Aldous Huxley was a major inspiration for the four men Don Lattin profiles in this lively retelling of the start of America's romance with hallucinogenic drugs. In its day, Huxley's The Doors of Perception (1954) served as the premier guide for experimenting with and studying the effects of mind-altering chemicals on human consciousness. Huxley was also a connector. No sooner had M.I.T. religion scholar Huston Smith (The World's Religions) mentioned to Huxley in 1960 that he had never had a mystical experience than Huxley gave him Timothy Leary's telephone number at Harvard as a source of a drug that would do the trick.
Leary had just begun the Harvard Psilocybin Project to investigate psychological effects of the psychoactive substance in "magic mushrooms." He was thrilled to bring Huston Smith into the study since Smith, with his background, would be the perfect person to reflect on and analyze the mystical aspects of responses various participants were reporting. Also joining the study was Richard Alpert, a Harvard psychologist who would later become known as Ram Dass. Under the influence of the drugs Leary was studying, these three high-powered and ambitious academics initially bonded strongly with each other as they experienced sensations and perceptions overwhelmingly new to them. Smith for one has stated that he had had "the most powerful experience [I] would ever have of God's personal nature."
After the rush of sharing a sense of "oneness" wore off, however, Leary, Alpert and Smith faced the reality of being three very different men with huge egos from widely varying backgrounds. The project might have continued for a while despite clashing personal agendas, though, if it hadn't been for Harvard undergraduate Andrew Weil. When he found out that the project could not include undergraduates, Weil wrote to Huxley to ask about sources of mescaline. Huxley, ever the accommodating connector, gave him the name of a possible supplier, and soon Weil and his dorm mates were running another psychedelic study, unfunded by the university and unknown to it. Lattin reports that Weil harbored deep-seated grudges against Leary and Alpert, eventually spearheaded an investigation of the project and was instrumental in getting Leary and Alpert fired. The scandal tainted everyone involved for life, including Harvard's administration.
Although Leary famously promoted, "Tune in, turn on, and drop out," Lattin notes that not one of his four subjects dropped out: they continued on highly successful careers exploring human consciousness with and without chemicals. Of the four, Huston Smith puts those 1960s experiments in perspective when he says, "the real test of a person's spirit is the way the live their lives. It's what happens after the ecstasy." --John McFarland
Shelf Talker: A rousing tale of jealousy, drugs, betrayal, vengeance, careerism and academic intrigue with a Harvard accent--it also carries the moral that brains alone won't make you holy.