Review

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

There was a time, briefly, when it looked like psychedelic drugs
were going to change the world for the better. One could be
forgiven for thinking so, when experiments were
“proving” that taking a few micrograms of a chemical
like psilocybin (distilled from the “magic mushrooms”
of South America) could induce highly charged religious visions and
generate feelings of love and ecstasy. But the very people who
could have changed the world by promoting legal chemicals were the
ones who made that revolution impossible. In fact, their
out-of-kilter visions and refusal to adhere to the scientific
method caused another kind of revolution, rousting the American
populace out of the sleep of the 1950s, waking them up good and
proper to some brand new rules of cultural engagement.

Timothy Leary, perhaps the man most associated with hippie drug
culture, was the worst of the lot for muddying the waters around
him. In his sphere were three powerful characters --- Richard
Alpert, who later morphed into the reluctant guru Baba Ram Dass;
Huston Smith, who had a career in religious media mapped out before
he tangled with Leary and Alpert; and Andrew Weil, who set out to
renounce Leary and his Harvard cohorts and in the end wound up
looking a lot like them.

This is the cautionary tale of these four men, how their lives
and fortunes were interwoven for a few short years gravitating
around Harvard and Leary’s now infamous psilocybin
experiments (including his work in prisons turning the inmates on
to psychedelics, and his attempt to stone half a church full of
students and leave the other half gaping and praying in a daring
foray into drug exploration known as the “Good Friday
Experiment”).

Leary --- whom author Don Lattin dubs “The
Trickster” and, by every account, a once respectable Harvard
don who went shockingly native when his ideas melded with those of
the hippie subculture --- loomed large and attracted a zealous
following. Alpert, “The Seeker,” was one of his
acolytes, a rich-kid psychology professor who hid his homosexuality
from the disapproving Leary, willingly devised research projects in
the name of Leary’s brave new science, and even babysat
Leary’s kids. Huston Smith, “The Teacher,” was
the son of missionaries who was wrestling with the demons of his
Christian doubt; he took psychedelics with Leary and believed them
to be a powerful, potentially spiritual pathway. Andrew Weil,
“The Healer,” was able to procure psilocybin from Leary
and Alpert. Highly ambitious, he began developing his own drug
experiments and seized on a chance to go undercover, make a scoop
for the Harvard Crimson and successfully engender an
academic smear campaign against Leary and Alpert. 

In THE HARVARD PSYCHEDELIC CLUB, Lattin satisfyingly places the
parallel and interconnected lives of these four titans along a
timeline, drawing in a cast of minor characters as fascinating as
its stars: Allen Ginsberg, Alan Watts, B. F. Skinner, Ralph Metzner
and Peter Orlovsky. In the end, Leary wound up in jail and on the
run for his sins; Alpert became the prototype of the
pilgrim/saviour, never quite there himself but able to convince
others to “be here now”; Smith had a distinguished but
quiet career as an author and educator, bringing Eastern religious
thought to the attention of the West; and Weil is apparently
content with his own legal drug business and his bushy white
beard.

It’s possible to speculate that had Leary and his
disciples not been so obstreperous, legitimate science might
have explored salutary uses for psychedelics --- but then, the
whole ’60s thing never would have happened. And, Lattin seems
to suggest, it was meant to happen, with the confluence of these
four unstoppable, visionary nonconformists.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on January 22, 2011

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

  • Publication Date: January 22, 2011
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • : pages
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