Timothy Leary Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: On Benjamin Breen’s “Tripping on Utopia”

Timothy Leary sucked the revolutionary potential out of psychedelic science, concludes Kim Adams after reading Benjamin Breen’s “Tripping on Utopia: Margaret Mead, the Cold War and the Troubled Birth of Psychedelic Science.”

Timothy Leary Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: On Benjamin Breen’s “Tripping on Utopia”

Tripping on Utopia: Margaret Mead, the Cold War and the Troubled Birth of Psychedelic Science by Benjamin Breen. Hachette/Grand Central Publishing. 384 pages.

IN AUGUST 2005, the Seattle newspaper The Stranger ran a story about a marching band called the Infernal Noise Brigade. Formed to protest the ills of globalization, the group used sound “to break police lines” at the 1999 World Trade Organization Conference, and then at other protests and public events, with the “noise” taking the form of bass drums, snares, vocalists on megaphones, horns, cymbals, and an iPod rigged to speakers on a makeshift marching harness. The band had a “history of freaky shit,” according to the journalist Christopher Frizzelle. One year, on New Year’s Eve, the musicians donned “HAZMAT suits, dropp[ed] acid, and climb[ed] into the back of a Ryder truck.” A young artist riding with the band recalled: “The truck stops at, like, Spring and Western, and we can hear the driver saying, ‘No, there’s nothing in the back. You can search it.’ There’s probably like 25 people in the back.” She continued: “So the door goes up and there’s at least 15 police in cars, on horseback, on bikes, and on foot, looking at us, the 25 people in HAZMAT suits, with musical instruments attached to us, on acid …”

The scene conjures up the performative power of police and protest—the rituals of surveillance and resistance—that have long shaped politics and art in American cities. The brigade’s “freaky shit” was constructed from costumes, sound, and surprise appearances in suspicious vehicles, and its aim was to provoke. But why were they on LSD?

In Benjamin Breen’s new book Tripping on Utopia: Margaret Mead, the Cold War and the Troubled Birth of Psychedelic Science, psychedelics belong to government-funded sober science, not renegade art. If the scientists at the center of the story, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, had achieved their initial research aims, LSD would have gone mainstream. It would not have become cool enough to fuel the Infernal Noise Brigade’s hazmat trip. The point of Breen’s book is to sketch an alternate history of psychedelic drugs before their adoption by the counterculture.

Prior to World War II, prominent American anthropologists and physicians, writes Breen, saw LSD-25 as a powerful new research chemical produced by the Sandoz corporation. In an era when science was widely embraced as an engine for positive social change, psychedelics were a new class of wonder drugs much like antibiotics and synthetic hormones. Anthropologists studied the peyote rituals of the Omaha people of Nebraska and the psilocybin mushrooms used by Mazatec healers in Oaxaca, Mexico. Physicians tested LSD as a treatment for mental illness alongside early antipsychotic medications like chlorpromazine. And, perhaps more surprising, some of these researchers used mind-altering medications to concoct cybernetic theories of the programmable brain.

The timing of Breen’s book is no accident—psychedelic therapy is now in its second heyday. It is worth noting that MDMA and psilocybin have been classified as “breakthrough therapies” in the United States for post-traumatic stress disorder and treatment-resistant depression, per a 2020 review paper in The American Journal of Psychiatry, which found research on LSD and ayahuasca to be “preliminary, although promising.” And just three years later, the “psychedelic renaissance” celebrated in the December 2023 issue of Drug Discovery Today included over 350 registered clinical trials of psychedelic substances for psychiatric disorders, with at least two companies seeking “regulatory approval of psilocybin for mood disorders.” Acid could have been like Prozac. Or more proximately, Valium (in which case, as the reader might guess, the Infernal Noise Brigade would not have been on LSD!).

The typical midcentury psychedelic therapy patient, according to Breen, was “female, middle aged, white, and haunted by grief or trauma but not diagnosable with a psychiatric disorder—a ‘neurotic,’ in the terminology of the age.” Imagine, instead of the Grateful Dead or the Infernal Noise Brigade, a friend of your mother’s—overdressed, undersexed, anxiously waiting for her husband to come home—as the iconic drug user of modern psychedelia. One of the most prominent supporters of LSD in the mid-20th century was Clare Boothe Luce, the conservative writer, ambassador, and wife of media magnate Henry Luce. Her signature style was staid: pearls, pumps, and pillbox hats. Not long after William S. Burroughs turned up on Timothy Leary’s doorstep in September 1961 to be a guinea pig in the Harvard Psilocybin Project, Burroughs grew convinced that “The money comes from Madame Luce and other dubious quarters.” For “a radical critic of American society and culture” like Burroughs, Breen writes, “the Luces represented the intrusion of big money and Cold War politics into Leary’s world.” But Tripping on Utopia suggests that financial and political pressures were a point of origin for psychedelic science, not a latter-day intrusion.

