The Points Interview — Mark Christensen

Editor’s Note:  Those who follow the Points Interview series know that Joe Spillane has managed this aspect of the blog since our founding.  While in today’s iteration we mourn Joe’s departure, we are also delighted to announce that Contributing Editor Ron Roizen has agreed to take over as our official interview steward.  A member of the merry research staff at the Alcohol Research Group at “Berzerkeley” in the early 1970s, it’s fitting that his first Points Interview is a “Freaky Friday” confab with Mark Christensen, another denizen of the Wild West.  In addition to publishing several novels, Christensen has written for Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Oregon Magazine.  Here he graces Points with his replies to our series of probing interrogatives on Acid Christ: Ken Kesey, LSD, and the Politics of Ecstasy (Schaffner Press, 2010).

How did you come to write Acid Christ?  And what’s its focus?

I was contacted by a former editor working for my eventual publisher, Tim Schaffner.  Tim had an idea for a new kind of nonfiction book,  a “shepherd and his sheep” biography in which the writer would tell the story of  a major modern “culture changer” and the change the “shepherd” brought from the writer’s own  perspective. As one of the sheep.  That would be me.  A former upper middle-class “suburban-urchin,” I’d written about counterculture icons like David Crosby, Richard Pryor and Paul Krassner for Rolling Stone and High Times and, so to speak, the paradise that was “pre-AIDS ‘Freak Freely’ America.” So I guess I was a good get.

As for the shepherd, larger than life Ken Kesey was an easy choice.  By age 28 he had two critically acclaimed bestselling novels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, a feat never bested by Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Saul Bellow or John Updike. Continue reading →

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Freaky Friday: Cross-Posting Gary Laderman on “LSD”

Editor’s Note: Today marks the third in a series of cross-postings from the Social Science Research Council’s Frequencies project– earlier posts from that “genealogy of spirituality” examined the AA Big Book and Marijuana.  Here, in a piece that’s sure to get that Freaky Friday groove on, Emory University Professor of Religion Gary Laderman explores LSD’s contribution to the contemporary spiritual landscape of the US.  The original illustration from the Frequencies site is by Joe Meiser.

Joe Meiser, "Mobile Transcendence Device," 2008

Picture yourself on a train in a station,
With plasticine porters with looking glass ties.
Suddenly someone is there at the turnstile,
The girl with kaleidoscope eyes.

— The Beatles,
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (1967)

When I was 17 I dropped my first tab of acid. A friend and I excused ourselves from school, drove to Chatsworth Park in the San Fernando Valley, and tripped for about seven hours. The experience was breathtaking, to say the least: the blue sky and clouds took on geometric shapes and impossible proportions; when I waved my hand in front of my face it left multicolored trails and incandescent traces that confounded my sense of bodily space; I was overcome with a strange and powerful love for all of humanity that seemed to be personally exhilarating and cosmically liberating at the same time; and an indescribable awareness of inner light and profound insight overwhelmed my consciousness that was as mystical as it was psychologically illuminating.

The year was 1979, way beyond the psychedelic and tumultuous decade of the 1960s often associated with drug experimentation and mind-expanding possibilities with altered states of consciousness. But it is a fitting anecdote to begin this essay for one specific reason: it was through the ingestion of LSD that I came to understand the utility and value of the word “spirituality.” Previous to this experience the only thing I knew about religion was based entirely on the many years of Sunday school and endless hours of Hebrew school at my reform Jewish temple in preparation for my Bar Mitzvah several years earlier. What I experienced under the influence was nothing like religion as I knew it, and while I had heard the word “spirituality” used occasionally over the years, I had no idea what it referred to until my psychedelic trip in Chatsworth Park. After that day the meaning of the word spirituality became crystal clear to me and I began to use it more frequently in my own speech and imagination to identify perspectives and experiences that were decidedly not about religion, and most assuredly about sacred insights, expansive consciousness, transcendence of the body, and inner knowledge.

