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Full Review
The Acid
by Sam
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Jonathan Taylor, 8/25/2009

Readers interested in the subjective experience of multi-trip LSD sessions should certainly take a look at The Acid. The book is the first-person account of a sixty-year-old Englishman. A former political radical living alone in London, “Sam” seems to be suffering from depression, is uncomfortable with many aspects of the times he lives in, and decides that he needs therapy. Specifically acid therapy. So he begins to take LSD regularly—at first in light doses, but after a while in pretty hefty doses—keeping a journal of his trips that describes his set, setting, and experiences. He drops every two to three weeks for three years, which I calculate would come out to between 50 and 75 times.

Trip journals are obviously useful documents, but can vary widely in quality. The Acid suffers from some poor editing, typographic errors, and other problems common to self-published works. Nevertheless, it is a valuable chronicle of one man’s engagement with a powerful psychedelic. Part of what makes this book interesting is the analytical bent of the late author, who was thoughtful and well-read. In the opening pages, Sam describes how he has categorized the trips into three stages:

“The first was about personal, biographic issues. The second was about boundary and ego-loss, some harrowing, and not infrequently associated with the supernatural. The third consisted of glimpses of something transcendent and deeply sacred.”

The stages, as Sam presents them, help to structure the book to a degree, although some lengthy digressions on politics, philosophy, psychology, psychedelics, and religion intervene. Some of these discussions are quite profound and sophisticated, others—particularly some of those on politics—considerably less so. But this is essentially a memoir, not a body of essays, and any weakness in argument is appropriately compensated for by the author’s earnest presentation, resulting in what feels to the reader like an authentic character sketch. Early on, Sam approvingly cites Terence McKenna’s admonition that we need intelligent explorers to take psychedelics and report back, so we can know what is happening. Certainly this is a proposition that is hard to argue with, and Sam is a good exemplar.

Sam starts out by briefly discussing Hofmann and Huxley. Then he gives a more Marxian political economic argument about the failure of the Hippie movement in the 1960s and early 1970s. After which, he moves to the topic of bad trips. The author’s first trip, on mescaline when he was twenty, was a terrifying ordeal of pain, terror, and Hell. This prefigures much of what is described later in the book.

From these early chapters it is obvious that during the 1960s Sam identified himself more as a revolutionary than as a “head”. It is equally obvious that he viewed LSD and other psychedelics as having “revolutionary” potential, or more than that, of being inherently “revolutionary” themselves. He mentions that a body of theory, which he (erroneously in my view) simplifies as early feminism, began to challenge the ideas of stable ego, mind, and identity, and that this dealt the first major blow against capitalism. Sam questions why this period didn’t see a rise in the use of LSD for the purposes of further transforming society. Thus, it becomes apparent early in the book that Sam has a particular view of what LSD can or should be: a tool with the ultimate purpose of effecting social, political-economic, and environmental transformation. Personal transformation is Sam’s own therapeutic goal, but at times it seems that Sam views this as less important than a wider social transformation.

Beyond his leftist sympathies Sam also brings to the analysis his own philosophical and metaphysical slant, influenced by Gurdjieff, Vipassana meditation, and Eastern spirituality. These influences, in turn, are moderated by what I would categorize as some not-too-serious but still meaningful depression associated with family and relationship issues, health issues, aging, and social isolation. Thus, the Buddhist notion of the universality of suffering, or the Gurdjieffian reminder (as presented by Ouspensky) that “we are all asleep”, are felt in an intensely personal, and largely negative, sense.

But the lens Sam brings most closely to bear on his trips is the chart of LSD’s effects put forth by Stanislav Grof in his book Realms of the Human Unconscious. This viewpoint, along with some traumatic childhood memories, make up the background mental set for Sam’s subsequent acid trips. Understanding the author’s “set” is not unimportant. Despite the interesting and meaningful patterns and regularities that may show up across cultures in trip imagery and experiences, each person’s individual trip (and often multi-trip trajectories) can greatly differ from any other person’s trip—set and setting being the truly all-encompassing influences that they are. Thus it is best to take Sam’s multi-trip trajectory as a unique one corresponding to his own personality, beliefs, and prior experiences, rather than as a guide to what it would be like were you the reader to embark upon 50+ acid trips over the next few years.

I don’t know if anyone has scientifically studied and been able to ascertain what percentage of psychedelic experiences can be categorized as “bad.” But at times Sam’s bad experiences seem to outweigh the good. He identifies the bad mescaline trip of his youth as corresponding to Grof’s theory of birth trauma. (I always wonder about C-section babies when I encounter this theory; did my own two C-section children avoid birth trauma since they experienced few or minimal contractions in the womb?)

