Still crazy after all these years
[Timothy Leary is interviewed for Psychology Today by Bill Moseley]
Booted out of West Point, fired from Harvard, Timothy Leary lights
into his 75th year as a felon, fugitive, guru, and great grandpa. The bad
boy of American psychology is not only alive, he is still high on
brain-change chemicals and trying to expand his mind--in cyberspace.
Writer Bill Moseley first met the grizzled guru when he portrayed him in
a fictionalized account of Leary's night in San Quentin cell-to-cell with
Charles Manson. (Leary saw the performance eight times.) For this
interview, Moseley caught Leary at his Beverly Hills lair showcased on
"Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."
PT: Is there anything you find interesting in cutting edge
TL: Psychology didn't exist until the beginning of the 20th
century. William James and the early experimentalists started the
so-called science of human behavior.
Human psychology really became mainstream during World Wars I and
II. For the first time in history, instead of selecting warriors on the
basis of how big their shoulders were and how dumb they were, you had to
have bombers, navigators, and calculators. War had become highly
technical. The Army had to select people for various jobs based on their
That started behavioral psychology. The military always gets the
new technology first, then it moves over [to the civilians].
PT: The trickle-down theory?
TL: I would say it explodes out; it's explosive! In the 1950s,
American affluence, individuality, and self-confidence were beginning to
take off. A group of behavioral psychologists, of whom I was one, quite
deliberately set out to take the power to describe, control, treat, and
change human behavior away from doctors using the pathological
Carl Rogers said that if you have a behavior problem, it's not like
a disease; you don't go to a doctor. If you're a third baseman and you
strike out against left-handed pitchers, you study, you get coached, you
go to other people. It's no longer a disease; we all have ups and downs,
winning streaks and losing streaks.
In the Eisenhower years, the psychology of the day was adjustment:
Tell me, are you well-adjusted? It seems ridiculous to us now. What we
would today consider a good, adjusted person was considered abnormal
At the present time, if you look in the Yellow Pages, there will be
eight pages of self-help stuff. There's hardly one orifice of the body,
hardly any kind of disease or relationship to someone with a disease
where you don't get together and talk about it as individual human
beings, thinking self-reliantly instead of counting on some doctor to
tell you what to do. The success of this psychological revolution is
If you look at the number of psychiatrists and psychoanalysts
listed in the 1950 phone book and the 1990 phone book--whew! Naturally,
as Gorbachev found to his dismay, once you give people freedom, they look
up and do all sorts of crazy things! Gorbachev never thought that
Russians would use their freedom to study alchemy or astrology, but
that's the way it is.
PT: What about the Sixties?
TL: We did the same thing at Harvard, but this time with drugs. We
took the power to use, to control brain-change drugs away: and made it
available to train adults. Now the very concept of a
government-approved, government-funded study of brain drugs on people,
that's [Josef] Mengele. I have been blamed for having mined
psychological, scientific studies of psychedelic drugs. I don't deserve
the credit; I was one of many.
Currently, we are facing a fascinating situation where the world
has been flooded with extremely inexpensive electronic processing
devices. They cost less than a textbook and will allow multimedia stuff
on screens that can be used to communicate, like a telephone that you can
now use audiographically.
The hottest thing on the business page every single day is IT, the
information highway, and the different groups fighting for control, just
as they fought over the control of iron before. But they can't control
the information highway because they're dealing with packages of light. A
computer screen is just clusters of light; it all comes down to
We're now learning to communicate. The telephone allowed us to use
electromagnetic magnification of our voice, but now you can do it
audiovisually. It's the enormous power of a new language.
Marshall McLuhan is the key; he said electrical communication will
create the global village. Philosophy and psychology in the 20th century
is all linguistics. McLuhan said, "The media is the message." Change the
media, you change yourself; change the media, you change your culture.
You've heard me say this, haven't you?
TL: I want to say one other thing about drugs. I just received a
40-page manual from the DEA or the FDA, with a list of well over a
thousand words for different kinds of drugs. Like "Easy Boo" or "Mary
Lu." The DEA agents have to learn this language. Here's the government
training their agents to learn a cultural language used by a big minority
in America. While the language is legal, the government has decided that
certain brain-drugs are illegal. The government reserves the right to control
any vegetable that will allow you to change your mind.
