Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde? Genius or crackpot? Devil or angel of enlightenment?
Whichever label one puts on the enigma named Timothy Leary, be sure of this ¬ he was the superstar of the 1960s counterculture.
Hey, everybody! "Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out!"
The early years
Timothy Leary was born in October 1920, the son of an Irish-American Catholic dentist who left the family when Timothy was a teenager.
After briefly studying at Holy Cross College, Leary entered West Point, where he was later forced to resign following his and others' attempts to bring alcohol into a field exercise. Some speculated that Leary's Irish Catholic background was a contributing factor in his ouster, while his Protestant cohorts were allowed to remain at the academy.
Leary continued his studies at the University of Alabama where he earned his bachelor's degree in psychology in 1943. A master's degree from Washington State University followed three years later. His Ph.D. in psychology was awarded in 1950 from the University of California - Berkeley.
During the following 13 years, Leary held positions in the public as well as private sectors, in what he would later describe as time wasted as an associate professor, director of research at the Kaiser Foundation, and finally as a lecturer at Harvard University. Leary gradually soured on his lifestyle; he described himself as a "middle-class, liberal, intellectual robot."
Leary first became aware of "something different," something that might alter his outlook on life, in May 1957. He stumbled across an article in Life magazine, written by R. Gordon Wasson, on the subject of entheogens, the use of psychoactive herbs in the religious ceremonies of the Mazatec people of Mexico.
Intrigued, Leary traveled to Mexico to learn first hand what kind of mood change a helping of psilocybin mushrooms would produce. What happened was a radical change in his life.
Leary returned to Harvard in 1960 and persuaded the powers that be, that a psilocybin project could eventually be beneficial in altering the mind states of convicted criminals and alcoholics. He teamed with a number of associates, including Richard Alpert, who would later become known as Ram Dass, to research the effects of psilocybin, progressing on to LSD, lysergic acid diethylamide.
Leary's test subjects reported "profound mystical and spiritual experiences, which . . . permanently altered their lives in a very positive manner."
After about three years on the project, Harvard officials heard a vigorous protests from parents, who did not want their children exposed to those experiments. That effectively shut down the experiments, which forced Leary and Alpert out the door.
The two continued their research at Millbrook House, a mansion in Millbrook, New York, northeast of Poughkeepsie.
In 1964, a reading of the Tibetan Book of the Dead inspired Leary to co-author The Psychedelic Experience, in which he wrote that the "psychedelic experience is a journey to new realms of consciousness. . . . transcend[ing] verbal concepts of space-time dimensions, and of the ego or identity."
According to Leary, experiences of enlarged consciousness are available to "anyone through the ingestion of psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, DMT [n-dimethyltryptamine], etc." He also claimed that the drug acted as a chemical key, to "open the mind and free the nervous system of its ordinary patterns and structures."
Leary also hypothesized that the human mind consists of eight "circuits of consciousness,"* but that most people do not get beyond the fourth stage. The purpose of the higher four circuits, he claimed, is to "allow humans to become accustomed to life in a zero- or low-gravity environment."
The fifth circuit, according to Leary, is the "feeling of floating and uninhibited motion experienced by users of marijuana."
The long arm of the law
In 1965, Leary's daughter had some marijuana in her possession when the two of them were stopped on a routine border crossing from Mexico. Leary took the blame and was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison under provisions of the Marijuana Tax Act. Leary later claimed, during an appeal, that the act was a clear violation of his Fifth Amendment rights. He was freed in 1969, with his conviction overturned.
In a series of events reminiscent of a Keystone Kops episode, Leary was busted for pot again, in 1970. He finagled his way into a gardener's position in the jail's minimum security section. From there, he would make his break. Treating his getaway as a practical joke, Leary left a note for the police, daring them to find him.
He had made arrangements with the underground organization, the Weathermen, to spirit him and his wife into Algeria. The plan was to hole up with Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther leader. The plan soured when Cleaver decided to kidnap the Learys for ransom money, but the Learys escaped to a temporary asylum in Switzerland.
In 1974, U.S. officials caught up with Leary (then separated from his wife) at the Kabul, Afghanistan, airport. He was extradited to America, where he was promptly labeled by President Nixon as "the most dangerous man in America." Leary was placed in a cell beside Charles Manson in Folsom Prison. California governor Jerry Brown later released Leary in April 1976.
The G. Gordon Liddy affair
In a twist of fate following Leary's release, he met G. Gordon Liddy. They formed a speaking tour to "debate the soul of America." The incongruous duo had been at odds since Liddy, on Nixon's orders, invaded Millbrook House and arrested Leary on an FBI warrant.
The final years
Leary died in May 1996, but before he did, he left his mark on a number of philosophical doings.
His final forecast for the future could be summarized by the acronym SMI¬≤LE, which stands for "Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, and Life Extension."
Leary's influence reached far in the music business. The Psychedelic Experience moved John Lennon to write "Tomorrow Never Knows" for the Beatles. On another occasion, Lennon ostensibly wrote "Come Together" for Leary's run at the gubernatorial office in California ¬ a run derailed somewhat by his prison sentence.
The Moody Blues' "Legend of a Mind" memorialized Leary with the lyrics, "Timothy Leary's dead. No, no, no, no, he's on the outside looking in."
The street culture added "Timothy Leary tickets" to the slang dictionary. The term is applied to the small squares of blotter paper on which a drop of liquid LSD has been placed.
*Robert Anton Wilson's Prometheus Rising explores in depth Leary's eight-circuit model of consciousness, and is highly acclaimed. The two held a great mutual respect and often discussed futuristic, philosophical, and political matters. Wilson once said of Leary, "[he] had a great deal of 'hilaritose,' the type of cheer and good humor by which it was said you could recognize deity."