December 2, 2010
It's hard to imagine the psychedelic '60s without Timothy Leary and
Ken Kesey - the bicoastal ringmasters of a drug-fueled social
movement that changed the way millions of us define the very nature
For Leary, the trip began during a Mexican vacation in 1960, when an
anthropologist friend turned him onto some psilocybin mushrooms.
At the time, Leary was one year into a three-year appointment to
teach clinical psychology at Harvard. He returned to the classroom
convinced that psychedelic drugs would change the world.
On the other side of America, a promising young Oregonian named Ken
Kesey won a scholarship to a prestigious creative writing program at
Stanford. To earn a little spending money, Kesey signed up as a
research subject for a series of CIA-funded drug tests at the Menlo
Park Veterans Hospital - drugs that included LSD and synthesized psilocybin.
Kesey sneaked some acid out of the hospital and began a series of his
own experiments with a band of bohemian party animals known as the
It has now been 50 years since Leary and Kesey began the long,
strange trip, but there still seems to be some interest in this
story. Three books about the era have already been published this
year, including one by this reviewer. Now two more titles are coming
out: "Acid Christ" by Mark Christensen, and "White Hand Society," by
At the end of "Acid Christ," Christensen informs readers that they
have just completed a "participatory biography," meaning his book is
also about how Kesey "affected the life of the author personally and
subjectively." He then congratulates himself for having come up with
"the best new format idea ever."
Not really. Not even close.
This technique might have worked if Christensen had been part of the
Kesey saga. But the only connection to his subject's life is the fact
that he grew up in Oregon (in a later era) and had a cousin who hung
out with Kesey in the mid-1970s, when "the Commander" had already
begun his long slide into irrelevance.
"Acid Christ" is most compelling when Christensen gets out of his own
way and tells the story of Kesey's rapid rise and fall as one of most
promising young writers of the '60s. But to get there we are forced
to struggle through chapters of Christiansen's own misadventures with
sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll - the unholy trinity of that decade and
its messy aftermath.
Christensen employs an overheated, speedy prose style, one that has
come to be known in some circles as "hysterical realism." This
irreverent in-the-moment tone may have once worked for Tom Wolfe or
Hunter S. Thompson, but it quickly becomes tiresome when chronicling
something that happened half a century ago. What we need now is
reflection and analysis, not more stoned pseudo-profundity.
Conners, on the other hand, offers solid reporting and
straightforward writing in his intimate account of Leary and Allen
Ginsberg's long and sometimes troubled relationship. History
remembers Harvard Professor Richard Alpert (who would later travel to
India and return as the spiritual teacher Ram Dass) as Leary's
partner in a drug research project that would spin out of control and
get them both kicked off campus.
"White Hand Society" reminds us of the behind-the-scenes role
Ginsberg played making Leary the "high priest" of the '60s drug culture.
In November 1960, when the unknown Leary invited Ginsberg to join the
Harvard Psilocybin Project, Ginsberg was already the most famous poet
of the Beat generation. His breakthrough poem, "Howl," had already
been published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the owner of City Lights
Bookstore; praised by the New York Times; and featured in a
much-publicized obscenity trial, which Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti won.
Conners writes like a poet and researches like a scholar. He pored
over hundreds of letters, FBI files and other primary sources to shed
new light on these two avatars of altered consciousness.
He argues convincingly that Leary "would have just been some square
Harvard professor" without the introductions and connections that
Ginsberg provided. For better or worse, Leary took "the blessings of
the King Bohemian" and scorched his way into the mind of America.
Ken Kesey, LSD, and the Politics of Ecstasy
By Mark Christensen
(Schaffner Press; 449 pages; $29)
White Hand Society
The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg
By Peter Conners
(City Lights Books; 308 pages; $16.95 paperback)
Don Lattin, who covered the religion beat at The Chronicle for many
years, is the author of "The Harvard Psychedelic Club." E-mail him at