High Expectations: LSD, T.C. Boyle’s Women, and Me

“Outside Looking In” dramatizes the discovery of LSD and the cult of personality surrounding Timothy Leary. Our reviewer drops acid and thinks about how, for women, it can be safer to be a downer.

Christine Ro | Longreads | May 2019 | 16 minutes (4,208 words)

I’m sweaty, exhausted, and red-faced when I finally emerge from my final acid trip. My apartment is a mess of objects my friends and I have tried feeling, smelling, or otherwise experiencing: loose dry pasta, drinks of every kind, hairbrushes, blankets. My voice is hoarse from talking or shouting all night. I’ve had more emotional cycles in the past 12 hours than in the last several months combined.

What made me want to drop acid wasn’t a friend or a festival, but a book. Specifically, T.C. Boyle’s new novel Outside Looking In. The book has its problems, but one thing it gets right is the intensely social experience of LSD. Even taken alone, even as a tool for introspective reflection, it rejigs attitudes towards other people. This can be a gift, or it can be a weapon. And as a woman, I’m especially aware of the potential for the latter.

*

Outside Looking In opens with a heart-clenching account of the first-ever acid trip, in Basel, Switzerland, in 1943. Chemist Albert Hofmann had synthesized lysergic acid back in 1938, but he and his pharmaceutical company hadn’t known what to do with it. Five years on, Hofmann was curious about the effects, and converted himself into a guinea pig. This initial dose was high, at 250 micrograms. (Nowadays, 100 is often recommended for beginners, and 10 or 20 for microdosers.) That day has since become known among reverent acidheads as “Bicycle Day,” in remembrance of Hofmann’s fevered, frightening bike ride home and the hallucinations that ensued, guided by his young lab assistant, Susi Ramstein.

The scenes in Hofmann’s home are also a taster of the LSD-influenced erotic obsession and jealousy that is a thread running throughout the book. Eventually Albert’s wife, Anita, arrives home, worried and bewildered. Susi, the lab assistant, watches uncomfortably as Albert turns from scientific to sexual:

“She was here in this house she’d pictured endlessly in her imagination, here among all the things it contained, the family pictures, the ancestral china, the carpet he walked on in his slippered feet, but this wasn’t where she belonged and it was dark beyond the windows and her boss, the man she esteemed more than any other, was responding to his wife’s embrace with mounting passion, his arms clutched to her shoulders and his mouth pressed tight to hers in a deep erotic kiss…The room went deep then, enclosed, narrowing, a submarine plunging into the depths where only the two of them could go, and Susi, without a word, laid the book aside, pushed herself up from the chair and tiptoed out of the room.”

 

That this dramatic opening is told from the perspective not of Albert Hofmann, but of Susi Ramstein, prefigures the main relationship dynamic in Outside Looking In. The rest of the book is narrated not by its most famous historical personage, but by fictional psychologist Fitz Loney, attempting to justify his hard-won grad student place in Harvard’s psychology department. Fitz is part of Leary’s adoring academic entourage. And — feeling slightly square, vaguely dissatisfied, rather compelled by the possibility of meaning and discovery and glamor — he’s of course a proxy for the reader.

The literary lineage of LSD — the credibility borrowed from people like Huxley and Kesey — helps the participants feel that what they’re doing isn’t mere self-indulgence.

One exchange that shows the power Leary’s charisma gives him over the less confident Fitz comes after Leary breezily asks if Fitz wants to be a pecker (a boring, conditioned pigeon pecking at the ground, although of course the sexual reference is also present):

“Well, no, of course not, and he didn’t want to be hidebound or the brunt of a joke either, but he was reluctant — and beyond that, uneasy. He came from a long and undistinguished line of Irish drunks and he’d worked hard to get into the program, to get into Harvard, and he didn’t want to screw with that, didn’t want to have to worry about alcohol or this new miracle drug or anything else that could compromise what mattered above all else: the degree, the job, the house, a better life for Joanie and Corey. This was called ambition, class mobility, the American Dream, and he had it in spades. But Tim was persuasive, messianic even, and everyone in the inner circle had taken the drug — was taking it, regularly — and now, feeling left out, feeling pressured, he felt himself giving way.”

