Timothy Leary was your advisor? no way!


“Timothy Leary was your advisor? No way!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that, or a variation of it. It represented in the minds of others a complete summary of my five-and-a-half-year experience at Harvard in the 60s. Maybe I was complicit in that reductive summary of a complex love/hate relationship with that revered institution. I probably dropped that L-bomb into conversations more often than I should have because it added a touch of the illicit and unconventional to my otherwise rather pedestrian story. So, I promise to tell the Leary story, but this time in its proper context.

The three young men sitting in at a lunch counter in Greensboro, NC and all those who followed were my constant companions as I entered graduate school in the fall of 1960. The sit-ins had been preceded by the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 and the battle to integrate Central High in Little Rock in 1957. The struggle for racial justice in the South was coming to a head. It felt like graduate school was not going to be, forgive the anachronism, “the room where it happened,” but I wasn’t strong enough yet to act on my deepest beliefs.

So, based on my limited knowledge and information about clinical psychology programs, I applied to Columbia, NYU, the University of Michigan and Harvard. The latter two were entirely paper and pencil processes – application form, personal essay and letters of recommendation. For Columbia and NYU there were interviews with faculty. I have a vague recollection of an Upper West Side apartment, where a husband and wife team, both on the Columbia faculty, were sufficiently unimpressed by the socially awkward and unpolished young man that I was to reject my application, as did NYU. Michigan and Harvard, equipped with only the words and numbers I submitted, both accepted me. Harvard was probably the only university outside of New York that my immigrant parents had ever heard of, so based on that and a vague sense of the prestige attached to its name, they urged me to accept their invitation.

I was only a few steps ahead of my parents in real knowledge of what the two programs had to offer, so, name recognition alone, propelled me to Cambridge. I have no recollection of how I got there and what I brought with me. This was long before the time when college students arrived with TVs, mini-fridges, microwaves and game boxes. I’m sure there was nothing more than a suitcase, probably the one I bought to carry my belongings to my summer camp counseling job the summer preceding Cambridge. I made the trip between Boston and New York many times during my Cambridge years. At this point I still had never flown, so the first arrival was surely by Greyhound bus. Beyond that, the details are a blur.

I was assigned to a cinder block dormitory building some distance from Harvard Yard. Undergrads lived in Houses in and around the Yard, my first realization that the glamour of Harvard resided with its undergraduates. We were the drab work horses, less likely to have arrived from prestigious prep schools and even less likely to be legacy admissions, so we were dispatched to Harvard’s equivalent of the Paris banlieus. I never fully lost my sense of the kid with his nose pressed against the candy shop window. I was always on the outside of where the “real Harvard” was happening.

The dorm rooms were spartan and characterless. I shared a room with a Chinese physics student with a serious hearing impairment and a shaky relationship with the English language. Those obstacles made for a polite, but limited, relationship. We each had built into our side of the room a bed, a desk, a dresser and some wall-mounted bookshelves. There was a curtain that could be drawn to provide a modicum of privacy, but there was no need. I was not likely to be inviting young ladies or raucous partyers into my side of the room, and even if I was, the tumult would not have registered on my roommate’s ears.

What social life existed in that drab building occurred in the hallways and in the lounge at the end of the hall. My floormates were a lively group which included a future editor of The New Republic, a young man who became the country’s foremost constitutional law professor and a highly respected historian at the University of California. These people would barely be able to dredge up a memory of me or recognize my name today. I stayed quiet, on the edge of their impassioned debates about movies, the subject that bound them together most tightly. They were the kinds of aficionados who would head to the Harvard Square Theater and the Brattle Theater to see every new movie, not once but multiple times so they could focus each time on a single aspect of the film – acting, script, lighting, costumes. I’m not exaggerating.

I was a real autodidact when it came to movies. In high school I discovered what was perhaps the only place in Brooklyn showing foreign films. Every Friday evening I headed there by bus to see the latest Truffaut, Bergman and anything else that was on offer from Italy, France, Japan and India, but I never honed my opinions on what I was seeing because I had no one with whom I could discuss my impressions: I was ill-equipped to mix it up with these pros. Besides, my budget did not allow indulgences like multiple trips to the theater box office. I was continuing the free education I had received at City College, but this time my benefactor was the National Institute of Mental Health which was supporting most of my classmates to the tune of $1400/year, as I recall, adequate for food and book buying, occasional movies and trips home to Brooklyn, but not much more. That was my life, except of course classes and library time. No car, no dating, no new clothes or other indulgences.

