TIMOTHY LEARY: A Biography, by Robert Greenfield, Harcourt. 689 pp. $28
"The novelist lies helpless before what he knows he will read in tomorrow's newspaper," wrote Philip Roth in 1961. "The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures daily that are the envy of any novelist."
He could have been writing about Timothy Leary, who then was gaining notoriety for experimenting with psychedelic drugs at Harvard and now is the subject of an eminently readable but ultimately disappointing biography by music writer Robert Greenfield. Leary didn't just champion the use of mind-blowing substances and technologies in the years before his ashes were shot into space after his 1996 death from prostate cancer. His very life was as richly bizarre—in ways both good and bad—as any acid trip could possibly be.
Leary's story reads like a glorious Day-Glo inversion of what we've come to expect of the Greatest Generation, that cohort of Americans who suffered through the Great Depression and braved World War II and are now revered for an implacable sense of civic responsibility and a casual stoicism. As his famous catchphrase—"Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out"—attests, Leary, born in 1920, was no organization man, saying in his final interview, "My life work has been to empower individuals . . . to free herself and himself to grow and be more free."Even as Greenfield exhaustively catalogues Leary's many failings as a four-time spouse (his first wife committed suicide, and he beat his second one on at least one occasion); a father (his daughter also killed herself, and he remained basically estranged from his son); and a comrade (he earned early release from prison in the 1970s by cooperating with federal agents going after New Left heavyweights), there's no question that Leary was one of the great transformative iconoclasts of postwar America, forever demolishing all sense of propriety while expanding all sense of possibility.
If Philip Roth—or perhaps a more drugged-out, phantasmagoric writer such as Philip K. Dick—had invented Leary, we simply wouldn't find him a credible character. Leary resigned from West Point in 1941 in a contraband-booze scandal, and, after earning a PhD in psychology from the University of California at Berkeley, landed at Harvard in the late '50s, where he and faculty colleague Richard Alpert (later to be known by the nom de hippie Baba Ram Dass) discovered psilocybin and LSD and began dosing everyone from Arthur Koestler to Jack Kerouac (who propelled Leary into what he called "my first negative trip") to graduate students to hardened convicts.
Cashiered by an embarrassed and outraged Harvard in 1963, Leary and Alpert decamped to Millbrook, a 2,500-acre estate in Upstate New York owned by a rich patron; started a commune centered on massive acid trips; and wrote "The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead," which became a bestseller in 1966 (the same year that LSD and psilocybin were outlawed). Leary became the great champion of LSD as good for whatever ails you, telling Playboy that the drug was "the most powerful aphrodisiac ever discovered by man" and that "a woman can have several hundred orgasms" during a trip.
In the '60s, Leary was everywhere, including off-Broadway in a show called "Death of the Mind" that was a trippy homage to Hermann Hesse's novel "Steppenwolf"; in the U.S. Senate, testifying about the possibilities of LSD; in pop songs by the Who, the Moody Blues and the Beatles. By 1970, Leary was serving a 10-year sentence for pot possession in a California prison. Aided by the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, major distributors of LSD in the western United States, and the Weather Underground, he escaped and fled to Algeria, where he lived in exile with the Black Panthers, before heading out for Switzerland and Afghanistan. Three years later, he was back in prison, temporarily housed in Folsom next to Charles Manson, who told him, "I've been waiting to talk to you for years."
Released in 1976, Leary seemed to be an anachronism, a Wild West outlaw whose time had come and gone while behind bars. Certainly that seems to be Greenfield's take, as he compresses Leary's final two decades into the shortest section of the book. While there's no question that Leary ceased to be a pop cult superstar, he remained a vital and visionary guide to a bleeding-edge "transhumanist" and "extropian" future, using the acronym SMI2LE to summarize his interests in "space migration, intelligence increase, and life extension." He was an early champion of not only personal computers but also the Internet and its potential for new forms of community and individuation. Never too comfortable with politics (he dismissed student activists as "young men with menopausal minds" and proclaimed that LSD stood for "Let the State Disintegrate"), he nevertheless hosted a Los Angeles fundraiser in 1988 for the very buttoned-down Libertarian Party presidential candidate Ron Paul (now a congressman from Texas).
That Greenfield gives scant attention to such material illustrates the main shortcoming of "Timothy Leary": The biographer seems far more interested in deconstructing his subject's voluminous self-serving assertions over the years than in explaining his enduring significance to hippies, straights and cyberpunks alike. In a real way, Leary helped conjure not only the '60s counterculture but the '90s high-tech counterculture, too. A clear theme of individual fulfillment runs through all of his thought, and it's a shame that Greenfield didn't discuss his ideas more seriously, much less put them in a richer social and intellectual context. "Someone told me," Greenfield writes, " 'Those who love Timothy Leary will hate your book. And those who hated him will never read it.' " That's about right, and it reflects poorly on Greenfield's framing of the material. While his account of Leary's "most improbable life" is a fascinating read, that has more to do with subject matter that would make Philip Roth jealous than with the perspective Greenfield brings to it all.
Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This review originally appeared in The Washington Post and can be viewed in that format here .