This is a classic Boyle gambit. The sense of being secondary in the presence of iconoclastic greatness, and feeling ambivalent about both the self-important allure of those great men (yes, they’re always men), is familiar from The Women, which is recounted by a member of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural student gaggle. As if to dispel any doubt about the kinds of relationships being excavated here, Boyle’s novel about the inner circle of sex-research pioneer Alfred Kinsey is called, well, The Inner Circle. Outside Looking In is another on-the-nose title. Fitz desperately wants into the confident academic establishment, but also into Leary’s circle of would-be revolutionary psychologists.

In Outside Looking In, these countercultural psychologists refer to LSD reverently as the sacrament, and there’s a ritualistic quality to the trips of these (male) psychologists and their wives. This sense of ritualized discovery is helped by the rural settings where the inner circle eventually decamps: the Mexican fishing village of Zihuatanejo, followed by the Hitchcock estate in Millbrook, New York. The residents partly subsidize their living expenses by bringing in paying guests and pretending to dose them with the drug, while actually just relying on the trappings of a mystical experience, like robes and mandalas. In Zihuatanejo, in Millbrook, and near the Harvard campus where the group takes root, they’re attempting to refine a group consciousness. The sacrament is essential to this. As Fitz ruminates at one low point: “The sacrament, that was what he needed, revelation, the shining path.”

Fitz eventually realizes that interpersonal relations are the key. The drugs help these along, but ultimately the commune lives and dies based on how people get along. The unstructured fishbowl living experiment is by alternating measures stifling and liberating. The central marriage storyline, between Fitz and Joanie, is derailed by jealousy and obsession, to the point where Fitz considers changing the topic of his beleaguered dissertation to LSD-25 and Sexual Obsession. And understandably, some members of the commune resist the dissolution of individual consciousness and will. (I felt the same tug in my experiments with acid. Self-consciousness is a prison, I kept thinking, but I’m also too attached to individuality to give it up completely.)

The whole arrangement described in Outside Looking In depends on the allure and force of will of Timothy Leary, who’s described as “persuasive, charismatic, charming.” Leary is the kind of person whose Wikipedia page is too fascinating to handle in one sitting; he lived several lifetimes in one. He was a Harvard researcher who essentially dropped out to start an LSD-based commune, experimented with psychogenic substances on prison inmates, was imprisoned himself on marijuana charges before escaping with the Weathermen, ran for governor of California, hid out with the Black Panthers in Algeria, and was briefly married to Uma Thurman’s mother. In the novel, the community he founds is hard to sustain when he leaves. These experiments in achieving supposed egolessness turn out to depend heavily on certain magnetic egos.

Enthusiasts rave about acid the way colonial explorers must have enthused about the Fountain of Youth. They want so badly to believe that it’s hard not to imagine their desire coloring their results.

It’s not just Leary bringing a magnetic presence to LSD evangelism. Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters show up in one short but vivid scene, exhausting everybody. Aldous Huxley is mentioned as a devotee of psychedelics to his deathbed. The novel’s characters are very aware of the literary celebrity associated with the sacrament: “They were going to Mexico for summer vacation. They were going to live an idyll right out of a Huxley novel. And further the research into the bargain.” The literary lineage of LSD — the credibility borrowed from people like Huxley and Kesey — helps the participants feel that what they’re doing isn’t mere self-indulgence. Of course, this literary lineage is limited by its (mostly) maleness and whiteness, which becomes more pronounced given the commune’s total lack of interest in engaging with any Mexicans in Mexico.

Despite all of these distractions, the commune in Outside Looking In is ultimately derailed by sex. This is also true of the book itself, which reproduces the problems with gender that its male characters espouse.

*

American culture has changed considerably since the period in which the novel is set. If the iconic word of the flower-power acid era was “transcendence,” signalling an attempt to reach higher planes of thought and feeling, today’s keyword might be the more prosaic “microdosing.” The media is awash in articles on the trend of taking small amounts of LSD with the objective of boosting creativity, productivity, or just happiness. This was helped along by Ayelet Waldman’s 2017 memoir A Really Good Day: How Micro Dosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life, which shared her experiences of battling disordered moods with diluted amounts of LSD.

During the period chronicled in Outside Looking In, dropping acid was ostensibly about achieving enlightenment. Outside Looking In, as a kind of greatest-hits dramatization of early enthusiasm about LSD, feels both quaint and revelatory. It’s quaint because its psychedelic-suffused counterculture — pre-criminalization, pre-AIDS, and pre-MeToo — seems naïvely blithe now. Yet it’s timely because we’re living through another flowering of interest in the drug at the novel’s core. As in the ‘50s and ‘60s, many scientists and civilians are now actively seeking to extract LSD’s potential for human betterment.

