Harvard In the Sky With Diamonds - Of veritas and LSD
When news broke a fortnight ago that two undergraduates had been arrested in connection with a nude, acid-fueled spectacle in the corridors of Quincy House’s C-entry, one could have been forgiven for checking the calendar. Yes, it was 2006, not 1966 — yet once again, the banks of the Charles were playing host to psychedelic excess.
Thirty-eight hits’ worth of excess, to be precise — the number that the Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) allegedly found in the room of Soren J. Siebach ’08, as first reported in a February 25 article on the Crimson’s website. The other arrestee, whom HUPD has not yet named, was hospitalized for drug treatment after assaulting two officers; naked and “acting in an aggressive and threatening manner,” in the words of police logs, he initially eluded capture because his skin was too sweaty to seize.
Siebach, a Utah native, came to college with a perfect ACT score and an avowed interest in “disco skating,” according to his high-school newspaper. Now he faces a mandatory minimum sentence of two years’ imprisonment, thanks to Massachusetts school-zone provisions. (Quincy House is across the street from the Radcliffe Child Care Center, a “private accredited preschool” under the law.)
Siebach’s cohort will face arraignment next week on one count of marijuana possession and two counts of assault and battery against a police officer, said HUPD spokesperson Steven G. Catalano. The former charge has a maximum sentence of six months; the latter, two and a half years.
The incident came as a surprise, wrote Quincy C resident Kevin J. Feeney ’08 in an e-mail. “A lot of people are confused about what did happen that night, and I suppose worried about what will happen.” Nonetheless, Feeney said, “the talk has stayed relatively quiet. Nothing on the open list, no official statement.” He described the Quincy community overall as “sympathetic toward everyone involved. We haven’t gone Salem, yet.”
Catalano, the HUPD spokesperson, characterized the incident as unusual — especially in light of the hallucinogen involved. “We weren’t necessarily surprised,” he said, “but it was something new. Most of our drug arrests involve marijuana.” He could not recall another specific LSD-related arrest from his six years with the Department.
In all likelihood, Catalano said, the event does not signal a resurgence of LSD use at Harvard — though one wonders who was on the receiving end of Siebach’s alleged “intent to distribute” the 38 hits. Regardless, the Quincy House sideshow represents just the latest chapter in Harvard’s long and storied history with D-lysergic acid diethylamide — a history that has seen the hallucinogen flirting with both sides of the countercultural divide.
Today, the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, described on its website as “a unique collaboration between the Massachusetts Department of Health and Harvard Medical School,” serves as a premier teaching hospital for psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental-health professionals. In a less genteel time, however, the Harvard-affiliated Center was called the Boston Psychopathic Hospital — and in 1949, it witnessed the American arrival of a European immigrant: LSD.
Six years earlier, the Swiss scientist Albert Hoffman had discovered first-hand the hallucinogenic powers of the compound, which he had originally synthesized in 1938. But according to John D. Marks’ 1979 book The Search for the “Manchurian Candidate” (Time Books), Hoffman’s substance received little attention in the States until a Viennese psychiatry professor named Otto Kauders extolled its virtues at a conference held at Boston Psychopathic. Kauders, described in an Associated Press obituary as “internationally known,” suggested that the schizophrenia-like state that LSD seemed to induce might come in handy for researchers; if they could find an antidote to the drug, they might also find the cure for a range of mental illnesses. Fascinated by Kauders’ ideas, the neuropsychiatrist Max Rinkel, a German émigré working for Boston Psychopathic’s Department of Research, requested a sample of LSD from a Swiss pharmaceutical company.
Robert W. Hyde, the hospital’s assistant superintendent, volunteered to serve as the guinea pig. Rinkel later described Hyde’s first foray into psychedelia at a neuropharmacology conference in Princeton. After downing 100 micrograms of LSD, Rinkel said, Hyde “became quite paranoid, saying that we had not given him anything. He also berated us and said that the company had cheated us…That was not Dr. Hyde’s normal behavior; he is a very friendly, pleasant man.” To be sure, Hyde’s transformation blew no minds, and his drug-addled persona, however abrasive, paled in comparison to that of his literary namesake. Even so, his was the first documented “trip” in American history — organized and funded, at least in part, by the Harvard Medical School.
