When America First Dropped Acid

One evening in September of 1957, viewers across America could turn on their television sets and tune in to a CBS broadcast during which a young woman dropped acid. She sat next to a man in a suit: Sidney Cohen, the researcher who had given her the LSD. The woman wore lipstick and nail polish, and her eyes were shining. “I wish I could talk in Technicolor,” she said. And, at another point, “I can see the molecules. I . . . I’m part of it. Can’t you see it?” “I’m trying,” Cohen replied.

Were some families maybe—oh, I don’t know—eating meat loaf on TV trays as they watched this nice lady undergo her mind-bending, molecule-revealing journey through inner space? Did they switch to “Father Knows Best” or “The Perry Como Show” afterward? One of the feats that the historian Benjamin Breen pulls off in his lively and engrossing new book, “Tripping on Utopia: Margaret Mead, the Cold War, and the Troubled Birth of Psychedelic Science” (Grand Central), is to make a cultural moment like the anonymous woman’s televised trip seem less incongruous, if no less fascinating.

In Breen’s telling, the buttoned-down nineteen-fifties, not the freewheeling nineteen-sixties, brought together the ingredients, some of them toxic, for the first large-scale cultural experiment with consciousness-expanding substances. The psychedelic flowering of the sixties has, it turns out, a prequel—a rich and partly forgotten chapter before the hippie movement, before the shamanistic preening and posturing of Timothy Leary, and before the war on drugs shut all that down. This earlier history encompasses not only the now notorious C.I.A. research into mind-altering drugs but also a lighter, brighter, more public dimension of better living through chemistry, buoyed by postwar scientific optimism and public reverence for expertise. “Timothy Leary and the Baby Boomers did not usher in the first psychedelic era,” Breen writes. “They ended it.”

So the era we’re living in now is not the first in which LSD and other psychedelics were poised to enter the mainstream. In the twenty-twenties, psychedelics sit comfortably within politely au-courant circles of wellness culture, startup capitalism, and clinical research. Some Gen X-ers are as likely to try ayahuasca for a midlife crisis, or sub out their Lexapro for microdoses of LSD, as they might once have been to troop into the woods behind campus the day after finals with a few friends and a freezer bag full of shrivelled mushrooms. A number of recent studies have shown that psychedelics hold promise for treating depression, easing end-of-life anxiety, and helping people cope with grief. The best-selling 2018 book about this new science and its ramifications, “How to Change Your Mind,” by Michael Pollan, has been so influential in piquing hopes for hallucinogens that scientific papers have identified what they call the Pollan Effect. (It describes the high expectations that some subjects bring to psychedelic studies, which can potentially influence how they report their experiences.) In 2019, Denver became the first U.S. city to decriminalize the use of psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in hallucinogenic mushrooms, and in 2020 Oregon became the first state to legalize it for use in therapy. Voters in several other localities, from Santa Cruz to Detroit to Washington, D.C., have since approved similar initiatives. This year, the F.D.A. will consider approving MDMA, the drug many of us know in its street form as Ecstasy (and may still associate with raves), for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. Even big pharmaceutical companies are looking to get in on the action.

The contemporary psychedelic movement shimmers, in other words, with next-big-thing energy, much of it centered less on freestyle tripping than on medicalized treatment. But Breen, a professor at U.C. Santa Cruz, whose previous book was on the history of the global drug trade, establishes that the feeling of déjà vu is real. We have been on this trip—or a version of it—before. For anyone who has closely followed the sinuous cultural, legal, and scientific saga of LSD, the outlines of its story will not come as a revelation. The C.I.A.’s MK-ULTRA program—which, headed by the chemist Sidney Gottlieb, conducted covert experiments into mind control via hypnosis and psychoactive drugs—has attracted many chroniclers since it first came to light, in the mid-seventies. (Recent examples include the investigative reporter Stephen Kinzer, in the 2019 book “Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control,” and the documentarian Errol Morris, with his eerie six-part Netflix series, “Wormwood,” about Frank Olson, a biowarfare scientist and C.I.A. employee who plunged to his death from a Manhattan hotel room in 1953, nine days after Gottlieb furtively dosed him with LSD.)

Breen extends this hall of mirrors, though. For one thing, he anoints the anthropologists Margaret Mead and her third husband, Gregory Bateson, as the book’s principals, a role he allows they would “likely have been surprised” by. (It’s true that they don’t turn up much in previous histories of psychedelics.) They belong here as spiritual guides, weaving in and out of a checkered story, Breen explains, owing to “their shared vision of science as a tool for expanding human consciousness.” Mead, for one, thought it was crucial that, as she wrote, we “reach an awareness which will give us a new control over our human destiny” and “learn consciously to create civilizations within which an increasing proportion of human beings will realize more of what they have it in them to be.”

