The Good Friday Marsh Chapel Experiment

By Jeanne Malmgren
Sunday, November 27, 1994
Copyright (c) 1994 by the St. Petersburg Times.

So simple. So quick. It didn't exactly feel historic. Mike Young took the clear gel capsule that was handed to him and the paper cup full of juice. Down it went. In the windowless room around him, 19 other young men also swallowed pills, then settled back on beige vinyl couches. The mood was calm, but expectation hung heavy in the air. For 20 minutes the group chatted, laughed. And waited.

Next to Young was his best friend, Wayne. While they talked, the two eyed each other, watching for any sign the capsules were taking effect. They knew that half the pills given out were placebos. Their chances were 50-50. Please, Young thought, let me be one of the group who got the drug. Across the room, a clutch of doctors, psychiatrists and researchers looked on. Among them was Timothy Leary, Harvard psychology professor and high priest of the budding psychedelic scene.

It was the morning of April 20, 1962. Good Friday. Young was 23, a 1st-year divinity student at Andover Newton Theological School outside of Boston. He had come to that room in the basement of Marsh Chapel, on the campus of Boston University, to take part in what would become one of the most famous - and one of the last - large scale experiments in the effects of hallucinogenic drugs. All the participants were theological students. Half of them had just taken 30 milligrams of psilocybin, a hallucinogen extracted from mushrooms that produces vivid sensory images and distorted perception. The other 10 got a placebo.

While under the influence, the group participated in a Good Friday worship service. Afterward, they were interviewed in detail about their experiences. The study's findings about the ability of psychedelics to produce pseudo-mystical states were startling and largely positive, yet the experiment was the last of its kind. By 1970, possession of psilocybin, LSD and other psychoactive drugs was illegal. Harvard had fired Timothy Leary. The research ended and the war on drugs began....

Today, Mike Young is the Rev. Mike Young, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Tampa. He was one of the 10 who took psilocybin that Good Friday three decades ago. "Of course I remember it. All of it," he says. "Experiencing death is something you don't forget." Those wild and colorful seven hours showed him a new mode of perception that was nothing short of ecstatic. The drug trip helped solidify his career path in the ministry. And it conquered his fear of death. Young, now 55, graying and bearded, is not a cheerleader for drug abuse. He has counseled drug abusers. He has seen how drugs can rip lives apart. He warned his own children about the dangers of recreational use. But he also learned enough through his own experience to know that some drugs, used judiciously, can open a door. He's convinced psychedelics can be powerful tools for personal growth, as long as they're used in carefully controlled situations, administered by professionals trained to handle problems.

That doesn't mean he's advising curious teens to Just Say Yes. "I'm not the least enthusiastic about recreational use of drugs," Young says. "I would not wish to see them made legally available on the streets because they are dangerous. They're powerful mind benders." Still, he thinks we might be overlooking something with our blanket condemnation of hallucinogenics. A handful of scientists agrees with him. One by one, in the last few years, they've stepped forward to declare their interest in psychedelic research. They think such drugs might be used to help heroin and cocaine addicts, terminally ill patients, post-traumatic stress sufferers and people in psychotherapy They're encouraged by recent changes at the Food and Drug Administration. A new division of the FDA called Pilot Drug Evaluation has begun granting approval to proposed studies of the effects of psychedelics on humans. Several experiments began this year. Many of this new generation of researchers were in grade school when Leary and company experimented with hallucinogenics in the '60s. They're eager to reopen a field of research that was essentially shut down for 25 years. And they plan to go about it carefully this time. "We all have to be very cautious and conservative," said Dr. Charles Grob, a psychiatrist at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and associate professor at UCLA School of Medicine. "It's very important not to make any unsubstantiated claims or to be anything but totally impartial." There are critics, but the opposition seems muted. Several psychiatrists have said hallucinogenics are too unpredictable to be of any real value, but they stop short of recommending that research be halted. In May, Grob began human studies with MDMA, a drug also called Ecstasy. Supporters say MDMA potential for psychotherapy because it makes users feel sympathetic and communicative, without the hallucinations common in other psychedelics. After determining safe dosage levels and measuring the drug's biological effects, Grob hopes to try MDMA on terminally ill patients who have chronic pain and depression. His step-by-step plan is common among the new wave of researchers. They know they'll never get institutional approval or funding unless their studies have solid medical foundations.

