Timothy’s Bon Voyage

Autumn 1996 Vol. 06, No. 4 An Invitation for Dialogue

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For the past three years I have been compiling Timothy Leary’s Festschrift, a book of writings by his contemporaries about his legacy. I was moved to this task at the 1993 Fifty Years of LSD conference sponsored by Sandoz and the Swiss Academy of Medicine where about 100 participants, mostly psychiatrists, gathered to review the “state of the art and perspectives on hallucinogens.” Whenever Tim’s name came up at this meeting it was with a disdain and mocking that trivialized his contributions, both scientific and sociopolitical, to psychedelic knowledge. In the proceedings of that meeting, Alfred Pletscher, then president of the Swiss Academy of Medicine, who has never taken LSD, wrote:

“…unfortunately LSD did not remain in the scientific and medical scene, but fell into the hands of esoterics and hippies and was used by hundreds and thousands of people in mass-gatherings. This uncontrolled propagation of LSD had dangerous consequences…” (emphasis added)

This is a long subject and is the starting point for Tim’s Festschrift. My thoughts are very different from Dr. Pletscher’s. I think the greatest impact of psychedelics on modern culture has come not from the medical/scientific community but from the eloquence of Aldous Huxley, the scholarship of Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann’s serendipity, and Timothy Leary. With the proper understanding of Leary’s seminal formulation of the set and setting hypothesis, and an appreciation of the long history of psychedelics, you have all you need to allow these drugs to work for everyone’s enlightenment. There were casualties from misuse and misguided understanding, and this is unfortunate; but this is the case with any great discovery, I dare say.

When I returned from Europe I began contacting folks to write about Tim’s legacy. This began two years before he went public with the fact of his inoperable cancer. The response has been overwhelming. So far we’ve collected original writings from over 40 authors including Hunter S. Thompson, Albert Hofmann, Rosemary Wood-ruff Leary, Allen Ginsburg, Robert Hunter, Terence McKenna, Andy Weil, Winona Ryder, etc. The result is a rich mosaic of his extraordinary life.

Because of this work I am grateful to have had the chance to spend many hours with Tim at his home during his last few months, in the light of his crazy wisdom, making his Taster’s Choice freeze-dried coffee, lighting his smokes, buttoning his shirts, filling his nitrous balloons, pouring through his archives, and in general, loving him. Yes, loving him, for though he was often a cantankerous old coot, fraught with contradictions, he emanated a vitality, a boundless optimism, a brilliance, a joy of living, a child-like absorption in the present moment. He was a great, great man. A one-liner that Tim said to John Barlow not long before he died may capture his essence. In reference to Bo, Tim’s aged golden retriever, so old he could no longer see or smell, Tim said of himself, “I’m just a seeing eye human for a blind dog.” On another occasion, years ago, he told Rosemary he was, “an inefficient wizard.”


Some memories I hope I’ll never forget: On August 9, 1995 the day Jerry Garcia died, I picked Tim up at the San Francisco airport to take him to an art opening in the city where he was to sign sheets of blotter art. Before we left the airport, a fifty year old man in a business suit recognized Tim, came over, bent down on one knee and kissed Leary’s hand. “You taught me the power of belief; the power of my own mind. I’m forever grateful to you. You helped me save my life.” Later that night, at a restaurant in Half Moon Bay with Rosemary, another man came over also to bow in homage. Rosemary said this happened all the time.

By the end of February 1996 it looked like he had run out of life. He became confined to a wheel chair and the sores on his body worsened. They didn’t have the pain medication right yet and he was suffering. By Tim’s own quality of life scoreboard, he was in the last inning. A rumor leaked out he would depart voluntarily on March 9. Quickly, Ralph Metzner arranged a Harvard reunion farewell party for the old professor on March 16: an Irish wake. That day, as the sun was setting, we were semi-circled around Tim while Irish ballads were sung. There was a feeling in the air, reflected in everyone’s faces, a feeling I’ve felt twice before: on a massive dose of LSD, and at a birth. It was, I think, what Mircea Eliade would call a “hierophany,” where the sacred appears in ordinary reality with an otherworldly, distinctly numinous quality. It was as if a heaven was opening for him and shone some of that light down here. Many of us felt it and sobbed tears of joy.


The next day at Tim’s house, late in the evening of St. Patrick’s Day, after most of the guests had said their good-byes, a fellow appeared with a vial of N,N-DMT and offered some to those of us who were still around. Tim excitedly said “yes,” and the others, who had heard of DMT, but had not tried it, were eager as well. I had experienced DMT before, in all its shocking glory, and I wondered what effect it would have on Tim. We gathered around the old boy to see.

