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The Transmigration of Timothy Leary

By Brian Doherty


An interviewer, on the outside, looking in.
After a couple of decades as that saddest of things, a celebrity without portfolio, Timothy Leary has enjoyed a recent spate of media attention for an unfortunate distinction: he is dying of prostate cancer. It has metastasized, he tells me, and causes a severe pain in his left hip. He's been turning up more often than usual in newspaper features and on TV. A biopic is also in the works, possibly to be directed by Leary's friend Tim Robbins.

When I first arranged to interview Leary, my intention was to do a simple Q-and-A, to be transcribed and published in Liberty. That's not what happened, for reasons that will become clear. If this had been the feature that Liberty and I had planned, I might have explained in the introduction that in talking to Leary, I was not a disinterested journalist just doing a job. I had long admired the man and his work, ever since first reading his books in my early adolescence. I was talking to one of the heroes of my youth, which undoubtedly blunted any aggressive journalistic edge and contributed to the interview's disappointing results.

My affection for the man went beyond enjoying his books. I admired the fine rebellious figure he cut: a straight-laced Harvard psychologist and designer of personality tests discovers the magic of psychedelic mushrooms and begins wondering what applications they might have for psychological science. He launches on a program of applying psychedelics to psychology, discovers LSD, and experiments with reducing prison recidivism rates, changing personality traits, and working out the theological implications of this strange and powerful substance. Controversy erupts over his using undergrads in psychedelic experiments. He is driven from Harvard, gets wealthy backing, and establishes himself and his research at a house in Millbrook, N.Y. He becomes a public proselytizer for the wonders of acid, shifting from the traditional scientist's role into a shaman/showman mode, and attracts unwanted attention from the law. He runs for governor of California, is arrested for pot possession, and escapes from prison, fleeing the country with the help of the Weather Underground. He then lives the life of the international fugitive jetsetter in Algeria and Switzerland, is captured in Afghanistan and dragged back to the States in chains, serves a few more years in prison, and is let out under circumstances that led to accusations of being a federal stool pigeon, even a CIA agent. He moves to Hollywood, where he lives the life of the L.A. party boy, works with computers, debates G. Gordon Liddy, lectures, guest-stars in various movies and rock videos, and is adopted as a premiere intellectual on a low-level Hollywood star circuit.

To me, Leary was a hero not for his associations with psychedelics, but for his eventful life -- and for the expansive, radically libertarian visions of his '70s books, particularly Exo-Psychology, Neuropolitics, and The Intelligence Agents. Written during a time of simultaneous advances in rocketry, neural sciences, and genetics, these were fabulous, systematic, rococo treatises elaborating on the '70s sequel to "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out": S.M.I2.L.E., which stood for Space Migration, Intelligence Increase (I-squared, get it?), and Life Extension. ("The making of slogans," says Leary, "is key to any form of humanist culture.") Leary portrayed DNA as a godlike intelligence rapidly propelling human beings toward the next phase in the evolutionary script: escape from the planet, exponential growth in intelligence, immortality. He built these visions around a unique model of human consciousness, which he divided into eight "circuits" -- four terrestrial and four post-terrestrial. He linked these to other traditional human psychological testing systems: tarot, I Ching, astrology.

Leary's grab-bag of '70s enthusiasms pretty much summed up what is currently being hyped by a colorful group of Southern California entrepreneurs as "Extropianism." If Dr. Tim wasn't the first Extropian, he's definitely a Hall-of-Famer.

His '70s books were daring, optimistic, and encyclopedic, risking ridicule and error in their dense breadth of speculation. They were my first exposure to sociobiology, life extension science, and credible space colonization schemes. Leary wrote these tidings of the ultimate escape while locked up in a cage by the U.S. government. It was a grand vision, and presented with just the right touch of what those who sneer call snake-oil salesmanship. The ever-optimistic and chipper Leary doesn't bridle at such descriptions -- a chapter of Neuropolitics is called "In Defense of Snake-Oil Salesmen."

Tim & Me
When I heard Leary was dying, I vowed to meet him before he went. We were both living in Los Angeles, but I didn't know how to go about contacting him. I knew he lived in Beverly Hills -- I even had a couple of friendly acquaintances who were associates of his -- but I didn't try too hard to finagle the matter.