In 1953, the US Central Intelligence Agency funneled $85,000 through the Macy Foundation to fund Harold Abramson’s “research on the effects of LSD on snails, Siamese fighting fish, and his human psychiatric patients—not to mention himself.” Abramson was an allergist who had consulted with the US Army on ways to deploy chemical weapons before turning his attention to “psychochemical warfare.” Along with Mead and Bateson, he played a key role in the Macy conferences on cybernetics (a precursor to modern neuroscience and computing). The Macy conferences pushed psychedelic research away from salvage anthropology and into interdisciplinary medical science. The grant Abramson received would be a little less than a million dollars today, much larger than most humanists can expect to see in their careers, but hardly enough to run a reasonable clinical trial. For comparison, the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation gave $2.4 million dollars to the Greater Los Angeles VA in 2022 to support one “randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, single-site phase II clinical trial” of MDMA-assisted therapy for 40 patients with severe PTSD. Abramson’s woozy snails and “weekly LSD-laced dinner parties at his palatial home on Long Island” suggest that a rather different research methodology from that of sober medical science was in play. Indeed, the snails and parties, according to Breen, had more to do with Cold War espionage than academic medicine.

Abramson’s research was part of the infamous MKULTRA Project, a secret CIA program that tested drugs on civilians without informed consent, as revealed by congressional inquiry in 1977. It funded questionable laboratory research alongside “real world” testing of cannabis and LSD on unsuspecting strangers. For “Operation Midnight Climax” in San Francisco, Bureau of Narcotics officer and CIA consultant George Hunter White “recruited at least one sex worker to help him lure ‘johns’ to the 255 Chestnut Street apartment, where they were surreptitiously dosed with LSD through spiked drinks or cigarettes, then recorded.” White’s decadent apartments equipped with two-way mirrors, microphones, and East Asian antiques laced counterculture aesthetics with government aims. In the words of an internal report cited by Breen, MKULTRA sought “biochemical controls of human behavior.” The geopolitical potential of this “profoundly ambitious” effort to learn how to alter human minds reflected Mead’s “long-standing dream of a science of expanded consciousness that would reshape human society.” The CIA’s flagrant violation of research ethics was not a perversion of psychedelic science, as Burroughs feared, but rather part of the original utopian scheme.

While the book jacket suggests that the story of psychedelic science revolves around the “star-crossed lovers” Mead and Bateson, it is actually Mead’s love affair with a vision of “Science” as abstract and eternal that centers the book. Tripping on Utopia is a tapestry of brightly colored minor characters, anecdotes, and chapter titles—the latter including “Nembutal and Siamese Fighting Fish,” “Carl Sagan at the Dolphin Lab,” and “The Telephone at the End of the World”—that evoke the New Journalism of the counterculture that came after, from Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) to Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1971). There are scenes straight out of a James Bond movie, from the US Office of Strategic Services chief of research consulting a hypnotist on “weaponized altered states” to a secret laboratory in the Virgin Islands where the man who invented the isolation tank tried to teach dolphins to speak English. Ian Fleming himself makes a cameo appearance. Breen doesn’t actually tell the most salacious version of the dolphin lab story, which involves an untrained researcher cohabiting with a dolphin for three months in 1965, which became a 1978 story about interspecies sex in Hustler. Where other scholars have focused on the human-machinic assemblage of Norbert Wiener’s failed anti-aircraft predictor or Claude Lévi-Strauss sorting global culture into the Borgesian filing cabinets of the Human Relations Area Files, Breen’s rendition of cybernetics is Gregory Bateson in a Morale Operations hut in Southeast Asia, in the aftermath of the US nuclear attack on Hiroshima, typing a memo that predicted the Cold War to come.

Breen traces the CIA’s drug testing programs through the Macy conferences to the applied anthropology of the Office of Strategic Services. In the process, he clears up something that has puzzled me for years: the Cerebral Inhibition meeting. The first of the cybernetics conferences, according to Steve Heims, was “called Cerebral Inhibition to indicate an emphasis on neurophysiology.” But why inhibition? According to Bateson, the title was deliberately vague; “[c]erebral inhibition” was “a respectable word for hypnosis.” Trance was a long-standing interest of the Boas school of cultural anthropology in which Mead trained, which helps explain the connection between cybernetics and chemically altered states. One could look to the work of scholars Emily Ogden, Ann Braude, and Jeffrey Sconce to trace a deeper history of trance and social movements, from 19th-century spiritualism, mesmerism, and phrenology to the technophilic mid-20th century. In the context of the United States’ long romance with “Science,” psychedelic cybernetics is another manifestation of the deeply American impulse to change the world by altering one’s own mind.

