Is it weird that I read a book about psychedelic research and came away thinking about privilege? Whatever. I did. This book is important for many reasons, but it also shines a light on which voices get heard and which experiences are considered valid in this culture.
First, let me say that I’ve never tried LSD, psilocybin or any other psychedelic drug. I’ve never had a lot of patience for baby boomer, hippie nostalgia. By the time I knew who Timothy Leary was, his meaning to the 60s counterculture was vague. He was just another has-been hippie leader trying to stay relevant during my Reagan-era youth. But Pollan’s dismissal of Leary, and his wariness of any psychedelic experience outside institutional environments, shows me just how relevant and radical Leary was.
Throughout the book, Pollan stands firmly in his privilege as a successful journalist and author. He has easy access to illegal drugs throughout the book, without a thought for possible repercussion, and he writes from the assumption that his white, male, atheist, materialist, academic point of view is the norm.
Pollan praises the psychedelic researchers and distributors who have worked with and for political and academic institutions. One distributor, an important figure in the beginnings of psychedelic experimentation in this country and a major source for his research is depicted as an eccentric, outlaw genius despite his close ties to the US government and his connection to the MK-Ultra experiments in which the CIA tested LSD as a method of mind control. But he doesn’t praise Timothy Leary. Pollan quotes and agrees with the institutional researchers who demonize Leary and see his psychedelic evangelizing as leading directly to the end of psychedelic research throughout the world.
In his overview of Leary’s place in the psychedelic movement, Pollan says he “administered psilocybin to hundreds of people of all sorts, including housewives, musicians, artists, academics, writers, fellow psychologists, and graduate students” and “dreamed up a more ambitious research project, the Concord Prison Experiment, which sought to discover if the potential of psilocybin to change personality could be used to reduce recidivism in a population of hardened criminals.” Though he praises Leary’s charm, Pollan fails to recognize or acknowledge how remarkably egalitarian this approach was at the time.
Other than Leary, academic researchers were not thinking about improving the lives of women, people of color and other marginalized groups. They were rarely interested in rehabilitating and improving the lives of criminals. Even current psychedelic research focuses exclusively on medical and psychological issues, not social issues, race or gender. I’m still not a fan of Leary (He’s proof that psychedelics can’t hamper a person’s ability to be self-aggrandizing and ego-driven) but I’m surprised that Pollan ignores the remarkable rarity of Leary’s inclusive approach.
Pollan understands the threat LSD presents to political power, claiming that “the Spanish sought to crush the mushroom cults, viewing them, rightly, as a mortal threat to the authority of the church.” Yet throughout the book, he promotes the necessity of an institutional framework for psychedelic experience. A framework which can be (and has been) used to maintain only politically advantageous research. He reinforces the idea that Leary, and the 60s counterculture–not the Nixon administration’s hysterical war on drugs, the innate nature of trends, or the scientifically spurious nature of research into drug induced spiritual experience –are responsible for the death of psychedelic research in the 1970s.
By the end of the book, Pollan has shown that psychedelics can potentially relieve addiction & depression, and assist terminally ill patients in coming to terms with their death. He has proven the validity of psychedelic spiritual experiences by backing them up with research. He has experimented with psychedelics and confronted the limitations of his own thinking, but he hasn’t questioned his privileged perspective. And because of his blind spots, he has documented the process by which reality is created in our culture.
Native Americans have always understood the natural place of human beings within nature but when a popular, white journalist makes the connection under the eye of an academically ordained drug guide, this perspective is suddenly real. Pollan never addresses why researchers dismissed thousands of years of spiritual experience with psychedelic plants until they watched it happen in a lab. He simply states the researchers’ case. His status as a celebrity author and his affiliation with important institutions ground his privilege and allow his voice to ring louder than others. [“Well, if Michael Pollen says it’s worthwhile, maybe we can look into it.”] This imbalance makes those who speak from a place of less privilege feel crazy. But more than that, it makes them feel invisible: their experiences unseen and disregarded.
How to Change Your Mind is an important book, and it’s already a best seller. Pollan’s painstaking research and well-crafted exposition will rightly have an impact on our laws and institutions. Toward the end of the book he even speaks to a researcher with important thoughts about research bias. I’m not against Michael Pollen, and I’m for his promotion of psychedelic research, and anything else that brings sustenance to all of us living in this materialist, competitive country. I just scowl at the startling reminder that specific voices have power while so many others are ignored.