The lurid, yet strangely naïve life of the Harvard psychologist and LSD guru.
Rock writer Greenfield (Dark Star: An Oral Biography of Jerry Garcia, not reviewed) is not easily snowed by his subject’s Faustian antics, and he dances often over the question of whether or not Timothy Leary (1920–96) sold his soul for fame. Leary’s early years growing up Catholic in Springfield, Mass., were marked by his drunken father’s desertion and his attempts to please his mother. Shenanigans involving alcohol and girls got him bounced out of West Point and other schools, until he settled down and married Marianne Busch. At Berkeley, Leary did his formative doctoral study and research in clinical psychology, breaking with behaviorism by “classifying social interaction as a game, one which subjects could not only be taught to play but also coached to win.” Constantly at the center of a partying entourage that included successive wives (Marianne hanged herself in 1955) and his two utterly unsupervised children, Leary was invited to Harvard in 1958 to help bolster the faltering psychology department founded by William James in 1875. Tripping on mescaline while in Mexico, he segued into research with psilocybin, sanctioned by venerable authorities Aldous Huxley and Humphrey Osmond, and the Harvard Psychedelic Project took flight. LSD, then gaining currency thanks to “divine messenger” Michael Hollingshead, became the drug of choice, and Leary embarked on a messianic mission to spread the drug’s wondrous, mind-blowing magic. Fired from Harvard, he established tripped-out communes in New York and California, attracting hordes of hippies before the drug busts. Greenfield is levelheaded when discussing Leary’s uneasy relationship with politics, nor does he soft-pedal Leary’s betrayals of friends and colleagues. His last 20 years seeking new cosmic causes (e.g., space migration) are covered by the author with a kind of filial indulgence.
A thorough, sternly bemused biography.