The clinical psychology program at Harvard was nested inside a mega-department called Social Relations, or SocRel, as it was known to many. My cohort consisted of 12 clinical psych concentrators, although the other programs in SocRel – social psychology, sociology and anthropology – shared many courses, so our universe of colleagues extended well beyond the clinical psych program. There was also a separate psychology department, overseen by the famous BF Skinner, which was housed in the basement of Memorial Hall, a spooky Victorian castle-like structure whose above ground chapel/auditorium hosted many legendary ceremonies, speeches and performances. There was no way its work, focused primarily on rat behavior, could be integrated with our social science programs housed in a recently opened high rise building named after the illustrious William James. I would guess that Skinner’s fame insulated him from any efforts at consolidation in any case.

At its inception the idea of integrating all the social sciences in the hope of creating synergy among them was the height of enlightened curricular thinking, a way to throw off the strait jacket of traditional academic boundaries. Its real effectiveness was another matter. My classmates engaged in a multi-year debate about whether what had been created was a mile wide and an inch deep. This was particularly true for the clinical psych people whose course work was largely crammed into two years before we went off to our year-long clinical internships, returning to a program that was centered around work on our dissertations.

The essence of the pleasures and pitfalls of this integrative approach were embodied in SocRel 200, a course required of students in all the disciplines. In this parade of stars, we were introduced each week to a famous faculty member who talked about his or her past and current work. There was no effort to connect the sessions from week to week, so it felt like you had signed up for the weekly lecture series at the local Unitarian church. Years later, comparing notes with  graduates of clinical psychology programs at less prestigious universities, I came away feeling that my training at Harvard was more glitter than gold and that graduates from, say, UMass Amherst  might have been better equipped as professionals than I, in spite of the wide-eyed look I inevitably drew when I announced that I had studied at “that school in Boston.” I learned how to use that prestige capital to my advantage when I needed it, all the while feeling like I was committing a misdemeanor-level offense by doing so.

I was excited to meet the other students who had been admitted to this august institution and nervous about how I measured up against them. I’ve always been plagued by a sense of fraudulence, just waiting for people to discover how unworthy and incapable I was and to expose the extent to which I’d been faking it. Remember the oft-quoted line from Groucho Marx: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” I was sure that when we were all assembled, I would be found out and sent packing.

In fact, we were an oddly mismatched bunch, collectively lacking in legendary superpowers. Among the dozen there were women from Wellesley, Goucher and a southern campus which may have been the University of Virginia, the son of a famous psychologist seeking to continue the family legacy, graduates of small liberal arts colleges like Kenyon. And then there were two of us who were from City College. We were complete strangers to each other in that massive New York education factory. We admitted later that we were the last people in the world we wanted to hang out with at Harvard. Although I was determined to preserve my New York accent, lest I be accused of masking my true roots and identity, I was also interested in broadening my exposure beyond the familiar New York boundaries. But the magnetic pull to the familiar was too great. We became close friends and remain so sixty years later.

During significant chunks of the week we were in class together, although, sad to say, there’s not much residue from those hours around the seminar table. I was disappointed that we were reading research studies about animal learning, a subject I thought had been relegated to the basement of Memorial Hall. I enjoyed some of what I would describe as the more expansive reading like Oscar Lewis’s Five Families, an account of the lives of people in poverty emerging from a traditional society or Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. In retrospect, these works came closer to my vision of a more literary discipline that I aspired to be part of.

In retrospect, there was a lot that served as a counterbalance to the more staid research studies bursting with tedious references to earlier writings. There was Henry Murray, the legendary creator of the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), a set of picture cards to which subjects were asking to write their accounts of who the characters were, what was happening and what would happen next. Analyzing those stories came close to parsing short stories, and Murray himself with his obsessive interest in Herman Melville was also playing in territory that was distant from those maze-running rats. Similarly, Gordon Allport, the prominent social psychologist whose work was devoted to the study of prejudice felt closer to that world far from campus my third eye was tracking all through graduate school.

