Four come together for a memorable head trip in ‘The Harvard Psychedelic Club’
The inside story of how visionaries tried to initiate a freethinking way of life in the ’60s.
Almost 50 years ago, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, who took the name Ram Dass and was once described as “a consciousness-raising Oprah,” launched the ambitious — and in retrospect, unbelievable — Harvard Psilocybin Project.
Most know what resulted from their groundbreaking psychedelic experiments with MIT and Harvard graduate students, but the inside story has remained mysterious. Now a remarkably engrossing biography by veteran religion journalist and author Don Lattin reveals how Leary and Alpert linked up with world religion expert Huston Smith and later clashed with Andrew Weil, today’s bearded “CEO of alternative medicine in America,” their lives from then on forever entwined.
Lattin’s narrative is engaged but journalistically neutral, and though he categorizes Leary as “the trickster prophet,” Smith as “the teacher,” Alpert as “the seeker” and Weil as “the healer,” the individuals resist his dispassionate labels. The book offers an oppor tunity to be a fly on the wall, witnessing the unfolding of the decisions, yearnings and — yes — drug trips this infamous group experienced centered on seeking a more conscious and freethinking way of life.
To unpack these interwoven, perhaps karmic, relationships, Lattin’s narrative hops around, swooping through one man’s life then alighting on the next. Time becomes somewhat unhinged, much like Leary and friends describe the LSD experience, and, unfortunately, Lattin continually repeats facts and context, from explaining Weil’s future career to the reason the Beatles’ wrote Come Together. Yet the story’s inherently captivating elements allow these redundancies to be overlooked. Lattin is unexpectedly adept at plaiting together separate but contemporary threads of history and purposefully employing ’60s parlance, allusions and celebrity cameos (Ken Kesey, Aldous Huxley).
Lattin’s prose is also atmospheric, holding its own against this powerhouse backdrop while resting confidently on a narrative nonfiction foundation of sanctioned re-created dialogue, outside source material and recent interviews with Dass, Smith and Weil. When he describes Leary’s first “mushroom ride” in Mexico or Smith’s terrifying yet awe-inspiring LSD trip, his evocative description highlights drama and siphons readers into the moment to experience it, too.
But arguably the most interesting aspects surround the early times. The book begins when Leary and Alpert were driven clinical psychologists. Leary, who attended West Point, was also “once considered a rising star in mainstream psychology,” and Alpert struggled with his sexual and spiritual identity long before a visit to India transformed him into America’s guru. They joined forces with Smith, an open-minded scholar and author of the foundational book The World’s Religions, steeped in faith since his missionary childhood in China. Only the ambitious undergraduate Weil was perpetually excluded from the clique, his scheming keeping him tenuously connected (one of the story’s most shocking and captivating facets).
The Harvard Psychedelic Project‘s intimate, revealing vista makes the book soar, and, as Lattin hopes, just might inspire today’s idealists to carve a new path and profoundly change the world as these four dynamic visionaries once did.