Unlocking the Doors of Perception

The point I would like to make here—and in an effort now to shift the narrative from personal confessional to cultural analysis—is that LSD contributed to a society-wide awareness of spirituality as a viable and meaningful alternative to institutional religion. LSD was itself a trip through categorical space, a tab that transitioned a tripping public from one idea of experience to another, from an idea of religion to one of spirituality. Even with the obvious dangers and bad trips associated with LSD, use of this drug and the public commentary about it provided Americans with a vocabulary to describe personal religious experiences utterly disconnected from conventional language used to identify the sacred, and not quite tethered to but not completely separated from the deep-rooted histories of spirituality provided by Leigh Schmidt in Restless Souls and Catherine Albanese in A Republic of Mind and Spirit.

In the late 1960s and through the 1970s, LSD was, for many, a potent manufactured sacrament that unlocked the doors of perception in an American culture imprisoned by theological conformity, blew open the boundaries of religious experience hemmed in by doctrine and narrow ideas about social propriety, and legitimated popular cultural transformations that idealized notions of inner truth, self-seeking personal illumination, and consciousness expansion. In other words, experiences with LSD and the publicity surrounding them gave shape and content to modern understandings of spirituality. Continue reading →

Freaky Friday: Documents: Chester Anderson’s “Uncle Tim’$ Children”

Editor’s Note:  Recent ponderings on the place of drugs in the Occupy Wall Street encampments, plus our ongoing engagement with all matters psychedelic, has led Points to think about the counterculture.  As Dr. Dave Smith, founder of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, noted in a talk that we posted here a few months back, drug use and abuse was rampant in the high tide of the counterculture.  The steep human costs of that drug use are routinely omitted from that story–as is the fact that those costs were probably not distributed evenly, but fell disproportionately on the under-resourced and the young, on women and people of color.  Looking for some resistance to and critique of this destructive and predatory culture, we turned to Eric Noble’s online Digger Archives, an incredible resource for ’60s-era history.

For those not familiar with them, the Diggers (who appropriated their name from a 17th century British group of radical nonconformists) were a loosely organized anti-capitalist direct action organization active in the Haight between 1966-68.  Members of the Diggers served reclaimed food for free in Golden Gate Park, and were responsible for creating the Free Switchboard (which helped to locate resources for travelers passing through San Francisco), the Free Stores, and with Smith, the Free Clinic. 

Revolutionary Publishers (Digger Archives)

Less well-known is the Digger’s publishing project, the Communications Company (or ComCo), started by journalist Claude Hayward and novelist Chester Anderson.  An older (b. 1932) denizen of the Greenwich Village beat scene, Anderson was skeptical about many elements of the counterculture–commercialism and opportunism, predatory behavior, sex and gender politics–and he used the ComCo’s broadsides as vehicles for his criticisms.  Perhaps the most famous of these, a scathing commentary on the effects of the commercialized traffic in LSD on the social fabric of the Haight, is reprinted here.

ComCo Broadsheet, ca. May 1967

Pretty little 16-year-old middle class chick comes to the Haight to see what it’s all about & gets picked up by a 17-year-old street dealer who spends all day shooting her full of speed again & again, then feeds her 3000 mikes and raffles off her temporarily unemployed body for the biggest Haight Street gang bang since the night before last.

The politics & ethics of ecstasy.

Rape is as common as bullshit on Haight Street.

The Love Generation never sleeps.

The Oracle continues to recruit for this summer’s Human Shit-In, but the psychedelic plastic flower & god’s eye merchants, shocked by the discovery that increased population doesn’t necessarily guarantee increased profits at all, have invented the Council for a Summer of Love to keep us all from interfering with commerce. Continue reading →

Freaky Friday: Gloria Anzaldúa’s Alien Nation: Queering Altered States

Editor’s note: Today’s Freaky Friday brings us again to the psychedelic borderlands, where University of Florida Professor of Women’s Studies and English Tace Hedrick talks about the mushroom trips of Gloria Anzaldúa– and their connections to her queer mestiza cosmology.

