The Doldrums of the Drug Experience: Jennifer Ulrich’s ‘The Timothy Leary Project’

The initial role Ulrich took on as the archivist of the Timothy Leary archive was to publish excerpts from it on a public blog. That seems more suitable than this rather stolid book.

The Timothy Leary Project: Inside the Great Counterculture Experiment
Jennifer Ulrich
Apr 2018

No historical account of the ’60s would be adequate, much less complete, without a careful assessment of the personality and career of Timothy Leary. Indeed, it’s safe to say that the order of personality and then career is apt. It’s true, of course, that Leary was trained in psychiatry, had served as director of psychiatric research at the Kaiser Family Foundation, published a book in the field (The Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality in 1957), and worked for a few years as a lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard University where he was affiliated with the Harvard Center for Research in Personality. But as the ’60s unfolded and moved into the ’70s, and as he became increasingly identified with the use of psychotropic drugs to expand consciousness, Leary quickly moved to occupy a strange but (for a while) prominent position in US society. He became the psychedelic guru of the counterculture, the promulgator of such slogans as “turn on, tune in, drop out” (although the phrase seems to have been coined by Marshall McLuhan) and “question authority”, and was even dubbed by President Nixon as “the most dangerous man in America.”

In August 1960—while vacationing in Cuernacava, Mexico with his colleague Anthony Russo—Leary consumed psilocybin mushrooms for the first time. Returning to Harvard, he and another colleague, Richard Alpert (now better known as Ram Dass), initiated the Harvard Psilocybin Project. They contacted the Swiss company Sandoz Pharmaceuticals where Albert Hofmann had developed a method of synthesizing Psilocybe Mexicana. Having secured a supply, Leary and Alpert designed a series of “experiments” intended to “determine the conditions under which psilocybin can be used to broaden and deepen human experience.” The scare quotes around the word “experiments” are rather hard to resist. The people conducting the study (Leary and Alpert) took the drugs alongside the subjects of the study, there was rarely any attempt to establish a control group (and when such a group was established, it was generally mishandled), and many of the studies (such as the “Concord Prison Experiment”, which theorized that psilocybin use might reduce recidivism among parolees) provided no reliable method for assessing whether the beneficial results were the product of the drug consumption or other factors.

Moreover, Leary almost immediately began to court the attention and cooperation of several notable artists such as Aldous Huxley, Thelonious Monk, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg; the latter became a frequent correspondent. Indeed, people of all stripes flocked to Harvard hoping to participate in these studies and a black market for psychedelics quickly emerged and flourished. Soon, the university grew wary of the possible dangers surrounding Leary’s work. In February of 1962, David McClelland (an early supporter of Leary’s who was partially responsible for bringing Leary to Harvard) wrote a fairly eviscerating assessment of Leary’s approach to research, which McClelland felt was overly concerned with “samples of people’s vocabulary (use of neologism like “groovy”, “love engineer”, etc.)” and the “slow decrease in ability to talk about anything without bringing drugs into the conversation.” That last charge, of course, fit Leary himself quite well by 1962. Soon both Leary and Alpert were dismissed from Harvard.

This was only the beginning for Leary; his dismissal opened the way for his emergence as a cult of personality. Soon the heirs to the Mellon fortune helped him acquire a 64-room mansion at Millbrook, New York. Here Leary held court over a communal group of like-minded people. Leary married a model and continued to surround himself with celebrity. He himself was now becoming a celebrity in his own right, touring the country for lectures, and releasing a spoken-word album through Folkways in which he reads from the book he co-authored with Alpert and Ralph Metzner, The Psychedelic Experience (1964). It was in the mid-’60s that his legal troubles began, getting arrested several times for marijuana possession. On 19 May 1969, he had a conviction overturned by the Supreme Court and that same day he announced he was running against Ronald Reagan for governor of California (The Beatles’ “Come Together” was written as his campaign song). In 1970 he began a ten-year sentence and almost immediately escaped.

Whether you regard him as a man of his time or ahead of it, a prophet for raising consciousness or a huckster obsessed with notoriety, a scientist or a charlatan, it is undeniable that Leary’s life reads like some kind of drugged out adventure novel. Why then, is the new book by archivist Jennifer Ulrich, The Timothy Leary Project: Inside the Great Counterculture Experiment, so brutally dull, so unenlightening, so forgettable? The New York Public Library houses a huge archive of materials that Leary collected over the course of his life and that material serves as the basis for this book. The book is neither a biography nor is it simply a selected correspondence. Rather, it provides an underwhelming overview of Leary’s life alongside selections from the correspondence and Ulrich’s explanations regarding the various letters—mostly informing readers of who the correspondent was, the context of the letter or, in some unfortunate cases, simply paraphrasing the contents of the letter itself. In his Foreword to the book, Leary’s son Zach Leary claims that Ulrich “is neither pro-Leary nor anti-Leary and with this slant, she has spent countless hours over the last few years pouring over [sic] every piece of paper that makes up the six hundred-plus boxes that are the archive” (11). That neutrality (which can hardly be described as a “slant”) makes precious little impact here. There is no disinterested evaluation of Leary’s work and life, just a rather dry presentation of the letters.

Now, this wouldn’t matter in the least if the letters themselves were of interest. After all, living such a colorful life and surrounded by so many fascinating historical figures (all while discussing consciousness expansion and drug use), Leary really ought to have produced some of the most scintillating correspondence known to modern letters. If that’s so, it’s not apparent in this selection. The blurbs on the back of the dust jacket imply that the book reveals something “intimate” about Leary through these letters but surprisingly few of them are by Leary. Most are letters written to him and they are, for the most part, astoundingly uninformative and insipid. There’s a gossipy letter by Alpert from Millbrook while Leary was on honeymoon, detailing things going on in the lives of people to whom we are not introduced (and whatever pertinent information we might glean from it is better summarized by Ulrich’s introduction to it). There are a series of letters from Ginsburg that demonstrate that his interest in Leary involved the latter’s ability to supply him with intriguing drugs more than his research. There s an entire chapter of “trip reports” (reports by various individuals, including Kerouac, on their drug experiences) that somehow manage to be extraordinarily tedious.

I’m sure that in an archive that large there must be more revealing and engaging material than is represented within the pages of The Timothy Leary Project. The initial role Ulrich took on as the archivist of this material was to publish excerpts from it on a public blog and that somehow seems more suitable to the material than this rather stolid book. When Leary, Kerouac, and Ginsberg (the latter two being among the finest writers of their generation) fail to stimulate, something is going horribly wrong.