In early December, there was a book-signing at Hollywood's La Luz de Jesus gallery for Leary's newest book, Surfing the Conscious Nets, a very curious and uncharacteristic computerized graphic novel telling the adventures of a young ambisexual black man with the improbable but telling name Huck Getty Mellon von Schlebrugge. (Von Schlebrugge was the maiden name of Leary's second wife Nanette; the significance of the other three names should be clear enough.) I went.

The computer illustrations for this peculiar and frustrating book were done by my pal Howard Hallis, who was also at the signing. I got some old books autographed, introduced myself to Leary, and tried to enlist Howard's help in scheduling an interview. A week later, by accident, I found myself sitting next to Leary at a party at a Hollywood restaurant.

Unusually for Hollywood, we ended up talking one-on-one for around 45 minutes -- perhaps because we were sitting toward the back of the patio with no natural flow of traffic around us. I was not, of course, taping our conversation, or even taking notes, but in many ways this approached a dream Q-and-A. We talked about Thomas Szasz and Noam Chomsky -- Leary praised them both, and I expressed discomfort with Chomsky's economics. Leary winked -- "We're all libertarians, of course," he whispered conspiratorially, but Chomsky was still a brilliant linguist and critic of government crimes. We talked about the AIDS establishment (we had been introduced at the party by a mutual friend, heretical AIDS journalist Celia Farber of Spin), medical fascism (he mocked attention deficit disorder -- "It's just kids being hyper, curious"), Leary's relationship with his stepson, computers, senility ("I can walk from my study to the kitchen and forget what I was going for, but recapitulate the history of humanity from the amoeba to Dan Quayle, and how Freud fits in"), and his arrangements for his death. (LSD, he has decided, can work as a mental preparation for death. "If you haven't had a couple of death experiences, your dealer is cheating you.")

He was sharp, he was interested, and the conversation didn't lag. He signaled the conclusion of one line of talk with, "And that's the end of that." Then we were on to the next topic. I dared to broach the idea, as he prepared to leave, that perhaps we could talk like this again on tape, for this libertarian magazine I write for? We exchanged numbers.

My first attempt at a scheduled, official interview was aborted; he was entertaining a couple of female houseguests when I arrived, and he wasn't interested in leaving them to talk to me. While Leary was occupied, Howard showed me around the house. After a while, Leary joined us in his study/computer room, where he tested his deteriorating memory by making me write my name on a pad while he tried to remember who I was. (He had warned me when we exchanged numbers that I would have to constantly remind him who I was and where we had met, and indeed I did.)

We chatted for a few minutes, then he and Howard and I inhaled a balloon full of nitrous oxide. Leary got "professorial," as he put it, and lectured us briefly about the roles of William James and Gertrude Stein in popularizing the use of nitrous oxide -- "pure brain food." He raised his hands in supplicant prayer to heaven, in the name of William James, and asked Howard to fetch a biographical dictionary and a quotation book. He read us some of Stein's bon mots and her bio entry, then dismissed me; we'd have to do the interview some other time.

A few weeks later, I arrived at the arranged time to find the contents of his garage/archive scattered in the driveway. The garage was being repainted. Dozens of people milled about the house, Leary was far too distracted to talk, and one of his assistants, suspicious of my presence, asked me to please fax the details of why I wanted the doctor's time. (I passed that test -- she even waved his customary $1,000 interview fee in recognition of Liberty's small-press status.)

A few weeks later, the taped interview finally took place. Leary was sitting in sweatpants at a table in his living room, that day's mail and faxes scattered around him. The phone rang a lot, and Leary actually answered it himself most of the time. (Once he had me do it, and take a number down for him. He also asked me to move a pile of old newspapers and envelopes into the laundry room. What can I say? It's Timothy Leary. I did it.)

The Interview Commences
The interview did not start well. Questions that I'd hoped would trigger long, discursive answers garnered brief, telegrammatic ones instead. Leary was impatient with the interviewer-subject game. I had hoped that, as an early expert in transactional psychology, he would remember the rules and respect them. But Leary is uninterested in playing anyone's games but his own these days. He is a great, accomplished man in his last days -- who can blame him for not delighting in taking yet another hour of his rapidly diminishing life to explain his work to yet another reporter?

