The Door in the Wall - Part II
Psychedelics in the 1950s. An excerpt from
Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream by Jay Stevens.
Harper & Row Publishers, ©1987 by Jay Stevens. ISBN 0-06-097172-X
Huxley was jubilant.
Mescaline was "the most extraordinary and significant experience
available to human beings this side of the Beatific Vision,"
he cabled his New York editor, Harold Raymond, adding that he
was working on a long essay that would raise "all manner
of questions in the fields of aesthetics, religion, theory of
knowledge." He planned to call this essay The Doors of
Perception, after Blake's observation that
|If the doors of perception were cleansed|
everything will appear
to man as it is, infinite.
Destined to become the most famous volume on the psychedelic bookshelf,
Doors took Huxley a month to write, and when he was done
he had a blow-by-blow account of that afternoon with Osmondevents
like the Dharma body of the Buddha manifesting itself in the garden
hedgetempered by liberal speculation as to what it all might
possibly mean in terms of human psychology.
What it all meant, Huxley thought, was that Bergson and the English
philosopher C. D. Broad had been correct when they suggested that
the brain operated as a vast reducing valve, "shutting out
most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment,
and leaving only that very small and special selection which is
likely to be practically useful." Like the Freudian ego,
this reducing valve was constantly beset by the raging tides of
Mind-At-Large, which was what Huxley called Jung's archetypal
unconscious plus Freud's pathological unconscious plus Myer's
treasure house plus all the other unconsciousnesses yet to be
named. And like Freud's ego, this reducing valve was not watertight:
its seal was susceptible to pressure.
"As Mind at Large seeps past the no longer watertight valve,"
he wrote, "all kinds of biologically useless things start
to happen. In some cases there may be extra-sensory perceptions.
Other persons discover a world of visionary beauty. To others
again is revealed the glory, the infinite value and meaningfulness
of naked existence.... In the final stage of egolessness there
is an 'obscure knowledge' that All is in allthat All is actually
each." Which was why bookjackets gleamed with godliness and
an innocuous canvas chair in the garden "looked like the
There was nothing unique about Mind at Large: the smart monkey
had been vacationing there for millenniathe number of hit or
miss techniques could've filled a small booklet. But suddenly,
with mescaline, mankind had lucked upon a technology. For the
first time a science of the Other World was possible. Perhaps.
In his excitement over all the possibilities, educational and
mystical and philosophical, Huxley skated past a few rather large
problems with a nod and a wink. For example, one of the things
he particularly liked about mescaline was the way it undercut
verbal concepts. Words became superfluous. You didn't need to
intellectualize about love or sadness or death, because you felt
those emotions with every cell of your body. And that was a very
useful condition in a culture that was increasingly dominated
by its verbal constructs. "We can easily become the victims
as well as the beneficiaries of these systems," Huxley wrote
in Doors. "We must learn how to handle words effectively;
but at the same time we must preserve, and, if necessary, intensify
our ability to look at the world directly and not through that
half opaque medium of concepts, which distorts every given fact
into the all too familiar likeness of some generic label or explanatory
But if mescaline's ability to transport the user to an area of
experience that was preverbal or antiverbal was a major plus,
it was also a major drawback. You tried to pour language over
it, but the words just slid away, like water off a duck's back.
It was almost as if the highest tools of self-consciousness were
inadequate when it came to capturing Bucke's cosmic realm. Of
course part of the problem was that Huxley was pouring English,
which lacked any kind of appreciation for these matters: Sanskrit,
as Gerald loved to point out, was a far superior language, with
over forty different words for alterations in consciousness.
How could you create a science out of something you couldn't even
talk about? Huxley didn't bother to explore this central paradox,
although its influence is apparent in the essay's rather tame
imagery. Later, having learned the lesson of Freud and lung that
inner dynamics are best expressed through metaphors and parables,
Huxley grew more bold in his descriptions of what life was like
beyond the Door in the Wall. In one of his first public talks,
he likened the personal ego to the Old World. Using mescaline,
he said, it was possible to sail beyond the horizon, "cross
a dividing ocean, and find ourselves in the world of the personal
... with its flora and fauna of repressions, conflicts, traumatic
memories and the like. Traveling further, we reach a kind of Far
West, inhabited by Jungian archetypes and the raw materials of
human mythology. Beyond this region lies a broad Pacific. Wafted
across it on the wings of mescaline... we reach what may be
called the Antipodes of the mind. In this psychological equivalent
of Australia we discover the equivalents of kangaroos, wallabies,
and duck-billed platypusesa whole host of extremely improbable
animals, which nevertheless exist and can be observed.
You might note that Huxley's central conceit here is that of a
trip. That's what it felt like. A trip to what the spiritualists
had called the Other World, which lay just beyond the deceptive
boundary of everyday consciousness.
The Doors of Perception was published in the spring of
1954 to generally perplexed reviews. Had anyone else written a
book recommending mescaline as "an experience of estimable
value to everyone and especially to the intellectual," declared
The Reporter's Marvin Barrett, it would have been dismissed
"as the woolgathering of a misguided crackpot. But coming
... from one of the current masters of English prose, a man
of immense erudition and intellect who usually demonstrates a
high moral seriousness, they deserve more careful scrutiny."
Barrett called around until he found some Lab Madness researchers
who were using mescaline as a psychotomimetic. They were "less
enthusiastic than Dr. Huxley and the Indians," he reported.
"In controlled experiments they have found that mescaline
more often than not produces symptoms unpleasantly similar to
those of schizophrenia."
The critical response to Doors was almost an echo of the
British Medical Journal's condemnation of Havelock
Ellis for his enthusiastic endorsement of peyote. In effect, Huxley's
knuckles were rapped, and another black mark was added to the
"whatever happened to Aldous" column. "How odd
it is that writers like Belloc and Chesterton may sing the praises
of alcohol (which is responsible for about two-thirds of the car
accidents and three-quarters of the crimes of violence) and be
regarded as good Christians and noble fellows," Huxley complained,
"whereas anyone who ventures to suggest that there may be
other and less harmful short cuts to self transcendence is treated
as a dangerous drug fiend and wicked perverter of weak-minded
But Doors sold, slowly but steadily. Someone was reading
Osmond read it and was delighted. Since that May afternoon he
and Huxley had exchanged numerous letters (learn how to type!
Huxley implored, "It took two days of intensive work to decipher
your last letter.") concerning future mescaline experiments,
but time and commitments had prevented a second rendezvous. Aldous
was genuinely fond of his young friend, and he had high hopes
that Humphrey would "do work of fundamental importance,"
provided an adequate source of funding was discovered so that
the mescaline experiments could continue in proper scientific
style. "Perhaps we could write a play together," Huxley
joked in a letter. "And make enough to finance your research
and our second childhood."
They finally got together again in December 1954. Huxley had wanted
to test the effects of mescaline in the desert east of Los Angeles
away from the comical cars and the smog. But when Osmond arrived
he found Aldous too ill to travel. So he contented himself with
giving the drug to Gerald and photographer George Huene, another
friend of Aldous. The reactions couldn't have been more different.
Huene's experience was similar to Aldous's, with the mescaline
enhancing all of the aesthetic tendencies that had made him a
photographer. But Gerald... Gerald was another case altogether.
Strange mediumistic voices spoke through him, and he claimed to
have glimpsed the Clear Light of the Void, which was the phrase
the Tibetans used for that moment of complete understanding when
one comprehends the Big Picture. Years later, addressing some
students, Gerald gave the following description of what usually
happened to him in the Other World. First, he said, there would
be a hum, a vibration spreading out from the furniture until everything
in the room, Heard included, was caught in its rhythm, pulse after
pulse, until the ego began to "melt like an iceberg that
has gotten into tropical seas." And then, in a flash, the
Door in the Wall would slide open, and wherever you werein
a room, lying on the grass, walking on the beachwould be magically
transformed. "You may have to stop and linger there for a
time like a child in a garden," Gerald told the kids. While
lingering you would probably notice the shadows, and after that,
the realization that the world was boundless. Which did not mean
it was pointless. At its center was the Pure Void, which Heard
described as a blazing central sun surrounded by an ocean of darkness
that one crossed with respect, for it was here that the fears
were most profound. "The little man meeting Pan feels panic,"
Gerald liked to say.
But what Heard didn't say that day was that the panic of the darkness
was nothing compared to the terror of the Void. According to the
Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which
was probably the most thorough guide to these regions ever written,
the soul beheld unvarnished Reality at its peril: confronted with
the Void, it went howling back to the wheel of life, gratefully
chaining itself to another reincarnation.
That no two people found themselves in the same part of the Other
World was one of the troublesome aspects of mescaline. Why did
Gerald immediately find the mystic path, while Aldous and Huene
couldn't, no matter how diligently they searched? And why did
some people have absolutely hellish experiences? Huxley pondered,
but produced no solutions to these questions in his second long
mescaline essay, Heaven and Hell. He decided that
there had to be a basic distinction between visionary experience
and true mystical experiencein the first, one was aware not
only of the opposition between Heaven and Hell, but of the fact
that only the slenderest of gaps separated these two states. In
some people, he wrote, the ego doesn't melt like an iceberg in
tropical waters, but expands to the point of suffocation: "Negative
emotions, the fear which is the absence of confidence, the hatred,
anger or malice which exclude love [these] are the guarantee that
visionary experience, if and when it comes, shall be appalling."
With mystical experience, such distinctions were meaningless.
At one point during Osmond's December visit Maria drew him aside
and confessed that she would soon die of cancer. Aldous was refusing
to accept the reality of her disease, she told Humphrey, please
look after him when I'm gone. Osmond was so moved by her calm
acceptance of her own death that he went off and wept for half
an hour. How would Aldous cope? For thirty years Maria had been
his surrogate eyes. She had been cook, typist, secretary, chauffeurat
Sanary she had piloted their red Bugatti with such enthusiasm
that Aldous had written an essay declaring speed to be the only
new sensation of the twentieth century.
Maria died in February 1955. During her last hours, "with
tears streaming down his face and his quiet voice not breaking,"
Aldous read to her from the Bardo Thodol, interweaving
the ancient Tibetan text with lyrical descriptions of their shared
past. With Lawrence in Italy. Summers at Sanary. The weekends
at Garsington when they had first met while the rest of the world
was falling apart on the Somme. Their trips to the California
desert. The white snowcapped mountains of the Sierras. "Go
toward the light," Aldous kept murmuring. "Those last
three hours were the most anguishing and moving of my life,"
Matthew Huxley later wrote to his wife; while for Gerald they
were proof that Aldous had indeed come back through the Door a
changed man; that he was able to cope with Maria's death so calmly
was wholly attributable, Gerald felt, to the wisdom he had gained
The mescaline served Huxley in another capacity as well, filling
his period of bereavement with new faces and exciting plans. Because
of Doors and Heaven and Hell, which appeared
in 1956, he found himself at the center of a peculiar movement,
part religious, part scientific, which for the first time since
the 1880s was mounting a concerted assault on Mind at Large. "Things
keep cropping up," he wrote Harold Raymond. "Work at
Boston, work at Chicago, work in Buenos Aires. In connection with
the last, a very able Argentinian-Italian suddenly swam into my
ken a day or two ago. It turns out that he is the greatest authority
on the chemistry of cactus alkaloids, including, of course, mescalin."
Huxley was invited to the American Psychoanalytic Association's
annual convention, where he was the only nondoctor to participate
in the panel on psychotomimetics. His reception by "the Electric
Shock Boys, the Chlorpromaziners, and the 57 Varieties of Psychotherapists,"
was not effusivecompared to that of the Lab Madness Lobby.
