Timothy Leary

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Dr. Timothy Francis Leary (October 22, 1920May 31, 1996) was an American writer, psychologist, campaigner for psychedelic drug research and use, 60s counterculture icon and computer software designer. He is most famous as a proponent of the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of LSD. During the 1960s, he coined and popularized the catch phrase "Turn on, tune in, drop out."


Early life

Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out (Original Movie Soundtrack)

Leary was born in Springfield, Massachusetts the son of an Irish American dentist, who abandoned the family when Timothy was a teenager. Leary studied briefly at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, but reacted badly to the strict training at the Jesuit institution. He also attended West Point but was forced to resign after an incident involving smuggling liquor during a school field exercise and an extended period of a schoolwide "silent treatment." There is evidence that, as one of the few Irish Catholics then attending West Point, he was made a scapegoat as his Protestant co-conspirators were allowed to continue their studies.

He earned a bachelor's degree in psychology at the University of Alabama in 1943. He received a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley in 1950. He went on to become an assistant professor at Berkeley (1950-1955), a director of research at the Kaiser Foundation (1955-1958), and a lecturer in psychology at Harvard University (1959-1963). Leary later described these years disparagingly, writing that he had been

an anonymous institutional employee who drove to work each morning in a long line of commuter cars and drove home each night and drank martinis .... like several million middle-class, liberal, intellectual robots.

Exploration of psychedelics

On May 13, 1957, Life Magazine published an article by R. Gordon Wasson that documented (and popularized) the use of entheogens in the religious ceremony of the indigenous Mazatec people of Mexico.[1] Influenced by Wasson's article, Leary traveled to Mexico, where he tried psilocybin mushrooms, an experience that drastically altered the course of his life. Upon his return to Harvard in 1960, Leary and his associates, notably Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass), began the Harvard Psilocybin Project conducting research into the effects of psilocybin and later LSD with graduate students.

Leary argued that LSD, used with the right dosage, set and setting, and preferably with the guidance of professionals, could alter behavior in unprecedented and beneficial ways. His experiments produced no murders, suicides, psychoses, and supposedly no bad trips. The goals of Leary's research included finding better ways to treat alcoholism and to reform convicted criminals. Many of Leary's research participants reported profound mystical and spiritual experiences, which they claim permanently altered their lives in a very positive manner.

Leary and Alpert were dismissed from Harvard in 1963. Their colleagues were uneasy about the nature of their research, and some parents complained to the university administration about the distribution of hallucinogens to their children. Unfazed, the two relocated to a large mansion in New York called Millbrook and continued their experiments. Leary later wrote,

We saw ourselves as anthropologists from the twenty-first century inhabiting a time module set somewhere in the dark ages of the 1960s. On this space colony we were attempting to create a new paganism and a new dedication to life as art.

Repeated FBI raids ended the Millbrook era.

In 1964, Leary co-authored a book with Ralph Metzner called The Psychedelic Experience, ostensibly based upon the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In it he writes:

A psychedelic experience is a journey to new realms of consciousness. The scope and content of the experience is limitless, but its characteristic features are the transcendence of verbal concepts, of space-time dimensions, and of the ego or identity. Such experiences of enlarged consciousness can occur in a variety of ways: sensory deprivation, yoga exercises, disciplined meditation, religious or aesthetic ecstasies, or spontaneously. Most recently they have become available to anyone through the ingestion of psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, DMT, etc. Of course, the drug does not produce the transcendent experience. It merely acts as a chemical key - it opens the mind, frees the nervous system of its ordinary patterns and structures.

Leary later went on to propose his eight circuit model of consciousness, in which he claimed that the human mind consisted of eight circuits of consciousness. He believed that most people only access four of these circuits in their lifetimes. The other four, Leary claimed, were evolutionary off-shoots of the first four and were equipped to encompass life in space, as well as expansion of consciousness that would be necessary to make further scientific and social progress. Leary suggested that some people may shift to the latter four gears by delving into meditation and other spiritual endeavors. An example of the information Leary cited as evidence for the purpose of the "higher" four circuits was the feeling of floating and uninhibited motion experienced by users of marijuana. In the eight-circuit model of consciousness, a primary theoretical function of the fifth circuit (the first of the four developed for life in outer space) is to allow humans to become accustomed to life in a zero or low gravity environment.