Gloria Anzaldúa,1942-2004

Chicana lesbian feminist writer Gloria Anzaldúa (1942-2004) is best known for her 1987 Borderlands/ la frontera: Towards a New Mestiza Consciousness, a text combining diary entries, essays, and poetry. It is a sometimes bilingual meditation on how to survive being mestiza (mixed-race European and indigenous), queer, feminist and New Age in a white supremacist patriarchal world. The text is something of a bible for post-Second Wave feminists, yet as radical as it is, in her interviews Anzaldúa was even more open about how her sexuality and her New Age consciousness worked in concert with her indigenous heritage. Anzaldúa felt herself to be intensely “alien,” and that term was more than a metaphor for her, as she notes in Interviews/Entrevistas:

We only want to know the consciousness part of ourselves because we don’t want to think that there’s this alien being in the middle of our psyche….The movie Alien affected me greatly because I really identified with it….My sympathies were…with the alien. I think that’s how the soul is: it’s treated like an alien because we don’t know what it is (39-40).

In Borderlands and subsequent texts, Anzaldúa connected queers with indigenous souls and mestiza bodies—and linked all three to the figure of the alien and the metaphor of alienation. She gave a central place in this framework to the healing force of the (seemingly inherent) spirituality of indigenous peoples—a spirituality that she acknowledged was sometimes linked to the consumption of psychoactive plants. Continue reading →

Freaky Friday: Exploring the “Secrets Mushroomic”: R. Gordon Wasson in Mexico

Editor’s Note: Today’s Freaky Friday brings Points readers the insights of Tace Hedrick, Associate Professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University of Florida and a specialist in 20th-century Latin American literature and culture.  Having written previously on Mestizo Modernisms, Hedrick is now at work on a study of national and cosmic identity discourse across the Latin American and Latino Americas diaspora.  Her meditation on the mid-20th century Mexican mushroom vogue is drawn from that project, whose working title is Queering the Cosmic Race: Gloria Anzaldúa, Ana Mendieta, and Walter Mercado, 1968-2010.  She will return in a few weeks to discuss the psychedelic journeys of Gloria Anzaldúa.

Plants of the Gods, 1979

Most people do not think of the middle of the 20th century—the super square 1950s—as a time when indigenous drug rituals and experiments with psychoactive plants were topics of popular interest for the average Joes and Janes (or Ozzies and Harriets) of the United States.  In Mexico, however, traditional rituals with psychoactive plants had been a sometimes intense focus of interest (for Mexicans and people from the United States alike) since the post-armed phase of the Revolution, beginning in the 1920s, and in the U.S. the 1950s brought a resurgence in the popularity of earlier texts about indigenous drug use. Among these were Carl Lumholtz’s 1902 Unknown Mexico, which detailed Mexican Huichol peyote rituals, and Robert Zingg’s 1938 writing on Huichol artwork, commonly assumed to be psychedelic because of their religious use of peyote.  Also during the 1930s, Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes traveled with anthropologist and ethnobotanist Raoul Weston LaBarre throughout Oklahoma (not quite as exotic as Mexico) to study Plains Indians’ peyote use. Their disparate findings, published in 1938, were among the texts revived first in the 1950s and again in the ’70s:  LaBarre’s The Peyote Cult sought to psychologize the indigenous use of peyote visions, while Schultes’ “The Appeal of Peyote [Lophophora Williamsii] as a Medicine” (published in American Anthropologist) argued that the substance’s value lay in its therapeutic and stimulating properties more than in its psychoactive ones.

Research performed in the 1930s and ‘40s, then, formed the basis of many of the bestselling ‘70s volumes on the indigenous roots of psychedelic culture.  Continue reading →

Freaky Friday: Ayahuasca Past and Present

Editor’s Note:  In his short commentary on “The Stoned Ages” a couple of weeks ago, co-managing editor Joe Spillane mentioned that viewers who hoped to learn more about ayahuasca would be disappointed by the show, given its obsession with psilocybin mushrooms.  Reader, if he was talking about you, fret no more!  Counterprogramming against this weekend’s rerun of “The Stoned Ages,” Freaky Friday today treats ayahuasca in all its glory, courtesy of several members of the Working Group on Psychoactive Plants and Religion (WGPR) at the University of Florida.  The post was written by James C. Taylor and Lucas de Biaji Moreira, graduate students under the supervision of Robin Wright, Associate Professor of Religion. James Taylor, a graduate of Jacksonville University, is at work on an M.A. thesis entitled “The Trees are Human: Psychoactive Plants, the Subjectivity of Nature, and an Engagement with Modernity in the Napo Runa Kichwa Culture of Ecuador.”  He serves as the web administrator for the WGPR and its affiliate website, New Studies on Shamanism. Lucas Moreira graduated from the College of Charleston. The working title of his M.A. thesis is “Religious Counter-Nationalism and Counter-Religious Nationalism: Encounters with the State in Spaces of Inclusion and Exclusion.”