What might have been called Aldous's Visionary Potential Party
was limited to himself, Osmond, Heard, and a small population
of peripheral "crackpots" like the parapsychologist
Andraj Puharich, who had already entertained Aldous at his Glen
Cove, New York, headquarters. The specifics of Puharich's "strange
household" are worth recording for the insight they provide
into this parascientific fringe movement. Besides Puharich and
his wife, who had behaved in a "conspicuously friendly way"
with a girl named Alice, the menage had consisted of
Elinor Bond, doing telepathic guessing remarkably well, but not
producing anything of interest or value in the mediumistic setting
she gave me; Frances Farelly, with her diagnostic machinewhich
Puharich's tests have shown to be merely an instrument, like a
crystal ball, for concentrating ESP faculties; Harry, the Dutch
sculptor, who goes into trances in the Faraday cages and produces
automatic scripts in Egyptian hieroglyphics; Narodny, the cockroach
man, who is preparing experiments to test the effects of human
telepathy on insects.
"It was all very lively and amusing," Huxley wrote to
Eileen Garrett. "And, I really think, promising; for whatever
may be said against Puharich, he is certainly very intelligent,
extremely well read and highly enterprising. His aim is to produce
by modern pharmacological, electronic and physical methods the
conditions used by the shamans for getting into a state of traveling
clairvoyance and then, if he succeeds to send people to explore
systematically the Other World."
Actually, Huxley and Osmond had proposed something similar to
the Ford Foundation, although they had worded it differently.
What they had proposed was that mescaline be given to a hundred
world-class scientists, artists, and philosophers in hopes that
a definitive answer might emerge to such questions as: Could
mescaline free the mind from its habitual patterns? Did it truly
allow for an expansion of sensibilities? Although Aldous was
friends with Robert Hutchins, the Ford Foundation's director,
his scheme was promptly rejected, causing him to fume that "the
Mesozoic reptiles of the Ford Foundation are being as Mesozoic
as ever. The Trustees are so frightened of doing anything unconventionalfor
whenever the Foundation gets any adverse publicity, people go
to the nearest Ford dealer and tell him that henceforth they will
buy Chevviesthat the one overriding purpose is now to do nothing
Other foundations were approached with equally negative results.
It is difficult to tell, judging from the polite prose of his
letters, whether Huxley's frustration was beginning to erode his
enthusiasm. In any case it didn't matter. Because just as things
appeared at a standstill, along came a fresh explosion of interest
named Al HubbardCaptain Al Hubbard, "Cappy" to his
The initial connection was made through Osmond, who one day received
a mysterious invitation to lunch at the Vancouver Yacht Club with
one A. M. Hubbard, flamboyant president of the locally based Uranium
Corporation. Through a curious chain of events, Hubbard had learned
of Osmond and Smythies's work with mescaline, had obtained a supply
of the drug himself, and had experienced a mystical vision of
such profundity that he had decided to devote his considerable
store of personal energy to spreading the word about mescaline
and the Other World.
Hubbard reappears throughout our story as a kind of peripatetic
imp, so it will help to have an image of the man firmly in mind.
He was small and stocky with a large round head and a razor crewcut.
As he aged, he resembled nothing so much as the caricatured red-neck
Southern sheriff, a resemblance that was enhanced by his eccentric
habit of wearing a security officer's uniform complete with sidearm.
The gun, he used to kid Osmond, fired armor-piercing bullets,
the better to shoot out the engine block of any pursuing car.
Over the years bits and pieces of Hubbard's past came to light,
usually through the office of Al himself, although no two of his
versions were ever exactly the same. Still, it was an astonishing
story. Hubbard always claimed he was just a barefoot country boy
from Kentucky, and that was true, but in his first public incarnation,
in December 1919, he was Seattle's boy inventor, a young Thomas
Edison who had invented what the Seattle Post-lntelligencer
claimed was a perpetual motion machine. Hubbard called it an atmospheric
power generator. Whatever its name, it was small enough to fit
in the hand, had no moveable parts or battery, and could power
a lightbulb for days. To publicize his device, Hubbard took a
boatload of journalists and future backers on a cruise of Seattle's
Lake Union in a boat powered by nothing more than an electric
motor and Hubbard's mysterious 11-X 14-inch box.
The Seattle community took a proprietary interest in their young
genius, and in 1920 the town fathers appointed a committee of
elders to shepherd the "young scientist"Hubbard had
outgrown the boy inventor labelthrough the labyrinth of corporate
offers and patent red tape. When Al arrived in Washington to file
his patent application, the local stringer for the Post-Intelligencer
reported that he was "lodging quietly at a medium priced
hotel and avoiding all publicity."
Hubbard eventually sold 50 percent of his patent rights to Radium
Chemical Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and that was the
last anyone ever heard of the Hubbard Energy Transformer.
Beginning in the late Twenties the specifics of the Hubbard saga
begin to blur. Around the time Huxley and Heard were embarking
upon their search for the key to higher consciousness, Al was
becoming involved in the charterboat business, running liquor
down from Canada. In one version he is supposed to have perfected
an early radar device modeled after the theories of Nicola Tesla,
which he was selling to the rum runners. Whatever the truth, Seattle's
boy inventor eventually went to prison. From there things get
even murkier. As Hubbard told the story, he was approached in
the early days of WWII by members of an unofficial intelligence
unit and asked to secretly run war materials up the West Coast
of America to Canada, where they were shipped overland and put
aboard boats bound for England and the Battle of Britain. Whether
such a program existed, and whether Hubbard was part of it, is
unclear. Certainly for the rest of his life he exhibited enough
familiarity with spies and spying that most of his friends believed
he had once been, and perhaps still was, one. Al loved the intelligence
game and he frequently boasted that his trips to Washington were
not routine business jaunts: he used them to break bread with
the shadow government that really ran things. By then he had become
A. M. Hubbard, president of Vancouver's Uranium Corp., friend
to the industrial and political elite of Western Canada, a rich
entrepreneur, with his Rolls Royce, his airplane, and his island
sanctuary in Vancouver Bay.
But if there was one thread that connected the barefoot boy inventor
of nineteen to the spy and CEO of middle age, it was Catholicism.
Hubbard was an ardent Catholic, with a lifelong interest in mysticism
and the Other World.
"What Babes in the Wood we literary gents and professional
men are," Aldous wrote to Osmond after his first meeting
with Hubbard. "The great World occasionally requires your
services, is mildly amused by mine; but its full attention and
deference are paid to Uranium and Big Business. So what extraordinary
luck that this representative of both these Higher Powers should
(a) have become so passionately interested in mescaline and (b)
be such a very nice man."
In another letter, this one to Carlyle King, a literary acquaintance
of Osmond's, Huxley was even more explicit in his hopes: "Some
new developments might be taking place quite soon in the mescalin
field, owing to the appearance on Osmond's, Gerald's and my horizon
of a remarkable personage called Captain Hubbarda millionaire
businessmanphysicist, scientific director of the Uranium Corporation,
who took mescalin last year, was completely bowled over by it
and is now drumming up support among his influential friends (if
you have anything to do with uranium, all doors, from the Joint
Chiefs of Staff's to the Pope's, are open to you) for a commission
to work on the problems of psychopharmacology in relation to religion,
philosophy, ESP, artistic and scientific invention etc. Hubbard
is a terrific man of action, and results of his efforts may begin
appearing quite soon."
Hubbard and Huxley: the English prince and the American frog,
the polished dialectician and the blunt instrument, the murmured
"most interesting" contrasting with the good-old-boy
bark, "I'm just a son of a bitch." They were a genuine
odd couple, and naturally they were genuinely fond of each other.
Al was a can-do kind of guy, with just the right amount of country-boy
slyness. Little problems, like the perpetual scarcity of mescaline,
disappeared almost immediately. Hubbard didn't waste time going
through proper medical channels; he found out who the main suppliers
were and placed an order they couldn't refuse. When he heard about
LSD in early 1955, he called up Sandoz and requested forty-three
cases, which Sandoz promptly shipped. And when Canadian customs
seized the shipment because Hubbard's papers weren't in order,
Sandoz actually supplied him with the proper forms. Later Hubbard
would boast that he had stockpiled more LSD than anyone else in
the world, and those who knew him tended to believe it. As far
as Al was concerned this was just heads-up business: whoever controlled
the supply controlled the market.
Huxley took his first LSD trip a few days before Christmas 1955,
when Hubbard dropped by Los Angeles to run a session for him and
Gerald. Gerald, as usual, was full of spirits and inner voices,
while Al amused himself by attempting to telepathically connect
with the others. It was a game he and Osmond had begun to play,
but Aldous found it silly. "Certainly if future experiments
should turn out to be like these last two, I should feel that
such experiments were merely childish and pointless," he
wrote Osmond. But if Huxley was irritated with Hubbard, it was
largely because thanks to Al he had finally broken through the
visionary layers, into that realm of pure oneness that Gerald
had been enjoying since day one; thanks to Al, Huxley had finally
escaped from the land of platypuses and wallabies.
Everyone had assumed that Hubbard, being a businessman, would
prove most useful as a financier and diplomat with the various
government bureaucracies. But the truth was Hubbard had an intuitive
feel for the Other World that rivaled even Gerald's; in fact it
was Al who first figured out there were ways to move a person
from one part of the Other World to another. Al had a system.
He always kept certain pictures handy, along with a few specific
pieces of music that he would play on the stereo. And damned if
it didn't work. For instance, if you found yourself caught in
the shadows of the pathological unconscious and were starting
to panic, Hubbard would gently show you an engraving of a cute
little girl lost in a forest, and as you stared intently at this
drawing you could just make out that the clouds were shaped like
... a guardian angel! Silly, perhaps, but soothing. Which was
not the case with the perfect diamond that Al would hand you at
the height of a trip, and suggest you spend a few moments gazing
into its depths. The perfect diamond was like entering an air-lock
that shot you forward into a different part of the labyrinth.
Later, at the height of his powers, Hubbard actually designed
a whole experience around Death Valley, which he considered an
extraordinary power spot.
Like so much in this story, Hubbard's system was not unique. Go
to any library and you could find a sizable section of anthropological
monographs dealing with shamanic healing rites, in which the shaman
manipulated the healing trance with a grab bag of odd cues and
devices, like blowing tobacco smoke across a sick native's brow.
But it was unique in terms of Western psychotherapyunique and
illegitimate. Not that Hubbard cared a whit what the scientific
community thought, at least not yet. The only reason to use mescaline
or LSD as far as he was concerned was to receive the Beatific
Vision, which for Hubbard was primarily a Catholic experience,
although he was not obnoxiously partisan. If a Methodist happened
along, Al made sure they took the Methodist trip; if a Christian
Scientist came by, he did his best to promote the Mary Baker Eddy
Huxley initially had been skeptical of the reports coming out
of Vancouver that had Al evoking the Beatific Vision in dentists
and lawyers. But in October 1955, in the company of a young psychotherapist
named Laura Archera who was shortly to become his second wife,
he decided to give the Hubbard techniques a try. As he later wrote
Osmond, "What came through the closed door was the realization
... the direct, total awareness, from the inside, so to say,
of Love as the primary and fundamental cosmic fact. The words,
of course, have a kind of indecency and must necessarily ring
false, seem like twaddle. But the fact remains..."