The idea that gets us from “cerebral inhibition” to George Hunter White’s “pad” where the CIA sponsored “‘real-world’ testing of psychedelic drugs” is a bit of science fiction. If human consciousness was a pattern of feedback loops, sensory inputs, and biochemical outputs, then it resembled a computer that could be programmed, or reprogrammed by one’s enemies. The dangers were obvious—and terrifying. The “glaze-eyed confession” of Hungarian dissident József Mindszenty in a 1949 show trial seemed to prove that mind control drugs were already in use on the other side of the Iron Curtain. If the Soviets were brainwashing internal enemies, chemically induced altered consciousness looked less like a psychiatric cure and more like an atomic bomb. Breen’s account aligns the two-way mirrors of Operation Midnight Climax with the two-way mirrors of the Mental Research Institute, where Bateson and his colleagues developed the “double bind” theory of schizophrenia in which “a paradoxical communication from an authority figure demands contradictory responses: ‘I cannot survive if I do not obey and to obey would be to die.’” One might say that the existential threats of the Cold War put psychedelic science in a double bind that produced the schizophrenia of the 1960s, where the utopian Esalen Institute could coexist with the dystopian MKULTRA, but that would be a generous reading.

A less generous reading would blame Timothy Leary. Breen’s basic claim in this book is that the truly wild era of psychedelic experimentation was not the 1960s but the 1930s, as he asserts in the introduction: “Timothy Leary and the Baby Boomers did not usher in the first psychedelic era. They ended it.” Leary, in particular, comes off as awful: alcoholic, megalomaniacal, delusional. He announced in 1966 that LSD had turned Allen Ginsberg straight. Seven years earlier, he showed up at Harvard University with a badly healed broken nose from a drunken brawl with his suicidal wife, who he had pushed over the edge in 1955 by blaming her for his extramarital affair. Ensconced in academic privilege, he founded a research program based on the unacknowledged work of an entire field of anthropology. Excluding female scholars, seducing students, and violating academic integrity were the hallmarks of the Harvard Psilocybin Project, which Breen depicts as “inherently elitist” in its aim of “turning on” the kinds of people dubbed “key opinion leaders” by our tech-startup world today—artists, scientists, and politicians from Mead and Bateson to Dizzy Gillespie and John F. Kennedy. A prominent Mexican psychoanalyst who tripped with Leary in Mexico City in 1960 called the self-appointed psychedelic prophet a vampire: “He wants to suck my blood,” the alienist announced at the tail end of the trip. “I am going to kill him.” In Breen’s telling, Leary instead sucked the revolutionary potential out of psychedelic science.

The final section of Tripping on Utopia is called “The Noise” in reference to a “religious outbreak” Mead studied on the island of Manus, New Guinea, “when all the old things had been thrown into the sea.” Mead describes “The Noise” as a “mystical cult” replete “with its full and familiar paraphernalia of prophecy and fulfillment, apocalyptic hopes, a utopia to be immediately established on earth, accompanied by seizures and quakings.” When the science of mind expansion fractured under the weight of 1968—student protests, anti-war demonstrations, decolonial and civil rights actions in the aftermath of the Summer of Love—Mead backed away from utopian chemistry and Bateson prophesied global climate change. In Mead’s estimation (and seemingly Breen’s), the adoption of psychopharmaceuticals by the counterculture was a disaster: “Psychedelic researchers had sought a shortcut to true cultural change, and it had backfired.” So much for the scientists. But what about the hippies? Were chemically induced altered states a necessary precondition for the sweeping cultural changes that took place in the mid-20th century? Or were they a distraction, a party drug, a plaything of the elite, a shortcut to solipsism? Was LSD the signal or the Noise?

The future so eagerly pursued by the first generation of psychedelic researchers—now pursued by well-funded research institutes at UC Berkeley and Johns Hopkins University—would have precluded the “freaky” cultural mythology we have assembled around acid trips and other chemically altered states of consciousness, and perhaps, as Breen suggests, prevented the war on drugs. The global anti-drug campaign inaugurated by Nixon caused untold suffering to the United States’ most vulnerable populations, and we would certainly be better off without it. But is personalized medical mind expansion really the utopia we want?

The Infernal Noise Brigade held its own funeral in a gravel lot near Boeing Field. The crowd of mourners got “their suits and dresses dirty, drinking whiskey […] rolling cigarettes, smoking joints, chewing chocolates packed with mushrooms” while “[s]everal guys with power tools and metal blocks were showering the crowd with sparks.” A coffin borne through the crowd was doused in kerosene and set aflame. Mead thought that modern Americans lacked the kind of social structures used by other cultures to turn hallucinatory agents into tools of meaningful transformation. The stagecraft of the Infernal Noise Brigade suggests otherwise. From 1968 on, Americans have developed a cultural mythology around altered states in which the practices of pleasure matter to the project of communal liberation. I would wager that the psilocybin, cannabis, nicotine, and even alcohol served the same function as the kerosene: accelerants in the drama of political change.

LARB Contributor

Kim Adams is a postdoctoral fellow at the PennState Humanities Institute, where she studies critical medical humanities. She co-hosts the podcast High Theory and is writing a book about electricity and the body, tentatively titled Building the Body Electric.


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