“Outside Looking In”: T. C. Boyle’s Drama of Expanded Consciousness and LSD

By James PennerApril 18, 2019

“Outside Looking In”: T. C. Boyle’s Drama of Expanded Consciousness and LSD

Outside Looking In by T. C. Boyle

DURING THE PERIOD when LSD was legal, various researchers published over a thousand articles on the drug and its effects. Perhaps the most concise description of LSD’s effects on the human mind came from Stanislav Grof, a Czech psychiatrist who personally supervised over 2,500 LSD trips in Prague and in the United States during the 1960s, the heyday of LSD research. Grof argued that LSD functions as a “non-specific amplifier”: it amplifies and enlarges the content that is presented to the user during the trip. If one views a majestic landscape or listens to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, the aesthetic experience is greatly magnified and enhanced. If Grof’s definition explains the concept of aesthetic enhancement, T. C. Boyle’s new novel explores a more dramatic effect of the LSD trip: ego death. For some characters, the LSD trip represents the experience of being untethered from one’s mind and previous self. Although the untethering process looms large in the Outside Looking In, Boyle’s novel also highlights the sober experience of coming back to reality when the trip is over. Most significantly, the characters in Boyle’s novel must grapple with all of the ramifications of their enlightenment experiences.

Although Boyle’s novel is set in the early 1960s, it feels fresh because there have not been so many LSD-centered works of literature. There is, of course, Hunter S. Thompson’s epic tale of psychedelic debauchery, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), as well as a few visionary LSD poems written by Allen Ginsberg and the British poet Thom Gunn, but by far the most popular genre of the LSD trip is the counterculture memoir and autobiography. Typically, the LSD trip is presented as a rite of passage for young people coming of age in the 1960s — entailing a symbolic break with the culture of the 1950s and the embrace of a new worldview that revolves around love, peace, and a new understanding of one’s connection to nature and the natural world.

Boyle’s novel revisits the 1960s by focusing on a lesser known historical event: the Harvard Drug Scandal of 1962/1963. Outside Looking In looks at the epoch when psychedelic drugs were legal and actively researched in American universities. The novel also documents the utopian experiments that took place in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, in 1962 and 1963 and the founding of the Millbrook living experiment in upstate New York in 1963. In each case, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (a.k.a. Ram Dass) and their acolytes (ex-Harvard graduate students and their lovers) attempt to create utopian communities that center around psychedelic experimentation, communal living, and free love.

The early period (1960 to 1964) of the tumultuous decade can be viewed as an incubatory moment of the counterculture. Boyle’s novel explores how the LSD experience has a powerful ripple effect on the user; although the drug is not addictive, repeated use ultimately has what might be described as an “unhinging effect.” Of course, the value of this effect lies in the eyes of the beholder; for some it is enormously desirable, while for others it is nothing short of hellish. Although the characters in Outside Looking In experience dramatic breakthroughs and moral upheavals in their personal lives, the novel focuses on how LSD use can lead to a loosening of sexual mores. Thus, the various forms of sexual experimentation in Outside Looking In highlight LSD’s relationship to the burgeoning Sexual Revolution of the early 1960s.

Boyle’s novel is ambitious in the sense that it provides a genealogy of the early days of LSD. It begins with the birth of LSD in a Sandoz lab in Basel in 1943. While war ravages the neighboring countries, Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist looking for a cure for migraine headaches, accidentally ingests a powerful dose of lysergic acid diethylamide-25 during the recrystallization process. On that particular afternoon in April, the dutiful chemist suddenly experiences powerful hallucinations in the lab; at first, he fears that he has been inadvertently poisoned, so he opts to go home and rest. After contemplating the intensity of his hallucinations, Hofmann is determined to repeat the experience and offer himself as a human guinea pig. Susi Ramstein, Hofmann’s youthful Sandoz lab assistant, urges him not to repeat the self-experiment (“Wouldn’t it be better to test it on animals first […] ?”). However, Herr Hofmann cannot be dissuaded because he is convinced that he has made a monumental discovery. During his second self-experiment on the following Monday, Susi follows behind Hofmann as he blissfully bicycles through the outskirts of Basel high on LSD. Hofmann’s glorious bike ride becomes the first intentional LSD trip in recorded history. While still in the afterglow of his historic LSD trip, the ever-cautious Swiss chemist declares that he has had a profound visionary experience:

I experienced things, Fraulein, I’d never thought possible — saw things, saw whether my eyes were open or shut, a whole kaleidoscope of swirling images and colors, and that was only the beginning. It was the most […] eye-opening experience I’ve ever had. Susi, I saw the world as it truly is.

