A bad trip

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In the early Sixties, hallucinogenic drugs were not yet on the banned substances list. A pharmaceutical company in Switzerland was supplying the psilocybin for Timothy Leary at Harvard free of any legal constraints. In my first year in Cambridge, the subjects of his drug “experiments” were artists, writers and musicians he invited to campus. What changed the following year was the University’s agreement that graduate students could be included among the population participating in the experiments, although undergraduates were specifically excluded. That prohibition later came back to bite Leary and his colleague Richard Alpert, who became the revered Baba Ram Dass.

The term experiment carried a lot of negative baggage for Leary. It connoted men in white lab coats standing on the sidelines with clipboards recording subjects’ reactions to the drugs. He believed that much of what had been written on the subject was an artifact of the unnatural conditions under which the drugs were administered. If people became paranoid was that a result of the drugs or the conditions under which they were taken?

As a result, Leary insisted that sessions take place in comfortable informal settings where people could relax and feel safe, the better to open themselves up to the profound experiences the drug made available to them. And what better setting than Leary’s own large rambling house in a nearby suburb? I assume this was also the setting the previous year for all the visits by artists, musicians and writers. Another detail lost in the fog of memory is how we actually got involved in Leary’s project. I assume we were asked to volunteer in some way, which most of the students in our clinical psychology cohort did because I can picture where most of them positioned themselves in Leary’s living room and adjacent spaces.

Psilocybin was the drug around which all of Leary’s group sessions revolved. I’ve never taken LSD or mescaline, but my understanding is that they produce more intense and more prolonged states than psilocybin. We were told that the effects of “our” drug would last for 5-7 hours for the dosage we were provided, after which there might be some lingering echoes, but for the most part we would then return to whatever our normal was. At that point in my life, I had next to no experience with “altered states” of consciousness. I didn’t drink and on the rare occasions when I did, my drunkenness was invariably cut short by nausea and vomiting. At that point I had also never smoked pot, and when I did later on, it didn’t do much for me. So, I had no idea what to expect from this little white pill other than the reports of others who described a roller coaster of intense sensory experiences.

And that’s what I got. My eyes, closed for long stretches, were witness to a spectacular light show, a kaleidoscope of deep and constantly changing colors, clearly the inspiration for the light shows that became an obligatory supplement to rock concerts. There was music playing constantly in the background, all of which I felt I was hearing in heightened ways that seemed to expose either the true beauty or shallowness of the composer’s work. I remember reacting strongly to a piece by Cesar Frank which sounded to me like it was being played on the hurdy-gurdy of an untrained street musician. I have no specific memories of sensory experiences in eating and touching but given the general intensity of everything that was happening, I’m sure things were unfolding on those fronts too. The fact that I can recall even this much sixty years later is testimony to the stamp it left in whatever part of the brain harbors these memories.

When I opened my eyes, there was a classmate holding an apple in one hand and a banana in the other. Her look suggested that she had come upon a brilliant insight. She was saying something like, “Apple, banana. That’s the choice,” as her eyes moved from one fruit to the other. Freudians that we all were at this stage in our training, I took this to mean she was struggling with issues of sexual identity, although I had never seen any evidence that she was anything but unambivalently heterosexual. Was the drug uncovering hidden conflicts or creating “insights” that would be without significance outside of Leary’s living room? In another corner of the room, one of my classmates was curled up in a fetal position. I sensed he was in trouble, having “a bad trip.” I’m not sure if we were warned that this was a possible reaction. My own experience had been entirely positive, but what a bad trip felt like would soon become part of my own story

As a widower, Leary was raising his two children, who must have been pre-teenagers. In the loose, open setting of Leary’s house, the children, clearly operating with no structured bedtimes or many other constraints, wandered freely through the rooms while we were under the influence. As untethered as I was from most conventions during the drug experience, it still didn’t seem healthy for kids to be in the presence of strangers who were behaving abnormally. I trust that their father had explained what was happening. Susan, the older child, committed suicide in her early forties. Watching all those drug trips play out in her living room was just one small piece of a chaotic childhood, but being witness to the psilocybin experiments is not the kind of experience that grows healthy children.