Everybody wants to control the drugs: the FDA, the DEA, the
junkies. There's a good reason for that. Psychoactive brain-activating
drugs are the most powerful tools humanity has for operating your mind,
your brain, developing new language, building up new communities, new
cultures and subcultures.
The long history of brain-change vegetables has always been
associated with shamanism, mysticism, art, poetry, free sexuality,
acceptance of the body, an ecological sense of the oneness of all things.
This runs through Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, Greek humanism. There was
an enormous drug influence on the French Revolution, on Wordsworth,
Coleridge, Emerson, Thoreau; its a tradition.
After all these years of studying and listening to and watching and
talking to different drug users, it's my duty to take any new drug that
comes along. Now, I don't run off and buy something from some guy in a
trench coat in a bar. I get these drugs from the chemists, from the most
respectable, responsible people in the field.
Never take a drug that you don't receive from a dear trusted
friend. You're accepting the keys to your soul, your brain. The reason I
use the word soul is because the attitude toward brain-change drugs has
always been very religious. There's no rationality about it. You simply
cannot debate legalizing drugs.
Drug use has always been demonized. Drug fiends! Marijuana, the
killer and assassin of youth! Before that, alcohol; it goes on and on.
There's a reason for this, The wonderful variety of human nature is such
that we come out with different definitions of gods and goddesses--and
people will kill for that. A lot of that power was unlocked by
Look what the government has done. They're filling up the prisons
with young males [guilty of possession, trafficking, etc,], not to
mention creating a criminal class. Once you criminalize a normal activity
like sex, marijuana smoking, or booze, you're going to create a Mafia,
whether it's Peruvian or Sicilian.
PT: What about drug use now, in the Nineties?
TL: Here's the idea that I'm fooling with now. We know that
monotheism is a religious organization that says there is one God, He's
our God, He's male, He's a very bad-tempered God and He's going to kill
anyone who does not accept Him.
There is also something you might call molecular monotheism. People
have incredibly passionate convictions about the morality of vegetables
that can allow another person to change their brain.
There have been more than 50 million years of symbiosis, growing
slowly between the vegetable queendom and the mammalian kingdom. It's no
accident that we have 70 or 80 receptor sites in our brain for very
Was there some evil devil that gave our brains these receptor
sites? Religions have demonized these vegetables, because they actually
do what religious rites are supposed to do: They open up new vistas or
visions, which have to do with illumination, insight, revelation. Even
among the most passionate drug enthusiasts there's this fundamentalist
In the Sixties I was very pious; I came out strongly against heroin
and amphetamine. I didn't know anything about heroin until 1979, when
[British psychiatrist] Ronnie [R. D.] Laing sent out for a few shillings
of heroin and shot me up, totally legally. I got a little nauseous and
had the experience. I want to apologize now for all the hypocrisy that I
spread around in the past about knocking other people's drugs. It's an
entirely individual process.
One thing we certainly know is the government must keep entirely
out of the field of criminalizing what adults do inside their own home,
inside their own bodies.
Obviously children have to be protected. They should not be allowed
to use drugs or liquor or chain saws or drive the car. But [the drug
"problem"] is something that cannot be solved by sending out the National
Guard to try to stop everybody from smoking marijuana.
PT: What influences have affected your psychology?
TL: I am a humanist. I assume, as did Emerson and every other
mystic, that divinity lies within, and you don't look to the chapel or
the book that you find in your motel drawer. Look within--and you have to
look within with other people. Religion is a team sport. It's got to be
done eye to eye and soul to soul.
It's your responsibility to learn how to operate your own soul.
That's a new concept. Divinity is something you have to work at, just
like you work at any other profession. Its something that requires
moment-to-moment readjusting. You can't fall back on commandments or
anything like that. It really requires that you think for yourself--make
that selves, always with other people.
Divinity is the most thrilling human career. It will be the basic
career in the 21st century The first thing a kid will be taught when he
gets to first grade is, you've got this enormous brain and you're going
to have to learn how to use it.
PT: Do you do anything on a daily or weekly basis to keep in touch
with that divinity or to get to know it better?
