Timothy Leary: An Experimental Life
A Book by Robert Greenfield
First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2006, Volume 13, #10
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Timothy Leary: An Experimental Life, Robert Greenfield’s sprawling account of Timothy Leary’s existence, is, by his own admission, unlikely to win the former Harvard professor and father of the psychedelic movement any new fans. Greenfield, the writer of posthumous biographies of Jerry Garcia as well as San Francisco impresario Bill Graham, seems to have made a career of taking on the legacies of cantankerous ’60s icons. However, what differentiates his approach from those of other rock biographers — such as the infamous Albert Goldman, whose scandalous tomes detailing the rise and fall of Elvis Presley and John Lennon mark the nadir of pop culture journalism — is that he allows the lives and deeds of his subjects to speak for themselves. He rarely editorializes on what he presents; rather, he prefers to let his readers make their own inferences and draw their own conclusions.
The most amazing thing about Timothy Leary: An Experimental Life is that Greenfield not only managed to lasso together a coherent line of narrative, but he also succeeded in nailing down some facts about Leary’s wild ride on earth. The good professor wrote a number of autobiographies during different periods of his life, but unfortunately they contradict each other to such an extent that they are completely unreliable. Leary had no qualms about retooling his accounts of events in order to fit them into his perspective about the world and his legacy at any given time. Flashbacks, the most famous of these autobiographies, is an entertaining and essential tome, but it rightly should be shelved in the fiction section of any public library worth its salt. All of this helps to account for why Greenfield’s warts-and-all biography extends to more than 700 pages.
As a piece of psychedelic scholarship, Timothy Leary: An Experimental Life is unparalleled. Chroniclers of this period of cultural history tend to fall into two camps: Either they are unrepentant apologists who refuse to look below the surface of flower power and its hallucinatory shimmer, or they vilify all of the characters involved to the point where their right both to live and to draw breath is thrown into question. Greenfield takes a very even-handed approach when exploring Leary’s life. He never fails to give him credit for his contributions to the overarching philosophies of the 1960s, but never does he shy away from chronicling Leary’s more questionable choices and actions in all of their unappealing splendor.
The most compelling part of Timothy Leary: An Experimental Life is, not surprisingly, Greenfield’s chronicling of Leary’s tenure as a professor at Harvard along with the years that immediately followed his inevitable dismissal. This was a heady period, with many of the cutting-edge figures of the day — including Allen Ginsberg, Thelonious Monk, the Merry Pranksters, and Alan Watts — beating a path to his door to take part in the sacraments that were offered. Leary’s base, at this time, was the sprawling Hitchcock family mansion in Millbrook, New York, where he and his partner Dick Alpert (soon to be Ram Dass) engaged in an attempt to run a community that was based upon psychedelics and spiritual exploration. As quaint or misguided as the belief in the ability of LSD to fundamentally change history might seem, the Timothy Leary of this period rightly is portrayed as a visionary and a fiendishly articulate force with which to be reckoned. Effortlessly demolishing intellectual and legal interference from the reactionary forces that had gathered against him, Leary carried on for years, seemingly immune to prosecution — so much so that one could be forgiven for believing, as many did, that he was the beneficiary of divine protection. As he gallops like the Hindu hero Arjuna across the pages of Greenfield’s opus, his radical pronouncements cut like a burning arrow through the morass of post-war culture.
By Greenfield’s account, something began to go dreadfully wrong with Leary’s life and career around 1967. Millbrook began to fall apart through internal dissension because Leary wanted the mansion to run as a sacred space or ashram, while Alpert favored the "never-ending party" approach. As the larger culture caught up with Leary’s research, he came to be in great demand as a speaker, and sold-out audiences around the world hung on his every word. However, rather than having the effect of transforming him into an ego-less being, all of the acid that Leary had taken had the opposite effect. He began to believe his own press, and he developed a messiah complex.
As Leary’s untouchable nature faded, he faced prosecution and eventual incarceration. Despite a legendary escape from prison, Leary’s subsequent life as a fugitive — first in Algeria where he was sheltered by the Black Panthers, and then as an exile in Switzerland — ate away at his focus and his resolve. His eventual recapture by the FBI in England combined with his humiliating imprisonment in America lead to his infamous betrayal of old acid-distributing compatriots as well as to the decay of his credibility within the counterculture. In this most tragic portion of Timothy Leary: An Experimental Life, the reader painfully learns that Leary briefly contemplated murder in order to achieve his freedom. Abandoned by all of his friends, with the exception of Ginsberg, Leary obviously never took Dylan’s adage "to live outside of the law, you must be honest" to heart. The Timothy Leary who emerged from prison in 1976 was a toothless shadow of his former self.
Society had moved on. The world had changed its priorities, and few cared about what Leary might have to say regarding any given social phenomenon. For a man like Leary who was possessed by a pathological need to be the center of attention, being irrelevant was worse than being in prison. A shameless publicist, the Leary of the late ’70s would say and do anything to get press coverage. Like a silent film star who had lived too long and couldn’t find work in the talkies, Leary seemed oblivious to social change, and he was resistant to moving with the times. He never really made the transition to post-’60s consciousness, but rather than being content with living as a charming anachronism, he made a series of increasingly pathetic attempts to reinvent himself. Worst of all was his late-in-life gambit to become aligned with the computer and Internet revolution, which came off as ill-informed, contrived, and insincere.
What emerges from Greenfield’s portrait in Timothy Leary: An Experimental Life has all the makings of a real American tragedy. Leary was a man who wanted to live with no constraints, and he made it his self-appointed mission to free the minds of young America from the chains of their own mental oppression. Yet, for all of his cheerleading for a new world order, he was unable to change himself. As much as he encouraged people to drop out of society, he never was capable of healing or outrunning the ghosts of his own personal tragedy. The suicide of his first wife and his failure as a parent — which resulted in a lengthy estrangement from his son as well as the eventual suicide of his daughter — tore at his psyche more than he ever was willing to admit. He ended his life surrounded by young acolytes who unquestioning idolized him, while he ignored old friends who had attempted to help him come to terms with his own life and mortality. Despite the attention that Leary’s public model for dying briefly received in the media, readers get an uncomfortable feeling that he merely was retreading the same tired ground with diminishing returns. No longer reviled, Leary largely was ignored, and he never got over it. All of the lessons that had been burned into him by thousands upon thousands of psychedelic experiences appeared, in the end, to be completely lost upon him as he drowned his pain with nitrous oxide, cocaine, and alcohol.
The danger of sticking all the way through Greenfield’s Timothy Leary: An Experimental Life is that the Leary that readers encounter at the end of the tale stands bereft of interest or dignity. His own 15 minutes of fame not only had passed by, but they also had become an all-too-brief hallucination, which he spent the rest of his life trying to recapture. Only time will tell how history remembers Timothy Leary. Hopefully, the cavalier, devil-may-care philosopher of 1964 who stood grinning from ear to ear and was racing to share with the rest of the world a private joke between him and the cosmos will gradually replace the sad, dwindling figure of his later years that currently resides in the public’s imagination. Ultimately, truth is better than fiction, and Greenfield’s book goes a long way to setting the record straight — painful, at times, as that may be. ˝
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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