The LSD cult that transformed America
The Brotherhood of Eternal Love emerged from the hippie culture of ‘60s California – but their ambitions were global. Benjamin Ramm looks at the books and ideas that shaped the group.
BBC by Benjamin Ramm 12 January 2017
This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of the great cultural moments of the last century, the ‘Summer of Love’. It will be commemorated as a season of celebration, but it was triggered by a protest event: the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in January 1967, organised in opposition to the prohibition of LSD. State and federal governments argued that the psychedelic drug, also known as acid, threatened the fabric of US life, and they were right – LSD made neither good consumers nor loyal citizens in a time of war. Their adversary was a group of lawless evangelists who had formed a church in devotion to the drug’s transformative power: the Brotherhood of Eternal Love.
Island had inspired Leary and Alpert to launch the Zihuatanejo Project, a psychedelic training centre under the umbrella of their International Federation for Internal Freedom. The community was located on the coast of south-west Mexico, and it was here that they began writing The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The book was dedicated to Huxley and cites his 1954 essay The Doors of Perception, which explored the hallucinogenic effects of mescaline, a psychedelic substance found in plants indigenous to Mexico. As the Tibetan Book of the Dead had prepared monks for mortality and reincarnation, so The Psychedelic Experience would teach them how to handle the experience of ‘ego death’ and rebirth.
Island is a utopian counterpoint to Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World. It takes place on a fictional island called Pala, named after a town near Mount Palomar in southern California, where Huxley’s friend Edwin Hubble watched the skies and where members of the Brotherhood took acid. The inhabitants of Pala are enriched by their experiences with psychedelic mushrooms, and they create a society that reflects Huxley’s ideals: pacifist, cerebral, sexually experimental, spiritual yet anti-clerical. The novel is a celebration of living in the moment, and, unlike in Brave New World, drugs are a source of enlightenment and compassion rather than pacification.
The year before publication, Huxley’s home in Los Angeles had been destroyed in a fire that left him, in his own words, “a man without possessions and without a past”. He had been diagnosed with laryngeal cancer, and a key theme in the novel is coming to terms with death, which the islanders do with equanimity. Famously, Huxley requested a high dosage of LSD in his final hours – his wife, who administered the injections, described it as “the most serene, most beautiful death”.
Initially, the Brotherhood’s aim had been to ‘drop out’ of society and start anew on an island paradise. “To us, the island represented freedom”, says Edward Padilla, an early member of the group. Many of the Brotherhood favoured settling in Hawaii, while a friend of Padilla flew to the remote Pacific island of Micronesia to scout out territory. The British researcher Michael Hollingshead, who first introduced Leary to LSD at the recommendation of Huxley, even spoke to the King of Tonga about providing the Brotherhood with a home.
It was agreed that the Brotherhood would thrive only if they could survive in isolation, and so they began to experiment in communal self-sufficiency. At Modjeska Canyon in Orange County, the group grew their own crops, wove their own clothes, built their own houses, and even learnt how to deliver babies. “Instead of dropping out of society, they created their own version of it”, says Nicholas Schou, author of a book on the Brotherhood. But they were forced to abandon the settlement after it burned down due to a fire at their makeshift church.
Religion was central to the Brotherhood: they referred to themselves as the ‘disciples’, and believed that LSD could ‘heal and reveal’. Schou notes that the group regarded acid as “a sacrament, a window into God itself, a key to unlock ‘the doors of perception’”. Robert Ackerly, who represented the Brotherhood in San Francisco’s hippy Haight-Ashbury district, “felt we were doing God’s work”. A practical reason for registering as a church was to seek religious exemption from prohibition – a strategy pursued by Leary’s own League of Spiritual Discovery.
In protesting the prohibition, the Human Be-In was fuelled by LSD – acid was taken in such quantities that the Hells’ Angels were asked to run the crèche. Up to 30,000 people heard Leary make a speech in which coined the slogan “Turn on, tune in, drop out”. The Be-In featured poetry from Allen Ginsberg and music from Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead, and inspired a series of imitation events (Love-In, Bed-In).
The Brotherhood’s religious inspirations were diverse, from the I Ching to Leary’s Psychedelic Prayers, and strongly favoured the eastern concepts practiced by the islanders of Huxley’s Pala. In Laguna Beach, the group opened a ‘psychedelic emporium’ called Mystic Arts World, in which all the corners were rounded, as stipulated by the Book of Tao. It was in front of this shop that Leary launched his ill-fated bid to be governor of California against Ronald Reagan in 1969, for which John Lennon wrote the campaign song Come Together.
Brotherhood members, christened the ‘Hippie Mafia’ by the police, used multiple identities to evade detection, but remained socially and politically influential. In 1970, after helping Leary escape a Californian jail, the Brotherhood gave $25,000 to the Black Panthers, who in turn passed it on to the radical left-wing group, the Weather Underground, to smuggle Leary to Algeria and then to Afghanistan.
During a three-day ‘happening’ in Laguna Beach – a riotous birthday party for Jesus Christ that began on Christmas Day, 1970 – the Brotherhood dropped 25,000 tabs of acid from a plane onto revellers, in a concerted attempt at communal spiritual revolution.
Not everyone viewed the Brotherhood’s activities as a form of emancipation. In his final annual address to Congress in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson denounced drug distribution, saying “The time has come to stop the sale of slavery to the young”. Owsley Stanley, who made LSD into tablet form for the acid tests of writer Ken Kesey, described the Brotherhood as “loose cannons on a ship of fools”.
Richard Alpert, who renamed himself Ram Dass (‘servant of God’) after meeting his guru in India, was wary of the group’s ambition: “They were rebellious and wanted to use psychedelics to challenge the government. They had the tiger by the tail”.
By contrast, Leary believed he was a modern messiah, describing himself as "the wisest man of the 20th Century". He became a divisive figure within the Brotherhood itself, in part because he didn’t share the vision of a surf-rich island utopia. Ultimately, it was Nixon’s war on drugs that undid the Brotherhood, along with the increasing popularity of an alternative ‘unspiritual’ narcotic: cocaine.
Fifty years after the Summer of Love, psychedelics are attracting the attention of the group they first inspired – medical researchers. In the novel Island, a character experiences a ‘good’ death after taking psychedelics, just as Huxley did. Projects at New York University and John Hopkins University are now exploring the effects of psilocybin in palliative care for cancer patients. Huxley’s vision, which has lain dormant for half a century, may yet come to fruition.