Thomas Coraghessan Boyle – T.C. Boyle – is three years older than me. I haven’t spoken with him about it, but I have to guess that when he wrote Outside Looking In he suffered, or enjoyed, a few flashbacks to his college days in Potsdam, NY, in the late 60s. Or perhaps, like most of my friends who managed to finish college, he waited, not risking an LSD trip until he’d finished his undergraduate studies.
T.C. relates the experiences of Fitzhugh Loney, a psychology PhD student and his wife, Joanie, who, while studying at Harvard in the early 1960s, become part of Timothy Leary’s inner circle. As they – and dozens of other Leary’s followers – increase the frequency and the dosage of their Lysergic Acid Diethylamide intake their lives are forever changed.
It starts with Saturday night sessions at Leary’s house in Cambridge, participants in the Harvard Psilocybin Project. Tim doles out carefully measured portions of acid. They all trip. Some extra-curricular sex is involved. On rare occasions someone freaks out. The next day everyone completes a lengthy questionnaire, all very scientific. The subjects are graduate students, their Harvard Psych Professors, along with wives and girlfriends.
When Leary rents a remote hotel in Cuernavaca, Mexico for the summer, all are invited. They drop acid almost daily. The grim reality of returning to Harvard doesn’t last long. Leary and Dr. Richard Alpert (who changed his name later to Ram Dass) are booted out of the Harvard Psych department for not being rigorous enough in their ‘study’ of LSD’s therapeutic potential. Unstoppable, Leary sets up a commune in Millbrook, NY at a large, lavish estate belonging to one of his lover/acolytes, an heiress to the Mellon fortune. For nearly four years, they carry-on with an LSD-focused culture, generating endless failings and fall-outs.
They break all the rules. As Fitz and Joanie discover the first time they trip together, sex on acid is powerful and all-consuming – true ecstasy. Fitz describes it as ‘going deeper than they’d ever gone before.’ In Mexico and at Millbrook, they both trip with and fuck their close friends, including Leary. They’re love for each other endures, but LSD claims the center of their lives. They also consume alcohol like it’s the rocket fuel needed to boost their acid trips into orbit. Never a good idea. If Boyle’s portrayal is an accurate one, perhaps the booze is what derailed the experiment.
But, T.C. Boyle does capture the essence of it, and as a master storyteller he lets you stand inside the story and look around, a shadow character pondering the possibilities. I soared with Fitz and Joanie. I hated to watch them crash. I hated to watch them screw up their lives. More visceral than simple memory, a bundle of fibers within me, still connected to my wild friends and lovers of the 1970s, urged me to reach out and catch them.
Timothy Leary blew it. He called LSD, and the other psilocybin derivatives used religiously by ancients Aztecs, Greeks and dozens of others over the past 10,000 years, ‘entheogens.’ From the Greek ‘entheos’ it means ‘the god within.’ He credited LSD with the power to find and express the god inside all of us. Unfortunately, it was Leary himself, the abundant supplier of their ‘sacrament’ as they called it, who attained the status of god within his hard-tripping seekers.
At the end of Outside Looking In Fitz comes on bended knee before Leary begging him, “I want to see the Second Light, I want to see God – or whatever passes for God when your mind peels back all the layers and there’s nothing between you and the universe. You’ve been there, I know you have.”
Leary doesn’t answer but fishes around for his bottle of LSD-25 while Fitz, his wife and son gone, his psychology career abandoned, keeps imploring him, “Tell me you have. Tell me you’ve been there. Tell me you’ve seen God.”
Leary winks at Fitz, grins and hands him a supernal dose, ‘a dose worthy of all the gods there ever were’ and says, “Fuck God. Let’s get high.”