Timothy Leary: Life, Psychedelic Experiments, and Legal Troubles

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American author and psychologist, Timothy Leary was an advocate of psychedelics. Despite many legal issues, Allen Ginsberg dubbed Leary as “a hero of American consciousness.”

Who is Timothy Leary?

“Timothy Leary’s dead. No, no, no, no, he’s outside looking in.” —Moody Blues

Family and Education

Timothy Francis Leary was born on October 22, 1920 in Springfield, Massachusetts. He lived a lonely childhood, which led him to read many books and dream many dreams. As a child, his idol was the philosopher Socrates, whose words, “Know thyself” were the basis for Leary’s life journey

His father was an Irish-American Catholic dentist, who left the family when Leary was a teen. It’s said that he chose a life as a drunk merchant marine. His mother picked up the pieces of their family’s lives, and was devoted to being the best mother she could to Timothy, which was a full-time job, as he was radical and rebellious from a young age.

Leary briefly studied at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts. Quickly underwhelmed by the indoctrination of the Catholic religion, Leary transferred to West Point Military Academy. However, the institution soon kicked Leary out for his attempts at bringing an excessive amount of alcohol on campus. Leary continued his studies at the University of Alabama in ROTC in 1941. But again, after a year the university expelled him for spending the night in a female dormitory. This lost him his student deferment during World War II. After a stint in the US Army, Leary continued his studies at Georgetown and Ohio State Universities, ultimately receiving his PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of California Berkeley in 1950. 

In 1945, between his time in WWII and Berkeley, Leary met his first wife, Marianne Busch. In 1947, they had a daughter, Susan, and two years later their son Jack arrived. Early into their marriage, Leary was unfaithful. When Marianne confronted him about his infidelities, he reportedly told her, “That’s your problem.” She committed suicide in 1955. 

Psychedelic Experiments

Along with tragic and life-changing events occurring in Leary’s life in the late ’50s, he had also discovered a life-altering article by R. Gordon Wasson. The subject of the article was entheogens, or psychoactive herbs, and their use in religious ceremonies of the Mazatec people of Mexico. Deeply intrigued, Leary traveled to Mexico to experience psilocybin mushrooms firsthand. That experience helped to radically shape his future.

Leary claimed that he had learned more about his brain, its possibilities, and psychology in the five hours after taking mushrooms than in the preceding 15 years of studying and doing research. Upon his return from Mexico, Leary was a different man. He created the Harvard Psilocybin Project with Richard Alpert. an associate in the psychology department who would later become more popularly known as Ram Dass.

Leary at Harvard

Leary and Alpert did their best to persuade the academic board at Harvard that the psilocybin project could be beneficial in altering the states of mind of convicted criminals and alcoholics. They got the green light to administer psychedelic drugs—initially psilocybin, and later LSD—to colleagues, prison inmates, and a group of divinity students. Their test subjects reported “profound mystical and spiritual experiences, which permanently altered their lives in a very positive manner.”

The most well-known of their attempts was the Concord Prison Experiment, which evaluated the application of psilocybin and psychotherapy in the rehabilitation of released prisoners. About three years after the inception of Leary and Alpert’s project, Harvard officials shut them down. Parents were protesting and did not want their children exposed to such experiments. However, this duo wasn’t going to let angry parents stop their momentum; they just needed a change of venue.

Post Harvard

The duo was able to continue their research thanks to an unlikely source. The heirs to the Mellon family fortune acquired a 64-room mansion in Millbrook, New York, and gave Leary and Alpert carte blanche to conduct their studies. Their methods for experimenting were still fairly structured, even with the freedom they had at Millbrook. Eventually, they were raided by the FBI with a warrant from President Nixon himself.

Post Millbrook

By the mid-1960s, Timothy Leary had become one of the most popular advocates for the use of psychedelic drugs. Unlike some of the other counterculture leaders of this time, who prominently used their platform to party, Leary promoted psychedelics on a foundation of doctoral credentials and regimented experiments.

In the late ’60s, Leary moved to California, which brought him closer to the epicenter of the counterculture movement and increased his growing popularity. During this time, he met and married Rosemary Woodruff. At the Human Be-In, a San Francisco hippie rally protesting a California law outlawing the use of LSD, Leary opened to an electric audience with what would soon become his most famous catchphrase: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”

He was active in many spiritual organizations, advocating for the decriminalization of psychedelics. One organization was known as the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Little did he know then that the Brotherhood would later become a more radical part of his life than he could have imagined.

