Cracking Harvard's 'psychedelic club'
Don Lattin has had some enlightening trips of his own. In addition to a number of cliffhanging LSD adventures — one of which scrambled his melon for a month — the decorated San Francisco religion reporter traveled cross-continent to talk with the characters who famously ushered hallucinogens into pop-culture consciousness. I asked Lattin about his interviews with Baba Ram Dass (the former Harvard psychology professor Richard Alpert), former MIT professor and religion scholar Huston Smith, and alternative-medicine guru Andrew Weil, the last of whose campaign to undermine the others and end the Harvard-funded party is detailed for the first time in The Harvard Psychedelic Club.
Why are the pre-psychedelic lives of these guys so integral to the story you're telling here?
All of their backgrounds are important. Weil was an only child, and because of that, he says he had a very active interior life. He used his imagination a lot, and that's where he learned some of his magical thinking. Leary had a rough childhood with a drunken Irish father who beat the shit out of him. And Alpert was coming of age sexually and realizing that he was gay, having some really bad experiences. So much of his story has to do with his sexuality from early on. His attraction to [undergraduate] Ronnie Winston ultimately got him in trouble at Harvard.
Given how much has been written about this crew, what major gaps in history do you believe your book fills?
There's a lot of new stuff, but the Andrew Weil stuff is the "Holy shit." It's been mentioned that he had something to do with this, but the story has never really been told. People forget that Weil was a drug writer before he became Mr. Holistic Health and a dietary-supplement salesman. He kind of replaced Leary and Alpert as the medical authority on how to safely get stoned. He then put that behind him and repackaged himself for a more mainstream audience. Neither Ram Dass nor Weil really wanted to talk about a lot of this, but to my relief, they both agreed to interviews.
How much of this story do you believe has been romanticized up to this point?
About 100 percent. This is like the founding myth of the '60s counterculture, even though there was a lot of truth to it. Here's an example: on the Harper Collins Web site, the first line about my book says, 'It is impossible to overstate the impact that these four men had on culture today.' Well — that sentence shows that it is possible to overstate it.
Still, there has been a subtle but powerful influence over how we look at health and well-being and how we look at religion and spirituality. About 20 years ago, people started saying that they were spiritual but not religious. I feel like slapping people when they say it, but that whole idea of people taking control of their spiritual experience and basing it on personal experience rather than on doctrine and dogma comes out of the '60s counterculture and the profound mystical experiences that people had.
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