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Did This Novel About LSD Trials Get It Right? We Ask Someone Who Was There

May 12, 2019
Originally published on May 12, 2019 9:41 am

Novelist T.C. Boyle focuses on real-life figures with cult-like followings — he's written fiction about cornflakes king John Harvey Kellogg, architect Frank Lloyd Wright and sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. Now, in his latest novel, he imagines what it was like to participate in Timothy Leary's hallucinogenic drug experiments in the early 1960s.

Outside Looking In tells a fictional story about psychology graduate students at Harvard University who attempt to explore the nature of human consciousness by taking psychedelic drugs. Boyle says he was intrigued by recent news stories about LSD coming back into medical use. "So I went back to discover where it's all coming from," he says.

In 1960, psychologist Timothy Leary took a trip to Mexico, where he ate psilocybin mushrooms and decided to redirect his respected clinical research on personality studies to the effects of hallucinogens on the mind. Leary eventually took his experiments to a 64-room mansion in Millbrook, N.Y., where he extolled the virtues of psychedelics.

"LSD is like a microscope, even an electron microscope, which opens up an awareness of energies which are there," Leary said. "There's nothing miraculous or mysterious about LSD. In any situation where we now use our symbolic mind, the microscope of LSD will help us see more, see faster, and see deeper."

Gunther Weil was a 23-year-old doctoral student in clinical psychology when he entered Harvard in 1960. Leary was his faculty adviser, and Weil says that Boyle got a lot of things right in his novel.

"I think he did an incredibly great job describing the zeitgeist of the time — the nature of the trips," Weil says. "The protagonist is a graduate student who seems to be an amalgam of a number of us."

Over four years Weil says he attended between 40 and 50 research sessions — ingesting the hallucinogens psilocybin and LSD with a handful of colleagues.

"We definitely felt that we were on the leading edge of research in consciousness," he recalls. "We definitely felt like pioneers. We definitely were enthralled and captured by the mysteries that we were beginning to approach."

One of those mysteries was Weil's own spirituality. The psychedelic drugs he ingested are known as "entheogens" — that is, they allow you to see God. Weil says he experienced that personally — "in the sense of oneness, the interconnection of all phenomena, of understanding underlying spiritual nature of existence — absolutely, yes."

If God is as simple as altering the chemistry of the brain what does that mean for our world religions? - Novelist T.C. Boyle

That mystical aspect of psychedelic drugs fascinated Boyle. "If God is as simple as altering the chemistry of the brain what does that mean for our world religions?" Boyle asks. "Is there anything outside of us? Or is it all inside of us? And it is all hormonal and brain functions? And if this little fungus can give us God, then who are we? What does that mean? What do we need God for?"

In the novel, as Leary's acolytes get more involved in LSD, their research becomes less scientific and more hedonistic — the participants go beyond graduate students to include musicians, fashion models and socialites who had heard about the experiments.

And then, of course, there are the bad acid trips — which Boyle, now 70, knows a thing or two about. Boyle thinks his perspective on Leary's experiments may have been colored by his own drug use when he was in his 20s.

"I'll fess up — I never had a good trip," Boyle says. "Never. I think my mind is too active anyway. I'm always out there in outer space — this is why I'm a novelist. So we would all begin our trips communally at a great time, fireplaces going, music playing — we're laughing, everything's great, we're seeing things. Everybody else will have crashed. And I would be up, you know, with the snakes crawling out of my stomach, for the next six hours."

Today, Boyle says he gets his highs from getting lost in his work, lost in music, and lost in the nature of the California Sierras.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Author T.C. Boyle likes to focus on historic figures in his novels - historic figures with cult-like followings, such as cornflakes king John Harvey Kellogg, architect Frank Lloyd Wright and sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. Boyle's new novel imagines what it might have been like for psychologist and writer Timothy Leary in the early 1960s, when he started researching psychedelic drugs. Tom Vitale looks into this strange, long trip.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: "Outside Looking In" tells a fictional story about psychology graduate students at Harvard University who attempt to explore the nature of human consciousness by taking psychedelic drugs. Author T.C. Boyle says he was intrigued by recent news stories about LSD coming back into medical use.

