Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out

By Mary Ellen Hannibal

Amazing how things turn out. Don Lattin‘s best seller, The Harvard Psychedelic Club, catches a group of remarkable individuals at that seminal crossroads known as the seventies.

While maybe an onlooker could have predicted how things would turn out for the merry prankster himself-Timothy Leary-who could have seen the future Dr. Andrew Weil in his college-aged earnestness, or imagined that Richard Alpert would morph into the powerful persona of Ram Dass?

As for Huston Smith – he was always the straight guy. Perhaps his books will last longer than all the rest…but then again, who knows?

MEH: Your book tells the intersecting stories of four incredibly influential characters who shaped American culture: Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil. They have very different profiles! How would you describe the point that brings them together?

DL: What originally brought them together at Harvard in the fall of 1960 was the desire to experiment with psychedelic drugs. They were all inspired to do so, in part, by reading Aldous Huxley’s 1954 book The Doors of Perception. They all saw that these drugs could do more than just “mimic psychosis,” which was originally seen as their function. They saw that LSD, psilocybin and mescaline could also raise one’s consciousness and appreciation of mystical states, and foster new understanding of the connection between mind, body and spirit.

MEH: Which of these men do you think stands the best chance of weathering the tests of time — or, which one of them do you think will have the most lasting impact?

DL: Timothy Leary winds up as the most infamous because of the way he influenced popular culture, music and the media. But Huston Smith may have the greatest positive impact by increasing the public’s understanding of and tolerance toward other religions.

MEH: One of the juicy horrors of your book is the betrayal of Timothy Leary and Ram Dass by Andrew Weil. Our own holistic guru, a narc! What do you think of him? Do you forgive him, or not?

DL: I certainly forgive him, although I’m not sure I’m the one who needs to offer repentance. Tim Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) WERE getting out of control with their psychedelic research at Harvard. What bothers me is the way Weil went about bringing them down by violating journalistic ethics and forcing his friend, Ronnie Winston, to turn against Alpert. The whole episode continues to irk many of those involved, including Ram Dass, a half century later. But Weil redeems himself in the end.

MEH: Huston Smith is an historian of world religion — and as we know, religion may yet pull the world apart or keep it together. Did the 70s-style opening of the American psyche to world religion do any good?

DL: It most certainly did. If you look at survey data you actually see RISING religious tolerance in America, and not just among aging hippies, but among people who identify themselves as evangelical Christians. You don’t get that impression reading the newspapers (if anyone still reads newspapers!) but it’s true.

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