Timothy Leary

Timothy Leary (1920-1996) was a psychologist, author, lecturer, and cult figure. He was best known for having popularized the use of mind-altering drugs in the 1960s.

Timothy Leary was born October 22, 1920, in Springfield, Massachusetts. He was educated at Holy Cross College, the U.S. Military Academy, the University of Alabama (A.B., 1943), Washington State University (M.S., 1946), and the University of California at Berkeley (Ph.D., 1950). During World War II, Leary served in the U.S. Army, achieving the rank of sergeant in the Medical Corps. Subsequently he was an assistant professor at the University of California; director of psychiatric research at the Kaiser Foundation, Oakland, California; and a lecturer in psychology at Harvard University.

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Tuned In To LSD

At Harvard, Leary became interested in the properties of hallucinogenic drugs, notably a compound known as LSD (d-lysergic acid diethylamide). He and his colleague Richard Alpert were propagandists for psychedelic drugs as well as experimenters, alarming Harvard to the point where they were instructed not to use undergraduates as subjects for research. Violating this rule led to their expulsion from the Harvard faculty in 1963. (Leary was actually charged with absence without leave.) By this time, Leary and Alpert had left the conventions of science far behind. An article by them published in the Harvard Review hailed the drug life: "Remember, man, a natural state is ecstatic wonder, ecstatic intuition, ecstatic accurate movement. Don't settle for less."

Leary and Alpert then founded the International Foundation for Internal Freedom (IFIF) to promote LSD and similar drugs. In 1965 Leary visited India and converted to Hinduism, announcing that his work was basically religious. The following year, IFIF headquarters at Millbrook, New York, was raided by local police under the direction of G. Gordon Liddy, later to become notorious himself as the iron man of the Watergate scandal. Four people were arrested for possession of drugs. At about this time, Leary founded the League for Spiritual Discovery, which he defined as a religious movement "dedicated to the ancient sacred sequence of turning on, tuning it, and dropping out." It staged multimedia liturgical celebrations in various places around the country. Leary was more responsible than any other single person for the widespread consumption of LSD and other psychedelic drugs in the 1960s. Millions are thought to have "dropped acid" during those years, including many famous Americans. As LSD was found to have dangerous side-effects its glamour faded and the use of it was confined mainly to hard core members of the drug-taking underground.

Jailed for Possession of Marijuana

Leary's popularity as the leader of a national cult declined thereafter and his troubles worsened. He had been arrested for possessing a small quantity of marijuana in 1965 and again in 1968. He was given ten-year sentences on each count, to be served consecutively rather than concurrently. This harsh sentence was almost certainly a result of his notoriety, as it bore little relation to the offenses, which even then were not regarded as serious. After serving only six months, Leary, with the aid of the Weather Underground, a left-wing terrorist organization, escaped from prison. Thereafter, he resided in Algeria, Switzerland, and finally Afghanistan. In 1973 he was seized and returned to California, where he was given an additional sentence for his prison escape. Leary was not released from confinement until 1976.

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Interest in Outer Space

After his release, Leary became an active writer and lecturer on behalf of various enthusiasms. No longer obsessed with drugs, he promoted self-development in other ways. He advocated theories looking to the emergence of disembodied intelligence. He organized Starseed, a cooperative that hoped to colonize outer space. In 1982 he toured the lecture circuit debating with G. Gordon Liddy, who took an opposite stand on all issues. Leary acted in movies, appeared often on television and radio, performed in night clubs, and worked as a disc jockey.

Mind-Altering Software

Leary was always entertaining when sharing his beliefs. He lectured at colleges and performed at comedy clubs with equal ease. He remained interested in new ways to alter conciousness and increase intelligence. He developed SMILE in 1980, which stood for "Space Migration, Increased Intelligence, Life Extension." He published his autobiography, Flashbacks in 1983. The following year, He launched Futique, Inc., a Hollywood-based company that would create mind-altering software. "Mind Mirror," a self-analysis program was released by Futique in 1986. The next year, "Mind Movie," through which users could create electronic novels was marketed by the company. By the decade's end, Leary had become the head of a second software company, Telelctronics.

Leary's last book, Chaos and Cyber Culture (1994) was a hypertext instruction book of sorts, proclaiming that "the pc is the lsd of the '90s." Leary even "wired" his own final days on his World Wide Web site (www.leary.com) in word and image. Leary surrounded himself with friends, famous and otherwise, as well. As Gen X chronicler and longtime friend of Leary, Douglas Rushkoff wrote in Esquire, "On learning of his inoperable prostate cancer, Tim realized he was smack in the middle of another great taboo: dying. True to character, he wasn't about to surrender to the fear and shame we associate with death in modern times. No, this was going to be a party." Originally, Leary had planned to have his brain cryogenically frozen, but decided instead to have his ashes shot into space. Leary died in Beverly Hills, California, on May 31, 1996. His last words: "why not?"

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Further Reading on Timothy Leary

Leary wrote or edited, alone or with others, some 17 books. Among them are High Priest (1968), The Politics of Ecstasy (1968), Confessions of a Hope Fiend (1973), Neuropolitics: The Sociobiology of Human Metamorphosis (1977), and How To Use Drugs Intelligently (1983). In 1986 he created a computer program called "Mind Mirror" designed to analyze thoughts. There is no biography of Leary, though he has written his own memoirs, Flashbacks (1983). See also Chaos and Cyber Culture (1994). He has been the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine stories. For most recent stories, see: "Leary's last trip," by Douglas Rushkoff in Esquire, August 1996; and "Dr. Tim's last trip," by Jeffrey Ressner in Time, April 29, 1996.