In addition to our four required courses, we had the freedom to audit anything else that was being offered at the college, mostly for the benefit of the undergraduates. I’m not sure how many of my classmates took advantage of that opportunity, but this was my chance to get on the other side of that candy shop window. I chose two classes that I attended regularly, although no one was keeping track. Both were large lecture classes which connected to weekly section meetings overseen by advanced graduate students. I only attended the large lectures. The first was taught be David Riesman, whose book The Lonely Crowd, an examination of American character, was enormously popular and influential at the time. Riesman introduced me to the work of Alexis DeTocqueville, whose writings about his visits to early 19th century America were breathtakingly prescient about the forces of individualism that shaped who we are today. The second class was led by Perry Miller, the formidable scholar of colonial America whose lectures were breathtaking works of art. I’ve grown skeptical of what students retain from this kind of teaching, but when done well, virtuoso lecturing is a thing of beauty. These forays outside the boundaries of the SocRel department fed that immigrant boy’s hunger for learning that was both wide and deep. It wasn’t that I was unhappy with the fare in my department; it just wasn’t enough in itself to make me feel that I was taking advantage of the extraordinary opportunities that surrounded me at Harvard.

There was more to course work in the clinical psychology program. In that first year we were allowed to dip our toes into the water that we would be swimming in full-time in our third year when we were placed in clinical settings all over the country to begin our equivalent of medical internships. For first-year graduate students, that work with “real” people took place at Mass General Hospital, the training hospital for Harvard Medical School students and students in other hospital-based programs. We had occasional encounters with psychiatric inpatients and patients in the outpatient clinics. I recall little of those encounters, probably a reflection of how perfunctory and inconsequential they were. Psychiatrists ruled in this hospital environment. Psychologists did testing but no therapy, and psychology students were even farther down on the pecking order.

 What were memorable were what I guess would qualify as rounds. Each week one of the psychiatrists on staff presented a case interesting enough to engage this large lecture hall full of professionals. After sharing background information on the patient and his or her presenting problems, the patients were escorted to a seat on the elevated stage and interviewed by the doctor. This was followed by a group conversation about the case, particularly focused on treatment approaches and options. The period was heavily dominated by Freudian thinking and most of the commentary remained within those bounds. As fascinated as I was by Freud and his theories, I came to find the framework confining, as you’ll see when I arrive at my third-year internship in San Francisco.

So, now the stage is set for the appearance of Leary. Timothy Leary was on his way to a successful career as a personality psychologist at UC Berkeley. He had even created a personality test which enhanced his professional reputation. Then, tragically, his wife committed suicide. I’m sure much has been written about this part of his life. When I was told that Leary would be my advisor, all I knew about him was that he had left Berkeley after his wife’s death and had spent time in Mexico where he had discovered hallucinatory mushrooms used in native religious ceremonies.

I don’t know how other faculty members dealt with their roles as advisors, but there wasn’t much substance to my contacts with Leary that first year. I have vague memories of a pleasant introductory meeting, but not much beyond that. On the rare occasions when you meet a celebrity, you kick your faculties into high gear to try to retain as much of that encounter as possible, but Timothy Leary was not Timothy Leary yet, so those powers of hyper-attention weren’t  as engaged as they would be in Year 2.

What we did know, mostly through a very active gossip mill and occasional media coverage, was that Leary’s agreement with the University allowed him to invite scholars and artists to participate in sessions where they were given psilocybin, a laboratory-produced form of mescaline found in the peyote mushrooms Leary had discovered in Mexico. Leary was very outspoken about his belief that he had found god in those mushrooms, a revolutionary discovery that he wanted to share with the world. He also believed that his invitees, people like Aldous Huxley and a number of musicians and artists, would experience enormous outbursts of creative energy through the hallucinogens that would be reflected in the work they produced. It appears the drug affected the quantity of work produced, not the quality, but that mattered less to Leary than sharing with the world the religious vision he had experienced. To that end, he received permission from the university to include graduate students in his drug “research.” Keep in mind that psilocybin had not yet been declared illegal, so the university’s granting of permission was not crossing any legal boundaries.

That first year’s experience captured in miniature the essential dichotomy of the 60s – the split between political activism, representing the growing intensity of civil rights activity in the south where my third eye was directed, and the drug-infused flower child hedonism that attracted so many of that generation. As yet, I was not an active participant in either of those two worlds, but that would begin to change the following year. That tale will be told in the next section.

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Marv Hoffman
By Marv Hoffman

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