Timothy Leary was born in 1920 in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father was an Irish-American dentist who abruptly skipped town before his only son’s thirteenth birthday. Upon graduating from high school, Leary headed to College of the Holy Cross in nearby Worcester, where his penchant for mischief met with disciplinary opposition.
Clearly desiring a change of venue, the oppressed undergrad migrated south to the University of Alabama, where he was once again pegged as a discipline problem. Eventually receiving a bachelor’s degree in Psychology, Leary polished his act enough to obtain master’s and doctoral degrees in the Psych field.
Having held positions as assistant professor and research director, Leary was then able to land a coveted faculty seat at Harvard University. During a 1960 sabbatical to Mexico, the professor ingested what would become the most influential mushroom in western culture; it was a psilocybin mushroom, the same sort which, many moons ago, had been consumed by indigenous peoples in their quest for enhanced religious ceremony.
For Leary, the encounter was mind-blowing; he later proclaimed that the psychedelic snack had, in several hours time, enabled him to “learn more about [his] brain and its possibilities than fifteen years of doing research in Psychology.”
Wanting to share the enlightenment, Leary established the Harvard Psilocybin Project and invited participants to try his special mushrooms, which were legal at the time. Along with the purported mind-expansion, Leary’s mushrooms supposedly carried the potential to curb addictions and antisocial impulses. Following an extended experiment at nearby Concord State Prison, Leary claimed that mushroom-fed parolees experienced a lower rate of recidivism. Subsequent studies have disputed this claim.
Around Harvard, there had blossomed a psychedelic black market; people were chasing a whole kaleidoscope of hallucinated stimuli. At Harvard dorms, some visiting parents observed that their little scholars were chewing the carpet; it soon seemed uncertain if all pupils were receiving a solid liberal arts core. During this time, Leary’s position at Harvard was terminated, officially for the neglect of lecturing obligations, though many decided the termination was for Leary’s role in diffusing psychedelics.
In the mid-1960s, legal troubles began for Leary, who had emerged as a counterculture icon. He faced multiple charges for marijuana possession; one case even reached the Supreme Court, which ultimately decided to overturn his drug conviction. Leary celebrated such triumph by announcing his entry into California’s gubernatorial race, led at the time by future president Ronald Reagan.
Not every court decision went Leary’s way, however; for possessing a half-ounce of marijuana, he received a lengthy sentence. Upon arriving at prison, he was given a psychological test geared to assigning each inmate a suitable work detail. With his extensive Psych background (which even included the design of prison-administered psychological tests), Leary answered the questions in such a way so as to obtain a cushy gardening job in a section with comparatively lax security. He got the job he wanted, and soon escaped.
Having reunited with his wife, Leary fled to Algeria, then to Switzerland, where he ended his marriage and dabbled in heroin, before teaming up with an immensely wealthy socialite. Together, they went to Austria, Lebanon, and even Afghanistan, where Leary was intercepted by U.S. federal agents, much to the delight of then president Richard Nixon, who had previously called Leary “the most dangerous man in America.”
America’s “most dangerous man” was returned to his home-country and cast into the infernal bowels of California’s Folsom State Prison, where he inhabited a solitary cell immediately adjacent to that of counterculture devil Charles Manson.
According to federal authorities, Leary became an informant, sharing secret information about other radicals he had known. There was dispute over how much inmate Leary actually did reveal; many contended that he never supplied any significant information, and that his “cooperation” was merely a pretense used to gain early release from prison. At any rate, he was soon granted his freedom.
Out of prison, Leary divided his time between lecture tours, drug trips, and writing. In all, he authored over twenty books, mainly memoirs and social philosophy. This philosopher, however, was not one for Aristotelian ethics; he instead urged us all to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Leary was also an ardent early supporter of the internet, which he considered “the LSD of the 1990s.”
In 1995, Leary was diagnosed with inoperable prostrate cancer. As if tanking up for the biggest trip of all, he embarked on a rigorous daily regimen of “nitrous oxide, cigarettes, marijuana, heroin, and morphine.” By request, his death was videotaped. Having desired to go extraterrestrial instead of subterranean, his ashes were eventually rocketed into outer space - an untraditional yet fitting end for the Irish-American maverick who had a whole generation galloping into a higher planetary consciousness.
By Ray Cavanaugh
November 9, 2009