“Should I wear my usual pants, or the same pants but newer?”

Cartoon by Colin Tom

Her study of trance states, in Bali and elsewhere, was part of a long-standing interest in psychedelics. After conducting field work with the Omaha people in Nebraska in the nineteen-thirties, she wrote respectfully about their ritual use of peyote to promote social cohesion, foster enlightenment, and respond to social stresses. In the mid-fifties, by which time Mead was a well-known public intellectual, she was intrigued enough by LSD to observe its administration to a young volunteer in an MK-ULTRA lab experiment. Drugs such as LSD could be “integrative and insight-giving,” she wrote in a letter to a colleague, so long as they were pursued in “a responsible experimental spirit.” Mead told other colleagues that she planned to take LSD herself. What ultimately dissuaded her, Breen suspects, was the drug’s reputation as a truth serum. In 1955, five years after her marriage to Bateson dissolved, Mead would move in with her romantic partner Rhoda Métraux, an anthropologist. They lived together for the next twenty years. Mead had close relationships with C.I.A. and other government officials; she had a security clearance; she was a prominent and widely admired scientist. She must have worried, Breen argues, that she’d risk it all by letting slip an avowal of her bisexuality.

Bateson was an anthropologist who developed a specialty in systems theory and cybernetics, and he served in the O.S.S., the precursor of the C.I.A., during the Second World War. He mainly worked on propaganda missions in Burma, but his stint in the agency brought him into contact with intelligence figures who were interested in the military applications of mind-altering drugs. He and Mead remained in touch with these shadowy figures and with a broader circle of researchers who met regularly at influential conferences, sponsored by the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation, on subjects such as neuroscience, cybernetics, hallucinogens, and the future. In 1959, Bateson set Allen Ginsberg up on the poet’s first psychedelic trip, at a lab near Palo Alto. “It was astounding,” Ginsberg wrote home to his father, a schoolteacher in Paterson, New Jersey. “I lay back, listening to music, & went into a sort of trance state . . . and in a fantasy much like a Coleridge World of Kubla Khan saw a vision of that part of my consciousness which seemed to be permanent transcendent and identical with the origin of the universe—a sort of identity common to everything—but a clear & coherent sight of it. Rather beautiful visual images also, of Hindu-type gods dancing on themselves.” Ginsberg urged his father, who was also a poet, to try it. Less successfully, Bateson worked for a time with the marine researcher (and inventor of the sensory-deprivation tank) John Lilly, who once administered LSD to dolphins. It’s a sad story: four of the seven dolphins subsequently died, or, as Lilly put it, delusively, “committed suicide” by “refusing to eat or breathe.”

Both Bateson and Mead had entanglements with the dark side of what Breen calls “the psychedelic Cold War.” They were personally and professionally close to top MK-ULTRA personnel. Still, they remain the most sympathetic figures in the book, thanks to their open-minded fascination with cultural differences, their fluid conceptions of gender and sexuality, and their dedication to facts. Timothy Leary would argue, for instance, that homosexuality was a pathology that LSD could “cure”; he claimed—oops—that it had cured Allen Ginsberg. By contrast, Mead, who was a generation older, appeared in 1961 on a nationally syndicated TV broadcast, “The Rejected,” where, Breen writes, she surrounded herself with New Guinean artifacts and “challenged the notion that homosexuality and transgender identities were ‘unnatural,’ ” rather than “part of the rich diversity of human potential.”

Bateson, for his part, dragged a heavy weight of family expectations around with him most of his life. He was one of three sons born to William Bateson, a prominent English biologist (he was the first to use the term “genetics” to describe the study of heredity), who wanted all three to make great scientific discoveries. But both of Bateson’s brothers died young—one in a hopeless infantry charge just a few weeks before the end of the First World War, and one by suicide four years later. As Breen tells it, Bateson’s preoccupation with attaining the scientific glory for which he and his brothers were destined led him down some blind alleys, including a misconceived family-dynamics theory of the etiology of schizophrenia and that unfortunate spell with Lilly. But Bateson could also be remarkably prescient. At an ultra-hip 1967 conference in London called “The Dialectics of Liberation”—it was attended by, among others, the Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael, the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, the anti-psychiatry crusader R. D. Laing, and Ginsberg—Bateson gave a speech about fossil-fuel-caused global warming, in what one historian thinks might have been the “first instance of climate change being discussed before a lay audience.” Bateson lamented that people were seeking “short cuts to wisdom” through LSD, but, given the environmental catastrophe we faced, he said, he could understand the impulse.

