Countercultures: Timothy Leary

star cryo

Where would you send your body after it dies? Some might choose a coffin, buried in the ground or on a flaming boat perchance. Others might prefer to be preserved, maybe for scientific research, or cryogenics: the hope for a return to the world in the future. Doctor Timothy Leary, psychological psychonaut professed cosmonaut of the mind initially took the cryogenics to be his salvation. Those with any grounding in Ernest Becker/psychoanalysis might call that death denial. In the end, Leary chose cremation, and his ashes went up in the same rocket with famous Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry. A rock star in life and as much in death, Timothy Leary’s dreams and impacts float above the world now, his psychedelic mission a long forgotten memory.

Timothy Leary’s life, really began with death, and like everyone else, it ended there too. It is October 22nd 1955, Timothy Leary’s birthday. Already a successful associate professor at Berkeley, caught up in the swinging movement of the time, a birthday cake is left in the oven. Timothy Leary’s wife however, torn apart by Leary’s drinking and swinging ends her life, the cake she made a final bitter goodbye to her lover. Frank Barron would be the man to “turn on” Leary to psychedelics. Giving Leary mushrooms opened him up and inspired him. Leary was a clinical psychologist by trade, and if these mushrooms could help him then they could help other people. They would become Leary’s panacea for deviance and sadness, a tool for ritual ecstasy, and a chance for Leary to become the most famous clinical psychologist since Sigmund Freud.

Taking on a position at Harvard University, Timothy Leary would meet his lifelong friend and colleague Richard Alpert (who would eventually take on the name Ram Dass in a trip to India). Leary along with Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg would turn on Richard Alpert in 1961 s Those who critique Leary need to take a step back, and consider that even after everything Leary had gone through, all the sadness and hardships, and no matter what he may do in the future of this post, that Leary was not some random dropout, but an extremely talented and well connected person. His research on the usage of psilocybin mushrooms was carried out by graduate students, and only graduate students or older were allowed to participate in the psilocybin trials. Leary’s work garnered much criticism from the other academics. Their anger was grounded in the fact that Leary’s work had piqued the interest of most of the graduate students of the department. This was a burgeoning field. Drug use for psychotherapy was only starting to become a popular tool, particularly since Albert Hoffmann had accidentally consumed LSD in 1943, and taken his now famous (or infamous) bicycle trip. The main trials of the Harvard School were with synthetic psilocybin. The two main trials that Leary would run were the, Harvard Prison Experiment, and The Good Friday Experiment.tim

The conception for the Harvard Prison Experiment was simple, practice psychotherapy with criminals in prison, and give them psilocybin, and she what impact it had on recidivism rates. Leary himself carried out some of these tests, remarking on his fear of tripping with prisoners, until they pointed out they were equally afraid of him. Leary considered the project a success, a crowning achievement for psychedelia everywhere! Prisoners who were involved in the experiment were not committing crimes again, because their experience with psilocybin had cured them of their deviant ways! The only problem being that post-release treatment was not adequately provided, and yet it manages to not make it into Leary’s account (Rick Doblin director of MAPS, years later would do a followup to the study and find several flaws). The second experiment, known as: “The Good Friday Experiment” was done with the help of the Harvard Divinity School and Huston Smith (the creator of the first textbook of “The Religions of Man” which was the first text to cover multiple religions in the same text). The premise: give half the group of divinity students psilocybin, the other half placebo where the researchers do not know whether the individuals got the placebo or not (also known as a double-blind study). Then, based on their post-psychedelic states interview them, and pass the information on to other religion scholars to determine whether or not they had a legitimate religious experience on Good Friday. 9/10 of the psilocybin divinity students were perceived to have had a religious experience in comparison to less than four of the control group having a religious experience.

Leary would eventually leave Harvard in 1963. Richard Alpert had broken the one rule of giving drugs to students, namely: do not give drugs to undergraduates. Andrew Weil who had a long standing dislike for the duo after they refused to allow him to be a part of the experiments (he was an undergraduate). Alpert had given psychedelics to one of the undergrads he had hoped in impressing, which Weil broke in the newspaper. Alpert was fired for misconduct, Leary’s contract was not renewed but he pretended as if he had gone down in the same boat as. After all, Harvard had become too small for him, he had bigger plans.


The rest of the 1960’s would prove to be a tumultuous time. Millbrook in NY would become the home of psychedelic experiences on the east coast (The Merry Pranksters would eventually take on this role, along with The Grateful Dead, culminating the in Summer of Love, and the Haight Ashbury Scene). Leary and Alpert were offered the house, and began taking LSD in large quantities. At Harvard the group had experimented with various psychedelics, but at Millbrook, the group was interested in exploring the psychedelic mind-space in all its incarnations. They practiced eastern meditation, and for the most part only took LSD weekly. At Harvard, Leary had to refrain from making certain statements about psychedelics which could have been perceived as non scientific. Things like:

In a carefully prepared, loving LSD session, a woman will inevitably have several hundred orgasms.


Leary and the gang created a room in Millbrook that was specifically for the taking of LSD. It was completely closed off, windows shut, and filled with blankets, and pillows. There is one story of the Leary and Alpert going into hiding in that room and taking LSD daily for a month, until their tolerances had significantly ballooned. Of course Leary’s children were not happy with this arrangement. The man who had time for everyone, from celebrities like Marilyn Munroe to Mary Pinchot Meyer (Leary confided that he had been giving LSD to Meyer to “turn on” people in the white house, her murder/potential assassination, remains a mystery to this day), let Alpert take care of his children. Not that Leary did not care about his children at all, in fact, it was because Leary cared so much for his children that he would be imprisoned.

Travelling between the Mexican border and the US, “The Most Dangerous Man In America” as coined by Richard Nixon, Leary’s daughter realizes she is carrying a few grams of weed in her pocket. Unable to throw it over the bridge, Leary’s daughter hides it in her underwear. When forced to go back across the border again (which Leary believed to be a setup), the cannabis is found, and Leary takes the blame for it and ends up in prison. The punishment to match his crime: 30 years. Leary would fight these charges among others, and run for governor against incumbent Ronald Reagan. It was on that campaign that the 60’s counterculture would get two great gift. The first would be because of a conversation Timothy Leary had with Marshal McLuhan. McLuhan, who also coined the phrase “The medium is the message”, helped coin the phrase that Leary would become associated with for the rest of his life namely “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out”. In his book Flashback’s Leary explained:

“Turn on” meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. “Tune in” meant interact harmoniously with the world around you – externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. “Drop out” suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. “Drop Out” meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily my explanations of this sequence of personal development were often misinterpreted to mean “Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity.

It also enraged an entire generation of white middle class parents who thought that Leary and the New Left were ruining the minds of their well-mannered children. The second gift would not be attributed to Leary, but in the end to the Beatles. John Lennon wrote “Come Together” initially as a campaign song for Leary’s governor candidacy. Unfortunately, Leary was jailed before it was to be used in his campaign, and so Lennon repurposed the song for the Beatles. When asked by Leary why Lennon had used the song for the Beatles, Lennon responded that he was a tailor, and that Leary had ordered a suit and never returned, so Lennon sold it to someone else.



November 22nd 1963, one of the most important men of America passed away. That man, was Aldous Huxley. Huxley long a friend of Leary’s had just released his best work Island. On his deathbed with his second wife Laura Huxley, Aldous Huxley asks for Leary. The great writer, most famous for his work Brave New World wanted to be injected intramuscularly with LSD. His dying wish was to have Leary read to him from the newly translated Tibetan Book of the Dead also called The Psychedelic Experience as Huxley passed into whatever lies after we die. Timothy Leary refuses, on the premise that it should be Laura that reads to Aldous. Huxley agrees, and passes away. Leary loses a friend.


We cannot talk about Timothy Leary without talking about the prison break. It is one of the most absurd, and cool things that Leary ever did, and the fact that no one has made a movie from this is baffling. Actually, I am not even going to try, here’s the Aristotle of the 20th century explaining it himself:

Timothy Leary eventually was recaptured on a technicality while crossing between two countries. He eventually served the rest of his time in jail, pretending to give the police information on the group who initially broke him out.

Post-summer of love


After released from prison, Timothy Leary would go on to continue playing rock and roll counterculturalist, but in a much safer way. The 80’s and the 90’s helped usher in the age of computers. Leary became a fan of the cyberdelic movement, which carried fewer life-threatening legal penalties. Leary claimed that computers were the psychedelics of the 90’s. He also worked with famed Robert Anton Wilson to develop conceptual frameworks of consciousness. Leary was finally out and free, and was a huge advocate of the futurist and transhumanist communities, which is fascinating as it seems to be the anti-thesis of the main thrust of the environmental hippy culture Leary had once so helped to inspire. Even in the end though, Leary was a rock[et] star. At the last minute he changed his mind, and decided to not be put in cryogenics. Maybe the idea of being suspended in life again was too hard a concept. Like Huxley, did Timothy Leary get the peace he so desired, from the bardo’s being chanted, and the peace of the here-and-now. It’s doubtful. Leary was always looking to the future, to be shot into space seems like one last hurrah from a great friend.

Countercultures is a new bi-weekly series on Thursdays at Existential Awe that looks at life histories of artists and thinkers who pushed against the system and created countercultural social change. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s