In another early test case described by Rinkel, he and a Massachusetts General Hospital psychiatrist “were very fortunate in having an outstanding contemporary American painter volunteer for an experiment with LSD.” The volunteer was Hyman Bloom, a then prominent Boston artist who had studied under Denman W. Ross, a Harvard professor emeritus. Not only were Bloom’s LSD-loosened words recorded for science; he also translated his experience into a series of pencil drawings. The scribbles charted Bloom’s hallucinatory descent. Two hours into the experiment, Rinkel said, Bloom wrote “Hindu religion” in the upper corner of a piece of paper; “in the lower part he drew monsters, commenting: ‘This face comes out like a cat-like face.’” At times, he was reduced to “making dots and dashes”; at other times, he managed to sketch out a picture of “a butchered beef or ox” that he later sold to a private collector. Seeking the opinion of an expert critic, Rinkel turned to Wilhelm R. W. Koehler, the William Dorr Boardman Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts at Harvard. What Koehler said is unknown, but with or without his approbation the Fogg Art Museum eventually acquired over 60 of Bloom’s works, thanks in part to donations from his old mentor, Professor Ross.
In 1966, Bloom spoke to the New York Times about his path-breaking trip, calling it “really a great experience.” “On the other hand,” he said, “it was more difficult to draw.”
With Rinkel’s help, the heavily Harvard-connected Bloom had become one of the first people ever to combine art with LSD; he would not be the last. Yet while Bloom and Rinkel led the way in creative and aesthetic uses of the drug, Rinkel’s colleagues at Boston Psychopathic — and in particular ur-tripper Robert W. Hyde — were steering the hallucinogen in much more sinister directions.
It is not clear precisely how or when it happened, but perhaps as early as 1952 Boston Psychopathic had become ground zero for Project MKULTRA. Described in a 1977 New York Times article as “a secret, 25-year, $25-million effort by the Central Intelligence Agency to learn how to control the human mind,” the project sought to counter potential Soviet brainwashing by developing its own techniques for manipulating and programming behavior — techniques that sometimes involved hallucinogenic drugs. “The most fascinating thing about [LSD],” an anonymous former MKULTRA official told author John Marks in 1979, “was that such minute quantities had such a terrific effect.” But precisely what “effect” LSD had was still poorly understood. By funneling money to academics through a number of private foundations and front groups, the CIA aimed to find out exactly what the drug could do.
And Dr. Hyde aimed to help. Officially, only he and his immediate superior — hospital superintendent, Harvard Medical School graduate, and Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor Harry C. Solomon — knew where the money for the hospital’s LSD program — some $286,000 spread across nine years — really came from. Unofficially, other high-level researchers could not be so easily hoodwinked; one, Dr. J. Herbert DeShon, told Marks that his colleagues were aware of the intelligence agency’s role but “agreed not to discuss it.”
Supported by CIA largesse, Hyde and a handful of collaborators — including a fellow Medical School professor and a future Bureau of Study Counsel director — undertook basic LSD research, publishing a series of journal articles that meticulously investigated the effects of the drug on experimental subjects. In flat, academic prose, the articles’ abstracts paint a lurid picture of what the project entailed. A 1952 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry and co-authored by Hyde, Rinkel, DeShon, and Solomon outlined “the effect of [LSD]…upon normal male and female individuals, who responded to the administration of this drug with a psychotic-schizophrenic–like reaction. Disturbances of thought and speech, affect and mood, perception, depersonalization, behavior, and intellect are reported.” A 1957 study entitled “Experimentally Induced Depersonalization” claimed to catalogue “569 distortions” induced in 48 subjects dosed with LSD; “these are classified as changes of self, of others, of objects and physical environment, and of general thought processes…Persons with strong positive or negative feelings are especially exposed to depersonalization experiences.”
Such responses, however intriguing or frightening, remained vague and difficult to measure. Hyde pressed on with more experiments, examining as many as 100 subjects at a time in ever sharper physiological and psychological detail. According to a 1994 Boston Globe investigation, these subjects included Harvard and Radcliffe students — enticed by the $25 offered in exchange for participation — along with hospital staff members and mentally ill patients, many of whom did not or could not give informed consent by today’s standards. In later years, students might well have leaped at the opportunity to get paid for taking the drug, but according to the Globe, Boston Psychopathic’s subjects typically did not understand what they were getting themselves into when they “volunteered.” They knew they would participate in a drug study; they did know that LSD was the drug in question. Even if they had, LSD was still obscure in the ’50s and early ’60s. Only medical professionals had a good idea of what the substance could do — and at Boston Psychopathic, they kept their mouths shut for the sake of the project.
