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Timothy Leary: Outside Looking In
by Robert Forte (Ed.)
Park Street Press 
Reviewed by Jon Hanna, 8/1/2007

Robert Forte has compiled an excellent selection of “appreciations, castigations, and reminiscences” as a festschrift to Dr. Timothy Leary. Along the way we hear tales from John Beresford, William S. Burroughs, Ram Dass, Allen Ginsberg, Albert Hofmann, Aldous Huxley , Ken Kesey, Terence McKenna, Claudio Naranjo, Thomas Riedlinger, Winona Ryder, Myron Stolaroff, Hunter S. Thompson, Andrew Weil, Robert Anton Wilson, Rosemary Woodruff, and many others. An impressive cast of characters to be sure.

I fell in love with this book from the start, and became increasingly engrossed the further I read. Forte kicks off with a bit of biographical information, which tells how Leary’s father left him and his mother when he was 12, after the family fortune had been depleted by the depression. We’re then led through Leary’s schooling, entrance into and tribulations at West Point (and his eventual resignation), and his higher education and military career, which culminate in a Ph.D. in Psychology from U.C. Berkeley. With his interest in psychedelics sparked by consuming psilocybian mushrooms in México, Leary then started up “The Psilocybin Project” at Harvard. However, it eventually it became clear to Harvard’s higher-ups that Leary’s activities and attitude were too controversial, and they found an excuse to fire him. Freed from the educational institution, which he described as an “anesthetic, a narcotic procedure which is very likely to blunt your sensitivity and to immobilize your brain and your behavior for the rest of your lives,” Leary quickly became known as the foremost proselytizer of psychedelic drugs. Of course this led to problems with the law, and Leary found himself in and out of jail (having actually escaped from the first minimum-security prison that he was in). In his later life, Leary became an advocate of computer technology, and then—nearing his own death—a person who “brought death out of the closet,” to paraquote J.P. Barlow.

As intriguing as the detailed introductory biographical information was, each individual chapter was even more enjoyable. Seeing the same man through a variety of different eyes telling different stories of different times provided a range of expression that couldn’t be matched by a biography told by one person. Forte has done an excellent job pulling together a group of people who had truly interesting personal accounts to tell. These chapters range in length from 1 page to 42 pages long. But many of them are in the 2–4 page length, a structure that makes the book easily read in fits-and-spurts for anyone who has a shorter attention span. However, this format actually caused me to read the book from cover-to-cover, as I kept thinking to myself, “I’ll just read one more chapter, and then I’m going to put this down.” Indeed, I actually burned out the batteries in my book-lite in the wee hours of the morning, and had to scramble around in the dark to find some AAAs while my wife slept.

Some of my favorite accounts were those presented by J.P. Barlow, Michael Horowitz, and Ralph Metzner. Barlow tells a heart-warming story of the triumph of “honest death” during one of Leary’s final brushes with the law, when they were pulled over for various moving violations while tooling around L.A. in a convertible. Horowitz, Leary’s archivist, tells of that turbulent time in the early ’70s when Leary escaped from prison, and shares his own journal notes of his trip to visit Leary while he was on the lam in Switzerland. And Metzner presents a detailed picture of the early days, which gives us a taste of how exciting this new field of psychedelic mind-expansion was at the time when it first appeared. Indeed, almost all of the remembrances throughout the book were quite compelling; there was only one that didn’t interest me much, as it was drowned in a quagmire of astrological mumbo-jumbo. A number of the accounts are presented in the form of interviews by Forte. At times Forte almost seems to be trying to goad the individual being interviewed into focusing on some of the negative aspects about Leary’s personality and life decisions. I found it quite admirable that Forte did this, as it allowed for a more balanced overall picture of the man, and the book didn’t come off as being filled with faint praise and bit tongues. And, for the most part, those people interviewed seemed to have a pretty good impression of Leary, even when there were aspects of how he lived his life that they didn’t agree with. Certainly the most severe criticism of Leary was levied against him in the interview with Owsley Stanley, who called Leary “one of the most destructive actors to appear on the scene.” Forte points out that it is pretty ironic for Stanley to be blaming Leary for the demonization of psychedelics, when it was Stanley himself who was cranking out the doses. Although Forte doesn’t say this, it seems clear that any notoriety and profit that Stanley obtained from selling acid was certainly due to its mass-scale popularization, which most people attribute to Leary. Viewed from this perspective, the opinions spouted by Stanley become almost laughable. But Stanley’s clear stance against Leary’s approach, presented by someone who believes in the value of psychedelics, makes this one of the more interesting interviews in the book.

It would be hard for me to over-recommend this book. I can’t remember the last one that I read that was such a quick and fun read. Those with any interest in psychedelics should pick up a copy immediately; you won’t be disappointed.

Originally Published In : Autumnal Equinox 1999 issue of The Entheogen Review

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