Trouble with the law

DEA agents Don Strange (r.) and Howard Safir (l.) arrest Leary in 1972

Leary's first run in with the law came in 1965. During a border crossing from Mexico into the United States, his daughter was caught with marijuana. After taking responsibility for the controlled substance, Leary was convicted of possession under the marijuana tax act and sentenced to 30 years in jail. Soon after, however, he appealed the case, claiming the marijuana tax act was in fact unconstitutional, as it required a degree of self-incrimination. Leary claimed this was in stark violation of the 5th amendment. The supreme court concurred, and in 1969 the marijuana tax act was declared unconstitutional, and Timothy Leary's conviction was quashed.

In 1970, Leary was again convicted of possession of marijuana and was sentenced to jail. When Leary arrived in prison, he was given psychological tests that were used to assign inmates to appropriate work details. Having designed many of the tests himself, Leary answered them in such a way that he seemed to be a very conforming, conventional person with a great interest in forestry and gardening.

As a result, Leary was assigned to work as a gardener in a lower security prison, which made escape possible. Leary considered his non-violent escape to be a humorous prank and left a challenging note for the authorities to find after he was gone. For a fee paid by The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, the Weathermen smuggled Leary and his wife Rosemary Woodruff Leary out of the United States and into Algeria. The couple's plan to take refuge with the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver failed after Cleaver attempted to hold Leary hostage. Leary described his expectation of reasonableness from a black militant as "naive." The couple fled to Switzerland.

In 1974, having separated from Rosemary, Timothy Leary was illegally kidnapped by Interpol agents at an airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, and then transported to the United States. (Afghanistan had no extradition treaty with the US.) He was then held on five million dollars bail, the highest in US history; President Richard Nixon had earlier labeled him "the most dangerous man in America." He cooperated with the FBI's investigation of the Weathermen, becoming an informant who implicated friends and helpers in exchange for a reduced sentence. However, no one was ever prosecuted based on any information Leary gave to the FBI, as noted in an Open Letter from the Friends of Timothy Leary:

The Weather Underground, the radical left organization responsible for his escape, was not impacted by his testimony. Histories written about the Weather Underground usually mention the Leary chapter in terms of the escape for which they proudly took credit. Leary sent information to the Weather Underground through a sympathetic prisoner that he was considering making a deal with the FBI and waited for their approval. The return message was "we understand."

Leary appears to have been smart and audacious enough to have played along without compromising those who had helped him. This sort of escapade is in line with others throughout his life, such as his manipulation of psychological test responses that enabled him to get into a prison from which he could engineer his escape, and his confrontation of FBI agents who were terrifying an innocent young Hispanic woman during the Millbrook bust (led by G. Gordon Liddy), which was described in an eye-witness interview in the "Timothy Leary's Dead" (TLD) movie DVD (see below). Leary was released on April 21, 1976, by Governor Jerry Brown.

Further evidence of Leary's savvy was his cultivation of a friendship with former foe G. Gordon Liddy (whose former boss, Richard Nixon, had ordered him to destroy Leary), after his release from prison. At the time, both men were near financial insolvency, and Leary correctly guessed that they could make a small fortune touring the country as ex-cons debating the soul of America.


In the months before his death from inoperable prostate cancer, Leary authored a book called Design for Dying, which attempted to show people a new perspective of death and dying.

For a number of years, Leary was excited by the possibility of freezing his body in cryonic suspension. As a scientist himself, he didn't believe that he would be resurrected in the future, but he recognized the importance of cryonic possibilities and was generally an advocate of future sciences. He called it his "duty as a futurist," and helped publicize the process. Leary had relationships with two cryonic organizations, the original ALCOR and then the offshoot CRYOCARE. When these relationships soured due to a great lack of trust, Leary requested that his body be cremated, which it was, and distributed among his friends and family.

Leary's death was videotaped for posterity, capturing his final words forever. At one point in his final delirium, he said, "Why not?" to his son Zachary. He uttered the phrase repeatedly, in different intonations and died soon after. His last word, according to Zach Leary, was "beautiful." The death/suicide video was the culmination of the movie, Timothy Leary's Dead, and the filmmakers capitalised on his initial desire for cryogenic preservation by secretly creating a fake decapitation sequence without permission from Leary or his family, or so some claim. After the movie's release, the filmmakers declined to admit the scene's falsehood, possibly as a method to generate hype and sell tickets.

The fake was so effective that many people even question the accuracy of claims that it was faked. It has become a subject of debate where the side who claims it was faked has been unable to provide references and the truth has remained unknowable. To complicate the matter further, the final credits of the film are interspersed with explicitly clear scenes of Leary cooperating with specialists as they make a mold of his head (using the same technique and material that is used by dentists to make castings of teeth and for Hollywood special effects), ostensibly to make the fake head used in the decapitation scenes. Or, was this sequence filmed precisely to make it impossible to tell that the decapitation was real, in order to protect Leary's family, friends, and the filmmakers from prosecution?

