A look at the life of Timothy Leary (1920-1996) through the documents preserved in his archive.
Depending on your point of view, Leary was either a guru or a charlatan. Actually, he was a little bit of both. With Richard Alpert (now known as Ram Dass), he initiated the Harvard Psilocybin Project in 1960 to research the effect of hallucinogens. A few years later, when he was dismissed from the university, he moved to Millbrook, New York, and helped jump-start the psychedelic movement. As this collection of documents from the archive reminds us, Leary’s story is complex. Indeed, the writings here—including Leary’s notes and commentary as well as correspondence from Allen Ginsberg, Aldous Huxley, Eldridge Cleaver, and other significant figures—highlight Leary’s belief in consciousness expansion, which he saw as the evolutionary purpose of humanity. Arranged and annotated by Ulrich, who cataloged this material for the New York Public Library, the collection is a mixed bag, and there is little new for readers who already know Leary’s life and work. At the same time, it can be revealing, if also more than a little hagiographic, to see it through primary sources. “Everyone carries a piece of the puzzle,” Leary once said. “Nobody comes into your life by mere coincidence. Trust your instincts. Do the unexpected.” The advice is unexpectedly pragmatic and, in some ways, speaks to the intentions of the volume, which seeks to operate as a controlled cacophony. “The letters and papers offered in this book,” Ulrich writes in the introduction, “…serve as a unique insight into a period in history that has been obscured by its own myth-making.” The Leary we find here is a version of the one we know already, both con man and visionary. Given the subject, how could it be otherwise?
This book won't change the way you think about Leary, but it does reveal, to the extent that anything can, the person behind the myth.