TC BOYLE: So I went back to discover where it was all coming from. So this book is set at a very narrow window of time - the very early 60s, before Jimi Hendrix and acid rock and all of that. Where did this come from?

VITALE: It came from a trip psychologist Timothy Leary took to Mexico in 1960, where he ate psilocybin mushrooms and decided to redirect his respected clinical research on personality studies to the effects of hallucinogens on the mind. Leary eventually took his experiments to a 64-room mansion in Millbrook, N.Y., where he extolled the virtues of psychedelics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIMOTHY LEARY: LSD is like a microscope, even an electron microscope, which opens up awareness of energies which are there. It's nothing miraculous or mysterious about LSD. In any situation where we now use our symbolic mind, the microscope of LSD will help us see more, see faster and see deeper.

VITALE: The main character of T.C. Boyle's novel is one of Leary's students, Fitzhugh Loney, who signs up to take weekly acid trips and record his reactions. He takes his first trip with his wife Joanie.

BOYLE: (Reading) And the puppet, she said, you see the puppet. He didn't see the puppet not that he didn't want to. But now all at once, every ordinary object in the room came alive just as if it had a heart inside it pumping blood - highboy, bookcase, Persian rug, rocker, armchair, the nautical scene hanging over the mantelpiece - everything stirring, buzzing, fracturing the room with light. And he said, I think it's coming on.

GUNTHER WEIL: I think he did an incredibly great job at describing the Zeitgeist of the time, the nature of the trips. The protagonist there is a graduate student who seems to be kind of an amalgam of a number of us.

VITALE: Gunther Weil was a 23-year-old doctoral student in clinical psychology when he entered Harvard in 1960 and was assigned to Timothy Leary as his faculty advisor. Over the next four years, he says he attended between 40 and 50 research sessions, ingesting the hallucinogens psilocybin and LSD with a handful of colleagues.

WEIL: We definitely felt that we were on the leading, bleeding edge of research and consciousness. We definitely felt like pioneers. We definitely were enthralled and captured by the mysteries that we were beginning to approach.

VITALE: One of those mysteries was Weil's own spirituality. The psychedelic drugs he ingested are known as entheogens. That is, they allow you to see God. And Weil says he did.

WEIL: In the sense of realizing the oneness of the interconnection of all phenomena of understanding the underlying spiritual nature of existence, absolutely yes.

VITALE: That mystical aspect of psychedelic drugs was another thing that fascinated novelist T.C. Boyle.

BOYLE: If God is as simple as altering the chemistry of the brain, then what does that mean for our world religions? Is there anything outside of us or is it all inside of us? And it is all hormonal and brain functions. And if this little fungus can give us God, then who are we? What does that mean? What do we need God for?

VITALE: In the novel, as Leary's acolytes get more involved in LSD, their research becomes less scientific and more hedonistic. The participants go beyond graduate students to include musicians, fashion models and socialites who had heard about the experiments. And then there are the bad acid trips.

BOYLE: (Reading) Images slam down like heavy sashes, shutting one after the other, only to open up on the next and the next after that. Control a joke, personality a hoax and schizophrenia the only realistic outcome because they didn't call these drugs psychotomimetics for nothing, did they? Of course. Of course, he was losing his mind. And what other result could he have expected?

VITALE: Seventy-year-old T.C. Boyle says his perspective on Timothy Leary's experiments may have been colored by his own drug use when he was in his 20s.

BOYLE: OK, I'll fess up. I never had a good trip - never. We would all begin our trips communally at a great time - the fireplace is going. The music's playing. We're laughing. Everything's great. We're seeing things. Everybody else will have crashed. And I would be up, you know, with the snakes crawling out of my stomach for the next six hours. I think my mind is too active anyway. I'm always out there in outer space. This is why I'm a novelist.

VITALE: Today T.C. Boyle says he gets his highs from getting lost in his work, lost in music and lost in the nature of the California Sierras.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.