Some people don’t know who Timothy Leary was. But if you grew up in the sixties or seventies, you probably do. He was one of the most controversial figures of the twentieth century, and almost everyone had heard of him then. Along with being an award-winning social scientist and a psychologist at Harvard, he introduced many Americans to psychedelic drugs and was a guru for social exploration and change.
In the early eighties, at a publishing company in Los Angeles, I worked side-by-side with Leary to help research and edit his autobiography, appropriately named Flashbacks. Perhaps surprisingly, I found him to be a very quick and disciplined writer. He was also a fascinating character and captured everybody’s attention whenever he was in the office.
One afternoon Timothy’s wife (I forget which number she was) stopped by with a batch of brownies for everyone. I thought they might have been made with something mind-altering, but I got hungry on the ride home and ate one anyway. When I got to my apartment complex, I couldn’t remember which one was mine.
At another time during those two years, I was asked to translate a recording of Leary and a few others experimenting with the drug Ketamine. I listened to the tape, but didn’t hear anything. Finally, I heard someone say “Wow,” and then there was silence again. I thought I was missing something, but then heard another “Wow.” After that I stopped the tape recorder. Obviously, they were having a drug trip I couldn’t understand.
Leary also introduced me to computers. He was the first author I worked with who used a word processor. I didn’t even know what they were at the time, but making changes to his manuscript became a revolutionary experience.
In the sixties, Timothy Leary coined the phrase “Turn on, Tune in, and Drop out.” It didn’t mean get stoned and withdraw from society. As Leary explains in Flashbacks, it meant this:
“‘Turn On’ meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. ‘Tune In’ meant interact harmoniously with the world around you – externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. ‘Drop Out’ meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change.”
Leary’s experiences with LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs inspired a number of his friends and colleagues, including the British scholar Aldous Huxley, the poet Allen Ginsberg, the American novelist Jack Kerouac, and actors Cary Grant and Jack Nicholson.
I treasure my autographed copy of Flashbacks. In it Leary wrote “Thanks for all you did to make this possible.” For me, it was truly an education.