Although this was my only involvement in the groups that met at Leary’s house, some of my classmates became regulars and psilocybin and LSD became the required mediator of all their subsequent experiences. Going to the museum? You’ll get more out of it if you’re on something. Listening to music? Ditto. I would assume that having sex promised more with that little pill, but truth to tell, that was a conversation I never had with any of the regular users. This is not surprising since from that point on, our class was divided between the people who continued to inhabit the world that Leary and Alpert had created and those like me who found the psilocybin experience interesting but not life-changing and were ready to refocus on the less glitzy task of marching toward our doctorates. All the evidence was that the hallucinogenic drugs were not physically addictive, though they did exert a powerful psychological pull that did not loosen its hold on the regulars, to the point where that pursuit of the holy grail of the Ph.D did not seem as urgent or central as it once did.

It was this disruption of the traditional norms of graduate education that became a key element in the demise of the Leary/Alpert adventure at Harvard. Protests from some of the more “traditional” faculty in Soc Rel were mounting. They came to a head when David McClelland, the department chair, organized a forum which essentially became a debate between Leary and Alpert on the one hand and Herbert Kelman, a social psychologist who became an important player in a later chapter of my story. Kelman was a man of rabbinic bearing – in fact, he came from a family of respected rabbis  — who was deeply disturbed by what he considered the unhealthy influence of the drug work on the participating graduate students. He was calling for an end to Leary’s work, while Leary and Alpert argued for its legitimacy as scientific research. I can remember the circus-like atmosphere in the room which was small enough to create the feeling of being standing room only. Some of those in attendance must have been media people because the reports about the debate were everywhere in the days following. I certainly had the feeling of being present at the making of history.

The forum and the attendant media attention were part of the demise of the drug work. Universities are allergic to controversial publicity and lawsuits, and Leary and Alpert were breeding grounds for both. By the end of the year, both of them were gone, Leary on the grounds that he had stopped attending to his teaching responsibilities and Alpert for violating the agreement with the university not to involve undergraduates in their experiments. Academia turned out not to be a welcoming setting for exploring altered states of consciousness. Leary found more accommodating and unconventional settings elsewhere. Those of us at Harvard had seen the beginnings of Haight-Ashbury and the so-called flower children who were drawn to it. Leary was their god and he reveled in that role

But this was not the end of my psilocybin story, although the rest takes place off-stage from the University. One of the women in our cohort had become involved with an endearing but shady man named Eddie. Rumor had it that he had served time for some unknown crime. By the time my story was over, Eddie was back in the Walpole State Prison when he was convicted for a scheme which had to unravel at some point. He would buy things like TVs and appliances from Sears on credit, sell the merchandise, keep the cash and never repay Sears. When I visited him in Walpole he was just as charming and likeable as he had been when he started hanging around with the clinical psych cohort, appointing himself as our unofficial ambassador to the world beyond academia.

Somehow, Eddie had gained access to Leary’s drug supply, which I’m sure was not tightly guarded in any case, and further endeared himself to my classmates by offering some of his stash free of charge to anyone who was interested. By that point my closest friend, my fellow CCNY alum, had washed his hands of the program and was caretaking an apartment in Washington Heights in Manhattan with a spectacular view of the George Washington Bridge and the New Jersey Palisades. The next time I was in New York we arranged to use my share of Eddie’s gift for a two-person session.

Despite the absence of lab coats and clipboards, I had the proverbial bad trip that definitively shut the door on any future drug trips. Because I’ve described this experience so many times, it’s lost its rough edges and taken on a narrative coherence that surely wasn’t part of the original experience, whose space it now occupies. It’s exactly what happens when you try to recount a dream, a non-linear experience crammed into a linear mold. In any case, here’s what’s left of what emerged several hours into “the trip.”

I am in a coffin with no lid. The coffin is drifting in some mysterious body of water. It reaches a wall inside a cave with niches carved in the walls, such as I’ve seen in catacombs. The coffin drifts into the niche whose ceiling is just inches above my head. This is my burial place.

That was it. I was done with psilocybin. I’ve relived the equivalent of that experience every time I’ve had an MRI. If you’ve had that experience, you’ll have some glimmering of how terrifying that trip was, particularly in the vulnerable state created by the drug. There were parts of the brief experiences that I will cherish, particularly those made me aware of the wide range of sensory experiences that was open to us, but I was going to have to find a way to get there without drugs.

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Marv Hoffman

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