After his death, seven grams of Leary's ashes were arranged by his friend at Celestis to be buried in space aboard a rocket carrying the remains of 24 other people including Gene Roddenberry (creator of Star Trek), Gerard O'Neill (space physicist), Krafft Ehricke (rocket scientist), and others.

Miscellaneous pursuits

Other interests

Leary has on several occasions flirted with the occult and was a member of the magical order of the Illuminates of Thanateros.

Leary also believed that advances in technology could provide insights similar to those of psychedelic drugs, and lectured in the early 1990's on virtual reality.

Leary's final forecast for the future was encompassed in the acronym "SMI2LE" standing for "space migration", "intelligence increase" and "life extension."

Influence on others

Leary once recruited John Lennon to write a theme song for his California gubernatorial campaign (which was interrupted by his first arrest), inspiring Lennon to come up with the hit "Come Together," which Lennon later reclaimed for himself. Leary was the explicit subject of the Moody Blues song "Legend of a Mind", which memorialized him with the words, "Timothy Leary's dead. No, no, no, no he's outside looking in," a refrain he once detested but later found the sense of humor to adopt as his PR theme song when he hit the university lecture circuit promoting NASA scientist Gerard O'Neill's innovative plans to build giant Eden-like orbiting mini-earth's using existing technology and raw materials from the moon. He is also mentioned in the song "The Seeker" by The Who: "I asked Timothy Leary/ But he couldn't tell me either".

A number of other musical groups have admired and been influenced by Leary, including the progressive-rock band Tool, the metal band Nevermore, Marcy Playground, and Dog Fashion Disco. Nevermore mentions Leary in their lyrics, and titled one of their albums "The Politics of Ecstasy" (after Leary's book by the same name). The techno band Infected Mushroom uses a soundclip of Leary saying "Tune in, turn on, and drop out" in a song. Leary made a cameo appearance in "STUFF," a short film directed by Johnny Depp and Gibson Haynes about the Red Hot Chili Peppers guitar player John Frusciante. He also appears on 'Gila Copter' off the 'Linger Fickin Good' album by the Revolting Cocks and also appears in the video for 'Cracking Up'.

In the movie, The Ruling Class, the character, Jack Gurney (played by Peter O'Toole), who thinks he is Jesus, claims that the voice of "Timothy O'Leary" told him he was God (see film clip here).

Timothy Leary's ideas also heavily influenced the work of Robert Anton Wilson. This influence went both ways and Leary took just as much from Wilson. Wilsons book 'Prometheus Rising' was an in depth, highly detailed and inclusive work documenting Leary’s eight circuit model of consciousness. Wilson and Leary conversed a great deal on philosophical, political and futurist matters and became close friends who remained in contact through Leary's time in prison and up until his death. Wilson regarded Leary as a brilliant man and often is quoted as saying (paraphrase) "Leary had a great deal of 'hilaritose', the type of cheer and good humour by which it was said you could recognise a deity".


The term Timothy Leary tickets is an affectionate nickname given to the small squares of blotter paper to which liquid LSD has been applied. Presumably, this is because such tabs offer a "ticket" to a whole new show: a "trip" to lands hitherto unexplored.

Leary was the godfather of Winona Ryder, Uma Thurman (daughter of his ex-wife Nena), and Joi Ito.