Despite the efforts of Hyde and his colleagues, however, the secret of “mind control” continued to elude MKULTRA. Ideally, Boston Psychopathic’s public research was supposed to yield covert applications: “in effect,” wrote Marks, “the scientists would write openly about how LSD affects a patient’s pulse rate, but they would tell only the CIA how the drug could be used to ruin that patient’s marriage or memory.” But while LSD did sometimes render people extremely suggestible or otherwise vulnerable, its effects were so contingent, so unstable, that it made for an unreliable truth serum or brainwashing agent. By 1961, the Harvard-affiliated hospital’s CIA-funded drug research came to a close. For at least one of its subjects, however, the story did not end there. The Globe uncovered a 1981 letter written by a student — alma mater unknown — who took part in an LSD test in 1955. Devastated by the experience, he dropped out of school and meandered around the globe for more than two decades, lost and alone.
“A New Race of Mutants”?
Far better known than Harvard’s complicity in clandestine intelligence research is its relationship with the late counterculture icon Timothy Leary. Leary, a lecturer in clinical psychology, joined forces with Richard Alpert, an assistant professor in the same field, to explore the mind-expanding powers of hallucinogenic drugs — first psilocybin (the substance that makes “magic” mushrooms magic), then LSD.
Colleagues at the Center for Personality Research attacked Leary and Alpert for their unscientific methodology, which consisted chiefly of giving people drugs and seeing what happened. Herbert C. Kelman, then a lecturer on social psychology and now the Richard Clarke Cabot Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics, denounced Leary and Alpert as “nonchalant” and “anti-intellectual,” according to a March 15, 1962, article in the Crimson (prior to the founding of the Independent). The rogue researchers placed an inappropriate “emphasis…on pure experience, not on verbalizing findings,” Kelman reportedly said. “It is an attempt to reject most of what the psychologist tries to do.”
The Harvard Corporation agreed, dismissing both Alpert and Leary in 1963. By 1967, Alpert had traveled to India, taken up yoga, and renamed himself Ram Dass (“servant of God”). By 1970, Leary had been convicted of marijuana possession twice and had been broken out of jail once, thanks to the radical group known as the Weather Underground. At least the former faculty members were keeping themselves busy.
But by the time Harvard expelled Alpert and Leary, it was already too late: the lysergic genie was out of the blotter. A breathless Crimson story in 1962 “revealed that sugar cubes impregnated with LSD have been sold in the Square.” In 1963, a columnist for the newspaper called Cambridge “the Drug Capital of the East Coast — at least for your better class of compounds.” And in 1967, John U. Monro, then the Dean of the College, took the unusual step of informing the Class of 1970 in a sternly worded letter that, “as anyone bright enough to be at Harvard knows perfectly well, possession or distribution of marijuana and L.S.D. are strictly against the law.” Added Monro, “if a student is stupid enough to misuse his time here fooling around with illegal and dangerous drugs, our view is that he should leave the college.” Even Timothy Leary was (briefly) worried: in 1966, he suggested that “LSD may be creating a new race of mutants,” according to an April 23 Crimson report.
But how many students actually used LSD? How populous was Leary’s “new race”? Roland J. Cole ’70, a co-founder and former vice president of the Independent, said that fewer students may have been “tripping” than many imagined. “LSD, in particular, was a new drug, so it got more attention than existing drugs, even though I suspect actual use of it by Harvard and Radcliffe students was never very widespread,” wrote Cole in an e-mail. Taking LSD, Cole suggested, became charged with significance at a time when “political and social efforts ‘to do something different’ [and] ‘to look at the world in new ways’” consumed the campus. Tripping “could be seen as a symbol” more than a common pastime, said Cole.
A former Independent editor from the Class of 1973 offered a different account from a slightly later period. The former editor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, wrote in an e-mail that “the early ’70s saw a remarkable confluence of drugs, sex, and rock and roll…Psychedelics were certainly to be found in the dorm rooms of adherents to the Tim Leary/Ram Dass school of profound spiritual exploration as well as the more bacchanalian Ken Kesey/Grateful Dead school.” But the “bacchanalian” revelry might have had its costs, the source said. “Most people survived their experimentations; sadly, rumors suggested a few did not.” No one said being a mutant would be easy.
