How Was Your Trip, Allen?

Photo: Danny Kim

Timothy Leary has settled in at the New York Public Library. After many months of negotiation, the NYPL has acquired his complete papers—335 boxes of manuscripts, letters, photographs, and videos constituting the legacy of the psychedelic guru (and compulsive record-keeper). It was almost exactly 50 years ago that Leary, working at Harvard with then-legal drugs (psilocybin, mescaline, lysergic acid diethylamide), near-single-­handedly summoned forth the sixties, as he and other psychologists began testing the effects of hallucinogens on students, artists, poets, and eventually prisoners—not to mention themselves. You could call 1961 the first summer of love; it was certainly the best documented. Subjects who submitted detailed “trip reports” on a variety of psychedelic substances included Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the poet Charles Olson. Based on extensive access to the library’s new materials, which won’t be catalogued and opened to scholars for years, we’ve pieced together an appropriately meandering oral history of the ultimate Leary-orchestrated drug trip.

Charles Olson, Poet: “About twenty minutes after taking [mushrooms], I felt slightly nauseated and began to notice visual effects … Feeling sick, I moved to a nearby couch and lay down. At this time I noticed the floor under my feet was alive with patterns of color … I felt tricked!”

Robert Perlongo, Poet and Critic: “Cold felt colder than usual, warm felt warmer. Vivid colors seemed suddenly of burning intensity.”

Allen Ginsberg, Poet: “After an hour … I withdrew into visual introspection … I lay down on a large comfortable couch next to my companion Peter Orlovsky and drifted off into a reverie about the origin of the universe which involved the visualization of a sort of octipus [sic] of darkness breaking through out of the primal void … [I] envisaged various people I knew … as Seraphs or Fiendish Angels with fangs of Judgement rushing thru the void over Atlantic Blakean Spaces to make meet with each other to take Conference over the future of Life.”

Jack Kerouac, Novelist: “I saw you, Leary, as a Jesuit Father … I saw Allen [Ginsberg] as Sariputra (the Indian saint). My old idea of St. Peter (about Peter Orlov­sky) was strengthened … Pearl became a Lotus of indescribably [sic] beauty sitting there in the form of a Buddha woman Bhikkushini … Mainly I felt like a floating Khan on a magic carpet with my interesting lieutenants and gods.”

Ralph Metzner, Research Assistant: “Outside the window the branches of the tree were gigantic arms with transparent muscles, now threatening, now embracing. The bookcase was full of swimming books, the door bulged like a balloon, the carpet in the other room was full of ­thousands of little green snakes. The dial on the telephone was a huge pearl-studded wheel … I felt like yelling and shouting: ‘Look, see how beautiful, how amazing.’ ”

Gunther Weil, Research Assistant: “The sand was pure gold and eddied to a multitude of whirls and baroque bullshit. It was my head on the ground. John the Baptist on some fantastic golden plate. There were no eyes in the sockets. Just the vacant black, tortured holes. Suddenly a hand slithered out of the sand behind the head and grabbed my head by the eye sockets pulled it into the sand.”

Bill Mcglothlin, Psychologist: “I … said ‘I remember now why I stopped taking these drugs—they make me so terribly sad’ … I had paid for the full picture but I didn’t want to see the rest.”

Huston Smith, Religion Scholar: “I said to Tim … ‘[I]t looks to me like you are taking an awful chance in these experiments. Objective tests might reveal my heart and body in general to have been functioning normally through this afternoon, but there is such a thing as people being frightened to death.’ ”

Olson: “I had no sex organ. I could not find it.”

Kerouac: “On mushrooms I felt quite strong, quite angry in fact at the atheists for fighting Christianity.”

Metzner: “Deep philosophical questions arose and dissipated in a stream of verbal and logical sophistry punctuated by convulsive giggles. Gunther [Weil] asked: ‘Can I have a pain in your leg?’ and I answered: ‘Not today, but tomorrow maybe.’ ”

Weil: “I fantasied [sic] Ralph [Metzner]’s dying and a mixture of guilt and sorrow prompted me into uttering a ludicrous proposal of relief. ‘How about a glass of milk?’ ”

Olson: “Elliott and Tricia began ‘Testing’ me … I thought at one point that they were ‘petting’ and I said ‘Cut it out.’ Elliott replied, ‘Get up and do something about it. Get up!’ But I couldn’t and again felt apathetic.”

Weil: “[Metzner] called the ugly green flowers sick and dying. I called them flesh-eating plants. He screamed that I should not say that … I then went into the bathroom and took a glorious shit. That shit was the first pleasurable experience of the day.”

Mcglothlin: “In all my LSD sessions I would at some point start to go further with the drug only to be brought back by the feeling of needing to urinate.”

Kerouac: “When I went to pee I said to the toilet ‘It’s all your fault!’ and could never leave the group without feeling that they were still with me (in the toilet) … Finally I said ‘I think I’ll take a shit out the window’ in desperation, it was impossible to go on in such ecstasy and excitement.”

Ginsberg: “Kerouac in his chair developed a very funny comedy of his own … his final statement being ‘I think I’ll take a shit out of the window’ which struck me deeply as being a final transcendental put-down of the whole appearance of things … Without moving from his chair he did it. [Leary’s note—“I don’t think he did!”]”

Metzner: “I pulled myself up and kissed [Lisa] and she turned away. I said: ‘That’s right, you’re married, aren’t you’ … Smells of incense and sex were in my nostrils … I felt like a whirling dervish, a possessed dancer, like the insides of a pneumatic drill or the semen about to be discharged in an orgastic penis.”

Weil: “The bastard [Metzner] was in the middle of a fantastic hard-on vision in which his prick was growing out of his navel and took on the dimensions of a skyscraper. He looked absolutely deliriously happy and I suddenly became extremely jealous … Karin came in once and kissed me.”

Metzner: “Karin said she would be back, but I said, ‘No, no, don’t leave’ … She went through the door and her leaving became the summary and climax of all abandonments and losses and I felt I was going to die.”

Olson: “Later I thought it was required to go into the bedroom and have sex with Tricia although I knew somehow I could not. I had a great deal of trouble getting my pants off and finally ripped them. Tricia kept saying, ‘You have to do something! Do something!’ … I later found myself in the living room with only my underpants on … I found a wet spot in the center of the bed.”

Ginsberg: “I got up out of bed and walked downstairs naked … pronounced my nakedness as the first act of revolution against the destroyers of the human image … and grabbed the telephone to communicate my decision—wanted to hook up [Khrushchev], Kerouac, Burroughs, Ike, Kennedy, Mao … Mailer in Bellevue, etc.—all on one telephone line and get them all to come immediately to Harvard to have spectral conference over the Future of the universe … Got as far as telling the phone operator I was GOD and wanted to talk with Kerouac … reached him and had a [very] expressive conversation.”

Perlongo:“This general quickening of reality led, particularly in the middle hours (the third and fourth hours after taking), to moments of deep self-realization … The question of What Is Life? Seemed to become a burning issue … I became sad because there was so much I did not know, so much I could not account for.”

Smith:“In this condition you discover who you are at base. In my case, family man, teacher, etc. At one point I felt certain I had come upon an important theoretical point regarding personality and its structure … Now I can’t recollect what it was.”

From Harvard to Algeria, With a Few Stops in Outer Space
Artifacts from a long, strange life.

How Was Your Trip, Allen?