(RNS) If the word “psychedelic” conjures up images of San Francisco or Woodstock, there’s much more to learn from journalist Don Lattin’s mind-blowing guided tour of the colorful people who gave birth to America’s psychedelic era in an unlikely place: Harvard University.
In his new book, “The Harvard Psychedelic Club,” which has received enthusiastic reviews and generated interest in Hollywood, Lattin expertly shows how Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil crossed paths at Harvard in the fall of 1960 before going their own separate ways.
Lattin, a veteran religion reporter who walked on the wild side more than a few times himself, traces how the four men forever changed the way people — both straight and stoned — think about spirituality.
Bits and pieces of their stories have been told before, but Lattin artfully weaves them together, creating a stronger, more compelling narrative that enlightens as much as it informs.
“A few million people in my generation took some kind of psychedelic drug in the`60s and`70s,” says Lattin, a baby boomer who spent nearly two decades covering the multifaceted religious scene of the Left Coast for the San Francisco Chronicle.
“That’s a significant minority of people who experienced either profound enlightenment or soul-shattering psychological terror. And while there were a lot of casualties, the bottom line for me is that these experiences had an effect on the way people today see the connections between body, mind and spirit.”
Leary was a Harvard psychology professor who became LSD’s notorious Pied Piper thanks to his charisma and his affinity for tossing off sound bites like “Turn on, tune in and drop out.”
Fellow professor Alpert journeyed to India in search of a spirituality that went deeper than LSD. He returned with a new name (Ram
Dass) and a best-selling book (“Be Here Now”) that served as a road map for fellow pilgrims.
Missionary kid Smith, who penned the classic “The World’s Religions” before experiencing a drug-fueled religious epiphany, grew tired of Leary and his many disciples who couldn’t experience karma without chemicals.
And Weil, who brought an end to Leary’s Harvard drug “research” with a damning expose in the student paper, found his niche as an expert — and then entrepreneur — promoting medical practices that borrow from both Western and Eastern practices.
For Lattin, writing about psychedelics is the latest chapter in an esteemed career spent exploring the iconoclastic spiritual quest of boomers, a subject he wrote about in 2003’s “Following Our Bliss.”
“This is about more than people getting high,” he said in an interview. “It’s about people who experimented with psychedelics in a self-exploratory way. Sure, some of them got high and had a good time. But there’s more to it than that.”
Lattin broke two laws of objective journalism in writing “The Harvard Psychedelic Club.” After completing a first draft in a straightforward nonfiction style, he rewrote it in the narrative nonfiction style, complete with imagined conversations based on extensive research.
And after religiously avoiding the first-person “I” during his years as a reporter, he decided to come out of the closet about his own experience with psychedelics, including the good trips that made him feel one with nature and the bad trips that nearly “fried” his brain.
“I struggled with including this stuff,” he said, “not because I was ashamed or embarrassed, but because this book is not about me. But in the end I decided it gives me some credibility to say that I have been there.”
Lattin, who was raised by a Jewish mother and Presbyterian father, says he’s been off the drugs for years. Instead, he gets his kicks gleefully describing episodes like the 1962 Good Friday Experiment at Boston University, during which students from Andover Newton Theological Seminary reported having LSD-fueled transformative religious experiences.
But he takes a critical stance toward Leary, who was more successful at self-promotion than as a teacher, researcher, friend, husband or father. Lattin holds Leary largely responsible for promoting the kinds of widespread drug abuse that led to LSD being outlawed in 1966.
“It’s a love/hate thing with Leary,” Lattin said. “He was a brilliant guy, but he had the least positive long-term impact and created the most damage along the way.”
On the other hand, he has great respect for Alpert, Smith and Weil, who Lattin said “found their way back into mainstream culture and helped transform it.”
Lattin draws a sharp line between self-exploration and self-medication. And he judges people’s spirituality by the quality of their works, not the vividness of their raptures.
“The real test of a person’s spirit is the way they live their lives,” he writes. “It’s what happens after the ecstasy.”
By STEVE RABEY
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