Legal Issues

Leary’s radical actions to change societal structures and increase human potential had many consequences with the law. He was convicted of cannabis possession and given a 10-year sentence in 1976. Leary had other plans, rather than spending the better part of his life behind bars. With the help of the Brotherhood, he conjured a plan to escape the California Men’s Colony Prison.

Leary’s psychological edge helped him score a job in prison working outdoors. He managed to hop a fence, shimmy on a telephone wire, and jump into a waiting car where Leary and his wife Rosemary fled the country. They made their way to the Black Panthers’ Government-in-Exile in Algeria. Their excessive partying placed them under house arrest by Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, who eventually asked them to leave.

They escaped to Switzerland where they stayed with an arms dealer, Michel Hauchard, who forced Leary to sign over 30 percent of the proceeds of any future books he would write. Hauchard got Leary arrested, under the assumption that he would be more productive in prison.

The Learys escaped yet again, then soon separated. Finally, the American Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs arrested Leary in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1972. He was sent to America, where he was deemed by President Nixon to be “the most dangerous man in America.”

Later Years

Calfornia’s Governor Jerry Brown released Leary from prison in 1976. As a philosopher, Leary claims to have enjoyed what he learned in solitary confinement, at the bottom of the prison system. It allowed him to reflect and set the stage for the rest of his life with writing, lecturing, performing, and exploring the rapidly growing world of digital technology. He often related such growth with consciousness expansion.

Leary received a diagnosis of inoperable cancer in 1995. In an interview, he said, “I’m looking forward to the most fascinating experience in life, which is dying…. I’ve been writing about self-directed dying for 20 years. You’ve got to approach your dying the way you live your life, with curiosity, with hope, with fascination, with courage and with the help of your friends.”

Of course, Leary had to go out with a dazzling finale. He had requested to have his death recorded and broadcast on the internet. He had planned a celebration with friends and family around, and a log of his daily drug intake, legal and illegal. Carol Rosin, a friend who was at the celebration of Leary’s death, said his last words were: “Why not? Why not? Why not?”

Top Timothy Leary Quotes

“There are three side effects of acid: enhanced long-term memory, decreased short-term memory, and I forget the third.”

You can always pick up your needle and move to another groove.

“The motor car is dangerous if used improperly…. Human stupidity and ignorance are the only danger human beings face in this world.”

“Turn on, tune in, drop out!”

“Think for yourself and question authority.”

“You’re only as young as the last time you changed your mind.”

“The universe is an intelligence test.

Timothy Leary In Culture

Music

As referenced in the introduction of this article, The Moody Blues recorded songs about Leary. One in particular, “Legend of a Mind,” written and sung by Ray Thomas on their album In Search of the Lost Chord begins: “Timothy Leary’s dead. No, no, no, no, he’s outside looking in.”

Leary attended antiwar Bed-Ins for Peace held by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Montreal. In return, Lennon wrote “Come Together” as a theme song for Leary’s gubernatorial campaign.

Movies

The movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas portrays heavy psychedelic drug use and mentions Leary when the protagonist ponders the meaning of the acid movement in the ’60s.

In director Grant Heslov’s 2009 film The Men Who Stare at Goats, costarring George Clooney, Lt. Col Bill Django decides to lace the food and drinking water with LSD after claiming, “I just saw Timothy Leary.”

Works

Top Rated Books

The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead

Turn on, tune in, drop out

High Priest

Flashbacks

Timothy Leary On RS

A Meeting Between Carl Sagan and Timothy Leary

Timothy Leary and Marshall McLuhan, turned on and tuned in

Timothy Leary: Twentieth-Century Neuronaut

RS Contributing Author: Niki Perlberg

Niki is a social and arts entrepreneur who specializes in project and creative production development. With her passion for social structures and the arts, she has been involved in the architecture of performance and festival culture around the country. In rapidly changing times she is now taking her passion for these sub-cultures and sharing them with us in our digital atmosphere through her writing and content development. Some of her favorite parts of life are coffee, campfires, and contemplating the mysteries of existence. Feel free to follow her on Insta @itsnikiperl

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