Transmissions from the Timothy Leary Papers: Greatest Hits
There are so many worthwhile topics to highlight in the Timothy Leary papers that I don't have time to cover in this blog. Should I delve into his notes on prostate cancer? The "Leary circle? Tom Robbins' lovely stationary? The Adventures with Briscoe Country, Jr. and other cameos? The wives, the children, Hotel Catalina, his Alcor Life Extension membership, or the "Eight-Circuit Brain"? As I mentioned in an earlier post, some of the most interesting documents from Leary's life were separated and filed as "Gems." In that spirit, I'm going to list some aspects of Leary and his papers that are gem-worthy, if not fascinating.
The Leary Circle
The "Leary Circle" is a vector map of personality traits, developed during his research at the Kaiser/Permanente Foundation Hospital during the 1950s, defining sixteen interpersonal variables. Used to "categorize behavior at all levels," the strength of the trait radiates from the central point with four quadrants intersected by a Dominance-Submission axis with the Love-Hate axis. It visually displays each trait relating to all other traits and was used as a diagnostic tool.
After his psychedelic drug use, Leary continued to play with grids and circle graphics. There are similar drawings found throughout his papers.
In their natural, plant and fungi form, psychotropic substances have traditionally been used in shamanistic rituals. Leary's initial introduction to psilocybin was built on the scholarly interests of his colleagues, credited to the earlier research by mycologist R. Gordon Wasson with curandera María Sabina and the Mazatec mushroom rituals in Mexico.
Albert Hofmann was the Swiss chemist that first synthesized LSD-25 at Sandoz Laboratory in 1938. The drug was initially used therapeutically in psychiatry and then in controlled experiments during the 1950s. Psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond studied the drug and coined the word "psychedelic" to describe its mind-expanding effect.
By the time Leary was introduced to the drug in the 1960s, many artists and writers participating in the Harvard psilocybin studies, such as Allen Ginsberg, had previous experience with LSD. Leary did not introduce LSD to the world, but was one in a string of people experimenting with the substance. Writer Aldous Huxley was famous for writing The Doors of Perception after consuming the hallucinogen mescaline and later used LSD. Not surprisingly, Leary reached out to Aldous and Laura Huxley after his experience with LSD.
Some may equate the popularization of psilocybin and LSD during the 60s with hedonism, bereft of organized religion. That may be partially true, but spirituality and eastern religious and philosophical influences went hand in hand with the psychedelic revolution. One drug experiment led by Leary was known as the "Good Friday Experiment" at Marsh Chapel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, done to investigate the heightened religious or spiritual experience by participants. Huston Smith, a notable scholar of comparative religion and author of The Religions of Man, reportedly participated in this experiment, after being invited by Leary to join his psilocybin research.
Alan Watts, best known for popularizing Zen Buddhism in the west, also participated in his drug studies. In an interview, Leary's daughter Susan describes their sessions with Alan Watts as "very Christian," with readings from the bible:
Leary's introduction to psychedelic drugs cannot be entirely credited for his interest and subsequent influence in eastern religion and philosophy. During one of his earlier travels to Mexico in the 1950s, Leary requested in a letter to Eric Fromm (psychology professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico) to attend the lecture "Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism," to be given by famous Zen Buddhist, D.T. Suzuki in Cuernavaca on August 3-10, 1957. Unfortunately, registration was already full and Leary didn't attend.
Some of the most interesting material to read is the fan mail sent to Leary and his cohorts, the League for Spiritual Discovery (LSD). Of course, I cannot post these interesting letters due to copyright restrictions, but like most celebrities and public figures, Leary received some fascinating missives. While he was an academic and corresponded with other professionals and literary figures, he did not dismiss those who were considered "on the fringe." Some letters are confessional, offering personal experiences with psychedelic drugs and finding inspiration, incarceration, or rehabilitation. This correspondence can be lovingly illustrated, or accompany enclosed gifts of art, cassette tapes, paintings, drawings, photographs. These creations done to honor or impress Leary with their interpretations of space travel, psychedelic trips, and internal visions are a fascinating window into the 1960s-1980s American counterculture.
Much of Timothy Leary's work involved his writings. He published numerous books and articles, ranging from his psychological research at the Kaiser Foundation to more colorful works, such as Surfing the Conscious Nets: A Graphic Novel by Huck Getty Mellon Von Schlebrugge (1995), illustrated by artist and Leary's personal assistant, Howard Hallis.
In a letter to Attorney Fritl Heeb, Leary requests copies of his manuscript after apprehended and returned to the US: