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April 18, 2021

Film captures acid messiah’s life and final trip

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Digby Hildreth

Timothy Leary’s advocacy of LSD and other psychotropic substances led to his being labelled ‘the most dangerous man in America’ by Richard Nixon.

A visionary and revolutionary of his times, by 1966 he had used chemicals to open the doors of perception in his head on at least 300 occasions, many of them in the company of fellow Harvard academic Richard Alpert.

Their controlled psychic and neurological explorations inform the feature documentary Dying To Know, which is narrated by Robert Redford and has its sneak preview at the Byron Bay Film Festival.

The two men were markedly dissimilar in background and personality. The son of a straitlaced Irish mother and a father who abandoned his family, Leary forever steered a path between chaos and conformity, defying authority, thumbing his nose at society’s restrictions and taboos while at the same time inhabiting its straightest roles.

A genial hellraiser, he was always in trouble: kicked out of college for being found in the girls’ dorm, reprimanded for supplying booze to fellow cadets in the army. Later he made headlines for ingesting vast amounts of hallucinogens while a psychology professor at Harvard – where he devised an insightful and widely used personality test.

In one extraordinary scene, he appears before a congressional committee chaired by Ted Kennedy, to lobby for the controlled legalisation of all mind-expanding drugs – while running for governor of California and awaiting trial for possession of marijuana.

Alpert, the son of a wealthy east coast Jewish family (his father ran a railroad), was gay, conformist, brilliant – a hugely respected academic at an early age, a pilot, master of his universe. Leary gave him the confidence to think for himself and to ‘just say know’.

Dying To Know tells their story, and the story of the psychedelic revolution in America, then the world, to which Leary gave the rallying call: Turn on, tune in, drop out.

He was busted, jailed, sprung by members of the Weather Underground and whisked off to Algeria to join Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, then fled to Europe and eventually Afghanistan, only to be snatched by Nixon’s goons, dragged back to America and thrown into Folsom Prison, where solitary confinement came close to breaking him.

Richard Alpert becomes Baba Ram Dass.
Richard Alpert becomes Baba Ram Dass.

The India trip

Alpert meanwhile, dissatisfied with the finite nature of the chemically induced spiritual experience, moved away from Leary’s influence, travelled to India and sat at the feet of the Maharaji (and gave him acid to take, to no effect). Alpert became Ram Dass, the author of Be Here Now, a revered guru and spiritual bridge between East and West.

Leary seemed incapable of emotional intimacy. He was married five times, with his first wife and later his daughter committing suicide. The two men’s relationship was also a kind of marriage, which they recall during the final weeks of Leary’s life as their ‘dance through this incarnation together’.

In 1996, dying of prostate cancer, Leary calls Ram Dass to be with him to face what he calls ‘the greatest adventure’, to celebrate death as the fulfilment of a life lived to the craziest extremes.

They talk about their 30 years as soul-mates, reaffirming their love for each other, and the respect and transcendental joy they experienced as fearless explorers of inner space.

It’s a brave film, literally staring death in the face. Leary resolved to die as he lived, ‘actively, creatively’, curious and present to the very last. He was, he joked, determined to give death a better name, or die trying.

Timonthy Leary ready for death.
Timonthy Leary ready for death.

Their differences lasted until the end. The ‘philosophical materialist’ Leary explored cryonics and had a small quantity of his ashes shot into space in a rocket.

Ram Dass was the true spiritual seeker – and the nicer guy. Some years later he was crippled by a stroke, which he says helped him to more closely identify with his soul. If you can do that, he says, ‘death is just another moment’.

‘Delve deep enough into yourself and you become the moment’, and at that moment ‘you engage with the deepest meanings of the universe’.

Speaking of his ‘beloved’ Leary, he says ‘love transcends death’.

This is a tale of the 60s and their aftermath, an American story of derangement and outrageous courage, and of intrepid humanity exploring new frontiers.

It will cause viewers to marvel, laugh, maybe cry a little; some will light up with flashbacks of ecstatic recall, some will feel the dread.

It’s not about drugs but about human curiosity and restlessness. The two men and their followers wanted life to be magical.

Whether you were there at the start of the psychedelic revolution and can or can’t remember it, or have an interest in spirituality, the psyche or psychology, Dying To Know will be a festival highlight, in every sense of the word.

The Byron Bay Film Festival runs from March 6 to 15. Program and tickets available February 23.

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