In Boyle’s origin myth, LSD is also a magical elixir that is endowed with erotogenic properties. Susi notes how the wonder drug has enhanced “the secret sweet chemical bond between her and Herr H., and she valued that more than anything else in the world.” Hofmann, the holy father of LSD, can handle the upheaval in his consciousness because he is standing on terra firma in his professional and personal life. However, the other characters in Outside Looking In will not be so fortunate.

After recounting the discovery of LSD in 1943, the novel jumps ahead to the Psychology Department at Harvard University in the spring of 1962. [1] Although Outside Looking In features many actual historical figures from the Harvard Drug Scandal — Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and Michael Hollingshead, its central protagonists — Fitzhugh Loney, a psychology graduate student and his librarian wife Joanie, are fictional. Fitz and Joanie are initiated into Professor Leary’s inner circle when they participate in a Saturday night psilocybin session at Leary’s suburban home in Newton Center, Massachusetts. Their first trip produces transcendent sex that revivifies their 13-year marriage. The powerful sexual bonding experience is significant because both partners are equally fascinated with the promise of LSD-induced liberation and enlightenment. The intensity of their first trip leads them to join Professor Leary and his grad students/psychedelic acolytes in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, during the summer of 1962.

While living in Mexico, Fitz and Joanie begin sexually experimenting with other partners while they are tripping. However, it is significant that Joanie does not view their extramarital affairs as “cheating”:

[Fitz had] slept with Fanchon in Mexico, she was sure of that, and maybe Susannah too, though it didn’t mean anything, not when you were under the influence [of LSD], not when you were having a session, because jealousy was ego-dependent, a kind of disease of it, and the whole purpose of the drug was to enable you to let go of the ego and live in the moment. She’d had Ken. And Charlie. And that was nothing. Just brothers and sisters, just […] tripping.

If the marital bond is an elastic cord in Outside Looking In, one question remains for both partners in the Loney marriage: how far can the marital cord be stretched before it snaps? Outside Looking In explores the dilemma from both psychological perspectives. Part II (“Zihuatanejo/Millbrook, 1962–1963”) presents Joanie’s point of view, while the first (“Cambridge, 1962”) and last section of the novel (“Millbrook, 1964”) is described from Fitz’s point of view. The juxtaposition of gendered perspectives is an important narrative device because it highlights how each partner’s conception of liberation is constantly oscillating as their lives move forward in time.

However, Outside Looking In is not simply about the joys of expanded consciousness; it also explores the unforeseen perils of liberation. Fitz and Joanie learn that the idyllic bliss of Zihuatanejo is short-lived because Leary and his cohorts eventually must leave paradise and return to the “real” world once their Mexican summer is over. Prior to Zihuatanejo, Leary and Alpert had become ensnared in a nasty faculty dispute in the Psychology Department in March 1962. Thus, the novel echoes Timothy Leary’s famous observation that LSD is a strange drug, which “causes panic among people who have never tried it.” Thus, the uninitiated faculty members of the Harvard Psychology Department (Herbert Kelman and Brendan Maher [2]) resent Leary’s charisma and the fact that he is poaching most of their graduate students. The professors-turned-anti-drug-warriors attack Leary’s scientific integrity, his lax research methods, and his guru status among graduate students. While dramatizing the academic coup, Outside Looking In explores how psychedelic drugs have a polarizing effect on all who come near them: the enthusiasts of psilocybin and LSD become increasingly estranged from the “real world” and its norms while those who reject “the psychedelic sacraments” become passionately opposed to them. Fitz attempts to warn Leary about the need for discretion. However, the Harvard professor possesses an unhealthy penchant for publicity and controversy; he also constantly underestimates the forces of repression and the resentment of the non-users.

Outside Looking In dramatizes Leary and Alpert’s quest for internal freedom (the right to alter one’s consciousness) and the search for a haven — a place where the forces of repression cannot monitor and restrict the actions of psychedelic brethren. Alpert eventually finds a rambling Victorian mansion in Millbrook, New York, that is owned by the wealthy Hitchcock family. Peggy Hitchcock, a psychedelic enthusiast and heiress to the Mellon family fortune, introduces Leary and Alpert to her brother Billy, and he quickly agrees to rent the estate to Leary and Alpert for one dollar a year. When Leary and Alpert move into the 64-room Gothic mansion in the fall of 1963, the psychedelic version of Brook Farm is born.

In the fall of 1963, Leary and Alpert quickly transform Millbrook into an experimental community and a social laboratory where researchers can conduct psychological experiments. However, unlike the Harvard Psilocybin Project (HPP), the researchers would no longer be restricted by the educational authorities who were hostile to consciousness expanding drugs. Although Fitz and Joanie’s marriage is still intact when they arrive at Millbrook in the fall of 1963, their participation in various psychological experiments test the limits of their relationship. The first experiment is dubbed the “Bowling Alley Experiment” (it was named after a smaller house on the Millbrook estate with a private bowling alley). This experiment attempts to “break through the sexual jealousy game as a way of deepening the communal bond and [to foster the transition] from individual mind to group mind.” The experiment also incorporated the principle of chance:

[O]nce a week Tim would draw a pair of names from the sombrero he’d brought back from Mexico, and whoever’s names came up would have to spend the next seven days in the meditation-house cum-bowling alley, relieved of all household duties and free to trip and engage in any activity they wanted, sexual or otherwise, without constraint. Two people going deep.