The tripping begins. Sam decides its best to “go inward” by wearing a blindfold and listening to music on headphones. His first voyage is a largely good one—joyous, ecstatic. The early trips continue in this vein, with a mix of imagery and sensation, loss of identity, deeply felt emotions, and each trip concludes with a nice walk in the woods as he comes down. The effects of these trips were that Sam’s sense of anxiety and depression about aging eased greatly. Unfortunately, Sam had no one to accompany him in his explorations. But finding the experiences to be of value, he decided to continue them by himself, doubling the dose.

The 200-microgram trips start off with a bang, with Sam describing a TV ad turning into an inner voice lecturing to him about the similarities between LSD and Zen. After a while, “cosmic engulfment” appears and Sam becomes terrified, with a sort of ontological or religious fear gripping him. Sam goes back and reads accounts of patients treated with LSD by Janiger and Grof, and he finds evidence of trips that contained real or imagined physical pain. Like Grof, he associates these with birth trauma. Steeped in Grofian models, Sam’s next few trips repeat the birth trauma or death/rebirth patterns. I was somewhat amazed at Sam’s musical choices during these trips; Górecki’s “Third Symphony”, for example, is one of the most mournful pieces of contemporary classical music ever written. Which made me wonder: By listening to Górecki, expecting birth trauma, to what extent was Sam programming bummers for himself?

LSD also brings up some buried childhood memories, which stir deep emotions, and Sam starts to look through old photos of himself and his family on his next trips. This seems to result in a strange physical reaction: Sam spends large segments of these trips coughing uncontrollably. Later trips vacillate between experiencing “the Godhead” and coughing. Some trips involve beholding the divine, while in others Sam is reduced to obsessively repeating to himself, “Don’t think of God”.

What is the reader to make of all of this? In the popular imagination, LSD trips are supposed to be DayGlo kaleidoscopes of wonderland. Recent psychedelic literature, mainly influenced by DMT and ayahuasca, is replete with glowing iridescent jeweled castles, fantastic octopus-beings, wondrous space aliens, or horrendous lizard men with red glowing eyes and orifice-probing agendas. But not lots and lots of coughing, solemnity, Renaissance choral music, existential despair, ruminations on 9-11 and Auschwitz, blackouts in the bubble bath, etc. When Sam gets a new batch of acid, heads into the woods for his experiences, and sees God in a midge, I sighed with relief. But then he starts hallucinating menacing, hostile, purple flowers. In one trip he thinks, “I am personally responsible for the failure of everything Western civilization has aimed at since the Renaissance”.

And so it goes. Sam’s trips have less of a feel of an affirmation of life than a sort of somber dread. The book in its entirety leads one to question whether a person suffering from depression, even minor, really should be turning to LSD as a treatment method. If the majority of 50–75 acid trips (or at least a significant minority of them) being bummers is the price one has to pay to relieve the sorrows of aging and isolation, LSD seems like a fairly un-efficacious treatment modality. Cognitive therapy, nights out on the town with friends, some significant volunteer work, and/or an exercise program, might be things to try before dropping acid. Or at least so it seems to someone who prefers his psychedelic experiences more on the blissfully transcendent, jaw-droppingly surrealistic, or at least hedonistically fun side.

But much as I might disagree with Sam’s choice of depression treatment, does it ever make sense to pass judgment on another’s trips? Isn’t the nature of psychedelics, and certainly of LSD, so inherently subjective that all we can do is look at other people’s trip reports from the outside, with fear and trepidation, with derision and condemnation, or with compassion, enthusiasm, awe, respect, or even jealousy?

Sam’s trips were his trips, as his life was his life. He shares them with us in an intensely personal but phenomenological account that wrestles with the scores of important and sometimes contradictory ideas that psychedelics can bring to mind. His experience of “the acid” toys with his concepts of personal and collective identity, shifting their boundaries in unexpected ways, as he undergoes dramatic alterations in consciousness that suggest new borders or horizons of self, other, and world. Metaphysical and spiritual notions from shamanism, Christianity, Sufism, Buddhism, and Hinduism are both directly lived and theoretically contemplated during his trips. In the end, Sam experiences pure awareness in a way that erases fears and doubts from his mind, restructures his views of himself, time, and eternity, as well as the boundaries between self and the universe (I’m sort of generalizing here), and leaves him considerably more at peace and happier. He begins to take less LSD; “the acid” has worked its magic and “redeemed him”. This is a rich, dense, philosophical, and psychological trip memoir. It may not be playful, but it is deep.

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