But the focus is now on achieving productivity. As the headline of a 2017 GQ article proclaims, microdosing is “the drug habit your boss is gonna love.” A memorable rhetorical question comes from a 2018 microdosing explainer for The Cut: “what could be more millennial than rebranding some of the most potent drugs out there as illegal vitamins that combine the feel-good-ness of self-care with the possibility of gaining a competitive edge on colleagues?” Undergirding all these articles is the notion of LSD as performance enhancement, like steroids for the soul or the brain.


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The current LSD renaissance seems to have grown out of the individualized culture of self-improvement in Silicon Valley, one of the least spiritual places imaginable. This shift, from mystical truth-seeking to the distinctly more prosaic aim of boosting health and work, is representative of a larger attitudinal change: now, the cult of productivity reigns.

This isn’t the only major cultural shift at play. Scientific research on LSD’s possibilities for combating a host of ailments has been quietly proceeding for 70-odd years, though it gained a high profile in the ‘60s with the psychology research of Timothy Leary and the like. But even with the moral panic around certain high-profile researchers and the CIA’s mind-control experiments, this was a time of relative freedom. Experiments that seem unethical today, such as psychedelic research on prisoners, were kosher then. LSD possession wasn’t banned in the U.S. until 1968.

As medical historian Erica Dyck has pointed out, the freewheeling experiments of the ‘60s, before commercialization and prohibition of LSD, have been replaced by a massive pharmacological industry and new ways of thinking about neuroscience. This research has received a new hit of legitimacy only recently. In September, Imperial College London embarked on the first-ever placebo-controlled trials of microdosing LSD.

The distinction between now and then isn’t quite so tidy, of course. The research of Christopher Partridge, a religion professor at Lancaster University, shows that even now, there are people embracing LSD specifically with a hope of attaining spiritual insights. Partridge discusses the continuity of mystical state-seeking throughout human history, with psychedelic drugs being used as a kind of shortcut to religious or mystical experiences. Fasting is one example of an old religious tradition that’s also a way of achieving altered consciousness. Certain breathing exercises are another. Drugs are of course a third. “These altered states lead to a sense of re-enchantment in the world for people who take them,” Partridge tells me. In modern Western cultures “the mystical states are being psychologized,” whereas in other times and places they were under less pressure to be explained away via science.

The serenity aided by psychedelics also tamps down on the kind of anger … that would be useful to the women of ‘Outside Looking In.’

A trip doesn’t have to be only about achieving a specific objective, like reducing sexual inhibitions (currently being studied by researchers as part of the Pharmacosexuality project). It can be that and more. Or it can be neither: an exercise in curiosity or pleasure (or what Michael Pollan, in a repeated turn of phrase, calls “italicizing the ordinary”). When it comes to LSD, the border between scientific and spiritual has never been decisive anyway. Inventor Hofmann, a chemist, referred to LSD as a sacred drug, and continued to microdose late in life.

And it’s telling that Outside Looking In ends with Leary, after spending the bulk of the novel styling himself as a psychospiritual guru, dismissing enlightenment: “‘Fuck God,’ he said. ‘Let’s get high.’” It’s a nicely non-moralizing ending for a subject that’s caused so much moral and political panic over the decades, which Leary and many people have argued has been untethered to science.

One of these people is Pollan, whose book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression was published in 2018. (Clearly this is a good time for LSD-based literature.) The book is extensively researched, charting the many potential benefits of substances like ayahuasca and, memorably, a hallucinogenic toad. The book proselytizes for psychedelics (rebranded as entheogens) as being very nearly cure-alls, which can apply to the ill along with the well. Terminally ill people trying to come to terms with death, sufferers of depression or addiction, people with eating disorders, artists seeking an extra spark of inspiration, or engineers trying to break through a thorny work problem…all are made to seem like possible congregants in the church of psychedelia.

I read these accounts with a healthy dose of skepticism. Enthusiasts rave about acid the way colonial explorers must have enthused about the Fountain of Youth. They want so badly to believe that it’s hard not to imagine their desire coloring their results.

How to Change Your Mind points out a paradox when it comes to the science vs. spirituality debate: “The same phenomenon that pointed to a materialist explanation for spiritual and religious belief gave people an experience so powerful it convinced them of the existence of a nonmaterial reality — the very basis of religious belief.” For many users, it might not be appropriate to keep that firm barrier between the spiritual and the scientific. For the rest of us, this sounds suspiciously like a prescription of faith.