From his vantage point, spanning two generations of drug studies, Timothy Leary, now 74, watches the revival of psychedelic research and questions the notion it ever stopped. "A 'resurgence!'" he said by telephone recently from his Beverly Hills, Calif., home. "That's media-generated. This research has been going on the whole time." He's right, technically. A few drug researchers went underground in the '70s, backed by whatever private funding they could scrounge and supplied by drug manufacturers abroad. Psychedelic drug studies may never be commonplace or widely accepted, Leary acknowledges. He calls the concept of federally approved experiments in expanded consciousness "the ultimate oxymoron."

Science meets religion

The Good Friday experiment was the very blending of science and religion that today might raise eyebrows. Mike Young and the other volunteers passed a thorough physical/psychological screening conducted by Leary, his associate Richard Alpert (who later became known as Ram Dass) and Walter Pahnke, the author of the study. Pahnke was a physician and minister working on his Ph.D. in theology at Harvard. His hypothesis was that a psychedelic drug could induce something similar to a mystical experience, when taken in a religious atmosphere by a group of subjects who were spiritually inclined. Leary had already tried it on state prison inmates and Pahnke wanted to use divinity students next. He designed a double-blind study in which neither the experimenters nor the subjects would know who had gotten the drug and who hadn't, at least until it became obvious by their behavior. He chose his 20 participants, assigned each a code name and recruited Harvard graduate students to act as "guides." As the organ swung into a prelude upstairs in the sanctuary, Young and his friends, in the basement lounge, waited for whatever might happen. "I noticed Wayne was antsy," Young remembers. "Pretty soon his face got all flushed and he said, 'It's hot in here.' I was having no symptoms at all. So I thought, 's---, he got the drug and I got the placebo.' Dammit, anyway." Actually, it was the other way around. Young's friend was reacting to the placebo--a large dose of niacin, part of the Vitamin B complex. Young's symptoms started as his friend's subsided. "I just slid into it very gently, very, very beautifully," he says. "Colors became incredibly intense. Geometric figures seemed to etch themselves around objects. When somebody moved there was an after-image, a flare behind the motion." Before long the light show became internal, as well. Young closed his eyes and "leapt into an incredible kaleidoscope of visual wonderment."

By the time he realized he was beginning his drug trip, the worship service had begun and the group was ushered into a small chapel across the hall. They sat in pews facing an empty pulpit and altar. The rich voice of the Rev. Howard Thurman, chaplain of Boston University and mentor of young divinity student Martin Luther King Jr., rolled down from a pair of speakers at the front of the chapel. Thurman's 2 l/2-hour Good Friday meditation was legendary. Intensely emotional, the service contained poetry, homily, scripture readings and music, interweaving events from the life of Christ with his Passion on the cross. As Thurman recited poetry--mostly dark, moody pieces about death--Young sat in the pew and listened. At one point, he went to the men's room and began hallucinating: Cigarette ashes in the urinal looked like beautiful black pearls. Through an open window in the bathroom, he heard cars whizzing by. "And I didn't know which was the real world. I couldn't keep straight what was happening inside my head and what was happening outside."

Ego death

Young went back in the chapel and within minutes was plunged into what he now calls "the major vision of the drug for me." It began with more visual fireworks. "I was awash in a sea of color. These bands of swooshing liquid. It was like being underwater in an ocean of different color bands." Overwhelmed, he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. "Sometimes, it would resolve into patterns with meaning, and other times it would just be this beautiful swirl of color. It was by turns threatening and awe-inspiring." Thirty-two years later, Young leans forward in his chair as he describes the vision. Eventually - he has no idea how much time this took- the colors began to take recognizable shape. "It was a radial design, like a mandala, with the colors in the center leading out to the sides, each one a different color and pattern." Young felt that he was in the center of this great circle - frozen there like a fly in a spider web. "I could see that each color band was a different life experience. A different path to take. And I was in the center where they all started. I could choose any path I wanted. It was incredible freedom . . . but I had to choose one. To stay in the center was to die." Young's voice drops to a whisper. "I couldn't choose. I just . . . couldn't. . . pick one." He was in agony. There was a sensation of his "insides being clawed out. It was incredibly painful." For what felt like an eternity, he hung there, suspended by fear and indecision. "And then I died."

At that moment, Thurman's voice, from upstairs in the sanctuary, intoned the lines of an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem.

I shall die, but that is all I shall do for Death.
I am not on his pay-roll.

