'The Harvard Psychedelic Club,' by Don Lattin
Ari L. Goldman, Special to The Chronicle
Sunday, January 3, 2010
The Harvard Psychedelic Club
How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the
Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America
By Don Lattin
(HarperOne; 256 pages; $24.99)
Few names conjure the chaos and madness of the 1960s like that of Dr.
Timothy Leary. It was Leary, after all, who told America's young:
"The only way out is in. Turn on, tune in and drop out. Out of high
school, junior executive, senior executive. And follow me!"
It was enough to lead Richard Nixon to label Leary "the most
dangerous man in America."
But, as Don Lattin reminds us in this informative and highly
entertaining book, Leary was once considered a rising star in
mainstream psychology and worked with the imprimatur of no place
other than Harvard University. It was at Harvard where Leary met
another researcher named Richard Alpert, who was later to become a
guru named Ram Dass.
Leary and Alpert were convinced that psychedelic drugs were going to
change - in their words "revolutionize" - both psychology and
religion. They set about to prove their ideas by liberally dispensing
LSD and other hallucinogens to everyone from Harvard students to
inmates at the local Massachusetts prisons. It was all done, they
insisted, in the name of science.
Leary and Alpert and their fellow researchers wouldn't let their
subjects take the drugs alone, but tripped with them. And, like the
good researchers they were, they took voluminous notes. "Objects
appeared distorted like images in a curved mirror," one researcher
wrote about tripping while riding a bicycle. "I had the impression of
being unable to move from the spot, although my assistant told me
afterward that we had cycled at a good pace."
"I was overcome with the fear that I was going crazy," he continued.
"I thought I had died."
Lattin, a former longtime religion writer for The Chronicle, makes
good use of these notes and other contemporary sources. And he brings
them up to date by conducting interviews with as many of the
principals as he can find. He speaks to nearly all the people in the
book's cumbersome subtitle: Ram Dass in Hawaii, Andrew Weil in
Arizona and Huston Smith in California. Leary died in 1996, but
Lattin is on his trail as well. Early in the book he tells of a visit
to the house where Leary once lived in Newton, Mass.
The subtitle is just the beginning of the name-dropping that goes on
in this book. Many 1960s icons have cameos, including John F. Kennedy
(who may or may not have had some LSD delivered to the White House)
and John Lennon (who wrote "Come Together" for Leary), and others
like Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Maynard
Ferguson, Ken Kesey, Grace Slick and Jerry Garcia.
I found the name-dropping a bit tedious at first, but then realized
that Lattin was building an airtight case for his ambitious subtitle.
By the end of the book, you realize that these four Harvard men did,
in fact, "kill the Fifties and usher in a new age for America."
Many of the stories in this book have been told elsewhere, but Lattin
tells them with new energy and weaves them together to create a
satisfying narrative that re-creates and explains the era. He tells
how Weil, then a young reporter for the Harvard Crimson, gets Leary
and Alpert fired; how the center of the drug culture then shifts to
San Francisco; how Leary gets arrested and tossed into jail and how
the Weather Underground helps him escape.
In the end, Lattin notes, the god of drugs failed not only the four
gurus of the age but also an entire generation. Hallucinogens did not
revolutionize either psychology or religion. They led many astray and
ruined many lives. (One of the haunting images from this book is of a
mother who confronts a love-beaded Leary and screams at him: "You
killed my son!") But Lattin sees much good in the legacy that these
four men left.
"They changed the way we see the very nature of reality," Lattin
writes. "We see the best of them in the best of ourselves. In the
end, it is not about the drugs. It's about remembering the
life-affirming moments along the way - those glimpses of wonder and
awe, empathy and interconnectedness - and finding a place for all of
that in the rest of our lives."
Ari L. Goldman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is
the author of "The Search for God at Harvard." E-mail him at
Review: Harvard's famous head trippers analyzed in Lattin's 'Psychedelic Club'
By Peter Magnani
Reams have been written about LSD guru Timothy Leary and his sidekick
Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass) and the role they played in shaping
the phenomenon that was the Sixties. But by expanding the circle to
include two additional members of what he calls "The Harvard
Psychedelic Club," Bay Area journalist and author Don Lattin deepens
the context of what actually took place during those wild times and
argues successfully for its lasting significance.