*

“It’s a new world, Fitz, and you better believe we’re going to map it all out, right down to its core,” says Leary at one point in Outside Looking In. “And if that’s God, then so be it.”

The urge to believe in greatness or pioneering achievement is a frequent theme running through Boyle’s works. Often this is coupled with countercultural lifestyle experiments, like the psychology commune in Outside Looking In. Drop City has a rugged Alaskan commune of ‘60s hippies, The Terranauts a research biodome in the Arizona desert, and The Road to Wellville the wacky nutritional utopia presided over by cereal magnate John Harvey Kellogg.

A prototypical Boyle character spends a good chunk of time thumbing their nose at the establishment — even if they represent one tendril of the establishment, like the Ivy League psychologists at the heart of Outside Looking In. Meanwhile, the defining feature of all of Boyle’s characters might be disappointment. Their ambitions are thwarted, their illusions are punctured, their weaknesses ultimately prove too strong.

Yet Outside Looking In reproduces not just so many of the grand themes and detailed characterization that make his novels so successful, but also some of the problems that recur in his works.

Boyle, despite centering female protagonists in novels like The Terranauts and When the Killing’s Done, simply doesn’t write women as well as he writes men. His female characters tend to either fall flat (biologist Alma Boyd Takesue of When the Killing’s Done just isn’t as memorable as its windswept Channel Island setting), or — more commonly — they’re stubbornly refracted through the view of men. His male characters are ever-aware of the attractiveness (or lack thereof) of the female characters, while Boyle himself often uses male sexual desire as a propulsive plot point. These men are driven by sex; for the women it’s more of a means to an end.

It could be argued that Boyle is commenting on, rather than reproducing, the male libido as a fallible driver of action. Yet he falls into the same traps as so many of his horndog male characters, such as assigning virtue to attractive women (notably the ethereal blonde Dawn Chapman of The Terranauts, whose main personality trait is serenity) and a brew of disgust and spite to unattractive ones (Dawn’s frenemy Linda Ryu, who’s forever worrying about her weight and lack of blondeness). This conflict reflects Ryu’s awareness that there’s a limited number of spots for women in the biodome she so desperately wants to inhabit. Yet Boyle’s insistence on the toxicity of her personality reinforces a tendency that runs through much of his work: ugly women are either invisible or uninspiring. Only beautiful women are interesting.

Presumably Boyle has a sense of humor about this. Fitz, of Outside Looking In, reflects at one point: “it was a certifiable fact that whatever a stunning woman did or said was intrinsically fascinating. And right. And correct. And inarguable.”

In this novel, the scientists’ wives are assessed for their attractiveness as a component of their suitability for living (and loving) communally. Of course the men aren’t subject to similar scrutiny, although the sharing of partners does lead to jealousy among husbands as well as wives. When it comes to the characterization of Boyle’s women, fuckability is foremost.

Dosed with the drug, I can’t tell what I like. Everything is equally valid, which means that nothing is invalid. This is a wonderful spiritual attitude, but a deadly political one.

This is true even of The Women, Boyle’s novelization of Frank Lloyd Wright. Despite its title, The Women is ultimately more about the men in Frank Lloyd Wright’s circle. The narrator, an architecture student, is haunted by Wright’s women. And they remain Wright’s women; though they have rich histories and personalities, they’re always seen to be orbiting around Wright.

This is partly to do with Boyle’s fascination with the American greats who get canonized, who have historically been men. This is apparent in Outside Looking In as well. The unrest of women relegated to the boring background role shines through here, as it did to such beautifully comic effect in The Road to Wellville. There, the female devotees of Kellogg’s zany health cures have internalized messages about female purity, and can only find sexual release under the guise of a novel health procedure (“pelvic massage”). In Outside Looking In, the improbably named Joanie Loney is frustrated with being left behind, then with her husband falling down the sexual-permissiveness rabbit hole.

And Boyle does acknowledge the gendered toll of a supposedly utopian lifestyle. In one scene, “Paulette was standing at the sink, mechanically working her way through the teetering piles of dirty dishes and crusted utensils that were the daily detritus of communal life, but then Paulette liked doing dishes because doing dishes was therapeutic — or at least that was what they all told themselves.”

*

I was thinking about this during my second acid trip, on a dose large enough to deaden my limbs but small enough that I knew I could end the hallucinations any time, if I just opened my eyes. I felt utterly limp and pliant. I was intensely impressionable, and could have imprinted emotionally on anything or anyone in that state. (This notion of imprinting is key to the disintegration of the Loneys’ marriage in Outside Looking In.)