In the first round, Joanie and Fanchon (the wife of another graduate student) are selected. Joanie and Fanchon spend a week harmoniously tripping together. However, during the third drawing Fitz is paired with Lori, a 19-year-old poetess who is mentally unstable. Joanie is worried about the situation, but she does not intervene to stop the psychological experiment. Although the experiment is supposed to enable the participants to transcend jealousy and possessiveness (“the marriage game”), it ends up exacerbating these tendencies. After tripping with Lori for a week, Fitz has a powerful LSD-enhanced bonding experience with her. Although Lori is no longer interested in Fitz when the week is over, he becomes obsessed with regaining her affections. The conflict between Fitz and Joanie highlights Boyle’s interest in exposing the limits of LSD-induced “deconditioning.” Outside Looking In explores how social norms (e.g., “the monogamy game” and “the marriage game”) are far more powerful than the utopians realize. As the novel comes to a close, the psychedelic followers are forced to acknowledge the folly of psychedelic imprinting.

Some readers may question the premise of Outside Looking In — the notion that LSD can functions as a powerful sexual trigger. However, there is some historical evidence for Boyle’s narrative conceit. LSD’s relationship to the sexual responses is a topic that was occasionally researched in the 1960s. Some British psychiatrists even went as far as to use the drug when treating frigidity. [3] Dr. Sidney Cohen, an expert on LSD and a contemporary of Timothy Leary, argued that LSD had the unique power to unlock the latch of “disinhibition.” In the jargon of the early 1960s, “disinhibition” can be read as a code word for the sexual response. Leary also noted the drug’s ability to pry open the Pandora’s box of human sexuality during the early 1960s. In his memoir Flashbacks, Leary reveals that he debated the sexual nature of psychedelic drugs with Aldous Huxley in the early 1960s. The British author of The Doors of Perception was also aware that the drug could be used to stimulate sexual responses, but cautiously urged Leary to be discreet about his discovery: “Of course this is true, Timothy, but we’ve stirred up enough trouble suggesting that drugs can stimulate aesthetic and religious experiences. I strongly urge you not to let the sexual cat out of the bag.” Boyle’s satirical novel, of course, ignores Huxley’s warning and makes LSD-induced sexual bonding a central concern; Outside Looking In explores the proto-counterculture’s fascination with sexual experimentation, but also how LSD-induced sexual bonding use can turn marriages — all intimate relationships — upside down.

Although all does not end well for the characters in Outside Looking In, it would be a mistake to read Boyle’s novel as merely a cautionary tale, or even worse, a revisionist critique of LSD and the nascent counterculture. Although Boyle is certainly concerned with the moral issues that surround psychedelic drugs, Outside Looking In is not the work of a dour anti-drug moralist. Much like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, Boyle’s novel is an affectionate satire of the utopian impulse and psychedelic culture. Boyle’s representation of the LSD experience steers wide of sensationalism (his characters do not try to fly or jump out of five-story windows). Boyle’s novel attempts to describe the drug’s powerful effect on those who ingest it and, most significantly, how the drug functions as a conduit for self-transformation. That said, Outside Looking In also suggests that drug-induced forms of enlightenment also bring repercussions. When the Loneys’ trips are over, they still must pay the rent, raise their teenage son, and attempt to repair their splintered marriage. Outside Looking In offers a rejoinder to the slogans of the 1960s. For many people, Leary’s “Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out” was appealing because it seemed to offer the promise of liberation and transcendence, but the mantra was also short-sighted, ignoring the need to return to reality once the trip was over.


James Penner is the editor of Timothy Leary: The Harvard Years (2014) and the author of Pinks, Pansies, and Punks: The Rhetoric of Masculinity in American Literary Culture (2011).


[1] The Harvard Psychology Department was called the Department of Social Relations in the early 1960s.

[2] Boyle opts to use pseudonyms for the professors who attacked Leary and his research with psilocybin: Herbert Kelman becomes “Kellard” and Brendan A. Maher becomes “Mortenson.”

[3] See Thomas Ling and John Buckman, “The Treatment of Frigidity with LSD and Ritalin.” The Psychedelic Review, Vol. 1 No. 4 (Summer 1964), pp.450–458.

LARB Contributor

James Penner is the editor of Timothy Leary: The Harvard Years (2014) and the author of Pinks, Pansies, and Punks: The Rhetoric of Masculinity in American Literary Culture (2011).


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