TL: Yes, there are certain tips here. You hang out with people who
share your celestial ambitions, hang out with the smartest, most
open-minded, well-in-formed people. The amount of information you have
coming in is key. The average 10-year-old receives more information per
day than the wisest people in the world did 100 years ago.
PT: In [your autobiography] Flashbacks you state, "It seems to me
that the person who dies a natural death is a deluded victim of
state-managed suicide." What do you mean by that?
TL: You are aware of the fact that death and the ethics of
mortality are totally controlled by religion, by society. And of course
with government health plans, they're getting more and more
Throughout the history of humanist philosophy--Hinduism, Buddhism,
Taoism--it's basically the way you die, the way you manage your life,
that has consequence. You have no choice of how you get in here, but you
have total choice of with whom, how, under what conditions you die. Are
you going to go out like a packaged sausage, shoveled off into a
government care center? And costing the taxpayers $20,000 a month?
The Pharaohs realized that. They arranged their passage, which was
a metaphor. You were very happy to know that in the Pharaoh's tomb there
was going to be a nice place for you. The attitudes toward death are
absolutely the most important aspects of a society, a religion, or an
PT: Is there no other way to achieve a mystical state than to take
mind-altering drugs? It does seem a lot easier than spending 10 years
meditating or going through mortifications of the flesh.
TL: What would you rather do?
PT: I'd rather take a pill.
TL: Not take a pill; you share. The notion of a "trip" was good. We
didn't invent that; the hippies were into that. As a humanist, everything
I stand for is think for yourselvesness. Not alone--think for yourselves.
Question authority--don't attack authority, question it. Take
responsibility for your divinity. It's a team sport; living is a team
sport, divinity is a team sport.
PT: Is dying a team sport?
TL: Dying is a team sport.
PT: I still don't get dying as being a victim of state-managed
TL: One of the biggest political issues is self-dignified death,
self-liberation--Dr. [Jack] Kevorkian. The state has nothing to do with
it. The family gets together and plans it together. That was on the
ballot in three or four states. It's a hot new issue, taking
responsibility--but not [dying] by yourself, sneaking away and jumping
off a bridge or anything like that.
The time comes when the dignity goes down. There's going to come a
time for me very quickly when I will be in a state where my diapers will
have to be changed. That's part of it. Already I'm showing symptoms. I
watch very carefully with my friends.
The beautiful thing about it is that there are no models; we have
to invent it ourselves, We're the first democratic society that is facing
the issue that everyone and every religion faces: death, death, death,
death, where, why, who? When a person is sick, here come the priests like
so many black vultures to take charge of the soul. It's extreme unction;
you have to have a sacrament to be a good Catholic. The church has to put
the stamp on it like that.
The church hates suicide because that's you doing it yourself. You
didn't do it with a group. That's why they hate in vitro pregnancy, It's
not natural. Only God is supposed to knock a woman up.
PT: Have you made peace with your Catholicism?
TL: I was a Boy Scout between the ages of 10 and 12. I was a good
Boy Scout. I went to Catholic school for eight years and actually went
two years to a Jesuit college [Holy Cross] because I was thrown out of
all the Protestant colleges.
The Catholic church maintains an incredibly powerful influence on
human civilization. To me, the Pope and Mother Teresa are the two most
evil people alive. There they are, running down to Africa, where the
problems are starvation and overpopulation, and they're encouraging [the
birth of] more little Catholics that will die a week after they are born.
And Mother Teresa is running around Calcutta encouraging more babies,
And of course, the Church is totally against science. The
Protestants have been more scientific because they're more mechanical,
post-Gutenberg. But the Catholic church is to this very day violently
opposed to any scientific approach,
PT: When my father passed away several years ago, my two brothers
and I decided to have him cremated and carry his ashes up to his favorite
fishin' hole in northern Wisconsin. We folded him into the wake of our
rowboat on the pond where he'd caught his biggest brown trout.
TL: That's the idea, That concept didn't exist much before the
Sixties, that you could actually step in and make your own life ceremony,
make your own life a sacramental trip--but always with other people.
There's nothing so pathetic as the great scholar or the acidhead who's
figured everything out but doesn't know her zip code. You've got to do it
with other people; it's a team sport.
Publication: Psychology Today
Publication Date: Jan/Feb 95