In some ways this could be a blessed release from a neurotic, over-scheduled existence. It’s also of course a powerful tool for ensuring female compliance.

Just as the bizarre experience of having a private music video appear in my head for every song I listened to helped me understand what psychedelic art is trying to replicate, even if most of it feels mired in kitsch, the experience of feeling my own physical and mental submissiveness made me better understand, say, Emma Cline’s The Girls. Unlike The Women, The Girls is actually about the girls. It’s devastating with lines like: “All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you — the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.”

In The Girls, based on the Manson Family, the confusion and emotional intensity of adolescent girls is manipulated by charismatic men aided by drugs. Obviously drugs aren’t necessary for abuse, and the girls exercise agency in important ways. But lying with my face mashed into a pillow, seeing pleasantly bonkers acidified scenes — the sea creatures in a line spitting out saxophone notes and all the rest — was the first time I could imagine that mind control, or mindlessness, might be pleasurable. The serenity aided by psychedelics also tamps down on the kind of anger that’s useful to the girls of The Girls, and that would be useful to the women of Outside Looking In.

The commune in Outside Looking In is ultimately undone by sex (even if it’s partly made by sex). That’s familiar from Boyle’s other work set in attempted utopias. It’s not sex but mood that’s central to A Really Good Day, which can be read as a domestic memoir, a record of therapy, or a long essay advocating for the decriminalization of LSD. Waldman recounts the friction her stormy moods have caused with her husband and her children, and the many pharmacological solutions she’s sought for her other ailments. Presumably LSD, despite that pesky business of its being illegal, isn’t much different than the Ambien she once relied on for her insomnia, or Adderall for a child with ADHD.

But it’s hard to tell how where the mood disorder stops and Waldman’s personality begins. Are these tiny liquid microdoses, taken on a three-day cycle over the course of a month, diluting some essential part of her? She and her family welcome her sunnier emotional weather. But it’s worth wondering in this context how and why we developed this trope of difficult-women-needing-to-be-made-less-difficult. When Waldman describes herself as “a middle-aged mom of four hoping to be less of a raging bitch,” I grieve a little. Even if I sometimes hate my own personality, I’m grateful for the fact of one. The egolessness promulgated by these paradoxically strong literary personalities doesn’t appeal.

Waldman also notes, explaining her attraction to the serenity offered by acid: “I have always been excitable, impulsive, and easily agitated. There is no quality I admire so much and possess so little as equanimity.” Well, there’s no quality that bores me so much as equanimity.

This would make me, to Outside Looking In’s inner circle, a downer. In general, LSD research can be a skeptic’s playground, full as it is of overblown language and messianic scientists. As Pollan writes in How to Change Your Mind, “Irrational exuberance seems to be an occupational hazard among people working in this area.”

My experiences with acid also point to the limits of irrational exuberance. The drug makes me more appreciative of everything. An episode of Nathan for You nearly makes me split myself with laughter. The sensation of mundane things like my laptop fan are intensely interesting (and thus I’m intensely boring to others). I feel enormous joy, compassion, and protectiveness toward the people around me.

There’s a power in gratitude for the everyday, of course. But there’s also a utility in judgment. Dosed with the drug, I can’t tell what I like. Everything is equally valid, which means that nothing is invalid. This is a wonderful spiritual attitude, but a deadly political one. Or, for a woman, a just plain deadly one. I can sense how it has made me vulnerable. Maybe my urge to put physical or psychological barriers between myself and the men around me, even when I trust them around me, even when I trust them, speaks to a fear of submission that means I can’t give myself over fully to the drug.

Outside Looking InA Really Good Day, and How to Change Your Mind have created startling expectations. Unlike the real and fictional people who populate these books, LSD hasn’t led me to any breakthroughs. It hasn’t fundamentally altered my mode of existence. I certainly haven’t come up with the polymerase chain reaction technique, or even the iPhone. But that’s a lot of weight to place on a chemical compound. It would be hard for any substance to hold up under all that profundity-seeking. Perhaps sharing a bonding experience on a weekend with good friends, aided by the ultimate inhibition-eradicator, can be good enough instead.

So fuck God. Fuck enlightenment. Fuck productivity. Fuck transformation. Let’s get high.

* * *

Christine Ro edits articles about cities, and writes articles about books, science, development and more. 

Editor: Dana Snitzky