Breen has an eye for the telling detail, and a gift for introducing even walk-on characters with brio. One is George Hunter White, a former narcotics investigator from Pasadena who ran some of the real-world testing of LSD for the C.I.A., setting up bachelor pads in the West Village and in the Marina neighborhood of San Francisco where unsuspecting individuals could be surreptitiously dosed with the drug (in their drinks, food, or cigarettes) while agents observed and secretly recorded their behavior. Breen offers this quick, memorable sketch: “The 35-year-old White, who has been likened to ‘an extremely menacing bowling ball,’ had pale blue, Siberian husky eyes set in a gin-blossomed face, a boundless appetite for intoxicants, and a lifelong fascination with Chinese culture.”

One impression such portraits leave the reader with is that the nineteen-fifties and the early sixties were much weirder than you might imagine if you were still taking your cues from “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” People who worked with psychedelics seem to have been especially adroit at projecting authoritative normality while conducting some very screwy and sometimes quite sinister business behind the scenes. Harold Abramson, a low-profile physician at Mt. Sinai Hospital, in New York, whose expertise was in allergies, led a life that was “outwardly conventional, a model of midcentury domesticity.” He and his wife, who had four children, “collected Japanese netsuke carvings, carefully cultivated the lawn of their palatial home in suburban Long Island, and he played bridge with their neighbors once a week.” But Abramson was also a chemical-weapons expert who fed LSD to the Siamese fighting fish he kept at his lab (as well as to willing guests at his dinner parties), and played a key role in the MK-Ultra program. Breen thinks he may have been the most influential researcher into psychedelics of the twentieth century.

And yet the late fifties and early sixties were also a kind of golden age for earnest, out-in-the-open exploration of psychedelics. Chemists at Sandoz Laboratories, in Basel, Switzerland, first synthesized an experimental compound known as lysergic acid diethylamide in 1938. By 1949, little bottles of the stuff were rolling off a Swiss assembly line, bound for labs and doctors’ offices around the world. (Officially, only licensed physicians who were engaged in research could get hold of it, but it didn’t take long for it to filter into other networks.) In a period before the development of modern antidepressants or, indeed, of many psychoactive drugs at all—boom times were on the way, starting with the first tranquillizers to come on the market, in the early sixties, but they hadn’t quite arrived yet—LSD seemed like a wonder drug, radiant with scientific promise. Aldous Huxley, in his 1954 memoir, “The Doors of Perception,” could compare psychedelics favorably to alcohol and barbiturates. “To most people,” Huxley wrote, mescaline “is almost completely innocuous.”

Psychedelics, for many who tried them, held not only the promise of fixing a clinical problem but of opening those doors of perception to some noumenal realm otherwise hidden to us. After taking a tiny amount of LSD, Huxley recalled that “what came through the closed door was the realization—not the knowledge, for this wasn’t verbal or abstract—but the direct, total awareness from the inside, so to say, of Love as the primary and fundamental cosmic fact.”

It was true that people sometimes freaked out, on trips that seemed to mire them in apocalyptic hellscapes. The dissolution of ego commonly experienced on acid—a sensation that the C.I.A. wanted to put to use for interrogation purposes—could be frightening. But people who experimented willingly with LSD often reported feelings of warm, oceanic well-being or images of incomparable, redemptive beauty. In 1959, Cary Grant gave a series of interviews to a newspaper columnist in which he revealed that he had been transported by LSD. “All the sadness and vanities were torn away,” he said. “I was pleased by the hard core of strength I found inside me.” On his seventy-second trip, Grant, speaking into a dictaphone in the office of his Beverly Hills doctor, riffed on space flight and Hegelian dialectics: “Everything creates its opposite,” he said, “and therefore cyclicly itself.” (I like thinking of Grant, wearing an ascot, perhaps, intoning these dreamy revelations in clipped, patrician tones.)

Clare Boothe Luce, the former Republican congresswoman and ambassador, and the wife of the publishing tycoon Henry Luce, became an LSD booster, turning to it many times for relief from depression and grief over her daughter’s death in a car accident. And she was quite the establishment figure: while tripping on acid for the first time, she had to refuse a phone call from Vice-President Richard Nixon, who was seeking her political advice.

“The sugary cereal goes in the cart or this goes in the memoir.”

Cartoon by Suerynn Lee

By the mid-sixties, though, LSD was taking on a new aura, gaining a groovy reputation as a pathway to utopia. The Pied Piper of that movement was Leary, who co-founded the Harvard Psilocybin Project in 1960. In a 1967 debate with the neuroscientist Jerome Lettvin, Leary declared that “the real goal of the scientist is to flip out.” LSD, cut loose from its medical moorings and ties to power, acquired a lasting association with hippie youth, which, in turn, made it more vulnerable to moral panics and political crackdowns. By the end of 1967, several states had banned psychedelics, and in 1970 Congress classified them as Schedule I drugs, connoting “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” In 1971, President Nixon declared a war on drugs—including heroin and marijuana, but also LSD, the substance that his old friend Clare Boothe Luce had taken and touted, and that medical authorities had once embraced as a psychiatric drug of great promise.

