In the blood: Timothy Leary was born to an alcoholic father known for his improvidence with money and dislike for social conventions. His son was expelled from West Point, the University of Alabama, Harvard, from his shelter with the Black Panthers, and ultimately from the counterculture he helped create—along the way he lost and gained money but in the end died broke. Leary was a maladjusted troublemaker, a spiteful man whose life would not interest except that he served as a guru to millions of people (7 million, by his count) and in the process wrecked many lives.
Although the 1960s is often seen as a “youth revolt”, Leary was already in his forties when he began his career as a guru. The catalyst was the morning he opened his garage door to be met by acrid exhaust fumes: his first wife had committed suicide—his daughter, who would also later commit suicide, stood beside him. At the time, Leary was a “standard middle-class robot” who consumed martinis in excess and kept a mistress—the mistress being what eventually caused his wife to kill herself. For some people, this might lead to a reexamination: perhaps it might cause them to ask to what extent their behaviour contributed to this event—not so Leary. Instead he ended up in Europe and experienced a mysterious disease that swelled his face and hands and later led, so his biographer claims, to a “rebirth”.
Leary took up a position at Harvard and it was there, starting with psilocybin, that his career as a psychonaut began. The key to understand Leary is that during his early career he was known as “theory Leary”—i.e. he was not a practical man. Indeed, his main project was to develop a personality typology—a typology that corresponded to astrology. Leary’s most notable experiment was to see if LSD would reduce recidivism rates—the initial results showed a 70% drop, yet attempts to replicate the study failed and later researchers detected sloppiness in the statistics.
It was too late, the golden halo was established. Once he experienced LSD, Leary decided this was a wonder drug that had to be proselytised to the masses. Aldous Huxley urged caution, but Allen Ginsberg (the unholy trinity: Jew, homosexual, communist) urged Leary to spread LSD among the masses—everyone should be able to hack his own consciousness. So it began: Leary became the psychedelic prophet; sure, you could go through extensive ascetic exercises to achieve enlightenment, but now it could be acquired in a convenient form. Although supposedly “sticking it to the man” Leary’s message was conventionally 1950s in tenor: we have a marvellous new drug—Thalidomide or Thorazine—that solves all those messy old problems in an instant. Religious doubts? Pop a tab of LSD and you’re set, baby.
Leary’s LSD religion included communal living. Alan Watts, the Zen priest, popped round and found Leary’s communal house a filthy mess—Leary’s twelve-year-old son feasted on psilocybin tablets scattered about the place (as did the dog). A decadent heir was turned on to LSD and gifted Leary the luxurious Millbrook estate. Leary played at religion—as with all these psychedelic cults there was a pretence that trained “helpers” would administer the drugs, but this never transpired. The problem Leary found with enlightenment in a pill was that the effects never lasted, enlightenment only stayed as long as a trip—can’t get no satisfaction. In the meantime, Leary appeared in the Millbrook kitchen to complain that he had to bang every chick that turned up—eventually, Leary dropped the religious pretence.
Leary’s message to the youth of America, backed up by his prestigious position at Harvard: “Tune in, turn on and drop out! Of high school, junior executive, senior executive. And follow me! The hard way!” Leary, weasel he was, later claimed he meant “drop out of established thought patterns”—yet he clearly said to drop out of school and work. As such, Leary helped to create the Haight-Ashbury scene; a scene thus described: “Pretty little 16-year-old middle-class chick comes to the Haight to see what it’s all about and gets picked up by a 17-year-old street dealer who spends all day shooting her full of speed again and again, then feeds her 3000 mikes [micrograms] and raffles her temporarily unemployed body for the biggest Haight Street gang bang since the night before last. The politics and ethics of ecstasy. Rape is as common as bullshit on Haight Street…Tune in, turn on, drop dead?” The summer of love, man.
Leary was finally imprisoned, but the prison system used his personality typology to categorise how prisoners were streamed for security status: Leary answered so as to be placed in a minimum security prison—the Weather Underground busted him out and he went to stay with the Black Panthers in Algiers. However, the Panthers tired of his bullshit and imprisoned him. Leary quipped that as the first white slave in the black state he would set an example and emancipate himself in less than 300 years—a feat he quickly achieved, a demonstration that for all his pretended egalitarianism he knew he was the white man and could not be held by his inferiors, even if they did look like Shaft.
Leary synchronistically ended up in the same spot in the Algerian desert where Aleister Crowley summoned Choronzon—Leary had just read Crowley, but perhaps the influence began earlier (his astrological personality typology ). Leary then developed a quasi-scientific personal Kabbalah with various “circuits” to manipulate consciousness—his gnosis for the masses chimed with Crowley’s “magic for everyone”. He dumped his revolutionary associates and lived it up with an arms dealer in Switzerland—eventually he was recaptured by the US authorities and turned state’s witness, an act that saw the counterculture disown him as a rat. Leary talked himself out of prison, but his countercultural reputation was dirt. Leary was an alcoholic, dishonest, spiteful, irresponsible, and narcissistic—everything he said was good, in Leary.