The Department of Religion and the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida will host a conference entitled “Humans, Plants, and Religion: a Multi-Disciplinary Approach” December 12-16, 2011.  Points readers interested in participating or attending should contact Robin Wright at rowrightrobin@yahoo.com.

How much of the clamor surrounding ayahuasca in the last few years comes down to the thrill of the exotic, the strange mystique of the dense jungle condensed into a murky brew–especially a brew with a reputation for bringing strange and vivid visions of other worlds?  Or is the uproar fostered, rather, by a yearning for a kind of reconnection, through the remarkable transformative power of this tea that supposedly opens up unimagined spiritual horizons? Both desires fuel the interest in ayahuasca tourism, which both resonates with neo-colonial expectations of/projections onto the “other” and speaks to an authentic urge for spiritual renewal.  Ayahuasca seeking is an experience composed from parts of both, but not reducible to either one alone.

Vine of Souls, Plant of Gods, Trip of Lifetime

Ayahuasca – the “vine of the souls” in Quechua – first became known to the Western world through the ethnobotany of Richard Spruce and his disciple Richard Evans Schultes,  Containing chemicals once dubbed “telepathine” for their seeming power to grant mind-to-mind contact when ingested, Banisteriopsis Caapi was later recognized to contain both harmine and harmaline, the same beta-carboline alkaloids present in Peganum Harmala, or Syrian Rue.  The word ayahuasca refers both to the B. caapi vine and the brew created from it.  This tea is created in conjunction with the leaves of the Psychotria Viridis bush, a species known in parts of Peru and Ecuador as “chacruna,” which containing the chemical compound known as DMT. Though normally inactive orally, when combined with the harmine and harmaline of B. caapi DMT becomes active and passes the brain-blood barrier.  It is the DMT that is thought to produce the significant majority of the intense visions for which ayahuasca is known.

Indigenous peoples throughout much of the Amazon have long histories of ayahuasca use. It has served as a primary means of divining the causes and cures of both naturally occurring illness and harms caused by sorcery.  It was, and still is, often employed by ritual experts – shamans – seeking both the pathological elements (in Western terms, something like the disease or infecting agent) as well as the social roots of a particular illness.  In many indigenous and mestizo Amazonian cultures, disease and death are rarely considered “natural” by-products of daily life.  Rather, they are understood to result from the ill-will of some other party–whether human, or other-than-human, as animal, plant, spirit, ghost, or god.  In some cases, the shaman alone drinks the ayahuasca brew, and acts as the sole mediator between the human and the spirit world; in others, ayahuasca is drunk collectively.  Continue reading →

Freaky Friday: *Go Ask Alice* Forty Years Later

Editor’s Note: Former Contributing Editor, now Esteemed Guest Blogger Brian Herrera reminds us all what to do when logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead.  His meditation is cross-posted from his Performations blog.

Anonymous was a Woman (Named Beatrice Sparks)

Forty years ago, Go Ask Alice was published.  In the intervening years, it has remained in print and on library shelves, garnering new readers while also sustaining the notoriety that has followed it since its initial publication. Indeed, in each of the past two decades, Go Ask Alice has ranked among the top twenty-five “most challenged” books as noted by the American Library Association. For better and for worse, then, Go Ask Alice continues to be read, continues to be challenged, and continues to shape the cultural narrative about adolescent experience of drugs, addiction and recovery.

Go Ask Alice is a teenaged girl’s diary that purports to detail the actual “Anonymous” author’s naive experimentation with drugs, as well as her subsequent addiction and the fleeting promise of recovery. As an ostensibly authentic teen diary, rendered “more or less exempt from the regular kind of literary criticism since it was supposedly the diary of a deceased young girl” (Nilsen, 109), the prose is dotted with idiosyncratic “teen” syntax (marked by a predisposition toward emphatic capitalizations). As she narrates her story, the narrator indulges what one commentator describes as “every available sort of self-destruction short of joining the Manson family” (Moss). Continue reading →