As a nervous acolyte speaking with him for the record -- for history -- I was nonplussed, growing on annoyed. Questions about his writings got responses like this: "My problem here is I've written all of this. Saying it is like reciting it; it's already written. What can we do about that?" He stared off into space, was unresponsive, hesitant. He'd cut off long silences with a sharp "Next question," even if the last one hadn't quite been addressed. Brief perorations on subjects like S.M.I2.L.E. or cryogenics (Leary wears a bracelet that identifies him as a candidate for cryogenic preservation) would trail off with him telling me, "You know all that."

He was right. But, I tried gingerly to explain (my enormous admiration for the man making me unwilling to be adversarial), this was more than just us two chatting. A tape recorder was running. An audience of 14,000 who might not -- probably do not -- know all of what Timothy Leary has to say had to be considered. But he still didn't want to play.

One question about his attitude toward death led to a lengthy break as Leary and one of the young, dreadlocked Lollapaloozians who litter the house tried to retrieve a computer document Leary had written for a Japanese magazine, which he insisted would be a better response to my question than anything he could tell me. It turned out to be a strange three-page poem that mixed computer and sexual imagery bizarrely, and I still can't figure out how it relates to my question.

While they disappeared on this mission, I had plenty of time to take in my surroundings. For once, no one else wandered through for almost 20 minutes. (Earlier in the interview, a neighbor had arrived with dog food.) Leary's home is plainer than you'd expect from its hyperwealthy surroundings at the heights of Beverly Hills -- the slope above his house is uninhabited grassland, rare in L.A. It's a typical suburban one-story bungalow, garage on the right, a study, a living room, and one bedroom. From the back yard spreads a glorious vista of the Los Angeles basin. The house is sparsely but delightfully decorated: bits of art by Robert Williams, Kenny Scharf, Howard Hallis; a portrait of his friend, actress Susan Sarandon; a Japanese poster for the film True Romance; movie promotion stand-ups of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood -- gifts of rock star Al Jourgensen of Ministry. Pretty/grungy young people, male and female, float about the house helping Leary take care of his business.

The house did have a smattering of more bizarre bric-a-brac. I was facing a seven-foot-tall pencil in the left corner, and a large, stringless musical instrument -- double bass? cello? -- on the right. Other items catalogued:

A gold record for Ministry's Psalm 69 album.

A well-wishing note from William Burroughs, taped to a sideboard in the kitchen.

A three-dimensional car door with a mannequin's arm hanging out, adorning a wall.

A billiards table.

The walls were white. There weren't as many books as I had expected -- one wall in the dining room, some in his study/computer room.

Tim Speaks
I had hoped to recreate some of the best moments from our first conversation, bringing up some of the same topics and hoping to get some of the same responses. No such luck. On Thomas Szasz: "I have been a great admirer of his for years. He is one of the great libertarian figures of our time. He's taking power away from the medical monopoly and empowering individuals, he's right down the line for libertarian politics, humanist politics." At our first meeting, he had called Szasz "brilliant, dangerous, ahead of his time" and told me of having brought Szasz to speak at Harvard.

On his death: he is ready to be frozen, but "I want to make it clear I may decide not to do it." He also commented that "if I could be brought back, the condition of my brain might be of some interest to science." His executors "are commanded to disconnect any life-preservation method if I'm inarticulate. This is a tremendous opportunity. . . . I'm gonna try to plan my dying. You plan for college, you should plan for dying. In my case for many years I've been planning. I have prostate cancer that's metastasized, painful cancer rupture in my left hip. I'm having radiation, doing everything the cancer doctors want. I want to be a good patient," he added, but admitted that he ignores their dietary advice, and continues to eat what he likes.

He is attempting one final experiment in mental exploration and communication. There's a period of time after the heart stops but before brain death. "Obviously, this period [is] a wonderful opportunity to explore, communicate back," he explained. We tried to figure out how long that period might be. Leary suggested 2-15 seconds. I know very little about this subject, but recalled that during our party conversation on the same topic he suggested the time could be minutes. "I try to be conservative," he winked. "It has been known for a thousand years that there was a period after death. Oriental philosophies suggest that it's your duty as a brain-carrying, conscious person to turn off your mind, get the body no longer involved.