Records and Wreckage
However much LSD was actually ingested by Harvard’s student body during the late ’60s and early ’70s, a not inconsiderable fraction of it wound up in the bloodstream of James Toback ’66. Toback, the director behind such movies as Two Girls and a Guy, Black and White, and most recently, When Will I Be Loved, claims to have taken the largest recorded dose of LSD in history — 100,000 micrograms — while he was an undergraduate here. Unlike some of his peers, Toback lived to tell the tale; he even set it to celluloid in his semiautobiographical 2001 film Harvard Man, which starred Adrian Grenier opposite Sarah Michelle Gellar as a brooding Crimson basketball player who drops acid and learns the true meaning of madness. In a telephone interview, Toback discussed the experiences that inspired the scene.
“No one knew what [LSD] could do,” Toback said. “Few people knew about it. But [Aldous] Huxley, Alan Watts, the Tibetan Book of the Dead: these books were floating around — all of which made you want to try it.” (Huxley, the well-known author of Brave New World, and Watts, a philosopher with a strong interest in Eastern religions, both made public their use of psychedelic drugs in the ’60s. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, an ancient Buddhist text, was sometimes used a “guidebook” for acid trips.)
“I was definitely looking at [LSD] as a potential God connection,” Toback said. “People were talking about it in religious terms.” Curious about the mysterious substance, he managed to obtain it from a friend who had just returned from Switzerland, home to the pharmaceutical company from which the Boston Psychopathic Hospital had also purchased its LSD supply. When his friend went through Swiss customs, Toback said, an officer asked him to identify his hallucinogen-soaked sugar cubes. Told that they were LSD, the officer was elated and asked to try out a cube himself. “I’m not sure what happened to him,” Toback said.
Once he had his hands on the drug, Toback immediately slid into excess. “I took this massive dose,” he said. “It was nine hours of total bliss followed by eight days of indescribable catastrophe — physically, emotionally, and every other way.” Tripping intensely but enjoyably, he encountered a classmate, a swimmer from Arizona, who had himself done LSD once, albeit a much smaller dose. “I told him that Earth was the insane asylum of the universe. ‘Don’t you agree? Isn’t it [LSD] the answer?’” But the swimmer demurred. Toback grew anxious. He asked the swimmer how long his intoxication was supposed to last. The answer — “Sometimes it never ends” — shattered Toback’s “bliss” in an instant.
“My self had been disintegrated,” he said. “I realized I was just an artificial construction. It’s like when you’re three years old — your brain hasn’t formulated a self yet.” Behaving erratically, succumbing to madness, wandering the streets of Cambridge for eight days, Toback came close to the breaking point. “If I knew that by killing myself I could end this feeling,” he said, “I would blow my brains out” — words that went through his mind at the time and that he later gave to Adrian Grenier’s character in Harvard Man.
But Toback didn’t blow his brains out. Instead, someone came to his rescue — Max Rinkel, the researcher from Boston Psychopathic who first brought LSD to the States. “Rinkel saved my life,” Toback said. “My mother called around and spoke to an internist who found out that [Rinkel] was one of originators of LSD.” Miraculously, he still lived in the area and was willing to administer an antidote to the ailing Toback. “No one else would have done it,” Toback said. “There was a fair chance I would die from the antidote.” Rinkel succeeded, however, and Toback recovered.
He never did drugs again.
For Toback, LSD served as an agent of what he called “transcendental education.” “The absolute benefit you get” from the drug, he said, “is that you’re completely fearless in the face of death afterwards.” Shuffling off the mortal coil, however bad it might be, could never outdo the horror of eight days of tripping.
Perhaps, then, the unnamed undergraduate who ran naked through Quincy House will be able to soldier on through his ordeal, even as his identity stands revealed and his future falls into the hands of the criminal justice system. Perhaps LSD has liberated from petty concerns.
More likely, however, he’s terrified. Who wouldn’t be? Like Miniver Cheevy, it seems, the student was born too late. At Harvard in the ’50s, he would have been a valuable test subject; in the ’60s, he would have been a subversive hero. Today, alas, he is nothing but a curiosity — the last desperate champion of a mutant race.
By Shane Wilson