Huxley was overwhelmed to the point where he decided his previous
experiments, the ones recorded in Doors and Heaven and
Hell, had been nothing but entertaining sideshows"temptations
to escape from the central reality into false, or at least imperfect
and partial Nirvanas of beauty and mere knowledge." And this
raised a troublesome point. Was it better to pursue a course of
careful psychological experimentation such as they had proposed
to the Ford Foundation, or was Hubbard correct, was the real value
of LSD and mescaline its astonishing ability to stimulate the
most basic kind of religious ecstasy? Describing this dilemma
to Osmond, Huxley wrote:
My own view is that it would be important to break off experimentation
from time to time and permit the participants to go, on their
own, towards the Clear Light. But perhaps alteration of experimentation
and mystical vision would be psychologically impossible; for who,
having once come to the realization of the primordial fact of
unity in love, would ever want to return to experimentation on
the psychic level?... My point is that the opening of the door
by mescalin or LSD is too precious an opportunity, too high a
privilege to be neglected for the sake of experimentation. There
must be experimentation, of course, but it would be wrong if there
were nothing else.
Thanks to Hubbard's system, a question began to take shape in
Huxley's mind. Was it possible to use these new mind changers
to stimulate a subtle but revolutionary alteration in the way
the smart monkey perceived reality? At what point, provided
you selected the right mix of brilliant, influential people, and
gave them LSD or mescaline in a carefully controlled setting,
doing everything possible to lead them to the Clear Light, at
what point would the culture begin to shift to another tack? If
you initiated the best and the brightest to the Other World, and
let the knowledge filter down... It was an appealing speculation,
and the more Aldous thought about it, the more convinced he became
that it was not too farfetched. If one moved cautiously, doing
nothing to startle the philistines...
But first there was a practical matter to solve. "About a
name for these drugswhat a problem!" he wrote to Osmond.
One couldn't call them psychotomimetics or hallucinogens or any
of the other approved synonyms. A completely new name was needed,
and having perused his Liddel & Scott, Aldous felt he had
a worthy candidate: phanerothyme, meaning to make the soul
visible. He enclosed the following ditty in his letter:
|To make this trivial world sublime|
Take half a gramme of phanerothyme
But Humphrey didn't particularly like phanerothyme, so
he created his own word, psychedelic, and sent Aldous an
|To fathom hell or soar angelic|
Just take a pinch of psychedelic
Al Hubbard always operated on the theory that if you bothered
to make appointments you'd never get anywhere in life. He preferred
to materialize on the doorstep, and he was a sufficiently roguish
charmer to get away with it.
He materialized on doorsteps all over the world, wherever a researcher
was working with LSD or mescaline. Hubbard was constantly on the
go, visiting with Osmond in Saskatchewan, then down to Los Angeles
to see Huxley and Heard, then across the continentNew York,
Boston, Bethesda, D. C.; then off to Europe to check on progress
there, then back again to repeat the circuit: vetting new researchers
conducting sessions for interested professionals, brainstorming
on the best way to "launch" the psychedelic movement;
paying his way with the latest experimental wrinkles, the most
delicious gossip, and of course his inexhaustible supply of experimental
substances, which he stored in a large leather bag.
One of Al's favorite break-the-ice devices was carbogen, a mixture
of carbon dioxide and oxygen, which came in a small portable tank.
Carbogen was what therapists referred to as a potent abreactor:
ten or fifteen lungfuls and you tended to relive your childhood
traumas. And judging on how well you handled them, Al would either
offer to run an LSD session for you, or he wouldn't.
Being a charge-ahead kind of guy who didn't write many letters,
Hubbard hasn't left any neat synopsis of the world LSD scene,
circa 1956, the year the first International Symposium was held.
In general though, the trend was away from the Lab Madness boys,
the psychotomimeticists, and toward therapy, which had been, after
all, Sandoz s first recommendation:
To elicit release of repressed material and provide mental relaxation,
particularly in anxiety states and obsessional neuroses.
To attribute this change of direction solely to Captain Hubbard's
efforts would be an overstatement; Al was more like the membrane
without which osmosis can't occur. He was a traveling symposium;
it was from Hubbard that many researchers first learned the cardinal
rule of set and setting, which stated that the LSD state was contingent
on the mindset of the person taking the drug and the setting in
which the experience occurred. To drive someone crazy with LSD
was no great accomplishment, particularly if you told the person
he was taking a psychotomimetic and you gave it to him in one
of those pastel hospital cells with a grim nurse standing by scribbling
notes. But to use the drug for subtler ends called for an understanding
of how ambiance was heightened in the psychedelic state: how certain
pieces of musicBach, for instancecame across under LSD as
so holy it was almost as though God was humming the tune, while
othersBerlioz, saymade you sick to your stomach with its
sugary pretensions; how people under LSD liked to sprawl around
with plenty to look at, with paintings and scratchpads that would
end up filled with the most perplexing scrawls, as though a class
of kindergartners had used the room, and not one relatively mature
adult, how the most minor mood changes on the part of the therapist
(irritation, anxiety, humor) could have startlingly major effects
on the patient.
By 1956 the question "what's in the unconscious?" had
fragmented into a host of subsidiary questions as therapists realized
that the Dark Room, like a grandmother's attic, was crammed with
treasure. In this trunk, Jungian archetypes; in that one, lovely
Freudian neuroses that could be tracked all the way back to the
moment when the patient, standing in her cradle barely one year
old, had watched her parents making love. Instead of having to
walk, the therapist could fly. And while that presented a new
set of problemsfor one thing, LSD sessions lasted a wearying
three to four hoursit didn't diminish the excited feeling that
they were on the edge of Something Big. Whenever LSD researchers
got together the conversation quickly turned anecdotal, as one
eye-widening story followed another"... and suddenly I
found myself giving birth to myself. I could actually feel myself
floating around in the amniotic fluid, then I was flushed down
the vaginal canal, thinking 'this is it, I've died and now I'm
It was like belonging to an elite fraternity. "When you made
contact," remembers Oscar Janiger, "it was like two
people looking at each other from across the room, and with a
sort of nod of the head... like 'Welcome brother, you have
now entered the Mysteries.' That's all. That was your ticket of
admission. Nothing else. That knowing look."
Oscar Janiger was a Beverly Hills psychiatrist who preferred research
to analysis, although he did just enough of the latter to pay
for the leisure to indulge in the former. He also taught a few
courses at a local university, and it was there, in 1954, after
a lecture synopsizing the Osmond/Smythies adrenochrome thesis,
that he was approached by a young man named Perry Bivens. Bivens
was a professional diver. He worked for Ivan Tors, the producer
of Sea Hunt, and he had his own private decompression chamber
that he had built himself. It was while perfecting the chamber
that Bivens had discovered he could alter his consciousness simply
by changing the mix of gases.
Bivens invited Janiger to try the chamber, which he did to rather
disturbing effect. Although he could intellectualize for hours
about the fragility of what man calls reality, Janiger was unprepared
for just how fragile it really was. Bivens would twiddle a few
knobs, and the next thing the doctor knew he was gasping with
laughter or roaring with energy. Then the air would be flushed
out and a new combination introduced.
After a few sessions in the chamber, Bivens casually mentioned
that he knew of something much better, a drug called LSD.
Janiger, Bivens, and their wives took the LSD at Janiger's vacation
home at Lake Arrowhead. A short while into the experiment Bivens's
wife had disappeared into a bedroom. She returned a few minutes
later wearing a purple sweater, skintight vermilion pants, yellow
ballet slippers, and a long mauve scarf. And then, an intimation
of things to come, she began to dance.
Driving back to Los Angeles, Janiger felt like Moses coming down
from the mountain, except in his case what he lacked was the tabletsor
ampoules. I've got to get my hands on some more LSD, he thought.
I'll go crazy if I can't figure out an experiment that will satisfy
Sandoz. But what kind of an experiment? Janiger had no interest
in experimental lab work, giving LSD to snails and fish and making
voluminous notes on their reactions. Nor was he interested in
the Lab Madness rigmarole of personality and intelligence tests.
After puzzling over the problem for several weeks, he arrived
at a simple solution: why not just give LSD to volunteers and
let them do whatever they wanted? Provide them with paper, pencils,
typewriter, tape recorder, and leave them alonea completely
naturalistic study. Much to his surprise, Sandoz agreed, and within
a few weeks he had his own supply of LSD.
One of Janiger's few rules was that everyone had to have a baby-sitter,
someone who would remain with them throughout the experience.
No one could baby-sit unless they had already taken LSD. Other
than that, the emphasis was on recording what was happening, getting
it down on paper or tape before it evaporatedreams of paper,
spools of tape. The volume would have been overwhelming had not
Janiger been a popular lecturer with access to a willing labor
pool of students who were cajoled into culling the reports and
underlining salient reactions like "the room is breathing."
The underlined statements were then typed onto cards, and the
subjects were called back in and asked to sort them into groups
ranging from statements that were "most relevant" to
their own experience, to those that were "least relevant."
Except for the time one of the volunteers eluded his baby-sitter
and got loose on Wilshire Boulevard, it was all pretty straightforward.
That day the subject just flew out the door before anyone could
react; he was nowhere to be found by the time Janiger reached
the street. The whole office fanned out looking for him, but he
had vanished. Certain his career was about to share a similar
fate, Janiger was walking back to his office when he heard whistling.
Glancing up, he saw the subject sitting in a tree. "Why don't
you climb down from there," Janiger suggested in his most
persuasive psychiatric voice. But the volunteer said, "Oh
no, I'll fly right down."
Situations like this were one of the reasons why Janiger had insisted
that his baby-sitters take LSDbecause only after you had been
there could you realize just how much sincerity was implied in
the response, "I'll fly right down." The subject really
thought he was a bird, which meant that Janiger had to convince
him to climb down using logic a bird would accept. So he built
a nest out of sticks and stones, and with a little persuasion
coaxed the man down to sit on it.
One day a painter volunteered, and Janiger gave him an Indian
kachina doll to sketch. As the LSD took hold the sketches became
emotional, fiery, a mixture of cubism, fauvism, and abstract expressionism
that convinced the artist he had made an artistic breakthrough.
Word of the Beverly Hills shrink who had a creativity pill swept
through the local bohemian art scene like a Malibu brush fire.
Within days Janiger was besieged by painters and sculptors, all
begging for an opportunity to expose their artistry to LSD.
At first he was reluctant. Too many artists would spoil the experiment's
balance. But then the beauty of what had befallen him became apparent:
art was a universal language, it was active rather than reflective,
it was concrete. Instead of having to rely on posthumous statements
about the room changing color and the chairs becoming the Last
Judgment, he could let each artist sketch the same kachina doll:
a sketch before taking LSD, a sketch in the middle of the experiment,
and so on. That way he would have a simple yet elegant example
of how LSD changed perception. Watching them work, Janiger realized
that artists had always been the natural constituency for consciousness-changing
drugs. The unconscious was their medium, and they would do anything
to improve their access. One only had to think of Coleridge and
opium, Balzac and hashish, Poe and laudanumthe list was endless.
Although the painters worked out fine, in the end they were insufficient:
the art was expressive, the painters weren't. They had such a
hard time articulating what was happening inside their heads that
Janiger decided he needed a writer or two to flesh out his findings.
Gil Henderson, one of the painters, suggested the novelist Anaïs
Nin. This was an inspired suggestion, for not only was Nin conversant
with the language of psychoanalysis, but also for two decades
she had been conducting her own idiosyncratic raids on her unconscious
in the form of a series of surrealistic novels.
Nin has left us a record of her LSD trips in her famous diary.