"So I'm gonna have in my dying room, when I'm tubed up and wired up, so even when I'm close to inarticulate, I'll be able to type with my finger, maybe even by blinking eyes, work out a language. The key thing is my whole front wall in my deanimation room will be a screen, so I can word-process and communicate when I won't have the body to help out." In our party conversation, he had suggested using a system analogous to the experiential typewriter he and Richard Alpert developed to help communicate ineffable psychedelic impressions in something better than ordinary language.

For the intrepid explorer of new ways of thinking, experiencing, and communicating, this was a predictably delightful obsession: Timothy Leary is going to try to talk to us from the dead.

Well, who would you rather hear from?

Surfing Waves
To many people, Leary's career seems flighty, if not flaky -- even dangerous or criminal. From transactional therapy to drugs to space travel to computers, he has not chosen the standard academic (or celebrity) route of hoeing the same row over and over. Accusations of trendiness bounce off him; he is consciously and philosophically trendy. When asked about his current status as spokesman for individualistic, self-chosen dying, he points out that it's an obvious concern of aging baby boomers, a generation he is a full leap ahead of (he's exactly 25 years older than the oldest boomer) yet has strangely haunted. "Now the baby boom is discovering death. It's spooky. I read the New York Times and see five articles dealing with someone planning to die. Life extension stuff, it's hot right now. It's quite predictable. Once again I'm surfing a wave that's there. I expected the wave to come."

The same goes for drugs and computers. "That's being a evolutionary agent, watching cultural stuff that's been happening sequentially. It's nothing new that I'm doing. I'm simply passing on the word."

"I'm an absolute fanatic about language," Leary told me on two occasions -- the one idea he repeated of his own volition, not because I tried to make him. When I would refer to "his ideas" and his success in spreading them, he corrected me, not pedantically but almost angrily: "They're not my ideas."

Even with regard to space travel and life extension, his more outré concerns, he sees himself serenely going with the flow. "Everyone knows that. Everybody knows we're getting off the planet. No big Socratic leap there. What I'm trying to do in all my work is point out my duty as a genetic engineer. Obviously that idea was ahead of its time. It's gonna happen, but not right now. But there is more humanization of space. They're flying around there all the time now. That's good."

In the decade between space travel and dying, Timothy Leary began a love affair with the computer. "Over and over again, I'm gonna come back to the Web," Leary told me -- and he did. "The Web's implications are so profound and far-reaching and so obvious. Once you get kids growing up dialing . . . what power that gives the kid! Those kids are gonna wanna turn on and tune in!" Leary says that his "Turn on, Tune in, Drop out" slogan for acid in the '60s was ahead of its time technologically; only with computers and the World Wide Web does it fully make sense. "We can make pretty solid predictions here. The Web will change human civilization. McLuhan talked about it and we always knew we'd have a global village -- and now it's happening. It's coming right now."

I wondered what Leary's understanding of computers had taught him about his older interest, human intelligence. During our first conversation, he had shared his fascination with words, their history and meaning and precise usage. Sitting casually on a couch in his study is a printout of a parsing of the definition of the word celebrity. Posted to the wall in his study is an advertisement doing the same for the word amplify. (He told me at the party that one of his favorite words is reflect.)

He loves tracking down words' meanings, tracing their roots. He had pounced on me ferociously and Socratically at the party when I casually mentioned that something "calmed my nerves." What, precisely, did I mean by "nerves"? We went back and forth on this for a few minutes. I began to understand why the Athenians got so pissed off at Socrates that they made him swallow hemlock.

He had gone on to wax on the beauty of computer language, direct commands leading to direct and predictable results. He was fascinated with the save as command, allowing one to create something new over the body of something old while preserving it as well. He ended with one of his grandly charming and disarming Irish winks: "And, of course," said one of America's most notorious prison escapees, "'Escape.'"

Politics
Of course, we talked politics. "Yes, I am a libertarian," Leary said. During one of our phone conversations, when I mentioned Liberty, Leary brought up his Libertarian Party membership. "I've known some of the people involved in it for years." He hosted a fundraiser for Ron Paul's 1988 presidential campaign at his home.

