"Flashbacks," Timothy Leary's autobiography, is a story that might have been great reading in the hands of a different author. Just how the eventual champion of "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out" got from West Point cadet in 1941 to international psychedelic fugitive in 1971 has the makings of a first-class new age saga. As it is, Leary's autobiographical effort is spotty: too loose in some spots, too tight in others, afflicted with the sappy flavor congenital to memories put on paper too often or with too much haste, or both. "Flashbacks," unfortunately, reads somewhat as if Leary wrote it because he was short of money.
Starting with his arrival at Harvard University's Center for Personality Research in 1960 as an early advocate of transactional psychology, Leary tells bits and pieces of his previous life in flashbacks salted through his Harvard years. At Harvard, he and Richard Alpert pioneered experimentation with psychedelic drugs as a means of inducing mystical or transcendental experiences. When their experiments began, both were part of a life Leary describes as that of "a successful robot--respected, clean cut, and, in that inert culture, unusually creative."
Fifteen years later, Alpert had changed his name to Baba Ram Dass and Leary had escaped from a California prison. Though Leary complains early in his book, "hardly a day in my life has gone by without someone . . . grabbing my hand with that intense look and pouring out a resume of their first psychedelic experience," he fills much of his account of his Harvard years doing its authorly equivalent.
The reader is treated to a long series of psilocybin, LSD, peyote or mushroom bouts with the likes of Arthur Koestler, Allen Ginsberg, Charlie Mingus, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Otto Preminger. He also discusses the subject with Abraham Maslow, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe, Aldous Huxley and others. By 1963, Leary had become too controversial for Harvard and went free-lance with his exploration of what he calls "the neurological frontier."
Leary's arrival in Millbrook, N.Y., to continue his exploration in 1963 is an adequate historical marker for the beginnings of what would be called "the psychedelic revolution" in the popular press. During the following decade, millions of Americans would sample hallucinogens, and Leary, more than any other person, was held up as the symbol of that turn of mind. He appeared on hundreds of college campuses, advocating the use of psychedelics in general and LSD in particular, as means of achieving a higher state of consciousness.
Eventually run out of Millbrook by Assistant District Attorney G. Gordon Liddy, Leary ended up camping in teepees near the Pacific Ocean in California. Along the way, he collected marijuana charges in Texas and California. The California charges led to his imprisonment in 1970.
As written, the most interesting part of Leary's story begins with his arrival at a California prison in 1970. Less than a year later, he escaped and was whisked to Seattle by the Weather Underground. From there, it was Paris and then Algiers, where he became the houseguest of Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panther government in exile. Fleeing Cleaver, Leary and his wife went to Switzerland and lived with a gun runner until fleeing to Austria, then Afghanistan. He was eventually brought back from Kabul in chains and greeted by a throng of press photographers at the Los Angeles airport.
Three years in prison followed, terminated by his becoming what several newspapers at the time called a "federal informant." According to Leary, he was interrogated by FBI agents looking for information about the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers. He claims not to have told them anything they didn't already know. He was paroled in 1976. Since then, he has earned his living writing books and giving lectures. He still takes "psychoactive" drugs and is into space migration.
What is missing from "Flashbacks" is critical intelligence. Leary is a good enough storyteller to have made his autobiography work, had he the perspective the material demands. Instead, he somewhat disingenuously pictures himself as a simple recipient of events, as though it all just happened to him. It quite naturally may have seemed that way at the time, but that still reduces the drama to action and the action to melodrama.
Consequently, "Flashbacks" reads short on credibility and long on license. Leary remembers 25-year-old conversations verbatim and his story thins at all the points where it demands a voice other than that of the idiosyncratic raconteur. That Timothy Leary's life has been both full and unique is apparent; that it has been a considered life has yet to be demonstrated.