She describes how, at one point, the room had dissolved into pure
space, revealing the "images behind images, the walls behind
the sky, the sky behind the infinite"; how she had begun
to weep, copious tears flowing down her cheeks, while at the same
instant she had been aware of a comic force behind the tears.
And the two feelings, weeping and laughter, tragedy and comedy,
had alternated at a dizzying pace. "Without being a mathematician
I understand the infinite," she had told Janiger, who reminded
her of a Picasso painting, an asymmetrical man with one large,
prying eye. Prying into her very soul.
What part of the mind was being stimulated so that the concept
of infinity could be grasped on an emotional level? Where was
the place where objects suddenly became alive, where the room
began to breathe? Finding the answers to these questions was the
most exciting thing Oscar Janiger could imagine.
And he wasn't alone. For some reasonthe presence of Huxley?
Southern California in general?the Los Angeles LSD scene was
particularly fertile. One day it seemed there were only five researchers
working with the drug, the next day ten, the day after that twenty,
all exchanging those knowing looks.
One of Janiger's counterparts was Sidney Cohen, a psychiatrist
attached to the Los Angeles Neuropsychiatric Hospital, which was
part of the Veterans Administration. Cohen had obtained his first
LSD fully intending to pursue the model psychoses work of Max
Rinkel and the other Lab Madness researchers, but his own personal
experience with the drug had caused him to change direction.
"I was taken by surprise," he recollected a few years
later at an LSD symposium. "This was no confused, disoriented
delirium, but something quite different. Just what it was I could
not say." It refused to be Englished. Or easily psychologized.
"Though we have been using the available measuring instruments,
the check lists, the performance tests, the psychological batteries,
and so forth, the core of the LSD situation remains in the dark,
quite untouched by our activities," he confessed.
But while the core remained impenetrable, researchers like Cohen
were busily building a body of data describing what happened when
the typical therapy patient took LSD. Miraculous and disturbing
things happened. Sometimes the patient got trapped on a paranoid
merry-go-round, and went round and round until the session had
to be terminated with the antipsychotic thorazine, a drug that
effectively counteracted the effects of LSD. But just as often,
after twisting and turning through the labyrinth of their unconscious,
they suddenly stumbled onto a part of the Other World that was
conflict-free, and all their pathologies vanished like startled
birds. "It is as though everything that bothered them has
been transcended," remarked Cohen's colleague, the psychologist
Betty Eisner. Cohen made a particular study of this anomaly, which
he called the "integrative experience":
The integrative experience should be described further because
it has not been a matter for scientific scrutiny and the semantic
difficulties are considerable. There is usually a perceptual component
which consists of looking upon beauty and light. Affectually there
is a feeling of great relaxation and hyperphoria. The patients
describe an insightfulness into themselves, an awareness of their
place in the environment, and a sense of order in life. These
are all fused into a very meaningful episode, and it is believed
that this can be significantly therapeutic.
The key to the integrative experience, to the extent that one
existed was set and setting. With proper preparation and the skillful
manipulation of mood enhancers, particularly music, Cohen found
he could induce an integrative experience with fair regularity.
But he also discovered that while enormously helpful, the integrative
experience was not a miracle cure. A patient might experience
that pure redemptive light one month and yet be right back where
he had started from the next, nurturing the same family of neuroses
that had brought him into therapy in the first place. But when
Cohen mentioned these limitations to his more enthusiastic colleagues,
he was usually dismissed as stuffy old Sid, middle-of-the-road
But however cautious he might have been about LSD's ultimate utility,
Sidney Cohen was instrumental in turning on not only his colleagues,
mostly psychiatrists and psychologists, but a few writers and
scientists as well. During one stretch his office was full of
analysts from the Rand Corporation, the semisecret think tank
located in Santa Monica One of them, Herman Kahn, took LSD and
lay on the floor murmuring "wow" every few minutes.
Later he claimed he had spent the time profitably reviewing bombing
strategies against mainland China.
One of the psychologists whom Cohen introduced to LSD was a man
named A. Wesley Medford. With a friend, a cancer specialist and
radiologist named Mortimer Hartman, Medford began spending his
weekends experimenting with the drug. Gradually others joined
in, until their private weekend investigations resembled what
in left political circles would have been called a cella cell
not of the class wars, but the consciousness wars. All sorts of
crazy things started happening to the Wesley group. Astral projection.
Past lives. Telepathy over vast spaces. Enhanced intelligence.
The sense that they could link up into a multiple mind, a Group
Mind. Although all the experiments that they designed to test
these newfound powers failedremember Weir Mitchell with his
poems and psychology papersit didn't dampen the group's ardor,
and the rest of the LSD research community watched in bemused
fascination as the Wesley group grew in intensity and then came
apart amid denunciations and recriminations. It seemed LSD also
enhanced some of the negative personality traits that make it
difficult for people to get along with each other.
Wesley returned to his former practice, warning that LSD was uncontrollable.
But not Hartman. LSD had lit a fire under Hartman; he couldn't
leave it alone. Teaming up with a psychiatrist named Arthur Chandler,
who had joined the Wesley group late in the game, Hartman opened
an office in Beverly Hills and launched a five-year therapeutic
study that had Sandoz's blessing. Even though Chandler had the
therapeutic credentials, it was Hartman who ran the office. "He
was the sparkplug," remembers Oscar Janiger. "He was
always needling Chandler, who was a pragmatic cookbook kind of
guy, an old-line psychiatrist. But Chandler also provided a drag,
otherwise Hartman would have been another Leary, getting grandiose
and messianic. They were a perfect team." Although Hartman
was sincerely interested in conducting a legitimate research study
for Sandoz, he was also aware that LSD therapy had the potential
for a healthy financial return, particularly if inroads could
be made into the analysis-prone film colony.
Of all the actors, writers, musicians, and directors who passed
through Chandler and Hartman's portals, the most famous was Cary
Grant. Grant took LSD more than sixty times, and although he was
considered one of Hollywood's most private stars, he found his
enthusiasm for the drug hard to contain. It finally overflowed
during the filming of the movie Operation Petticoat. The
scene was appropriately bizarre. There was Grant sitting on the
deck of the pink submarine that was Petticoat's principal set.
He had an aluminum sheet attached to his neck to facilitate his
tan and he was chatting with two reporters, both of whom were
prepared for the usual hour of teeth pulling that an interview
with Grant required. But today Cary was totally relaxed, a condition
he attributed to the insights he had achieved using an experimental
mind drug called LSD.
"I have been born again," he told the astonished reporters.
"I have been through a psychiatric experience which has completely
changed me. I was horrendous. I had to face things about myself
which I never admitted, which I didn't know were there. Now I
know that I hurt every woman I ever loved. I was an utter fake,
a self-opinionated bore, a know-all who knew very little.
"I found I was hiding behind all kinds of defenses, hypocrisies
and vanities. I had to get rid of them layer by layer. The moment
when your conscious meets your subconscious is a hell of a wrench.
With me there came a day when I saw the light."
Although Grant, his lawyers, and MGM all tried to kill the story,
it appeared in print on April 20,1959, and while it didn't alter
Grant's popularity one iota, it was an enormous shot in the pocketbook
for LSD therapists like Chandler and Hartman. Suddenly everyone
in Hollywood wanted to be born again.
Whether it was Chandler and Hartman that Aldous Huxley had in
mind when he dropped the following note to Osmond is unclear,
but they certainly fit the general description. "What frightful
people there are in your profession," Huxley had written.
"We met two Beverly Hills psychiatrists the other day, who
specialize in LSD therapy at $100 a shotand, really, I have
seldom met people of lower sensitivity, more vulgar mind! To think
of people made vulnerable by LSD being exposed to such people
is profoundly disturbing."
There was a lesson here, but, with the possible exception of Anaïs
Nin, no one noticed.
Thanks to her sessions with Dr. Janiger, Anaïs Nin had a
front-row seat as the psychedelic movement was born in a handful
of fashionable Los Angeles drawing rooms, midwived by Huxley,
Heard, Hubbard, and the dozens of researchers (like Janiger) and
others (like Nin) who had been drawn into the sublime quest of
exploring the Other World. Attending their impassioned get-togethers,
Nin was reminded of André Breton and his band of surrealists
who had alternately shocked and delighted Paris in the Twenties
and Thirties. Breton had been another believer in the revolutionary
potentials of the unconscious, but lacking a tool like LSD he
had been forced to rely on trances and automatic writing to make
his case. Nevertheless Nin sniffed his presence in the excited
speculations of Heard and Huxley, although the setting was a far
cry from the noisy cafes of Montparnasse.
At first it was all talk, talk, talk, in a variety of dialects.
The psychologists talked psychology, the mystics talked theology,
a smattering talked parapsychology, while polymaths like Huxley
and Heard danced from one vocabulary to the other, equally at
home with the integrative experience or the Hindu samadhi. Misunderstandings
were frequent, as was an inevitable partisanship; what kept things
congenial was the bemused understanding that they were all talking
about the same thing. When it came to the Other World, everyonethe
psychologists, the writers, the artists, even the mysticsenjoyed
amateur status. This had been a little hard for some of the medical
men to swallow, as they tended to take a proprietary attitude
toward drugs; some of the more hard-nosed had come in for a lot
of criticism along the lines of, "My God, get it out of those
sterile rooms and stop asking those stupid questions." But
years of conditioning couldn't be shed overnight. Sterile rooms
and questionnaires were the only scientific tools they had, and
it was difficult to see how you could jettison them and still
expect to solve the mystery.
From midnight discussions it was a short step to... drug
parties would be the phrase used today. No one came right
out and said, "Why not drop by my house tonight and we'll
take LSD." The invitation was usually couched in terms like,
"Why not come over and we'll conduct a modest ESP experiment."
But the result was the same. Eventually a series of evening salons
sprang up in some of Los Angeles's wealthier neighborhoods, bringing
together the likes of Huxley, Heard, Hubbard, Nin, Oscar Janiger,
Sidney Cohen, etc. "Our parties were meaningful and very
special," Nin confided to her diary. "We shared our
esoteric experiences. These experiences should have remained esoteric."
Nin was probably one of the first people in America to worry that
LSD was getting out of hand. A couple of things bothered her.
She was worried, for example, by the arrogant assumption of so
many of the psychologists that in a year or two they would have
the Other World neatly dissected and defanged, sterilized, objectified,
another head for the trophy rooms of science. Nin had no doubt
that the human spirit would elude the men in the white coats,
but she did worry about the kind of unintended damage the pursuit
might bring. Nevertheless, that didn't mean she endorsed the Huxley
plan of introducing psychedelics to the Best and the Brightest.
The more she watched the spread of LSD, the more convinced she
became that there was a reason why the quest for higher consciousness
had always been the province of small esoteric mystery cults:
you couldn't mass produce the mystical: too many initiations,
too many complex rituals were required. Sure a drug like LSD opened
the Door, affording instant access to parts of the unconscious
that might otherwise have taken years to achieve either through
meditation or psychotherapy. But was a shortcut the best and safest
way to visit the Other World? Nin didn't think so. But when she
argued this point with Huxley, he responded rather irritably,
"You're fortunate enough to have a natural access to your
subconscious life, but other people need drugs and should have
It was Huxley's opinion that Homo sapiens didn't have the
luxury to ignore any shortcuts. When he had written Brave New
World in the early Thirties, he had imagined it taking
place in the far distant future of A.D. 3500. But here it was
less than a quarter of a century later, and the world was catching
up to his satirical portrait. The ideal of a perfectly managed
society, which was the beating heart of corporate liberalism,
could have been lifted right out of the first chapter, with its
insistent message"conform, conform, conform"murmuring
from the Pavlovian television screens and from the tabloids' worshipful
hagiography of the Organization Man. "Conform, or else has
become something of an eleventh commandment," observed psychiatrist
Robert Lindner in a little book called Must We Conform?
Huxley explored the astonishing way life was imitating his art
in a series of essays collected and published under the title
Brave New World Revisited. Of particular interest to him
was the skyrocketing popularity of tranquilizers like Miltown
and Elavil. These, Huxley felt, were worthy forerunners of a true
soma, in that they staunched the flow of unhappiness that was
an inevitable byproduct of "conform, or else."
Given the cultural situation, Huxley felt, the rapid and efficient
development of psychedelics became crucial. Gerald Heard believed
much the same thing, only he tended to replace Huxley's sociological
arguments with larger cosmic ones. For Heard it was the forces
of light versus those of darkness, Eros against thanatos, with
the forces of darkness manifested in the Bomb, the proliferation
of mental illness, the slide toward regimentation, while the forces
of light had to make do with LSD. LSD proved once and for all
that the mind contained higher powers; they should be catalogued
and inventoried; and then they should be released on a wide scale.
"We may be very grateful that our opponents so long have
been content to be ignorant and bigoted materialists," he
Neither Huxley nor Heard ever sat down and drew up a formal blueprint
for how the anxious present might become the psychedelic future,
although Huxley was thinking of writing a reverse Brave New
World, in which a psychedelic system of education would result
in a true utopia. But that was fictionand rather difficult
fiction, he discovered, as most of his early attempts ended in
the wastebasket. What Huxley and Heard seemed to be aiming for
was a kind of gradual osmosis, particularly among the scientific
community. If they could get science on their side, if they could
map and inventory the Other World using the accepted tools of
scientific truth, always careful not to alarm the philistines
with grandiose claims, then there might be a chance... and
the way to accomplish this was to recruit as many of the Lab Madness
boys and the LSD researchers to their point of view as was humanly
possible, and then let them turn on the Best and the Brightest
under the guise of legitimate research projects.
"The man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will
never be quite the same as the man who went out," Huxley
had written in the last paragraph of Doors. "He will
be wiser but less cocksure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler
in acknowledging his ignorance..." He will also, like
Paul on the road to Tarsus, be open to a different vision.
It is important to understand that Huxley wasn't proposing a wholesale
migration to the Other World. He was very selective. When the
novelist Christopher Isherwood, a close friend of Heard and a
disciple of the same Swami Prabhavananda who had tutored Huxley
in Vedantic Hinduism back in the Forties, came to them for mescaline
he was turned away as too unstable. Annoyed, Isherwood later obtained
some mescaline on his own and tried it one day in London. He went
to Westminster Cathedral "to see if God was there."
He wasn't. In fact, his absence was so profound that Isherwood
began to giggle uncontrollably and had to remove himself to a
discreet nook until he could regain his composure. There wasn't
a whisper of the eternal spirit in that immense, drafty space.
But if a likely candidate appeared on their horizon, he was usually
accommodated. This was the case with Alan Watts, a slightly younger
member of Isherwood's generation (b. 1915) and a former Anglican
minister turned freelance philosopher. Watts was something of
a special case, as he had spent his adolescence in the same theosophical
circles that Huxley and Heard had investigated in the Thirties.
He was a protégé of Christmas Humphreys, the English
barrister who also ran London's Buddhist Lodge. When Watts was
unable to attend Oxford, Humphreys and his friends began schooling
young Alan in "every occult and far-out subject under the
sun." And Watts responded by becoming a prodigy. Already
at nineteen, when he published his first book, his trademark style
was fully developed. Watts could take the most abstruse topics
and render them as clear as a pane of glass. This was less a matter
of prose than a quality of mind: about the time he was drawn into
Huxley's psychedelic scenario, Watts had a radio show in San Francisco.
Little old ladies would call up from Oakland and ask him the most
godawful thingshow Zen satori was related to the Catholic concept
of grace, for instanceand Watts wouldn't even blink. He'd open
his mouth (which always contained a cigarette; he amazed the engineers
by being able to talk and smoke them at the same time) and perfectly
formed sentences would pour out for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes,
and then, just as the engineer was about to give the off-air sign,
he would tie the ends of his answer up into a neat little bow
and sign off. Watts's loquacity made him a great favorite of the
LSD researchers; there wasn't a drug in the world, he used to
boast to them, that could shut him up.
Watts wasn't an immediate convert to Huxley's high opinion of
psychedelics. It struck him as "highly improbable that a
true spiritual experience could follow from ingesting a particular
chemical. Visions and ecstasies, yes. A taste of the mystical,
like swimming with waterwings, perhaps." The first time he
took LSD he had a "hilariously beautiful" but "hardly
what I would call mystical" time. But then he took it again,
and this time he had a full-blown mystical illumination that was
as embarrassing as it was enlighteningembarrassing because
that moment of cosmic Oneness was something Watts had devoted
his whole adult life to finding, and now he had achieved it not
through proper spiritual discipline but because he had poured
an ampoule of twentieth-century science into a glass of distilled
water; and it was enlightening because what came through the Door
wasn't Zen Buddhism, which was Watts's specialty, but something
with an unmistakable Hindu cast, as though Hinduism "was
a local form of some undercover wisdom, inconceivably ancient,
which everyone knows in the back of his mind but will not admit."
Oscar Janiger always thought that the arrival of Alan Watts was
a key moment in the psychedelic chronology, because Watts's influence
lay in a different direction from that of Huxley and Heard. From
his base in San Francisco he had considerable influence with the
young bohemians, among them a cousin of Janiger's named Allen
Ginsberg, who were beginning to look eastward for their spiritual
Unquestionably a momentum was developing, but its direction was
a bit difficult to ascertain. Up in Canada Osmond had begun giving
LSD to terminal alcoholics with promising results, but he was
also doing such things as calling up his old school chum and member
of Parliament, Christopher Mayhew, with the suggestion that Mayhew
use his connections to entice the BBC into making a short science
film about mescaline. Mayhew had offered himself as guinea pig
and a BBC film crew had been dispatched to his house in Surrey
to film Osmond giving him 400 milligrams of mescaline hydrochloride.
What followed was by now fairly predictable: at irregular intervals
Mayhew kept slipping through the door of temporal and spatial
reality and arriving at a place of "pervasive pure light,
like a kind of invisible sunlit snow." Although Osmond's
watch indicated that these voyages lasted mere seconds, to Mayhew
they seemed to go on forever.
"I'm off again for a long period," he would suddenly
announce, interrupting one of Osmond's intelligence tests. "But
you won't notice that I've gone away at all."
"When are you coming back?" Osmond would ask.
"I am now in your time," Mayhew would respond, to be
followed a few minutes later by another "Whoops I'm off again."
Like Aldous, Mayhew also had a glimpse of the dark part of the
Other World. "There were occasions when I knew with terrible
vividness what being mad was like," he confided in an account
of his experience that was published in the London Observer.
To give another illustration of how things were developing: in
1954 Gerald Heard gave a lecture in Palo Alto to an organization
called the Sequoia Seminar. Sitting in the audience was an engineer
named Myron Stolaroff. Stolaroff was in charge of long-range planning
at Ampex, which was one of the first of the high-technology companies
to emerge in the valleys south of San Francisco. Stolaroff had
heard Gerald speak several times before and considered him one
of the world's outstanding mystics. So when Heard began rhapsodizing
about the effects of certain mind-altering drugs, Stolaroff was
predictably upset. "I thought you went to all these places
anyway," he asked. "Why do you take this?" And
Heard had replied, "Oh, but it just opens the doors in so
many ways to so many vast dimensions."
Whether he admitted it to himself or not, Myron Stolaroff was
hooked, and a few months later, in Los Angeles on business, he
visited Heard and had another long discussion about these new
mind drugs. At one point Hubbard's name had come up, and Heard
had implied that if Stolaroff wished to try any of these substances,
Al was the man to guide him through the experience. So Stolaroff
had written Hubbard and one day Al had turned up on the doorstep,
bounding into Myron's office with a tank of carbogen, a "fun-loving
guy" who "radiated an enormous energy field." After
the formal introductions were over, Hubbard had suggested that
Stolaroff take a few lungfuls of the carbogen, and twenty or thirty
breaths later the director of long-range planning was abreacting
all over his office.
Stolaroff, who had been skeptical of a lot of Gerald's claims,
was convinced. He arranged to visit Vancouver at the earliest
opportunity for one of Hubbard's patented LSD sessionsby 1959
Hubbard was claiming he had conducted seventeen hundred LSD sessions.
It was a terrible experience. During those hours in Hubbard's
apartment, Stolaroff relived his birth, the actual physical birth,
gasping and writhing for what felt like days, until he broke through
to the world, which actually smelled of ether. Although it was
a torturous few hours, Myron emerged from the LSD womb convinced
that many of his personal eccentricities and neuroses could be
traced back to the trauma of his birth. This was not a radical
possibility as far as psychoanalysis was concerned; Otto Rank,
one of Freud's last disciples, had explored the effects of birth
on the emerging psyche in numerous articles. But it would have
taken psychoanalysis years to attain the level that LSD had reached
in one climactic rush. Stolaroff returned to Ampex convinced that
LSD "was the greatest discovery that man had ever made."
Over the next few years Myron and Al grew increasingly close.
Stolaroff was a businessman, an engineer, a manipulator of things,
not words, and he was a welcome change from the hyperintellectuality
of the Heard-Huxley-Osmond circle. Gradually a fantasy took shape
out of their late-night confabs: using LSD, they would turn Ampex
into the most creative, successful, and lucrative corporation
in the world. They would use the drug to stimulate not only creative
insight, but also mental health, doing away with all that debilitating
egotism and neurosis, the petty jealousies, the failures of communication.
Using LSD, they would foster an environment in which individuality
would flower and mesh with the budding genius of everyone else's
individuality, thus creating a corporation that served the impossible
task of enhancing not only the individual, but the group as well.
And the bottom line would be: lots of money for everyone.
Hubbard was a perfect example of how reality can warp the best-laid
fantasies. It had seemed a simple enough task back when it had
first popped into Huxley's mindjust turn on enough people of
sufficient caliber to tip the cultural balancebut he had forgotten
that not everyone might share his Oxbridge assumptions. Huxley
preferred a kind of quiet diplomacy that would spread the word
"in the relative privacy of learned journals, the decent
obscurity of moderately highbrow books"; American TV, with
its audience of "Baptists, Methodists and nothing-but-men
plus an immense lunatic fringe," should be avoided at all
costs. But decent obscurity was not Al's forte. He seemed determined
to sell LSD as a specifically Catholic nostrum. "Would it
not be best to let Hubbard go his own way within the Church?"
Huxley wrote Osmond. "It is evidently there that he feels
increasingly at home. It is evident, too, that his loyalty to
the Church makes him increasingly anxious to use LSD-25 as an
instrument for validating Catholic doctrines and for giving new
life to Catholic symbols." But the irritation lasted only
until their next dinner, when Hubbard again charmed Huxley with
his geniality and vigor. "Please ignore what I wrote in my
last letter about him," he told Osmond, adding, "I still
have doubts about the general validity of his methods."
But Hubbard's methods generally worked, and in late 1957 his campaign
within Vancouver's Catholic hierarchy won a rather astounding
victory in the form of a notice issued by the Cathedral of the
Holy Rosary, which read, in part:
We are aware of man's fallibility and will be protected in our
studies by that understanding and recognition of the First Cause
of all created things that govern them. We therefore approach
the study of these psychedelics and their influence on the mind
of man anxious to discover whatever attributes they possess respectfully
evaluating their proper place in the Divine Economy. We humbly
ask our Heavenly Mother the Virgin, help of all who call upon
her to know and understand the true qualities of these psychedelics,
the full capacities of man's noblest faculties and according to
God's laws to use them for the benefit of mankind here and in
Today the Catholic hierarchy of western Canada, tomorrow the first
psychedelic corporationAl's aspirations certainly weren't modest.
But in this case the one precluded the other. Although Myron Stolaroff
had laid the groundwork perfectly, persuading Ampex's new general
manager to overlook Al's flaws and give LSD a chance, the result
was disastrous. The general manager was Jewish. The last thing
he wanted to do was look at pictures of Jesus Christ, but that's
what Hubbard kept waving at him.
We could continue in this vein for another hundred pages, describing
all the little eddies that sprang up in LSD's wake, and perhaps
we should describe just one more, as it shows how far afield the
psychedelic message was ranging. In 1958 Gerald and Sidney Cohen
traveled to Arizona to run a session for Henry Luce, founder and
president of Time-Life, Inc., and Luce's wife, the cosmopolite
Clare Booth Luce. At one point during the evening the tone-deaf
and unflamboyant Luce wandered out into the yard, conducting an
imaginary symphony; and later on a short colloquy with God assured
him all was well with the American Century.
The only problem that anyone could foresee was the possibility
that somewhere down the road LSD might turn out to be physically
harmful. One couldn't forget Freud, who had thought cocaine an
innocuous panacea and had become addicted. But even if this happened,
it wouldn't be fatal: "If the psychologists and sociologists
will define the ideal," Huxley said, "the neurologists
and pharmacologists can be relied upon to discover the means whereby
the ideal can be realized." LSD and mescaline were just the
tip of the psychedelic iceberg.
The first new psychedelic to surface was DMT, an abbreviation
of dimethyltryptamine. It was introduced into the Los Angeles
scene by Oscar Janiger. Besides exploring the possibilities of
LSD, Janiger had been intrigued by the Osmond/Smythies thesis
that psychoses might be caused by a metabolic malfunction of the
adrenal system. Just as serendipity had led the two Englishmen
to the molecular similarity between adrenaline and mescaline,
Janiger had stumbled across a similar connection between brain
tryptamines and a South American vine used in shamanic rites called
ayahuasca. The psychoactive element in ayahuasca was dimethyltryptamine.
Janiger searched the medical literature for any references to
DMT. He found only two, both in Hungarian. Surmising that the
Hungarians must have tried DMT and lived to write their monographs,
Janiger had a local laboratory make a batch, and one afternoon
while he was alone in his office he filled a syringe and shot
it into his arm"a dangerously stupid, idiotic thing to
Compared to DMT, LSD was like a lazy summer picnic. Janiger felt
like he was inside a pinball machine, bombarded by flashing lights,
clanging bells, infernal messages. There was no insight. He was
lost, disconnected, and when he later regained consciousness (the
DMT lasted only thirty minutes) he was convinced he had been "totally
stark raving crazy." Which was terrific! Perhaps he had found
the elusive M factor.
Janiger gave DMT to Bivens, who agreed that it was too much; then
he called up Alan Watts and bet him that he had a drug that could
finally shut him up. Watts took the bet and the DMT, and for thirty
minutes he lay there staring at Janiger, who kept repeating, "Alan,
Alan, please say something. Talk to me. Your reputation is at
stake." But Watts never said a word. The next time Al Hubbard
passed through town, Janiger gave him a supply of DMT for his
leather bag and asked him to distribute it along the circuit.
"This isn't a gift," he said. "I want reports back."
Everyone who took DMT agreed that it was a hellish half hour,
with absolutely no redeeming qualities.
The same couldn't be said, however, about psilocybin, which descended
on the psychedelic scene like an eager debutante from a well-known
society family, in this case, Sandoz Pharmaceuticals.
A rather odd set of circumstances led Sandoz to psilocybin.
To begin at the beginning would be to start on a forest path in
the Catskills in the summer of 1927, at the moment when Valentina
Wasson spied some mushrooms growing in the woods and ran to pick
them. Her new husband, for they were on their honeymoon, watched
aghast as she "knelt in poses of adoration before one cluster
and then another of these growths." When it became clear
that no amount of argument could deter her from cooking them for
dinner, Gordon Wasson began to prepare himself for the new status
of widower, for there was little doubt in his mind that by morning
she would be dead.
She wasn't, of course. Born in Russia, Valentina Wasson had been
raised a mycophile, a lover of mushrooms, and she was knowledgeable
in the specifics of their use. Gordon, an Anglo-Saxon, represented
the other extreme, a mycophobe, a hater of mushrooms. Being educated
sortsGordon was a Harvard man and financial correspondent for
the New York Herald Tribune; Valentina a pediatricianthey
began to analyze the different cultural heritages that could have
produced such opposite reactions. Was it possible to imagine a
similar disagreement over lichen or walnuts? In fact, once they
had delved a little deeper, they discovered that whole areas of
Europe could be designated either mycophile (the Slavic
countries, with pockets in Bavaria, Austria, and Italy, and parts
of southern France and Spain) or mycophobe (the rest of
Europe). Appetites whetted, they plunged into an investigation
that would continue for the rest of their lives.
In 1928 Gordon Wasson gave up journalism for banking, and took
a job in the securities division of Morgan Guaranty. When an act
of Congress prohibited banks from owning stock, he transferred
to the regular staff of the bank, where he eventually rose to
the position of vice president. During these years whatever spare
time the Wassons had was devoted to their mycological quest. They
tramped all over Europe, combing the language for echoes of the
split that must have occurred millennia ago. They sought out uneducated
peasants and interviewed them regarding the local fungi.
Gradually a thesis emerged. The Wassons began to suspect that
a mushroom had played a formative role in the Ur-religion of tribal
Indo-Europe. Their prime candidate was the fly amanite, considered
by mycophobes to be the most poisonous mushroom of all, although
there was no solid evidence that anyone had ever died from eating
a fly amanite. What did occur was a species of delirium that,
to quote from Cooke's Plain and Easy Account of British
Fungi (pub. 1862), caused one to "prophesy wildly,
engage in feats of prodigious physical exertion, and enjoy illusions
of miraculous mobility and metamorphosis." Lewis Carroll
apparently knew his Cookein Alice in Wonderland
the caterpillar is puffing a hookah atop a fly amanite, which
Alice promptly eats with memorable results.
Because the thesis that a narcotic mushroom lay at the heart of
Indo-European culture was a trifle radical, the Wassons confided
in very few people. One of their confidants was Robert Graves,
the English poet who was living in balmy isolation on the island
of Majorca. The Wassons had become friends with Graves when they
collaborated on the historical question of which mushroom the
Roman Empress Agrippina had used to poison the Emperor Claudius,
the main character in Graves's most popular novel, I, Claudius.
Marshaling the available evidence, they decided that she had probably
served him a dish of his favorite mushroom, Amanita caesarea,
a harmless and tasty fungi except when it is stewed in the juice
of Amanita phalloides, the only lethal mushroom available
to Agrippina. Because a man poisoned with phalloides lingers
on for five or six days, they concluded that a booster poison,
most likely colocynth, had to have been administered via enema;
and within hours Claudius was dead, and his stepson Nero was the
In September 1952 Graves came across a magazine story that mentioned
the discovery of "mushroom stones" at various archeological
excavations in Guatemala and Mexico. The archeologists speculated
that the stones had been objects of worship, or at least adoration,
which suggested the existence in pre-Columbian times of a mushroom
cult. Although the Wassons had planned to confine their study
to Eurasia, they left for Mexico at the first available opportunity.
What they found was much more tangible than their European hunt
through old folklore and linguistic probabilities. A number of
sixteenth-century Spanish chroniclers had actually mentioned the
existence of a narcotic mushroom known in the native Nahuatl as
teonanacatl, or "God's flesh." And the Franciscan
friar Bernard de Sahagun had even gone so far as to describe the
alleged effects of teonanacatl:
Some saw in a vision that they would die in war. Some saw in a
vision that they would be devoured by wild beasts.... Some saw
in a vision that they would become rich, wealthy. Some saw in
a vision that they would buy slaves...
As far as de Sahagun was concerned, this was devil's work, and
the Catholic Church had moved vigorously to suppress the mushroom
The Wassons were banking on the possibility that the cult had
not been eradicated in the sixteenth century, but had gone underground.
There was some evidence that this might be the case. In 1936 a
team of American anthropologists working in the remote village
of Huatla de Jimenez reported that they had been allowed to observe,
but not participate in, a ceremony that involved psychotropic
For three years the Wassons followed rumors, cultivated sources,
and learned the Indian dialects. In Huatla de Jimenez they became
friends with Eunice Pike, the local missionary and someone who
was rumored to know quite a bit about the mushroom cult. Only
"when evening and darkness come and you are alone with a
wise old man or woman whose confidence you have won, by the light
of a candle held in the hand and talking in a whisper, you may
bring up the subject," Wasson wrote. What they whispered
was tantalizing. According to Wasson's sometimes fanciful sources,
teonanacatl were gathered before sunrise at the time of
the New Moon; they were picked in some areas only by virgins,
who wrapped them in banana leaves and took them to the cathedral,
where they were left on the altar to be blessed. Then they were
passed from curandero (medicine man, healer, shaman, etc.)
to curandero Listening to these whispered stories, the
Wassons felt like "pilgrims seeking the Grail," an apt
analogy, as the mushroom cult was proving comparably elusive.
Wasson described the frustration this way:
Perhaps you will learn the names of a number of renowned curanderos,
and your emissaries will even promise to deliver them to you,
but then you wait and wait and they never come. You will brush
past them in the marketplace, and they will know you but you will
not know them. The judge in the town hall may be the very man
you are seeking; and you may pass the time of day with him, yet
never learn that he is your curandero.
In the summer of 1955 the Wassons hired a muleteer who knew his
way around the Oaxacan mountains and set out for Huatla de Jimenez.
There, as the twenty-ninth of June became the thirtieth, Gordon
became the first outsider to "partake in the agape of the
sacred mushrooms." He later coined the word bemushroomed
to describe the state he passed into. Strange information flowed
through his mind, visions that seemed the "very archetypes
of beautiful form and color" and ideas that reminded him
of the "Ideas that Plato had talked about"ideas that
impressed the banker from Morgan Guaranty not as the fantasies
of an "unhinged imagination," but as a glimpse of a
higher order of reality, against which our daily lives are "mere
The Wassons kept quiet about their discovery and returned to Huatla
de Jimenez several more times. On one occasion they were accompanied
by a photographer named Allan Richardson, who photographed the
mushroom ceremony; on another they brought Roger Heim, a famous
mycologist and the director of France's National Museum of Natural
History. Heim succeeded in identifying the mushrooms as a member
of the Strophariaceae family, genus Psilocybe, but was
stymied when it came to isolating the active element. That problem
he passed along to Albert Hofmann at Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, who
reluctantly agreed to do what he could. "I wanted to assign
the investigation to one of my co-workers," Hofmann would
ruefully write in his autobiography. "However, nobody showed
much eagerness to take on this problem because it was known that
LSD and everything connected with it were scarcely popular subjects
to the top management."
In 1958 Hofmann announced that he had synthesized two new substances:
psilocybin and psilocin, both of which were indole compounds with
a marked similarity to the neurotransmitter serotonin; LSD now
had some less potent cousins.
News of the Wassons' discovery spread slowly but steadily. Robert
Graves, writing to Martin Seymour-Smith, mentioned that his "mushroom
man is very elated since he actually found the mushroom oracle
I sent him after in Mexico, and ate the sacred mushrooms and had
them analyzedand there's the next wonder drug to watch out
for. He thinks they were what the worshippers ate at the Eleusinian
mysteries to get such terrific visions." When Aldous Huxley
learned of it, Wasson's office in the Morgan bank became a stopover
on the psychedelic circuit. Osmond, Huxley, and Hubbard all made
pilgrimages to hear about being bemushroomed (Hubbard couldn't
get over the fact that Wasson had a private dining room with private
waiters), but their attempt to recruit the banker failed. Wasson
was too absorbed with his own theories, his own discoveries. He
"likes to think that his mushrooms are somehow unique and
infinitely superior to everything else," Huxley confided
to Osmond after lunching with the banker at his "Temple of
Mammon." "I tried to disabuse him. But he likes to feel
that he had got hold of the One and Only psychedelicaccept
no substitutes, none genuine unless sold with the signature of
That particular visit to the Temple came in June 1957 at a time
when the Wassons' magnum opus about the Indo-European mushroom
cult, Mushrooms, Russia and History, had just appeared
in a limited edition of 512 copies, each costing $250. It was
a prodigious work of scholarship, but for all its philological
and folkloric mastery it was the Divine Mushroom of Mexico that
gave the thesis its plausibility. "We have now learned,"
the Wassons had written, "that many species of these strange
growths possess a power such as early man could only have regarded
as miraculous. Indeed they may have given to him the very idea
of the miraculous, and inspired many of the themes that come down
to us in our heritage of folklore.... We have suggested that the
divine mushroom played a vital part in shaking loose early man's
imagination, in arousing his capacity for self-perception, for
awe, wonder, and reverence. They certainly made it easier for
him to entertain the idea of God."
Had Wasson's public exposure been limited to half a thousand copies
of a book costing the equivalent of two weeks' pay, our story
might have been different. But one day, while recounting his Mexican
adventures during lunch at the Century Club, Wasson was overheard
by an editor at Time-Life, who invited him to write the experience
up and submit it to Life magazine, which had a running
feature devoted to true-life adventures. Wasson's account of the
mushroom ceremony was published, along with Allan Richardson's
pictures, in the July 1957 issue of Life, where it was
read by millions, and in particular by a young psychologist named
Frank Barron, who was best friends with another young psychologist
named Timothy Leary.
But these are reverberations that properly belong to the future.
A better question, for the present, might be: Who was James Moore,
and why had he been so eager to accompany Gordon Wasson into the
Mexican outback in the summer of 1956?
As far as Gordon Wasson knew, James Moore was a professor at the
University of Delaware. Moore had written to him in the winter
of 1956 expressing an interest in the chemistry of Mexican fungi,
and upon learning that Wasson was planning another expedition
to Huatla de Jimenez that summer had asked to tag along. To sweeten
his unsolicited presence, Moore had mentioned a foundation that
might underwrite the whole trip, the Geschickter Fund. And sure
enough, the Fund had ponied up two thousand dollars to cover expenses.
In retrospect, it was barely enough to cover the irritation of
The man was a complainer. Apparently he had thought a trip to
Huatla de Jimenez would be little different from a jaunt to Acapulco;
in any case he was unprepared for the diarrhea, the dirt floors,
the monotonous food. "I had a terribly bad cold, we damn
near starved to death, and I itched all over," was Moore's
memory of the journey. To which Wasson has replied: "He was
like a landlubber at sea. He got sick to his stomach and hated
Moore's complaints quickly alienated him from the other members
of the expedition, among them Roger Heim, the eminent French mycologist.
While Moore grumbled, the others reveled in the raw primitiveness
of the adventure. Moore even found the mushrooms a disappointment.
While the others soared"I had the most superb feeling,
a feeling of ecstasy," reported WassonMoore felt nothing
save a disorientation that was compounded by the droning Indian
dialects, the dirt floor, and the anarchy of his bowels. Already
a thin man, he discovered upon his return to Delaware that he
had dropped fifteen pounds. It took him a week to regain his strength,
but when he had, he notified Botner that he was ready to work
on the bag of mushrooms he had brought back from Huatla de Jimenez.
Botner was Moore's case officer at the Central Intelligence Agency.
While Heard and Huxley had been searching for a substance that
would open the Door to the mind's higher powers, the Central Intelligence
Agency had been looking for a mind-control druga Manchurian
candidate, to borrow the phrase popularized by Richard Condon's
bestselling novel of 1959. Ironically both groups were working
the same turf, looking for the answer in that class of drugs that
Osmond called psychedelics.
To understand why the CIA was looking for a mind-control substance,
it is necessary to backtrack to World War II and reprise what
happened at Dachau, where the medical arm of the German air force
had carried out some curious experiments with mescaline. As later
synopsized in an intelligence report by the U.S. Navel Technical
Mission, the Nazis were looking for a drug that could "eliminate
the will of the person examined." Under the auspices of SS-Hauptsturmführer
Dr. Plottner (later a professor at the University of Leipzig),
mescaline had been mixed with coffee or liquor and given unobtrusively
to the subjects Then the subjects were interrogated. According
to the Nazi documents, while unable to impose their will upon
the subjects, the doctors had been able to elicit the most intimate
sort of personal details.
Although the Nazi mescaline experiments occupied only a few paragraphs
in the nearly three hundred-page reportmost discussed the famous
ice water experiments and other tortures in the name of sciencethey
were paragraphs that struck a responsive chord in the OSS, for
the simple reason that the OSS had also been seeking a truth drug.
Under the guidance of Winfred Overholser, the director of Saint
Elizabeth's, Washington's famous mental hospital, an OSS drug
squad had field-tested a number of compounds, including mescaline
and scopolamine. Their best luck had come with concentrated liquid
marijuana, of all things, which they had injected into cigarettes.
They had first used this method to crack the reserve of one August
Del Gracio, who was described in the files as a "notorious
New York gangster," but its most rigorous test came in a
program designed to cleanse the armed forces of suspected communists.
Overholser's team would arrive at the interrogation room with
a pack of doctored cigarettes and a big pitcher of ice waterintense
thirst being a sign that the marijuana was working. Except for
one nonsmoker, they broke every soldier they interrogated.
When the CIA was chartered in 1947, it revived its wartime predecessors'
fascination with truth drugs like scopolamine and liquid marijuana.
And it also authorized an ambitious search for new and better
mind drugs. Within the Technical Services Staff, the Agency's
gizmo and gadget boys, was a small semisecret subsection known
as the Chemical Division. The Chemical Division was run by a Cal-Tech
chemist named Sid Gottlieb, a club-footed square-dance enthusiast
who rose every morning at dawn to milk his pet goats before driving
to the office and a day filled with mind warfare and germ weapons.
Gottlieb also had a pronounced stutter and a patron in the higher
reaches of the Agency, a man named Richard Helms. Enamored with
the possibilities of chemical warfare on the consciousness level,
it was Helms who persuaded Allen Dulles, the then director of
the CIA, to authorize the investigation of a variety of "biological
and chemical materials."
On April 13, 1953, while Huxley was dashing off that enthusiastic
note to Osmond concerning mescaline, the CIA formally approved
MKULTRA, and diverted $300,000 to fund its initial investigations.
Although MK-ULTRA investigated drugs as diverse as nicotine and
cocaine, a large part of its interest and excitement centered
on LSD. Indeed, the CIA considered LSD to be of such promise that
in November 1953 they sent two men with a black bag full of cash
to buy up Sandoz's entire supply, which they thought was ten kilos.
The ten-kilo figure was the result of faulty arithmetic. When
the two agents arrived in Basle with their satchel containing
$240,000, they learned that Sandoz's total output since 1943 was
a mere forty gramsnot even two ounces. Still, a bargain was
struck. The Swiss agreed not only to supply the Agency with 100
grams of LSD a week, but also keep them apprised of who else was
requesting the drug.
Nevertheless, the CIA was uneasy about having to rely entirely
on the neutral Swiss, and privately they began pressing the American
chemical company of Eli Lilly to come up with a rival synthesis.
One of the reasons LSD was so expensive and rare was because it
required a supply of ergot fungus, which was notoriously difficult
to cultivate. The obvious answer was to come up with a synthesis
that bypassed ergot completely, using synthetic corollaries, and
in October 1954 Eli Lilly announced that they had succeeded in
creating an LSD made totally from available chemicals. Besides
giving the CIA a domestic supplier, the Lilly synthesis meant
that unlimited supplies of LSD were now available. And this, as
the memo to Allen Dulles noted, meant that LSD could finally be
taken seriously as a chemical warfare agent.
Because the CIA lacked the manpower to run all the complicated
behavioral and physiological experiments that Gottlieb had in
mind, the Agency turned to the psychological community, particularly
to those Lab Madness researchers who were already investigating
LSD's relation to mental illness. Most were eager to help, provided
the Agency picked up the tab. They had few moral qualms: if the
CIA wanted to finance basic research in an area ignored by traditional
organizations like the National Institute of Mental Health, where
was the problem?
Hiding itself behind two respectable fronts, the Josiah Macy Foundation
and the Geschickter Fund for Medical Research, the CIA began funneling
dollars to an intercontinental network that rivaled the one being
forged by Huxley and Hubbard. Early on they contacted Rinkel and
Hyde at Mass. Mental Health, and with Hyde as the principal contact
began pouring as much as $40,000 a year into LSD work. Similar
approaches were made to Harold Abramson in New York, Carl Pfieffer
at the University of Illinois, and Harold Hodge at the University
of Rochester. In general the money was earmarked for research
that most scientists, in any other climate but that of the Cold
War, would have found ethically shady. Harold Abramson, for example,
received $85,000 to produce
operationally pertinent materials along the following lines: a.
Disturbance of Memory; b. Discrediting by Aberrant Behavior; c.
Alteration of Sex Patterns; d. Eliciting of Information; e. Suggestibility;
f. Creation of Dependence.
In another CIA-funded experiment, seven drug addicts at a Lexington,
Kentucky, hospital were given LSD for seventy-seven days, with
dosages doubled and quadrupled as tolerance built up.
Not all the research was done in the hinterlands, though. Within
the CIA itself, Gottlieb and his associates were taking LSD regularly,
tripping at the office, at Agency parties, measuring their mental
equilibrium against those of their colleagues. Turn your back
in the morning and some wiseacre would slip a few micrograms into
your coffee. It was a game played with the most exalted of weapons,
the mind, and sometimes embarrassing things happened. Case-hardened
spooks would break down crying or go all gooey about the "brotherhood
of man." Once or twice things went really awry, with paranoid
agents escaping into the bustle of downtown Washington, their
anxious colleagues in hot pursuit. After one spectacular chase
the quarry was finally run to ground in Virginia, where they found
him crouched under a fountain, babbling about those "terrible
monster(s) with fantastic eyes" that had pursued him across
Washington. Indeed every car he met had sent a jolt of terror
through his body.
It was in this spirit that Gottlieb's group invited their unsuspecting
opposite numbers in the Army Chemical Corps for a three-day working
holiday in November 1953. Naturally there was going to be some
carousing, and naturally in some cases the punch would be spiked.
Although Gottlieb had been instructed to clear any outside use
of LSD with his superiors, he apparently considered the Army scientists
to be exempt from that ruling. They were pros and as such would
be a worthy test for any mind-control drug.
The party would have been a great success if only one of the Army
scientists, a Dr. Frank Olson, hadn't committed suicide two days
later. Thinking he had lost his mind, Olson had jumped out of
a New York hotel room window. The flap inside the Agency almost
Now the CIA is nothing if not labyrinthine, and while MK-ULTRA
was studying the nefarious potentials of LSD, another CIA project,
ARTICHOKE, was scouring the globe for psychotropic plants. In
1952 a CIA-funded scientist had been sent to Mexico to gather
samples of mind-altering plants, in particular the seeds from
a shrub called the piule. He had returned with pounds of
material and a rumor that deep in the Mexican mountains there
existed a psychotropic mushroom cult that dated back to the Aztecs.
The next summer, at roughly the same moment Gordon and Valentina
Wasson were embarking on their quest, a CIA scientist was arriving
in Mexico with a similar brief: locate the mushroom sect and acquire
To be bested by a New York banker who wanted to prove a maverick
historical thesis that had been nagging at him for the last twenty
years must have been galling for the CIA, what with its unlimited
funds and its Caligarian vision of chemical power; but to the
intelligence agency's credit, it knew of Wasson's discovery almost
immediately. A Mexican botanist cabled details a few days after
Wasson returned from Huatla de Jimenez. Learning that Wasson planned
to return the next summer leading a team that included the noted
French mycologist Roger Heim, the Agency decided to insinuate
its own man into the group in the person of James Moore, a contract
chemist with ARTICHOKE. It used its conduit, the Geschickter Fund,
to sweeten the deal.
Moore's nasty few weeks in Mexico were immaterial to his bosses
at Langley: what was important was that he had returned with plenty
of the prize mushrooms. And should he succeed in isolating the
psychoactive element, then it was "quite possible,"
memoed Sid Gottlieb, that the new drug would "remain an agency
secret." So to be bested by the same Swiss chemist and the
same Swiss chemical company who had once controlled the world
supply of LSD must have been galling. Once again the Agency had
to apply to Sandozthis time for its supply of psilocybin.
One of the problems the CIA grappled with in its search for a
mind-control drug was the problem of how to field-test the various
candidates. You could run experiments on imprisoned junkies and
impoverished college students, but this was a far cry from knowing
whether the drug could crack open a potential double agent or
a State Department communist. To address this problem the CIA
converted one of its San Francisco safe houses into a behavioral
field laboratory. The house, located on Telegraph Avenue, was
actually a brothel equipped with two-way mirrors and a squad of
prostitutes under the supervision of former narcotics agent George
White, who was famous as the man who had broken August Del Gracio
with liquid marijuana back during the OSS days. The idea. was
that the prostitutes would lure visiting businessmen back to the
house, where they would then be unobtrusively dosed with LSD or
psilocybin, or any of the other mind-control candidates. From
a budgetary standpoint the brothel was an ingenious idea and the
whole operation was dubbed, with characteristic preppie humor,
Operation Midnight Climax.
We can only guess what it was like to visit the Other World under
CIA auspices, but one of the first things the randy, hallucinating
businessman probably focused on was the decor. The CIA decorators
hadn't been able to decide whether the proper ambiance was fin
de siècle decadent or Fifties chic. Swatches of African
fabric and textile hangings competed with Toulouse Lautrec reproductions
of Can Can girls kicking up a storm. The tables were covered with
black velvet, the curtains in the bedroom were red, those in the
hall plaid, with candy-striped ones in the kitchen.
The drugs were usually administered in a drink, but not always.
In one series of experiments LSD was sprayed into the bathroom
just before the hapless john wandered in to use it.
It was operations like Midnight Climax that the CIA's Inspector
General had in mind when he raised, in a 1963 analysis of MK-ULTRA,
the spectre of ethics. That an arm of the U.S. government had
been testing behavior-change drugs on unsuspecting U.S. citizens
didn't alarm the Inspector General so much as what might happen
if the unsuspecting public ever found out. The secrecy of MK-ULTRA
was vital, he warned, not only to protect the reputation of the
Agency, but also its outside sources. Noting that "research
in the manipulation of human behavior is considered by many authorities
in medicine and related fields to be professionally unethical,"
he warned that loose lips could place the professional reputations
of the CIA's many contract researchers in "jeopardy."
By the time the Inspector General raised these ethical issues
the CIA had supposedly lost interest in LSD, although it was still
testing other mind drugs, most of which would find their way into
the psychedelic underground of the 1970s. Presumably the CIA's
active interest in LSD ended sometime around 1958, although the
Agency continued to keep tabs on the research scene, a process
made infinitely easier by the fact that the Josiah Macy Foundation,
an occasional Agency conduit, had begun holding regular LSD conferences
in 1955which is not to impute insincere motives to the Macy
Foundation: its interest in LSD was genuine, and had been ever
since its medical director, Frank Fremont-Smith, spent an afternoon
in Harold Abramson's lab watching Siamese fighting fish drugged
The Macy conferences synopsized the changing direction of LSD
research. The first, in 1955, brought together most of the Lab
Madness people. The second, four years later, was dominated by
the therapists: the Dutchman Van Rijn, the Englishman Sandison,
Hoffer from Canada, and a whole platoon from Los Angeles, including
Sidney Cohen, Betty Eisner, and the psychiatric team of Chandler
and Hartman. Harold Abramson of the aforementioned Siamese fighting
fish was also there, and at one point, in an attempt to arrive
at a limited consensus regarding LSD, he proposed six points of
a) It is pharmacologically safe; very large doses may be given
without tissue damage.
b) It is effective in small doses for therapeutic interviews in
which the therapist is definitely involved.
c) The patient is conscious, cooperative, and better able to integrate
material with psychodynamic significance.
d) The patient undergoes an essentially elated disturbance in
ego function, which is also accompanied by integrative forces,
so that it may be thought of as "hebesynthesis" rather
e) The drug may be given repeatedly. There is no evidence of addiction.
The pharmacological effects usually wear off within 12 hours.
f) Patients usually like the experience of taking LSD in the dose
This was by no means a universally accepted list. The Lab Madness
researchers still had problems with the whole idea that a drug
they had used to make people crazy was now being used to make
them well. A number of the therapists blanched at hebesynthesis
as an organizing titlewhat an awkward product of scientific
language mangling that was. But they could understand the motive
that had prompted Abramson to coin it. Betty Eisner mentioned
how she and Cohen referred to that curious sunlit place in the
mind where conflicts disappeared as the integrative experience.
But she became tongue-tied as soon as she tried to expand on that:
"Obviously the language is bad; I am floundering," she
apologized. Then Abram Hoffer volunteered that up in Canada they
were calling it the psychedelic experience. What was that, someone
asked. "Psychedelic," repeated Hoffer. "I think
Dr. Osmond coined it. It comes from the Greek, meaning 'mind-manifesting.'"
Besides introducing the word that would. ultimately triumph in
the public consciousness, Hoffer also briefed his colleagues on
the startling way in which he and Osmond were now using LSD. Unlike
most of the therapists at the Macy conference, they were not using
small doses to "liquefy" defenses, thus speeding up
the time needed for a successful treatment. Using Hubbard's curious
techniques, they had begun giving their patients massive doses
and then guiding them, if they could, into that part of the Other
World where egos melted and something resembling a spiritual rebirth
occurred. As Hoffer described it, there was scarcely any psychotherapy
involved at all: "They come in one day. They know they are
going to take a treatment, but they know nothing about what it
is. We take a psychiatric history, to establish a diagnosis. That
is on day one. On day two, they have the LSD. On day three they
are discharged. We make it an absolute point not to give them
psychotherapy outside of the LSD experience. We do no follow-up
except to find out whether or not they are drinking. The results
are that fifty percent of these people are changed."
Those were astonishing figures, particularly since Osmond and
Hoffer were not working with the usual mix of neurotics and volunteers,
but with chronic alcoholics, recommended by Alcoholics Anonymous,
or brought in off the street by the police. Only those alcoholics
who have had the transcendental experience improved, Hoffer claimed
"Those who have not had the transcendental experience are
not changed. They continue to drink. The large proportion of those
who have had it are changed. But this is not an invariable rule."
Of course the alcoholics didn't just stumble into the psychedelic
state. They were led there using a variety of psychological and
environmental tricks. We use "sound and music," Hoffer
explained, "visual stimuli, such as paintings by Van Gogh;
tactile stimuli, such as various smooth or rough objects for the
patient to handle. We also take advantage of the heightened suggestibility
of the subjects by using persuasion, suggestion, and reiterated
demand, with the theme of hope and possibility of change."
The results were so promising, he said, that they were thinking
of introducing a businessman's special, which would take only
Hoffer's presentation of what would become known as psychedelic
therapyas distinguished from the mainstream small dose/traditional
psychotherapy that became known as psycholytic therapydisturbed
a number of therapists. They questioned the wisdom of using such
large dosages in a one-shot situation. "I start the patient
with small doses increasing the dosage gradually and working through
problems to get to that point," said Betty Eisner. "That
is the point, I think." "Seventy-five percent of patients
will get to the point if they are given enough LSD," Hoffer
retorted. And they were disturbed by the mystical overtones that
kept creeping into the discussion. What did the Dutchman Van Rijn
mean when he talked about wanting "to change something in
the totality of the person"?
Anecdotes started to rise to the surface, slicing through the
murky analytical jargon. A number of therapists talked about the
serendipitous side effects that they sometimes saw in their patients.
They would be in the middle of a postsession interview, perhaps
two or three weeks after the original LSD session, and the patient
would suddenly say, "Oh and the headache is gone too."
What headache? they'd ask. Why the headache I've had for ten or
fifteen years, would be the answer. Betty Eisner told how she
had once stayed high for three days, which was tolerable since
it was a good trip. Had it been bad, who knows what she might
have done to herself. Others talked about how in some people the
LSD state seemed to spontaneously reoccurthe first whisper
of what would later become famous as the flashback. One therapist
told of an ex-patient who had re-experienced the LSD state some
five years after his original session. But others questioned the
whole concept of a flashback. Just because someone had a dissociative
experience under LSD one month didn't mean that later dissociative
experiences could be attributed to LSD. This was a case of post
hoc, ergo propter hoc reasoning said one.
There were a few genuine gleams of insight, however, the most
important being the deepening appreciation of just how crucial
set and setting really were. Most of the therapists had long ago
come to terms with the way LSD magnified the environment, but
they were Just beginning to admit that their own personalities,
and even their own professional assumptions, were somehow influencing
what happened in the LSD sessions. As Arthur Chandler observed,
his partner, Mortimer Hartman, was always eliciting violent sexual
fantasies, while he himself never got violent sex fantasies, but
rather a high proportion of paranoid delusions, something Betty
Eisner said she rarely saw.
But mostly there were dozens of questions that required fresh
attention. How did LSD "liquidate" a person's psychic
defenses? What kind of therapeutic window did this liquidation
open? And how could a therapist best exploit it? Why were some
people unable to find the integrative or psychedelic state? How
come roughly a quarter of those who took LSD had no reaction?
On a more fundamental level, was it really wise to speed up the
therapeutic process, to say nothing of reducing it to one climactic
session? As the convention adjourned, Sidney Cohen stood up and
announced that he was collecting data on side effects and adverse
reactions, and would appreciate whatever information those assembled
could give him.
The future of LSD research seemed bright, but already forces were
in motion that would change what seemed a complex but ultimately
solvable scientific problem into a complex and apparently insoluble