Arguably the second most memorable Good Friday in history took place in the basement of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel on April 20, 1962, when a graduate student under the academic direction of Timothy Leary dosed 10 subjects with the hallucinogen psilocybin and another 10 with a placebo containing niacin. Among those receiving psychoactive drugs was the generally sober and eminently respectable MIT religion professor Huston Smith, whose understanding of divinity was forever changed.
Smith, author of The Religions of Man, was no slouch when it came to grokking theology in all its manifestations. Yet his “encounter that Good Friday,” writes religion journalist Don Lattin in his thoroughly engaging (if sometimes overblown) book The Harvard Psychedelic Club (HarperOne), “was the most powerful experience he would ever have of God’s personal nature.…From that moment on, he knew that life is a miracle, every moment of it, and that the only appropriate way to respond and be mindful of that gift was to share it with the rest of the world.”
Packing his book with many strange, wonderful scenes worthy of a book on psychedelics, Lattin argues that America was radically transformed by an unlikely quartet that did a little time—and lots of drugs—at Harvard in the early 1960s. Along with Leary and Smith, the “psychedelic club” included the psychologist Richard Alpert, who would go on to co-author a hugely popular version of The Tibetan Book of the Dead with Leary and recreate himself as the countercultural mystic Baba Ram Dass, and Andrew Weil, the alternative medicine guru whose undergraduate exposés of Leary and Alpert’s unorthodox methods ultimately led to their flight from the university. In characteristically over-the-top prose, Lattin enthuses that this strange quartet “changed the way we see the very nature of reality.”
By kickstarting the drug-drenched 1960s, he writes, the club didn’t just tune in, turn on, and drop out of normal society. It “changed nothing less than the way we look at mind, body and spirit.” Lattin credits his phantasmagoric foursome with pushing America from “mechanistic thinking to mysticism” and “from the scientific to the shamanic.” New ages, it turns out, don’t just happen on their own. They often benefit from transformational Viagra.
All four of the club members went on to differing levels of renown, infamy, and enlightenment. Leary became the godfather of the counterculture, an irrepressible trickster figure who hung with the Beatles and served time in prison and exile before becoming an early apostle of cyberspace whose ashes were shot into orbit after his death in 1996. Ram Dass earnestly pursued strains of Eastern mysticism, wrote the hippie classic Be Here Now, struggled with his homosexuality, co-founded the Seva Foundation (which directs health and welfare projects in India and elsewhere), and still works to personify “compassion in action” even after a debilitating stroke. Andrew Weil became an M.D., spent years trying to atone for his role in blowing the whistle on Leary and Alpert in Cambridge, wrote in defense of altered consciousness, and ultimately created his own multimillion-dollar industry in alternative medicine.
Smith, now 90, is the least well-known of the crew. He stayed within the academic establishment, became a leading theorist of religious pluralism and the subject of a Bill Moyers series, and has seen his Religions of Man sell more than 2 million copies.
They are all interesting characters, to be sure, and well worth reading about. But did they really “kill the fifties and usher…in a new age for America”? Did they lay “a cornerstone for what would be built…from the progressive visions of the psychedelic sixties” and change “the way we view the world, heal ourselves, and practice religion”? Lattin offers up little more than assertion by way of proof. The oft-pilloried 1950s—the decade that produced Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, Invisible Man, Atlas Shrugged, Rebel Without a Cause, the English translation of The Second Sex, the modern civil rights movement, and an endless series of individualistic avenues of expression such as rock and roll, pop art, and a satiric new variety of standup comedy—were hardly the prison of repressive conformity that Lattin and most critics of the decade assume.
If anything, the ’50s were the exact moment when longstanding economic, cultural, and political hierarchies started breaking down faster than Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. Even the self-avowed socialists who founded the magazine Dissent in mid-decade argued against groupthink, claiming in their founding statement that they were fighting for the “dignity of the individual.”
More important perhaps, it is necessary to distinguish the “progressive visions” of the ’60s from the destructive ones. Letting your freak flag fly is one thing (especially if you pay for it with your own dime); creating well-intended yet economically disastrous programs such as Medicare is something else.
While America today is certainly (and thankfully) a much looser, more tolerant, less-buttoned-down country than it was 50 years ago, that process was well under way before Leary, Alpert, Smith, and Weil crossed paths in Cambridge. Their contributions are worth reflecting on and learning from, but as with psychedelics themselves, you shouldn’t oversell the highs or minimize the lows.