John Higgs has spent 10 years writing and producing in a wide range of media, producing both television and radio series as well as a best selling videogame for the PlayStation 2. John has recently released a book about the life of the infamous psychedelic advocate Timothy Leary, titled I Have America Surrounded (Amazon US and UK).
TDG: Hi John, thanks for your time, and congratulations on a wonderful book in I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary. First off, and if you’ll excuse the pun, how did you first get ‘turned on’ to the idea of writing about Tim Leary’s life of “flat-out epic grandeur”?
JH: I’ve known the English beat writer Brian Barritt for a good ten years or more, and from him I heard all the stories of Leary’s life, especially his time as a fugitive. Gradually I started to notice that whenever Leary was mentioned online or in the media, there was an awful lot of stuff that was wrong or out of context, and for years I kept saying that someone should write a book about him, something that could sweep away a lot of the confusion that surrounds him and put his life and ideas into perspective. Eventually, I got fed up with waiting and did it myself. It just needed to be done, really, it’s just too good a story to ignore.
TDG: As luck would have it though, as soon as you did another biography came out, by Robert Greenfield. There’s been quite a bit of a reaction to Greenfield’s book, with those close to Leary describing it as a hatchet job…I think Ralph Metzner stated simply that it was ‘character asassination’. Your book seems to be more balanced – you certainly look at the negatives to Leary’s personality, but you also try to understand the motivations, the mindset of the times etc. Was this a conscious decision, to try and present both sides of the story?
JH: Actually it wasn’t – certainly not during the writing. There are much more than two sides to any story. I’d be very wary of anyone who claimed to have written a ‘fair and balanced’ book anyway, I’m not sure that’s possible, for the decisions that influence what you put in and what you leave out are ultimately personal things. What I did do was try very hard to keep myself – and particularly my judgmental side – out of the book as much as I could. I tried to concentrate on just what happened and why it happened. I think that a reader is much more engaged in the story if you respect their intelligence and allow them to draw their own conclusions, and they are also more aware of how those opinions keep shifting as the book progresses. Let’s face it, by the time Leary is in solitary confinement in Folsom prison convinced that the arrival of a comet is a message to him from a galactic intelligence, its just not necessary to spell out that some things haven’t worked out too well!
So my approach was more like a portrait artist trying to capture a good likeness rather than a reporter trying to be neutral. A lot of decisions about the book, especially the pacing, the chapter headings and the title, are all chosen to give a sense of the guy, to capture that likeness. What I’m delighted by is that it seems to have worked, and that people who knew and loved Leary, and people who think he was an idiot, have praised the book for almost identical reasons. It’s certainly an approach I’m keeping for my next book, anyway.
TDG: In recent years, there seems to be a fair amount of blame being laid at Leary’s feet for the negative status of hallucinogens in modern mainstream society. Daniel Pinchbeck, in his excellent Breaking Open the Head, labeled Leary “the central villain in the psychedelic saga…naïve, charismatic, sloppy, self-promotional and out of control.” Do you agree with this assessment of Leary’s role?
JH: Yeah, Leary gets accused of being the central villain of psychedelics about as often as he gets accused of being its central hero. I’m generalising wildly here, but the ‘villain’ label tends to come from people who have a professional or academic reputation to protect, and the ‘hero’ label from people whose interest in psychedelics is part of their lifestyle but not their career. This is partly because when Leary promoted LSD to the masses he was encouraging illegal behaviour, which obviously is something that professional people can’t publicly support.
But mainly it is argued that Leary went ‘wrong’ somehow, that he went ‘too far’ and brought the subject into disrepute by doing so. The ‘villain’ label is a common accusation, especially in academic circles, and in many ways it is understandable. Researchers are well aware of just how suspiciously psychedelic research is viewed, and in response they often insist that this negative image should not be linked to the drugs themselves or to research into them. Instead, the problem is blamed on those who have undertaken similar research previously – it is these earlier researchers who were ‘bad’, not our respectable researcher or his work. It’s not uncommon for researchers to replicate Leary’s work and use his ideas (‘set and setting’ for example) but not only fail to credit him, but to only invoke his name when they insist that their work is completely different to his.
But the fact is there is a lot of the weirdness inherent in psychedelics – far too much for academia to handle – and that’s true regardless of who is studying them. Pinchbeck strikes me as following the exact same path Leary lay down years earlier. For example, he’s now progressed to the stage where he is channeling apocalyptic messages from the Mesoamerican god Quetzalcoatl. Now, I don’t want to belittle this experience, and it is clearly a big deal to him. But at the same time it is also a recurring occurrence in heavy psychedelic users, rather than a major new event. Its further evidence that Philip K. Dick’s messages from the alien supercomputer VALIS, Robert Anton Wilson’s messages from Sirius, or Leary’s Starseed transmissions are a recurring phenomena. I certainly don’t claim to understand what any of these experiences mean, but it is clear that there is a pattern there, and that this pattern arises from prolonged psychedelic use and is not the ‘fault’ of the first individual to experience it.
You can’t blame Leary for how weird psychedelics are – don’t shoot the messenger!
TDG: There could be a strong case though for condemning him personally for his lack of responsibility though, couldn’t there? His actions caused severe upheaval for his family, in particular his children. Forgetting Leary’s influence on a cultural level, what do you think of Leary the person?
