Dr. James Penner lets Timothy Leary’s drug experimentation speak for itself tonight at Vroman’s
By Carl Kozlowski 07/31/2014
Timothy Leary was a man who was loved by many, but feared by powerful elites, including former President Richard Nixon, who called him “the most dangerous man in America.” As a psychologist and writer known for advocating psychedelic drugs for both mind-expansion and perhaps even psychotherapy, he began his career working with LSD and psilocybin at Harvard University during a brief period when the two drugs were legal, but ultimately was fired by the Ivy League icon when his work with the substances became controversial.
Leary died in 1996 at age 76, after spending the last four decades of his life on the fringes of mainstream science. Yet James Penner PhD, an assistant professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras, has assembled an eclectic array of Leary’s writings from his Harvard years in 1960-65 and collected them in the new book, “Timothy Leary: The Harvard Years,” in an attempt to put the focus back on Leary as a groundbreaking academician.
Penner will be discussing the tome tonight at Vroman’s Bookstore. He recently found time to discuss his extensive exploration of Leary’s research in a phone interview from Puerto Rico. In fact, it took Penner a full year to examine every piece of documentation he could find, and another year to organize it all for efficient editing.
“When I was working on my first book, I did about 10 pages on Leary and the Harvard Drug Scandal and I became very interested in that historical event,” says Penner, referring to the incident that led to Leary’s firing. “It was in that period when LSD was still legal. What I discovered was that a lot of his early Harvard work is hard to find. The weird thing about it is I think it’s by far his best work. And his later books don’t interest me as much, the ’70s and ’80s books, as much as his early work.”
Penner believes that his new book will crossover to numerous audience niches. Among the factions he has found interest from are “historians interested in the ’60s but not in psychedelia,” as well as those who are interested primarily in his psychedelic experiments.
“To a certain extent, he’s been demonized, so his ideas need to be contextualized,” explains Penner. “We looked at the early work from when LSD was legal, and a lot of people who have never read Leary and say they like or dislike him without reading him. But the current generation is very interested in the early ’60s when psychedelic drugs were researched, with young people who felt the pot movement had utopian goals.”
Aside from his professorial career, Penner is a literary critic whose first book, “Pinks, Pansies and Punks: The Rhetoric of Masculinity in American Literary Culture,” was an exploration of gender studies. As noted, his limited focus on Leary in that book fueled his curiosity in Leary’s deeper research in epiphany, rebirth and the idea of self-transformation with a string of writers, artists, musicians and other creative minds.
“I think his view in the early ’60s was that LSD should be licensed to medical professionals, spiritual guides, psychiatrists and psychologists, and that psilocybin could be utilized in a therapeutic capacity,” says Penner. “The movement in psychedelics now is in licensing, not unrestricted use. It’s hard to speak for him when he’s not alive. I think we can learn from that early period.”
Ultimately, Penner believes that some of the utopian ideals that Leary had for the use of psychedelics — raising human consciousness and, by extension, advancing the mind in ways that could remove evil tendencies from criminals — still hold a fascination for researchers today. And as he embarks on a national speaking tour about his book, Penner hopes that he will be able to foster new interest in those hopes.
Dr. James Penner will discuss and sign his book, “Timothy Leary: The Harvard Years,” at 7 p.m. tonight at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Call (626) 449-5320 or visit Vromans.com