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EHE Autobiographies
Record Type: Review   ID: 85

Flashbacks: A Personal and Cultural History of An Era. An Autobiography

Leary, Timothy

 This autobiography is exciting, enraging, uplifting, amazing. Everyone interested in exceptional human experience should read it. Anyone intelligent, caring, and creative standing in Leary’s shoes would have done as he did—if they also had the courage. Throughout his life he did many courageous things. He was true to his visions. His account of the first time he took LSD is right up there with the best EHEs in print. He begins with his wife’s suicide, when he was 35. This dark night took him to Italy where he was living "in exile" and was just finishing a book about a new therapy that would involve the therapist as much as the client. He felt he had found a way in which humans could direct their own evolution. He needed a university or clinic to test it. With that, his old friend psychologist Frank Barron arrived on a visit, which led eventually to his appointment to Harvard. The rest, of course, is history. He relates this history in an interesting way. Chapters describing what happened at Harvard, beginning with psilocybin, are interspersed with chapters that flash back to his earlier life. I and everyone interested in the role exceptional human experience can play in human evolution is greatly indebted to Leary. Without the backdrop of his work that directly influenced many people who took the visionary drugs to those who were indirectly influenced in a positive way, such as prison wardens where he experimented with prisoners, leavened the inhospitable soil for us today. Until I read this book I thought of my major intellectual forebears as being F.W.H. Myers, William James, Carl Jung, Gardner Murphy, and Abraham Maslow. Perhaps Leary was the biggest giant of them all—and one who lived what he experienced, continuing to evolve. Not knowing his side of the story, I tagged him as bright but flaky. He was very bright, true, but if he was flaky so am I. And his courage was awesome. A friend whom others considered courageous pointed out that that was not the case—she simply did what she couldn’t help doing. I think, though, that many of us would have passed the cup at some point along Leary’s way—but he didn’t. This autobiography should be read by all EHEers for the example Leary sets of one who did not turn away from his highest or deepest experiences in order to protect himself. As I read the book and marked key insights he had that I too have realized, I see how unwittingly I am following in his footsteps, in a much lesser way. The point of this is not to emphasize my role—I want to convey that I have encountered large clear footprints on the path before me. It is profoundly moving and exciting and I wish he were still around so I could thank him. The book also is a unique biographical dictionary of the consciousness pioneers Leary met or worked with or was influenced by. In addition to a thumbnail sketch of their lives and accomplishments, which heads the chapter in which he or she first figures, we get the first-hand cameo provided by Leary in the course of his description of his interaction with that person. Some of them are Dante, William James, Frank Barron, Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg, Arthur Koestler, Richard Alpert, Ralph Metzner, Robert Gordon Wasson, William Burroughs, Walter H. Clark, Alan Watts, Carlos Castaneda, Wilhelm Reich, Robert Anton Wilson, Ken Kesey, Hermann Hesse, Gurdjieff, Marshall McLuhan, Aleister Crowley, James Joyce, Socrates, Albert Hofmann, Paracelsus, John Lilly. There are more. In his extremely informed and informal style, he describes the Millbrook years, Hollywood, imprisonment, and after imprisonment. The book culminates in an epilogue in which he describes how he becomes as attuned to cyberspace as to the terrene world, calling himself and others so disposed "amphibians." He thinks that entering cyberspace ushers the next stage in human evolution and that "educating myself and others to live in Cyberia is, I believe, the best thing for me and for the planet" (p. 386). Anyone should find something of interest in this book in which Leary simply but entertainingly describes how he followed his path. He cut quite a swath!
Publisher Information:Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1990. Chap. notes: 387-405; 37 illus
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