraordinary change, the appearance of being able to glide along into the future made you popular. Leary wanted company; he needed people all around him.

One of the saddest scenes in Greenfield’s book depicts the dying Leary surrounded by L.A. hipsters, who were hoping to glean something from the fading star. Leary, who died in 1996 after being diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer, had planned to have his death recorded on a website. Someone phoned Jack Leary, Tim’s son (his daughter Susan had killed herself in 1990), and asked him to make a final visit. Jack wandered around the house and garden for a few hours, but a dramatic reconciliation between father and son didn’t happen. The house was too crowded; a very important reunion of the Multidisciplinary Assn. of Psychedelic Studies was taking place. Unnoticed, the star’s son headed back to the airport and “returned to the life he had made for himself without any help from his father.” *