Creative works


  • Change Your Brain. Leary, Timothy. 1988. (ISBN 1579510175)
  • Your Brain is God. Leary, Timothy. 1988. (ISBN 1579510523)
  • Info-Psychology. Leary, Timothy. 1987. (ISBN 1-56184-105-6)
  • Flashbacks. Leary, Timothy. 1983. (ISBN 0874774977)
  • High Priest. Leary, Timothy. 1968. (ISBN 0914171801)
  • The Politics of Ecstasy. Leary, Timothy. 1965. (ISBN 091417133x)
  • Start Your Own Religion. Leary, Timothy. 1967. (ISBN 1579510736)
  • Psychedelic Prayers & Other Meditations. Leary, Timothy. 1966. (ISBN 0914171844)
  • The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Leary, Timothy and Metzner, Ralph, Alpert, Richard, Karma-Glin-Pa Bar Do Thos Grol. 1964. (ISBN 0806516526)
  • The Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality. Leary, Timothy. 1957.
  • Confessions of a Hope Fiend. Leary, Timothy. 1973.
  • Mystery, magic & miracle;: Religion in a post-Aquarian age, (A Spectrum book). Heenan, Edward F. and Jack Fritscher, Timothy Leary. 1973. Prentice-Hall. (ISBN 013609032X)
  • Cosmic Trigger I: Final Secret of the Illuminati Wilson, Robert Anton and Timothy Leary. 1978. Pocket. (ISBN 0671816691)
  • Changing My Mind Among Others. Leary, Timothy. 1982. Prentice Hall Trade. (ISBN 0131278290)
  • Flashbacks. Leary, Timothy. 1983. Tarcher. (ISBN 0874771773)
  • What Does Woman Want. Leary, Timothy. 1987. New Falcon Publications. (ISBN 0941404625)
  • Info-Psychology: A Revision of Exo-Psychology. Leary, Timothy. 1988. Falcon Pr. (ISBN 0941404609)
  • Game of Life. Leary, Timothy. 1989. New Falcon Publications. (ISBN 0941404641).
  • Uncommon Quotes: Timothy Leary. Leary, Timothy. Audio tape. 1990. Pub Group West. (ISBN 0929856015)
  • HR GIGER ARh+. Giger, H. R., with Leary, Timothy. 1994. Benedikt Taschen Verlag. (ISBN 382289642X)
  • Chaos and Cyber Culture. Leary, Timothy and Michael Horowitz, Vicki Marshall. 1994. Ronin Publishing. (ISBN 0914171771)
  • Surfing the Conscious Nets: A Graphic Novel. Leary, Timothy and Robert Williams. 1995. Last Gap. (ISBN 0867194103)
  • Intelligence Agents. Leary, Timothy. 1996. Ronin Publishing. (ISBN 1561840386)
  • Concrete & Buckshot: William S. Burroughs Paintings. Leary, Timothy and Benjamin Weissman. 1996. Smart Art Press. (ISBN 1889195014)
  • The Lost Beatles Interviews Leary, Timothy (Afterword) and Geoffrey Giuliano, Brenda Giuliano. 1996. Plume. (ISBN 0452270251)
  • Design for Dying. Leary, Timothy, with Sirius, R. U. 1997. HarperCollins Publishers Inc. ISBN 0-06-018700-X (cloth); ISBN 0-06-092866-2 (pbk.); ISBN 0-06-018250-4 (intl).
  • El Trip de La Muerte. Leary, Timothy. 1998. Editorial Kairos. SPANISH. (ISBN 8472454088)
  • The Delicious Grace of Moving One's Hand: The Collected Sex Writings Leary, Timothy. 1999. Thunder's Mouth Press. (ISBN 1560251816)
  • Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out. Leary, Timothy. 1999. Ronin Publishing. (ISBN 1579510094)
  • Politics of Self-Determination (Self-Mastery Series). Leary, Timothy. 2001. Ronin Publishing. (ISBN 1579510159)
  • The Politics of Psychopharmacology. Leary, Timothy. 2001. Ronin Publishing. (ISBN 1579510566)
  • Musings on Human Metamorphoses. Leary, Timothy. 2002. Ronin Publishing. (ISBN 1579510582)
  • Evolutionary Agents. Leary, Timothy and Beverly A. Potter. 2004. Ronin Publishing. (ISBN 1579510647)
  • Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality: A Functional Theory and Methodology for Personality Evaluation. Leary, Timothy. 2004. Resource Publications. (ISBN 1592447767)

Music and audio performances

  • Leary provided the spoken word intro to the live version of Third Eye from Tool's Aenima album with his phrase: "Think for yourself; question authority." Material from comedian Bill Hicks was used for the studio version.
  • In 1966 he recorded an album "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out" (Original release: Mercury 21131 (mono)/61131 (stereo), US 1967) which was ostensibly a "user manual" for a self-guided LSD "trip". While the album did poorly in general release, it has become one of the rarest "memorabilia" and prized of posessions of many Leary collections. One track, "All The Girls Are Yours" has been performed repeatedly by others, and was even re-recorded in 2004.
  • In 1973 he recorded the album "Seven Up" with the German band Ash Ra Tempel.
  • He was also mentioned in the musical Hair in the two songs Manchester, England and The Flesh Failures.
  • He appeared as guest vocalist on the opening track Gila Copter of the Revolting Cocks 1993 album Linger Ficken' Good... and Other Barnyard Oddities.


  • Equal parts party game, roleplaying game and social simulation, Timothy Leary's Mind Mirror was released for Commodore 64 computers by Electronic Arts in 1985.

cyberculture in the years 2000

External links


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