Why is he a libertarian? "I'm a humanist. The state has no right to tell adult humans what to do with their personal lives. I'm not waiting for the government to give me permission." A lot of people probably feel similarly, but not that many take active steps like joining the LP. "There's an enormous minority of people who are basically libertarians, but see no reason why they should say it." The notion of an obligation of any sort to be an activist about one's personal politics rankles him. "My politics is basically saying that power resides inside the individual. The state has simply no right -- politics, laws, bills, lobbying about personal life, censor sexual expression, drugs? What does that mean? I was accused by many, like Abbie Hoffman, of luring a young generation away by making them feel good, allowing them to reward themselves."

Leary is not afraid of the market, unlike so many "civil" libertarians who might agree with him about censorship and personal-freedom issues. During our party conversation, he had said, "I get mad when liberals insult advertising," calling the great cathedrals of Europe grand advertisements for the Catholic Church and declaring advertising the nexus of the greatest aesthetic activity in our culture. Many modern liberals, I now suggested, might agree with him about certain aspects of his pro-liberty philosophy and not others. He was aggressively dismissive of such people. "That's basically socialist, communist, totalitarian. The so-called liberal is totalitarian. Even more so now. [Even] back in the '60s, so-called liberal left-wing magazines were very opposed to psychedelics."

We talked a little bit about his old friends and associates in the world of political commentary. On his old sparring partner Gordon Liddy and his current notoriety as a talk show host: "I listen to him. We've never been in close touch, but I keep him posted on what I'm doing. Liddy is a basic prankster. He's the smartest of the Nixon administration. That's not saying much, but he's highly educated."

On William F. Buckley, for whose magazine National Review Leary wrote a scathing anti-'60s counterculture piece in the '70s, and which at that moment was on the stands with a cover story calling for an end to the war on drugs: "Buckley has always been involved in legalization, even back in the '70s. Bill Buckley printed [Leary's '70s article] largely on friendship, on libertarian friendship. He ironically enough wrote a letter to my parole board, intervened somehow in support of my getting parole. Not that I joined his group, but there was a certain libertarianism in common. Buckley comes from the same Irish Catholic Massachusetts [background], so his aunts went to school with my aunts, same background of upper-middle-class Irish Catholics . . . we all knew each other."

I had spent more than my allotted hour of time, but the hesitancy of the conversation and the many interruptions had forced me to leave many topics undiscussed. But Leary was late for a doctor's appointment. I said my quick farewell, and left.

Just Desserts
It was Ezra Pound who impressed in me the idea that one should try to meet and learn from the great men one admires in one's times. Using my status as journalist, I've haphazardly attempted to follow his advice. Considering its source, perhaps I shouldn't be too surprised that it hasn't worked out as gloriously in fact as it might in a fantasy. It's said that it's a bad idea to meet people whose work you admire; the man rarely lives up to his work.

As I left Leary's house, easing my old station wagon down through the slopes of Beverly Hills where its decrepit, unwashed, battered self garnered weird stares from neighbors and police, I felt uneasy and disappointed.

Of course, Leary owed me -- owes me -- nothing. He was a large source of the optimism, hope, and dedication to human freedom that got me through the depressing hormonal miasma of adolescence, and that should be enough. He has lectures to plan, comic-book adventures to write, his website to fix, movies to work on, a lifetime of friends and supporters to see and enjoy. My overly earnest, pedantic approach to the interview probably did as much as anything else to keep it vaguely uncomfortable. A lesson I could have learned from Leary's pre-LSD work in transactional psychology.

A recent TV mini-profile of Leary on CBS News' 48 Hours asked the doctor how he hoped to be remembered by posterity -- something the dying are supposed to obsess over. Leary replied, "Everybody gets the Timothy Leary they deserve."

As I write this, it's a gorgeous day, as it almost always is, in Beverly Hills, overlooking the most beautiful and dynamic metropolis in the world. I hope Timothy Leary, one of the twentieth century's greatest adventurers, is enjoying it thoroughly. That's the Timothy Leary he deserves.


Liberty, May 1996, © Copyright 1996, Liberty Foundation


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