While undertaking a course on the psychology of religious conversion at the Graduate Theological Union, Bay Area religion writer Don Lattin cast back in his memory for his own “personal conversion narrative.” Like many of his generation, Lattin had experimented with psychedelics with—in retrospect, predictably—polarized results.
What this reflection led Lattin to consider was that his encounters with LSD, both good and bad, were the beginning of a long process of spiritual awakening. A process closer, perhaps, to the journey of Huston Smith (who Lattin personifies as The Teacher), than the more convoluted roads that Timothy Leary (The Trickster), Ram Dass né Richard Alpert (The Seeker), and Andrew Weil (The Healer) traveled.
Originally called in to help Smith finish his biography, Tales of Wonder, Lattin was approached to tell this story, a fascinating tale of an incredible time in human history. The editors at HarperOne realized they had inadvertently found just the right guy to do it justice.
With a subtitle of “How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil killed the fifties and ushered in a new age for America,” the uninitiated may have the impression that the four men worked in consort toward that goal, however, the interesting push and pull of these four strong and very distinct personalities is what gives this story its legs.
Weil’s betrayal of Leary and Alpert that resulted in their expulsion from Harvard was the most shocking revelation of the early years of the quartet’s transformation. It is surprising, even with the hindsight that the two men had to leave the confines of the institution—one way or another—to become what they ultimately became, that an enlightened person like Ram Dass still can’t forgive the young Weil, a man that arguably no longer exists.
The Harvard Psychedelic Club is a fast-paced read, with faces both famous and infamous popping up throughout the entire ride. The men independently show up with almost Zelig regularity at every important moment that collectively led to a shattering of the calcified paradigm of post-war American culture.
While Weil was busy becoming the guru of the organic health movement, and Leary was spending a good deal of time and effort staying one step ahead of the law, Smith and Dass explored the Far East, found affirmation and enlightenment in India and Japan, and ultimately brought those lessons and attitudes back to a United States hungry for deeper meaning.
It is these spiritual ramifications of the psychedelic experience that Lattin considers important, and, like many at the time, he discounts Leary’s messianic tendencies as being antithetical to the possibility of positive change through inner exploration. Leary’s surviving cohorts seem to hold him responsible for the unfortunate cessation of serious scientific research into the use of these drugs at the same time they realize that, as an archetypal “trickster,” he was playing as inevitable a part in the passion play as they had been.
Lattin sums up the quartet’s tumultuous history in his conclusion as such: “All four of these characters played a role in the social and spiritual changes that made the sixties such a pivotal decade in recent American history. They stirred up the water and then rode a wave of social change. The difference is that Timothy Leary never found … the stability needed to bring those changes into his life in a positive, long-lasting way. Instead of finding an anchor, Leary tried to walk on the water.”
He then addresses a generation that, for a large part, has turned its back on the lessons learned in the era of questioning “the materialist, consumerist mind-set into which we were raised.” Lattin points out that, “Now more than ever, we need to remember the lessons of that idealistic era. It’s time, once again, to find new ways to live together with equality, justice, and compassion.”