JH: Oh it’s probably fair to say that there’s some truth in most of the dirt flung at Leary. You’d be hard pushed to find many people who believe that his actions were ‘responsible’, for a start, and he was certainly a bad father to Jack and Susan (although Zach Leary will tell you he was a wonderful step-father). I certainly wouldn’t argue with any of that, but I would argue against the importance people have put on it, especially recently, and how people have used it as an excuse to dismiss the significance of his life and ideas. I don’t think it is news that people are flawed, let’s be honest!
TDG: Do you think Leary paid enough attention to the history and traditional usage of psychedelics?
JH: To put this is context there was very little information available about things like this in the early 60s, when Leary first encountered psychedelics. Information about Eastern religion and thought was becoming available, but there was nothing like the understanding we have now about traditional drug use. Leary was very much a pioneer without a map, only really having the personal experience of people like Aldous Huxley to guide him. That said, if all the information that we have now was available, I’m not sure how much importance he would have placed on it – he was always much more concerned with the future than the past.
TDG: You also mention Koestler’s theory of ‘juvenilization’, suggesting that Leary’s dream of turning the world on may be something that comes to fruition through the generation following his. With the upsurge in interest in psychedelics and shamanism over the past decade, do you think this may actually have some validity?
JH: You know, I’m not convinced that this upswing in interest is as big as a lot of people think. It may well be that the Internet has allowed the Shamanically-minded to find others with similar interests, and to have access to much more information, and this has given the impression of an expanding scene. But ultimately only a small proportion of the population are attracted to shamanism, while the vast majority of people want nothing to do with it. I’m not talking about the normal religious or spiritual impulse here, but those who are prepared to force their head outside of this reality in order to see what’s out there. This is just a hunch that I can’t back up with figures, but I suspect that this proportion of the population remains pretty constant – it’s just that the visibility they have fluxuates (and the form they take shifts as well, from tradition tribal shamans to Victorian spiritualists or hippy Acid eaters.)
I see shamans like a goalkeeper in a football team – the guy who dresses differently from the rest of his team, and stands apart from them at the border of the portal. Now, a team only wants needs one goalkeeper at a time. What Leary did was pretty unique in human history, I think. By persuading millions to take LSD and pushing expanded consciousness into mainstream culture, he created a team with many goalkeepers at once. Perhaps not the best prepared or trained goalkeepers, but goalkeepers nonetheless! Of course, the situation corrected itself and we’re back to the normal one goalkeeper again – because the team works best that way.
So I’d say that Leary’s idea that in the future everyone will turn on isn’t likely to happen. But the ideas Leary brought back with – especially the idea that we create our own reality, are responsible for it and can change it – those have been absorbed and accepted by the next generation. That idea is the bedrock of things like NLP, life coaching and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for example, and is more likely to be discussed by businessmen than hippies. And of course, there’s the influence of the outbreak of LSD on the formation of postmodernism, which I mention in the book, which has had a massive influence on our current culture. So in this sense, I think the theory of juvenilization still stands up.
TDG: In the book, you very quickly discuss a few little known aspects of Leary’s interests, one of which was his strong affinity with occultist Aleister Crowley. Do you have more details of how and when Leary became interested in Crowley?
JH: I nearly included a bit more about this in the book but I couldn’t be sure when Leary had first read Crowley. Robert Anton Wilson has written (from memory I think that it was in Cosmic Trigger) about how the message Leary channeled in prison (the ‘Starseed Transmission’) was eerily similar to that received by Crowley, which he recorded in The Book of The Law. Which is interesting, but it does beg the question of whether or not Leary had actually read The Book of the Law at that point. To the best of my knowledge, he hadn’t – I believe that Leary was introduced to Crowley’s books by Brian Barritt, who lived with him during his fugitive years in Algeria and Switzerland. I’m fairly certain that there wasn’t a copy of The Book of the Law in any of Tim’s homes during this period, although there were other Crowley books. But I can’t be sure that he hadn’t seen the book in America during the 60s, – it’s very hard to prove a negative such as this – and because I couldn’t be certain I left a lot of this stuff out. But yeah, Leary certainly identified with Crowley during this period, he believed they were both undertaking the ‘Great Work’, that of changing human consciousness.
TDG: To finish up – in the final chapter of I Have America Surrounded, you mention the question of what things would be like today without Leary, but quickly brand it impossible to answer. I’m going to put you on the spot though, with a twist. What if Leary had ‘joined forces’ with Aldous Huxley, Humphrey Osmond etc, in promoting moderate (and medical) use. Give me John Higgs’ version of what the world would be like today (get as speculative as you like).
JH: Greg, you are a cruel man. That is not an easy question. You can certainly point to events in the Sixties that wouldn’t have happened – The Beatles would never have written ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, for a start , which is a horrible thought. But projecting beyond that…
Okay, to stick my neck out – if we assume that Leary had kept psychedelics among the academic elite, and that no-one else had come and taken his place and spread them to the masses, then neither you nor I nor most of your readers would have heard of them. What little research that would have been done – like the research before Leary – would have been contradictory and inconclusive. With no obvious commercial, military or controllable medical use on the horizon, research funding would have slowly dried up.
Now, there are many who have argued that the mass use of psychedelics – in particular the awareness of the interconnectedness of all things – was a major factor in the development of the environmental movement. Without this, there would be no-one trying to raise awareness of climate change. There’s also the argument – too long to go into here but which I find convincing – that we should thank psychedelics for the arrival of the personal computer and chaos maths. From that, we would not have the climate models that we have now. As a result, no-one would be aware of how much trouble we are in. All of which casts Leary’s ‘irresponsible’ behaviour in a different light, wouldn’t you say?