Editor’s Note: Where do philosophy, LSD, and AA-style recovery meet? Journalist Don Lattin explores the nexus in his latest book, Distilled Spirits: Getting High, Then Sober, with a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher, and a Hopeless Drunk (University of California Press, 2012). His bestseller, The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America (HarperOne, 2010), garnered high critical praise. The “redemptive power of storytelling and the strength of fellowship,” Lattin observes below, were two of the lessons learned from writing this new book. Bill W.’s experimentation with LSD offers a suggestive historical interface between Wilson’s personal struggle with alcoholism and the drug culture of the Sixties. Points warmly welcomes Lattin to its growing cache of book author interviewees. BTW, “distilled spirits” — get it?
The first thing my bartender would say to me is, “Dude! Where have you been?” You see, I’ve been clean and sober for 6+ years now and the two people I’ve seen the least are my bartender and my coke dealer. But I’d tell Joe, the bartender at the Tempest, the newspaper bar in San Francisco, that I’ve been busy writing a memoir about my misadventures as a religion reporter who spent too much of his life worshipping at the altar of drugs and alcohol. No, I’d tell Joe Distilled Spirits is not just another recovery memoir. I tried to do something different. I weave my own story into a group biography of three visionaries whose life work and long friendship helped transformed the landscape of Western spirituality. The subtitle of my book is a mouthful — Getting High, Then Sober with a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher and a Hopeless Drunk. The famous writer is Aldous Huxley, who wrote a book called The Doors of Perception, which inspired me and countless others in my generation to search for the face of God in a tab of acid. The forgotten philosopher is Gerald Heard, who you never heard of but who is the secret Godfather of the New Age movement. The hopeless drunk is Bill Wilson, the cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, who did lots of LSD in the 1950s, twenty years after he got sober. That’s right, Joe, the guy who started AA was an acid head.
What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?
It’s fairly common knowledge that Bill Wilson experimented with LSD. There was some promising research in the 1950s using the drug to treat alcoholism, so in a way that’s not so surprising. But my book offers some new details about Wilson’s, Heard’s, and Huxley’s collaboration, based on some Wilson/Heard letters I uncovered. The correspondence shows how the trio’s interest in LSD flowed out of their common fascination with flying saucers, psychic phenomena, and other paranormal activity. Wilson was initially interested in seeing if LSD could help him with his lifelong struggle with depression, and he thought it did help. In a 1957 letter to Heard, Wilson wrote, “I am certain that the LSD experience has helped me very much. I find myself with a heightened color perception and an appreciation of beauty almost destroyed by my years of depression. . . . The sensation that the partition between ‘here’ and ‘there’ has become very thin is constantly with me.”
There’s also some discussion in the book about the controversy Wilson’s extensive LSD use caused within AA and how it was partly responsible for him officially separating himself from the fellowship’s governing board. Some of the letters Wilson and Father Ed Dowling exchanged between 1958 and 1960, the year Dowling died, concern Wilson’s ongoing psychedelic drug experiments. “On the psychic front,” Wilson wrote on December 29, 1958, “the LSD business goes on apace. . . . I don’t believe that it has any miraculous property of transforming spiritually and emotionally sick people into healthy ones overnight. It can set up a shining goal on the positive side. . . . After all, it is only a temporary ego-reducer. . . . But the vision and insights given by LSD could create a large incentive—at least in a considerable number of people.”
Nearly a year later, on October 26, 1959, Wilson wrote about the controversy the drug sessions had stirred up in AA, noting, “It must be confessed that these recent heresies of mine do have their comic aspects.” He told Dowling that “the LSD business created some commotion. . . . The story is that ‘Bill takes one pill to see God and another to quiet his nerves.’”
Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?
What I learned writing this book is what I found in my own recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction—the redemptive power of storytelling and the strength of fellowship. It’s something we see at every meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. We can argue about whether twelve-step programs really work, or whether people in Alcoholics Anonymous are merely trading one addiction for another, replacing their cocktails with some amorphous higher power.
It’s actually much simpler than that. AA and other recovery programs work because they inspire some people to change their social networks, to start hanging out with another crowd, and most important, to shut up and start listening. We find someone willing to listen to our story. We tell it as honestly as we can and try to live a more compassionate life one day at a time.
There are more letters and documents out there about Wilson’s LSD use, some of which I heard about after the deadline for my manuscript. Plus, I became less intent on doing an exhaustive search after my editor at University of California Press encouraged me to make the book more of a memoir.
There are several reasons for the difficulty in getting original source documents: (1) AA has been reluctant to release some material related to LSD, but that policy seems to be changing somewhat; (2) Gerald Heard had a policy of destroying his personal correspondence — some of it survives only because his longtime personal secretary pulled letters out of his wastepaper basket and saved them; and (3) Many of Huxley’s papers were lost in a 1961 fire that leveled his house in the Hollywood Hills.
BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?
That’s easy. Aldous Huxley. What a voice! Gerald Heard said it was “as neat as a seamstress’s stitching.” Alan Watts, the renowned Buddhist scholar and fellow Brit, referred to Huxley’s voice as “lilting, aristocratic King’s English, with its tone of gentle, scholarly detachment and benevolent amusement.” To hear it yourself, check out the “Distilled Spirits” video trailer: