Timothy Leary: Crazy or Ahead of His Time?

Timothy Leary, in case you don’t know, was a psychologist at America’s prestigious Harvard University. At the age of around 40, he began to study the effects of the chemical psilocybin (the active ingredient in “magic” mushrooms) and later LSD. Both substances were entirely legal at the time.

Before long his studies began to appear somewhat less than academic, as he began to find the whole idea of applying an academic framework to these powerful substances slightly absurd.

It’s very interesting to speculate on what his life trajectory might subsequently have been if he had not then been essentially persecuted by Richard Nixon and chased all over the world on inflated charges of possessing tiny quantities of cannabis, at one point facing a fifty-year prison sentence.

I highly recommend Higgs’ book on Leary; it’s a superb read and manages to avoid falling into either the anti-Leary or pro-Leary camp.

One thing that really intrigues me about Leary is that he seemed to be an extremely happy guy, whether he was on LSD or not. Check out the following interview, made when he was in prison, for instance.

The woman who introduces the interview (introducing herself as Joanna Leary) is in fact Joanna Harcourt-Smith, who at the time was completely devoted to Leary, sort of, and changed her name to his, even though they weren’t actually married.

Harcourt-Smith is still around, I’m pleased to say (and was recently rather astonished to discover), and has an interesting website here.

Leary was also noted for his lack of responsibility, leaving many bitter feelings and wrecked lives behind him. But, as John Higgs points out in his book, he also inspired a lot of affection in people. I wonder if his apparent constant state of happiness had something to do with his refusal to take anything seriously – a rather dangerous attitude when it comes to other people – or whether he had simply, as he claims in this interview, learned how to “operate his nervous system”.

Or did he just feed off entertaining people and being the centre of attention? In other words, to what extent were the insights that he felt LSD gave him responsible for his radiant demeanour, if at all? It would have been interesting to see more of what he was like prior to LSD. I suspect he was much the same as we see him now, in prison. A perpetual optimist, self-centered and ruthless perhaps, but also rather inspiring.

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