He took a full pipe-full. It’s hard to say how much was there. It looked like it was approximately 50 milligrams. He inhaled fully without a trace of discomfort, thanked the giver with a wink and a nod as he laid back on his bed. His last gesture was a thumbs up sign as his head hit the pillow. His eyes rolled up into his forehead, his mouth slightly open. The pipe was filled again and passed around to six or eight of the people seated on the floor. Tim just lay there quietly, his eyes in rapid movement but otherwise motionless, while the rest of the group took off. After a few minutes it was clear everyone had a strong trip. One person vomited, others wandered around the house dazed, wondering what had hit them. There were exclamations of this being the most powerful and beautiful experience they ever had. One man reported that he perceived matter was composed of light that was organized into discreet moments by his mind. Tim was still, so still one person thought he’d died. But he was breathing peacefully, just very lightly, a full twenty minutes after smoking. Finally he opened his eyes and was fully alert. He said something about “that beautiful light,” then he fired up a Bensen and Hedges and carried on as if nothing had happened.


The next weekend I arrived at Tim’s at 2:00 AM. I was shocked at what I saw. He was radiant. He looked younger, I told him. “Oh yeah?” he said, “Watch this.” And he stood up out of bed and patted himself down vigorously. The previous week he was too sore to touch, nor could he stand. “I don’t believe in this mental healing shit,” he said, “But I think I’m doing it. Now I’m only afraid everyone will think I’m a fraud. Well, I was sick.” Was this denial? Or the DMT? It’s typical for the dying to experience a surge of life right at the end and maybe this was his. He told me he’d stopped drinking and that he hadn’t ever felt better than he did right now. We phoned Albert Hofmann. “Albert, we’ve always been working together, and you’re in our thoughts all the time,” Tim said. Albert expressed his admiration for Tim’s courage, albeit reckless. Rosemary reminded Albert of when they met in Lausanne in ’72, when Tim was in exile there. Albert told them then, “Swans mate forever;” he was pleased Tim and Rosemary were still together and in love after all they’d been through. Tim insisted Albert come and visit when he comes to the states in October but when he got off the phone even he had to admit that he was maybe being too optimistic.

Dying with dignity

His surge lasted two months. From mid- March till mid-May he was lucid, playful, wise. He was dying with grace, humor, dignity, and not without, I must add, some real human terror and fear. Dying with dignity doesn’t mean fear and terror are absent. It means you embrace the terror as you do the joy of life’s greatest mystery.

The house was open to anyone who wanted to visit. They came at all hours of the day and night. “Seven million people I turned on,” he said, “and only one hundred thousand have come by to thank me.”

Many of these well wishers brought drugs with them and Tim was an indiscriminate user. Toward the end of May, after a few days of ketamine and some narcotic drugs, he began drinking alcohol more heavily and he began to show signs of kidney and liver failure. The hospice nurse said death was imminent. I came down to see him one last time and found him confused and incoherent most of the time; he was frustrated he couldn’t recognize even old friends. He hadn’t slept for two days, as if he were afraid to go lie down. He was falling asleep standing up. “Tim, go to bed,” I told him. “Why, why should I?” he protested. “Because you’re falling asleep standing up.” “I’m okay, I know what I’m doing,” he said with a wink, “it’s kind of interesting really, you should try it sometime.” He talked to himself, “I did a good job,” he said again and again, “I did a good job.” Finally his friend, the angelic Camella, snuggled him off to sleep. I spent that night outside his door. The next morning when I heard him stir I went in to help. When he saw me the first thing he said, trying to be chipper, was “Great to see you. Now, how are we going to make people smarter and happier today?” But a couple hours later his energy was low and he asked for some cocaine. Someone offered him DMT instead. This was to be his last psychedelic experience. It was approximately 50 milligrams again, smoked in a glass pipe. A man and a woman, both old friends, held his hands as he laid back in his bed. A look of sublime peace came over him and again he said softly, “Beautiful.” Then he looked just a bit worried, maybe puzzled. Then he came back, more dazed than the last time. “What happened?” they asked him. “I went to heaven,” he said with a smile, “and saw William Burroughs there.”

When I was preparing to go down to Los Angeles for the memorial services my seven year old son said to me: “Dad, why was Timothy so famous anyway? What’d he do? Free the slaves or something?” That’s as to the point as anything I’ve heard.

Robert is a graduate of the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. Since 1985 he has been on the board of directors of the Church of the Awakening. Anyone interested in publishing the Festschrift, please contact Robert through MAPS.