Does it matter for our present moment that psychedelics had a respectable, scientifically sanctioned past? Today, there is much enthusiastic media coverage about so-called classical psychedelics, such as LSD and psilocybin, and newer ones, such as MDMA, focussing on their specific mental-health applications—studies showing that they help some people with treatment-resistant depression and so on. Since they pose little risk of addiction, since depression and anxiety are on the rise, and since the pharmaceuticals we have at our disposal don’t work for everybody or sometimes cause unwelcome side effects, this focus makes sense. (More broadly, for many people now, psychedelics might evoke an association with wellness—the kind of purposeful, holistic hygiene a person might also pursue through silent retreats, mindful eating, or yoga.)

It’s worth remembering that LSD was never fully medicalized, not even in the late nineteen-fifties, the first heyday of legal and scientific psychedelics research. One important contributor to the field, the psychologist Betty Eisner, helped develop the idea that “set and setting” shaped the quality of psychedelic therapy. The emphasis she placed on soft lighting, comfortable furnishings, and the right music, customized for the individual, helped determine the protocols used today. (According to Ido Hartogsohn’s book, “American Trip,” from 2020, Eisner found that Beethoven concertos were preferable to Gregorian chants, which often “evoked strong feelings of guilt.”) But Eisner’s own approach to psychedelic experiences became increasingly mystical. In 1964, she wrote to a colleague that she had become interested in “material” revealed on trips that seemed to “come from past lives and certain aspects of the patient which appear to come from outer space.”

In short, psychedelics have never been and will never be like other pharmaceuticals. “Although efforts to bring psychedelics to the market as FDA-approved psychiatric treatments are well underway, it is doubtful whether the category of ‘prescription drug’ will ever be able to contain them, because of their varied uses,” Breen observed in an essay for the Washington Post last year. Neither, though, are they likely to reëmerge as modern-day accessories to spiritual trance states, the sort of shamanistic practices in which, as Mead had written, “people take a great many precautions in selecting and ritually training those who will engage regularly in trance and in controlling where and under what circumstances trance may be induced.” Inasmuch as psychedelics generate both medical interventions and spiritual quests, and maybe other experiences as well, then, as Breen says, we may need new categories to accommodate them.

One of the striking motifs in Breen’s book is the optimism with which many of the scientists he writes about, including Mead, saw the future. Psychedelics were among the forces that they believed could heal cultural rifts and advance the evolution of civilizations. It’s hard to imagine replicating that kind of optimism today. We know far too much to trust in the purity of science, the transparency of government, the good will of pharmaceutical companies, or the power of individual enlightenment to melt cultural barriers and repair the world. But perhaps there’s hope in the kind of skepticism that can make us approach matters in smarter ways this time around.

Reading about the recent studies of LSD’s positive effects, for example, we know to be at least a little circumspect. Many of the studies involve a small number of subjects, who’ve been very tightly screened. It’s hard to keep such research double-blind, since people in the placebo arm of a hallucinogenic trial can often guess that they didn’t get the stuff that would have made them trip. A recent academic article by two psychologists at Leiden University, Michiel van Elk and Eiko L. Fried, identified no fewer than ten “pressing challenges” to the validity of current psychedelic studies—including conflicts of interest (especially since pharmaceutical companies have joined academic groups in conducting them), inadequate reporting of adverse events, small sample sizes, lack of long-term follow-up, and the difficulty of creating persuasive placebos. But van Elk and Fried are not raising these problems to try to shut down psychedelic research; they aim to improve its “rigor and credibility” with specific recommendations: “Our hope is that new studies may find credible evidence that psychedelic therapy can be a useful tool for specific groups of patients.”

In 1966, Sidney Cohen, Eisner’s colleague and the psychiatrist who had provided Luce with her LSD, expressed his worry that psychedelic research had gone astray: “We are seeing accidents happen. We are frightening the public. We are getting laws passed [banning the drug]. We are not using the anthropological approach of insinuating a valuable drug of this sort into our culture . . . gradually demonstrating the goodness of the thing.” Maybe we know enough now to proceed not with messianic hype but with testable hope, the kind that won’t risk a war-on-drugs backlash, or promise utopia, or put powerful hallucinogens into the hands of clandestine medical-ethics-flouting researchers, but that could still end up demonstrating the goodness of the thing. ♦

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