City Paper is not for tourists
“They changed the way we view the world, heal ourselves, and practice religion. They changed the way we see the very nature of reality. We see the best of them in the best of ourselves.” Well, not quite. But Timothy Leary, Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil were admittedly responsible for fostering much of the drug culture and the fascination with Eastern religion that characterized the 1960s. Don Lattin, the San Francisco Chronicle’s religion reporter for nearly two decades, has produced an informed and engaging yet overly romanticized account of four 1960s-era psychedelic radicals. Leary—who advised a generation of Americans to “turn on, tune in, drop out”—was the most charismatic of the four men who met at Harvard at the dawn of the ’60s and began experimenting with psilocybin, mescaline, and, most explosively, LSD, before parting ways. Leary, for his part, practiced what he preached; he “remained a dropout,” writes Lattin, “but Huston Smith, Richard Alpert, and Andrew Weil each found their way back into mainstream culture and helped transform it.” At the height the sociopolitical ferment of the ’60s, the graduates of the Harvard Psychedelic Club were seriously touting LSD as the panacea to the world’s problems. But now that LSD use is largely confined to Widespread Panic concerts, it becomes clear that Leary’s legacy has been superseded by that of Smith (and to a lesser extent Ram Dass), who helped introduce Americans to Eastern religion, and Weil, one of today’s best-known authorities on holistic medicine. It’s hard to accord the same grudging respect for the author’s enthusiastic identification with his subjects. Lattin fails to make any distinction between distortion and expansion of consciousness, consistently employing the latter term to describe tripping on LSD. Even more problematic, he goes so far as to adopt his subjects’ solipsistic view that one cannot truly understand the phenomenon of the acid trip unless one experiences it personally. This, coupled with Lattin’s simplistic regurgitation of the philosophical dichotomy that reason is “Western” and spirituality “Eastern,” emerges as the book’s greatest conceptual weakness. Fortunately, however, Lattin’s snappy conversational prose and poignant insights into his subjects’ often-tortured personal lives make his book worth the trip.