By Author Tom Shroder
In 1975 I was a 21-year-old college journalist (shown right), home on spring break in Sarasota, Florida, when I noticed a blurb in the local newspaper about a charismatic hippie with a pet wolf who was building himself a spectacular house in the woods near town. I decided to go out and see it for myself. I don’t remember anything about the blurb. I doubt it mentioned anything about the influence of psychedelic drugs in this project. But I am guessing that I inferred it, because while I didn’t much care about techniques of home building—nor would my college-student readers—I was extremely interested in the implications of the psychedelic experience.
I’m looking at a taped-together, Xeroxed copy of the story that resulted from that visit. Still no mention of drugs, but there it is between the lines. I wrote about the philosophy of the young builder, a guy named Rick Doblin (shown right), just a year older than me. It was about trying to live authentically, guided by an inner light rather than society’s preconceived ideas; consciously working to discover and create his own destiny rather than trudging along the rutted tracks set before him.
These were the kinds of notions floating around a certain subculture in those days; it was evident in the woodland home itself, with its giant, rainbow-themed, spiritually suggestive stained-glass window. Maybe we discussed psychedelics, maybe we didn’t. But they were in the air.
I myself was not entirely unfamiliar. Under the influence of the psilocybin mushrooms my friends and I had learned to pluck from cow dung in the rural fields not far from campus, then boil into tea and drink, I had seen the world—and myself—from a novel vantage point. It was like being able, for a few precious hours, to climb above your life and view it from on high, a perspective every bit as revealing as seeing a too-familiar landscape from the top of a mountain. Instead of individual cornstalks or oak trees or buildings, you saw checkerboard patterns of fields, serpentine forests following the course of a river, villages arrayed around ascending spires of churches. You saw, for once, how it all fit together.
One experience stands out in my memory, because it is something that I have carried with me, every day since, for four decades.
As the drug took effect, instead of feeling the usual lift, I grew increasingly entangled by anxiety. I began to obsess about an ethical problem I was struggling with, which generalized to feelings of inadequacy in life overall and my inability to find solutions.
The more I struggled against these feelings, the weightier and more intractable they seemed. And then suddenly I had a vision: I saw myself with my arms wrapped around a boulder. I could feel its weight, almost unbearable to hold, and yet I was clinging to it. I knew that the heavy stone consisted of all my doubts and anxieties, and as I desperately clutched it to my chest, I saw in a flash that part of me chose to be anxious—as a way to avoid making choices and evade responsibility for them. To be free of that awful weight, all I had to do was open my arms, which I did. The stone simply dropped away.
Ever since, although it has rarely been easy, I’ve been able to see negative emotions, on a profound level, as a choice, and the will to let them go as something I could develop, like a muscle. The more I practiced, the better I got, and I no longer needed the mushrooms to do it.
There wasn’t a moment I decided to stop doing psychedelic drugs. When I left the college environment they became less available, and I gained more responsibilities—a job, a family, a professional reputation—all of which made any illegal activity, and the potential health risks, unacceptable. But I never lost my interest in those psychedelic experiences, or forgot their profundity, and the lasting good they did me.
Ten years after graduation, I had become an editor at the Miami Herald Sunday magazine, Tropic, when I noticed a story in the Tampa newspaper about a perennial college student who was promoting the party drug Ecstasy as a breakthrough in psychotherapy. I did a double take: it was Rick Doblin, the hippie with the house in the woods, the same guy I had written about a decade earlier. I assigned a Herald feature writer to do a cover story on him. We headlined it: “A Timothy Leary for the ’80s.”
Twenty years passed. Now I was editor of The Washington Post Magazine, and once again an article that spoke to my lingering interest in the possible positive effects of psychedelics caught my eye. This time it was in the New York Times, about Harvard initiating a study testing the use of MDMA—Ecstasy—to treat anxiety and depression in terminal cancer patients. The man sponsoring the study: a very sophisticated-sounding Harvard Kennedy School PhD named Rick Doblin—the hippie in the woods.
I got a phone number and Rick answered. When I told him my name, he laughed. He not only remembered me and the two stories from twenty and thirty years earlier, he still had copies of them both. And just that morning, he told me, he’d held up the “Tim Leary” cover of Tropic at a board meeting of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), his nonprofit organization, to demonstrate how completely he’d remade his image, from a rebellious hippie to the sponsor of cutting-edge scientific research in some of the nation’s more conservative institutions.
This time I wrote the story myself, focusing on the MAPS-sponsored research a psychiatrist named Michael Mithoefer was conducting in Charleston, South Carolina, treating with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy mostly female victims of sexual abuse. The story appeared in The Washington Post Magazine in November 2007, and much of it has been adapted here in chapter forty-two.
I was pleased enough with the piece as published, but I felt it barely scratched the surface, both because of rapidly accumulating developments in psychedelic research and because I sensed that the significance of any given study could not be fully assessed without a deeper understanding of the people behind the studies, not to mention the century-long struggle of Western culture to come to grips with these powerful and, in some ways, profoundly threatening drugs.
This is what I have attempted in Acid Test.
Whatever success I have had I owe entirely to the openness and honesty of the principal characters. Those people listed in the acknowledgments have granted me access to scores of records and privileged documents and agreed to sit for what amounted to a combined total of more than a hundred hours of interviews, unflinchingly answering the most intimate and sensitive questions, revealing things that were personally painful and might very well expose them to negative judgments or significantly complicate their lives.
Their reasons for agreeing to all the above are transparent. They accepted my contention that the full and complete disclosure of all the information surrounding the use and abuse of psychedelic drugs, the history of psychedelic therapy, the motivations of the researchers, and the experiences of the subjects is the best argument for continued and extended support of rigorous and responsible investigation.
I owe a special debt to those among them who have undergone clinical trials to treat debilitating post-traumatic stress, a disorder that makes it particularly difficult and potentially painful to open up. In particular, I am indebted to Donna Kilgore, Tony Macie, and, above all, Nicholas Blackston. They all spent hours reviewing their case histories with me, leaving nothing off the record, as well as giving me permission to listen to or watch voluminous audio-and videotapes of their therapeutic sessions. It is hard to imagine a more naked vulnerability than allowing an outsider to witness hours spent delving into your deepest, most charged and haunting intimacies explored under the powerful effect of MDMA. Yet, these people made that sacrifice willingly, for no other reason than a sense of duty. They felt the therapy benefited them and quite possibly saved their lives, and they believed sharing their stories might help make the therapy available to others.
I am moved and awed by their courage.
Click here to read our Q&A with Tom Shroder.
Click here to learn more about Acid Test.