Novelist T.C. Boyle focuses on real-life figures with cult-like followings — he’s written fiction about cornflakes king John Harvey Kellogg, architect Frank Lloyd Wright and sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. Now, in his latest novel, he imagines what it was like to participate in Timothy Leary’s hallucinogenic drug experiments in the early 1960s.
Outside Looking In tells a fictional story about psychology graduate students at Harvard University who attempt to explore the nature of human consciousness by taking psychedelic drugs. Boyle says he was intrigued by recent news stories about LSD coming back into medical use. “So I went back to discover where it’s all coming from,” he says.
In 1960, psychologist Timothy Leary took a trip to Mexico, where he ate psilocybin mushrooms and decided to redirect his respected clinical research on personality studies to the effects of hallucinogens on the mind. Leary eventually took his experiments to a 64-room mansion in Millbrook, N.Y., where he extolled the virtues of psychedelics.
“LSD is like a microscope, even an electron microscope, which opens up an awareness of energies which are there,” Leary said. “There’s nothing miraculous or mysterious about LSD. In any situation where we now use our symbolic mind, the microscope of LSD will help us see more, see faster, and see deeper.”
Gunther Weil was a 23-year-old doctoral student in clinical psychology when he entered Harvard in 1960. Leary was his faculty adviser, and Weil says that Boyle got a lot of things right in his novel.
“I think he did an incredibly great job describing the zeitgeist of the time — the nature of the trips,” Weil says. “The protagonist is a graduate student who seems to be an amalgam of a number of us.”
Over four years Weil says he attended between 40 and 50 research sessions — ingesting the hallucinogens psilocybin and LSD with a handful of colleagues.
“We definitely felt that we were on the leading edge of research in consciousness,” he recalls. “We definitely felt like pioneers. We definitely were enthralled and captured by the mysteries that we were beginning to approach.”
One of those mysteries was Weil’s own spirituality. The psychedelic drugs he ingested are known as “entheogens” — that is, they allow you to see God. Weil says he experienced that personally — “in the sense of oneness, the interconnection of all phenomena, of understanding underlying spiritual nature of existence — absolutely, yes.”
That mystical aspect of psychedelic drugs fascinated Boyle. “If God is as simple as altering the chemistry of the brain what does that mean for our world religions?” Boyle asks. “Is there anything outside of us? Or is it all inside of us? And it is all hormonal and brain functions? And if this little fungus can give us God, then who are we? What does that mean? What do we need God for?”
In the novel, as Leary’s acolytes get more involved in LSD, their research becomes less scientific and more hedonistic — the participants go beyond graduate students to include musicians, fashion models and socialites who had heard about the experiments.
And then, of course, there are the bad acid trips — which Boyle, now 70, knows a thing or two about. Boyle thinks his perspective on Leary’s experiments may have been colored by his own drug use when he was in his 20s.
“I’ll fess up — I never had a good trip,” Boyle says. “Never. I think my mind is too active anyway. I’m always out there in outer space — this is why I’m a novelist. So we would all begin our trips communally at a great time, fireplaces going, music playing — we’re laughing, everything’s great, we’re seeing things. Everybody else will have crashed. And I would be up, you know, with the snakes crawling out of my stomach, for the next six hours.”
Today, Boyle says he gets his highs from getting lost in his work, lost in music, and lost in the nature of the California Sierras.