Young pulled a scrap of paper out of his pocket and scribbled something on it. Later that day, when his head was clear, he looked at what he'd written. NOBODY SHOULD HAVE TO GO THROUGH THIS. EVER! "I wasn't talking about the drug trip," he says now. "I was talking about having to make this choice of what to be. I was talking about having an ego and having to have it die in order to live in freedom. I had to die in order to become who I could be. I did make a choice, in that willingness to die."

Coming down

Young spent three more hours under the influence of psilocybin. "I was in and out of vision, but it was pleasant. Interesting. It gradually tapered off. I was gently coming down and reflecting back on that death image." Eventually, he started to notice what was going on around him. Most of the nine others who had taken the drug were still sitting on pews in the chapel. There was not a lot of rolling around on the floor or other dramatics, Young says. One man got up and gave a "sermon," a string of gibberish. Another stood and almost urinated before he realized what he was doing. One man felt compelled to find out if the outside world was still there. He was found trying to force the lock on a door. Two guides walked him around outside, but couldn't calm him. Eventually, he was given a shot of Thorazine, a powerful tranquilizer. At the end of the day, all 20 men filled out a questionnaire and wrote a complete chronology of their experience. Afterward, they went to Leary's house, where they devoured sandwiches and sodas. There were follow-up interviews and medical and psychiatric exams a month later, and again at six months. And then it was over.

Young never heard from Pahnke, the head researcher, again. He finished divinity school, spent several years as campus minister at Stanford University and assistant pastor of a Unitarian Universalist church in Palo Alto, both in California. He also designed rehab programs for young offenders at the Los Angeles probation department before coming to Tampa in 1982 to lead the Unitarian church here. There were never any flashbacks. But Young has had two re lated experiences in the years since. First was a dream in which he saw the circular design of his drug trip, which he now under stands was all about his struggle to make a career choice. The second experience came as he stood on a California beach, watching a storm build out at sea and feeling a deep sense of connection with the Earth. He interpreted both as spontaneous expressions of what the psilocybin had taught him during the drug trip. "Religious ideas that were interesting intellectually before, took on a whole different dimension. Now they were connected to something much deeper than belief and theory."

Similar beliefs

In 1988, Young found out it was the same way for most of the other Good Friday participants. Rick Doblin, a psychology student at New College in Sarasota, called him. Doblin wanted to do a 25-year follow-up study, but Pahnke had died in a scuba accident several years after the experiment. Many of his records had been lost. Young helped Doblin crack the code names and he tracked down all but two of the Good Friday participants. One had died and one never was located. Two others didn't want to talk about it. The result of Doblin's interviews is the final chapter of the Good Friday story. His report was published in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. Everyone I talked to who had the psilocybin felt after 25 years of reflection that the experience was a genuine mystical experience," Doblin says. "It was a clear viewing of some ultimate level of reality that had a long-term positive impact on their lives." Although many of the subjects endured frightening or painful moments during their drug trip, as Young did, they still felt it was worthwhile. Quite a few reported later mystical experiences, either in dreams, prayer or natural settings. "The primary feeling of unity from their drug trip led many of them to a feeling of compassion for oppressed minorities and the environment," Doblin says.

Young told his Tampa congregation about the Good Friday experiment several years ago, in a sermon. Only one woman voiced mild objection; most were interested to hear the tale. "What the drug experience did for me involved a deepening of my own spiritual sense, along with a broadening of it," Young says. "It has influenced the whole context of my ministry." The majority of the Good Friday participants now favors limited, controlled use of hallucinogenics. At least two of the subjects who got the placebo in the experiment later arranged to take psilocybin on their own. Young and his wife, Nancy, an artist, have a grown daughter and son. They also reared 21 foster children part-time, including an Amerasian girl they adopted when she was 13. "My kids knew about my psilocybin experience as early as I can remember," Young says. "But they also saw their dad working as a probation officer with drug abusers. They saw very clearly how drugs could tear up their life. My approach always was, here's the best information available on drugs. Here are the risks involved. I trusted them to learn from life's lessons."

Drugs, to him, are tools--helpful when used properly, potentially lethal if used the wrong way. "A hatchet is a very useful tool but it's really lousy for parting your hair." Young is just as concerned as anyone else when he reads about middle-school kids turning on to psychedelics. "One of the great ironies is that this stuff is once again becoming available," he says. "You have people cooking up batches of LSD in their bathtubs and it's hitting the streets. It's there." What is not there, he adds, is "the wisdom of how to deal with this." And wisdom he knows, is more than just the contents of a gel capsule. It's the ability to understand whatever secrets that capsule may reveal.