Huston Smith, now a genteel nonagenarian living in Berkeley, was an
early experimenter with psychotropic substances and a respected
scholar whose influence on Americans' understanding of world
religions can be compared to that of Julia Child on French cooking.
Andrew Weil was a generation behind the other three, an undergraduate
whose disappointment in being excluded from the early LSD experiments
inspired him to set the wheels in motion that eventually got Leary
and Alpert kicked out of Harvard. Weil followed Leary's admonition to
"Turn on and Tune in," but not to drop out. Instead, he graduated
from Harvard Medical School and went on to become a founder of the
alternative medicine and holistic health movements.
Lattin assigns archetypal roles to the four major players: Leary is
Trickster, Alpert Seeker, Smith Teacher and Weil Healer. The labels
work fairly well as an organizing strategy. And they do account for
some main characteristics of the protagonists Leary's
unpredictability and his penchant for throwing a monkey wrench into
every well-crafted plan, Ram Dass's obsessive need to attach himself
to one guru after another, his more serious (relative to Leary)
approach to the drugs, even his ravenous sexual appetite.
But much of their nuance is covered over by these labels, which
mythologize the characters while simultaneously reducing them to stereotypes.
Some of the book's most compelling moments lie well outside these
structural limitations. The irony of young Weil bringing the wrath of
the Establishment down on Leary and Alpert, only to experience
similar persecution himself by a skeptical and protective medical
establishment, is a rich tale in Lattin's telling. And two of the
most interesting characters in the book aren't people at all, but
places. The stuffiness of East Coast academia and that special
expression of it that thrives at Harvard are beautifully contrasted
with the freewheeling and sometimes intimidating wilderness of the West.
Above all, Lattin succeeds where less accomplished chroniclers of
this period have failed, in drawing the reader into the very minds of
the people he is writing about. He is remarkably adept at rendering a
semblance of the psychedelic experience itself into words. Combining
the accounts of those who had taken the drugs with research notes and
his own experience, Lattin manages to recreate a sense of the wonder
and strangeness of a trip while retaining a notion of its structure,
and in some cases, even its larger significance to a person's life.
Here's an example from the first psychedelic journey of psychologist
A turning point
"It was an experience of something he had never even imagined.
Everywhere he looked he saw glowing jeweled objects. Ordinary people
were instantly transformed into angels. At one point, he walked out
into the snow to get some fresh air. There was some garbage by the
back door, and he heard a voice tell him, 'Don't look at the
garbage.' He experienced that random thought in a whole new way,
seeing for the first time how his thoughts were preprogrammed. He
didn't choose to have that thought. So where did these thoughts come
from? Maybe he could direct his thoughts in other ways. Isn't that
what psychotherapy was all about? We can stop thinking old habitual
thoughts. The moment was a turning point, the beginning of a shift in
the way Ralph Metzner looked at psychology, mysticism, and the mind."
In the Sixties, everything seemed to be connected to everything else,
and Lattin captures that spirit with a cast whose minor players are
just as colorful and well-known as the main characters. Aldous
Huxley, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Alan Watts, the Beatles, Scoop
Nisker, the Grateful Dead, all take the stage, if only briefly.
Oddly, it's one main character who seems out of place. Lattin never
frames a credible reason to include Huston Smith in the Club at all,
much less as one of its leaders. His presence seems to be based
mainly on Lattin's high personal regard for him a regard that
Lattin convinces us is well-deserved.
In his treatment of Smith, Lattin seems to be heeding the advice of
Yaqui brujo Don Juan Matus who, in Carlos Castaneda's account,
advised truth seekers to always "follow the path of the heart."
Excellent advice for someone tracing as arduous and risky a journey
as that led by the members of the Harvard Psychedelic Club.