Having Timothy Leary as a Father Was a Trip

Zach Leary gives a glimpse of the life and work of the LSD advocate.

by Zach Leary
By Dr. Dennis Bogdan/Wikimedia Commons

Everyone wants to know what their parents are up to growing up. As you get older and more inquisitive you naturally want to know how your birthers live in this world. What is it that they do? Who are their friends? Naturally, osmosis starts to take hold and the things our parents are into, we also get attracted to. That’s the way the human condition works. Programming and meta-programming. During my youth, a certain mystery surrounded my upbringing. I grew up in what appeared on the outside to be a somewhat normal upper-middle-class household in Beverly Hills, California. Every morning my mom or dad would take me to school, my dad would toss the baseball with me in the backyard and on most nights they would make sure I did my homework.

Something changed at around the age of thirteen. During the 1980s, my dad supplemented his income by being an actor in a number of pretty bad B movies. On one of these assignments, I accompanied him to the set at Universal Studios. As I was standing around watching the shoot take place some guy, presumably a crewmember, stood beside me and also watched the scene being shot. Not knowing who I was, he turned and spoke to me in a very calm and deliberate manner and said, “I can’t believe they have this evil disgusting man in this movie. The amount of damage he’s done to this country is incredible.” I’m paraphrasing of course, but that was the gist of it.

I was shocked, terrified, confused, and exhilarated. Even at that age I knew that in order to generate that kind of response from someone Timothy must have been doing something pretty exciting.

After the film-set incident, I began to take a little action to figure out what exactly Timothy Leary did for a living. I started to notice all of the books with his name on the shelf and the celebrities that hung out at our house—some of our regular visitors were fans and some people were very hung up on what he was going to say next. It was then that the realization came to me—“he’s famous!”

The Millbrook house at Hitchcock Estate. 

PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images

Growing up in Beverly Hills in the 1980s fame was a big deal. I began to see Timothy Leary as more than a father, he was also a teacher. And I must be completely honest by saying that I was intimated by his cognitive capacity for a great many years to come.

After I read his autobiography Flashbacks for the first time at age fifteen, I could see that this was no ordinary man. He was a man on a mission who never wavered from what he believed to be his truth. He was fired from Harvard, lived on a commune, inspired the Beatles, and escaped from prison. At such an early age finding this stuff out was an incredible revelation and also quite bewildering.

Now when I saw him in his office, it was with new eyes. Every hour Timothy spent in front of the computer was poised and possessed, every note written in the margin of a book was deliberate and passionate, and every note, artifact and letter was tagged, filed and stored into a box in the garage.

Leary at home

PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images

Watching him work, I slowly became aware that I was right in the middle of one of the great cultural movements of our times. While Timothy was not the cultural movement by himself, he was indeed one of its primary instigators and provocateurs. All of this material being thrown into these boxes was not just the work of one man but they were documents that told the story of our times.

From the interpersonal psychology movement of the late 1950s to the cyberpunk movement of the 1990s, Timothy had a front row seat for some of the most important cultural movements of the late twentieth century. And the documentation of that viewpoint was an essential facet in the Timothy Leary legacy.

How the archives became such a well-documented repository of American culture is a tale that rivals any Hollywood adventure saga. They started off in metal bins, in shoddy boxes with not much labeling and passed their way through many hands before finally ending up in their current, and presumably final, resting place — the New York Public Library.

Technically speaking, the archives are made up of hundreds of boxes containing book drafts, research materials from Harvard, correspondence with amazing people, manifestos from the Millbrook era, random notes, personal mementos, photographs, digital archives from the 1980s and ’90s, and lots of stream-of-consciousness thought starters that are quintessential Leary. I’m sure he had a good fifty book ideas that never made it past the first few pages.

Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and Ralph Metzner in front of Buddha.

Alamy/Everett Collection/Copyright © CSU Archives

Before he became the infamous 1960s counterculture rebel, Timothy was a self-respecting psychologist. He was also a self-professed “middle-class liberal robot who drove home each night and drank martinis.” He had two kids, Susan and Jack, and a wife, Marianne. When Marianne committed suicide on his thirty-fifth birthday, a lightning bolt was thrust into his psyche that made his entire life’s purpose about his work and almost nothing else. Sure, he would love again and find a sliver of domestic tranquility late in life, but everything would pale in comparison and priority to the triumph that was to be his life’s work.

When Harvard University talked him into joining the faculty in 1959, he joined as an isolationist. He kept to himself and really didn’t care about being there all that much. Timothy was looking to break out. He wanted to do something new. Naturally, in 1960, when the time came to “turn-on” and experience psychedelics for the first time at the age of forty, he was not worried about what others would think or how it might appear to the Harvard staff. Rooted in science and research, he simply did his work and wrote it all down as one big premeditated experiment in human consciousness.

When in the late 1960s, the unrest of the times reached a fever pitch due to factors ranging from the war in Vietnam to psychedelics becoming mainstream, Timothy turned from scientist to outlaw right in step with everyone else. He became the perfect man for the job of leading an antiauthoritarian crusade against the thought-police establishment.

By the time Timothy was on the run and/or imprisoned for being caught in possession of marijuana, his role as outlaw instead of a serious scientist was firmly embedded in the lexicon of popular culture. When I asked him about this, his answer to me contradicted the popular picture. He’d always tell me that his tactics, his penchant for taking on the U.S. government for control of our minds, were just as important intellectually as his groundbreaking Good Friday Experiment at Harvard in 1962. He felt that both approaches were about urging society to “think for themselves and question authority” — an ethos that was most paramount to all his work.

Abrams Press

The transhumanist era of his post-lockup period saw many great (and heady) Leary works such as “Exo-Psychology” and “The Intelligence Agents.” This time also gave birth to one of Timothy’s most cutting-edge theories on the human nervous system and its associated consciousness — “The Eight-Circuit Model of Consciousness.” Briefly, the model suggests that there are eight circuits of information that operate within the human nervous system, each concerned with a different sphere of activity from our primary functions through to our mystical and psychedelic experiences.

The archives of this period offer direct proof that Timothy continued to evolve his thinking. He combined his early work as a cognitive therapist with a psychedelic researcher with a transhumanist pagan and morphed it into something all his own.

This excerpt is from the foreword of Jennifer Ulrich’s book The Timothy Leary Project: Inside the Great Counterculture Experiment (Abrams Press, 2018) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.

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