Myths should die with drug guru

Editor’s note: Timothy Leary died May 31, 1996. Leary was 75.
After learning he had terminal prostate cancer, Timothy Leary made a remarkable confession of everything he stood for when he told a reporter, “Dying is the best career move I’ve made in a long time.” He was right. Even though marketing his abundant ego was his life’s work, people have greeted his increasingly pathetic acts of self-promotion over the last couple of decades with growing indifference. He was finally reduced to threatening to broadcast his suicide on the Internet to regain anything like the notoriety he enjoyed in the 1960s — a decade of such shallow expectations that a charismatic drug-bag could successfully sell himself as a courageous revolutionary. After all, in the ’60s Leary was a guru, a hipster saint of the psychedelic drug cult.
After earning a doctorate of psychology from the University of California at Berkeley, Leary oversaw controlled experiments involving psychedelic drugs at Harvard. Soon he became more interested in having fun tripping on LSD than in science. He made wild, unsubstantiated claims about the drug’s beneficial powers. Eventually he would declare, “Social psychological harmony depends entirely on psychotropic drug intake.” Enamored with the good times he was having, he willfully ignored negative effects the drug had on some of his subjects. With characteristic selfishness he considered these effects only insofar as they embarrassed him, contradicting his ecstatic proclamations. “Inevitably the occasional mishaps caught the attention of the authorities,” he wrote in his autobiography. “A few fellows ran to the psychiatric clinic to gasp about their trips. Their flamboyant stories about altered states shocked the inexperienced medics.”
How thoughtlessly inconvenient of them.
In 1963 Harvard dismissed him. The myths Leary invented about this episode are today widely reported as fact. At first he claimed he was fired for taking drugs. Later, to appreciative audiences, he reported he was sacked for giving drugs to young undergraduates. Nowadays these statements appear as laughable defenses against unfair labor practices. In the ’60s, however, they were a sure sign in fashionable circles that Leary was the victim of political repression. In fact, Leary was fired because he stopped showing up for the lectures Harvard had hired him to give. The truth, though, wasn’t sexy enough. Leary wanted to be a star. He had already gotten the attention of famous counter-culture heroes. He didn’t want to be a professor anymore. He wanted to complain about the system and have sex with the adoring young hippie women who came to trip and worship at his feet.
As was fashionable at the time, Leary railed against what he called middle-class, middle-age values. He complained bitterly about democratic capitalism. Still, his anti-establishment sentiments did not prevent him from accepting the generous gift from a young millionaire of a 64-room mansion on a 4,000-acre estate in Millbrook, New York. There, unencumbered of the oppressive rules of bourgeois science, he resumed his research and established the League for Spiritual Discovery — what these days we might properly call Party Central. In time, residents of the ritzy neighborhood grew alarmed. No doubt they failed to grasp the scientific significance of squealing girls being chased across the grounds by naked, bearded, ex-university professors. Eventually, somebody called the police and Leary was carted off for drug possession by none other than future Watergate burglar and conservative talk-show host G. Gordon Liddy.
Years later, in a self-inflicted mockery of both their ignominious careers, Leary and Liddy traveled the lecture circuit together performing a kind of warped vaudeville act. They debated with one another and even sang songs with Leary at the piano. Leary also toured solo and, according to one obituary writer, made handsome profits. Apparently, he failed to note the hypocrisy of preaching anti-capitalist utopianism even while charging what the market would bear for his services. As time went on and the drugs eroded his faculties, these performances became more and more uncomfortable for Leary and his audiences. His rambling monologues were punctuated by awkward pauses when he lost track of what he was trying to say. He claimed the loss of his memory didn’t bother him, saying, “I often don’t remember what I did two days before. It makes life interesting.”
Leary couldn’t afford to be subtle about his drug use because that was the source of his fame — arguably, the most important thing in his life. Predictably, his loud crowing drew the attention of the police and he spent several stints in the slammer. Although he characterized himself as a stalwart radical he nevertheless named his suppliers — who also happened to be his friends — in exchange for a reduced sentence. He went further, just for good measure, and denounced Bob Dylan for promoting drugs. When Leary’s friend, Allen Ginsberg, objected to this blatant hypocrisy Leary snapped, “What’s Dylan ever done for me?”
Leary was no less self-serving when it came to members of his own family. He and his 18-year-old daughter were arrested for smuggling marijuana across the Mexican border — he had hidden the pot in her panties.
Years later this same daughter, accused of murdering her boyfriend, committed suicide in jail. Sadly, Leary’s drug use and his relentless quest for celebrity — not to mention his overriding self-centeredness — left little time for family matters. He was a notoriously lousy father and husband and was married five times. In 1955, his first wife committed suicide after they argued bitterly over one of his dozens of mistresses. Their children, ages 6 and 8, were present when he discovered her body. Leary’s son, disgusted by much of his father’s behavior, remained estranged from him.
Perhaps the saddest of all is the legacy Leary leaves behind. “The main function of human life,” he wrote, “is the wise ingestion of drugs. Basic activity of life? Righteous selection of chemicals ingest (sic). Function of education: teach people how to use drugs.” Leary’s message cannot have failed to damage some lives. After all, he once told an audience of junior high students they should quit school. Going to class, he told them, would never do them any good.
It is evident from all the recent press Leary has received after his death that too many people believe the myth he cultivated. He does not deserve to be remembered as a saint. All things considered, he barely rates a grease spot on the highway of history.
Charles Foster’s column appears in the Daily every other Monday.