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Visions of the Erotic Life - Timothy Leary Lectures 1969


Dr. Timothy Leary was a Harvard faculty member engaged in research into the chemical alteration of consciousness

By the time Timothy Leary received an appointment at the Harvard Center for Personality Research in l960, he had a solid academic and professional background.  Among his professional achievements were service as Director of Psychological Research at the Kaiser Foundation Hospital in Oakland California and authorship of a work on the Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality, named the best book in psychotherapy for l957.  He was eager to explore new perspectives about the nature of personality and consciousness, having found mainstream approaches to behaviour change ineffective.  Experimentation with psychoactive substances became his focus. Before the end of l961, he had conducted a very promising research project with prisoners in a Massachusetts prison with the aim of fostering personality change with psilocybin.  

It is important to understand that except for marijuana, drugs like mescaline, LSD, and psilocybin were legal to possess and use at this time. Leary became involved in personally assessing the effects of psychoactive drugs and encouraged others in the university community to do the same.  He recorded the impact of these experimentations in a scientific way and believed that this work held great promise for understanding the nature of human behaviour.  There were, however, professional and ethical issues raised about Leary’s approaches, largely because Leary had come to believe everyone, not just the academic and scientific elite, had the right to experiment with consciousness alteration.  In l963, Harvard detractors mounted a successful effort to have him removed from the university faculty.

After leaving Harvard, Leary established his life and research at a large estate at Millbrook, N.Y.

From time to time, he traveled to Mexico and the Caribbean looking for a new research site and continuing his investigations into was what was being called psychedelic consciousness. He began to attract the attention of authorities, particularly those in the CIA who had been conducting their own research on the military uses of LSD.

In l966 Leary testified before a Senate hearing in support of citizen’s right to experiment with consciousness alteration. Soon after, Marshall McLuhan challenged Leary to publicly become a cheerleader for this movement, to take this message directly to the people.  Leary coined the slogan Turn On, Tune In and Drop Out.

Leary writes in his autobiography Flashbacks at p. 253.  “The slogan
Turn On:   
meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment.  Become  sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them.  Drugs were one way to accomplish this end.
Tune In:
 meant interact harmoniously with the world around you—externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives.
Drop Out:  
suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments.  Drop Out meant self reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change.”

Leary took up the challenge and began to engage with the public on the lecture circuit as a witness for the psychedelic experience. He says of this period (Flashbacks p. 252)

"And that’s how it happened, step by step from the Harvard firing to the deportations, from Laredo to the Liddy raid, I was pushed from scientific detachment and scholarly retirement into public opposition to the policies of the ruling regime.  By this time I no longer regretted being an outcast.  I was beginning to enjoy the fray.  And I was not alone in the rebellion. Millions of Americans, exactly at this time, were also pushed to open resistance to the group that had taken over Washington after the assassination.  (of President Kennedy ed.)"

Leary became personally involved with the lifestyle of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a loosely organized group of young people engaged in the importation and distribution of marijuana and other drugs.

The Brotherhood (or the BEL) established a commune in the San Jacinto Mountains east of Los Angeles where Leary became strongly influenced by the styles and energies of this  community and the hippie commune movement in general.  He continued to raise money for legal fees and living expenses by appearing at public lectures or “conversations”.  The apotheosis of this period found him at Berkeley in l969 in which he refined some of his most specific thoughts on ways to utilize the energies released by the psychedelic experience.

Leary coincidentally had become involved in three drug arrests.  One in Laredo, Texas in l965, another at the Millbrook Estate in l966, and the last in Laguna Beach, California in l968.

In an apparent set up, Leary, his wife Rosemary and his daughter were arrested in December 1965, at the Laredo, Texas border station for illegal possession of marijuana. It resulted in a conviction which was appealed and later reversed by the US Supreme Court in l969.  The Millbrook arrest yielded no drug charges.  The Laguna Beach arrest in l968 for possession of marijuana eventually resulted in conviction in l970 and a prison term. While in prison more charges were filed.  Leary’s escape from prison in l974 commenced an increasing nightmare of flight as a fugitive through Algeria, Europe and Afghanistan and eventual recapture and imprisonment. 

It appeared that in early 1969, Leary believed he was winning the struggle with the Establishment regarding the right to experience all dimensions of consciousness alternation. After all, the U.S. Supreme Court had recently reversed the Laredo conviction.  He was going to run for Governor of California. He had reached counter-culture “Superstar” status.

These Berkeley lectures reveal no particular anxiety or awareness of the prosecutorial and incarceration maelstrom coming his way just months later.  He had started planning to run for Governor against Ronald Regan and his relationship with Rosemary was flourishing. He and Rosemary had recorded “Give Peace a Chance” with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Montreal. This was the year of Woodstock. The counter-culture yearned to know what Leary believed.  He was at the peak of his Johnny Acidseed period.

After conviction and imprisonment, escape and flight, controversial Leary became notorious, a handy media caricature of a loony who had “fried his brain on acid.”  He died in l996.

His prison escape in l974 was engineered by the Weathermen, an urban underground political movement.  He was harbored in Algeria by Eldridge Clever, the Black Panther movement’s representative of its American Government in Exile.  Once arrested, it was rumored that he cooperated with the FBI to mitigate his prison sentence.  He was an instant press headliner, particularly since the U.S. Government had indicted the Brotherhood on drug smuggling charges and had referred to him as The Godfather of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. No longer could he be perceived as speaking from scientific and academic detachment.  He was damaged philosophical goods. He continued, however, to lecture and articulate concepts about human experience which have been widely acknowledged as visionary.

These recordings dealing with Psychedelic Marriage and How to Drop Out marked the zenith of a period in which Leary could speak clearly and without guile of the possibilities of living a life in harmony with the evolved consciousness resulting from a psychedelic experience.  Some see these conversations as Leary “riffing” with the crowd, Leary the Irish prankster, Leary doing clever philosophic “stand up”.

Others credit Leary with providing a serious hypothetical intellectual link
 between the counterculture’s yearning for meaningful direction and this time of
cultural ferment. The interaction between Leary and the audience illuminates this as
one of the most significant artefacts of l960’s counterculture history in existence.

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