“I DON’T WANT TO DIE!!!!!” – REVIEW OF “THE HUMAN ENCOUNTER WITH DEATH” by STANISLAV GROF & JOAN HALIFAX (1977)

In a 1967 interview on the right-wing TV chat-show “Firing Line,” the host William F. Buckley Jr. flashed his crocodile half-smile and asked Dr. Timothy Leary: “Why is it that uh it is the common impression that poorly-adjusted people tend in greater numbers to the world of LSD than normally-adjusted people?” A year previously, all flights to the world of LSD had been cancelled: in America the drug was placed in Schedule 1, as having “high potential for abuse,” being without “accepted medical use,” meaning maximum penalties for trippers. All tripping was therefore illicit by definition, and normally-adjusted people do not engage in the illicit.

But Leary had heard of LSD long before Buckley and long before the law: as a pre-Prohibition psychologist studying the effects of psychedelics first at Harvard then – when booted from that esteemed place of Learning – in a mansion donated to him by rich pals, he knew exactly which class of person tends towards the world of the Transcendental.

Answer: we all do. When LSD was freely available everyone wanted to try it, from philosopher-novelists such as Aldous Huxley to Pentagon war-planners like Herman Kahn, members of the House of Lords and the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, scientist Carl Sagan and sports legend Dock Ellis, magazine magnates from the Underground Paul Krassner to the Establishment Henry Luce, actors ranging from Jack Nicholson to Groucho Marx to Cary Grant, clinical psychologists and guitar heroes, businessmen and theologians, CIA men loved it and so did university students, including those at Harvard which was the beginning of Leary’s problems…

When LSD was freely available its users were free to admit to such use, but after 1966 such an admission could ruin one’s life, could have one locked in a cage, fired from a job, stripped of assets and separated from the kids; the only people stupid enough to risk this were wild rock-stars and fuck-you hippies, while more “normally-adjusted” voices shut the hell up. Thus did Hypocrisy score one more victory over Humanity: among other casualties of this disaster was the wealth of now-lost psychological/psychiatric studies involving psychedelics, in which they were administered to e.g. convicts to slash the rate of recidivism, and church-goers to induce religious experiences. LSD and psilocybin were used to treat a vast range of disorders from autism to frigidity. They were also administered, in a controlled setting, to the terminally-ill.

“There is little that our contemporary social structure, or our philosophy, religion, and medical science, has to offer at present to ease the psychological suffering of the dying. Many persons in this situation are thus facing a profound crisis that is basic and total, since it affects simultaneously biological, emotional, philosophical, and spiritual aspects of the human being.” But new drugs brought new energies and potentials to our contemporary social structure: “By 1974 more than one hundred persons dying of cancer were part of the Spring Grove program of psychedelic therapy.” Using first LSD and then, after 1966, the less effective DPT, this study took as its starting-point the idea that people “not only know intellectually that they will die, they also possess subliminal [“…almost cellular…”] knowledge of what it feels like to experience death.” It doesn’t matter whether this assertion is true or not: the tripping imagination, focussed on death, will trip to the theme of death, and even if the insights and experiences are only in the mind and not “cellular” they’re no less experienced for that.

Grof and Halifax wrote up their studies and speculations in a dry and scholarly manner and let the real story be told by the patients themselves: here’s Joan, a forty-year-old mother of four, dying and in pain and coming to terms with it: “…some are chosen to feel the sadness inherent in the universe.” LSD was not presented as any sort of cure for cancer, it was offered as a remedy to the poisonous mood and lethargy that went with the disease and it worked: “During the weeks following the session Joan felt so much overflowing energy that it baffled her attending physicians.” That’s what happens when you’re allowed to transcend the cancerous condition and witness “the incredible cosmic wit and humour built into the scheme of existence.”

And there’s Ted, a father of three and only twenty-six with an inoperable cancer of the colon: not unreasonably he was “severely depressed, irritable, and anxious,” with “considerable difficulties in his interpersonal relationships, particularly his marriage.” After the drug-therapy his wife said: “I can’t understand it… It is as if he has settled something and accepted the situation.” Ted agreed: “Something has changed…”

And Matthew, fifty-two with a suicidal pancreas, about whom Grof and Halifax write: “[His] block against intimacy seemed to have been lifted permanently through his LSD session, and he enjoyed physical closeness enormously. Matthew and Deborah both told us independently that this was the most meaningful period in their marriage.”

And more. Case-studies are given and avenues for future research are hinted at: “A single psychedelic session has often been followed by considerable alleviation or even disappearance of excruciating pain, on occasion even in individuals who did not respond to high dosages of powerful narcotics.” And: “There was a definite tendency among both alcoholics and heroin addicts to discontinue their habit following a single high-dose LSD session.” If it weren’t for the Inquisition! Modern-day dying remains, as Huxley put it in his last and best novel, “Island,” a matter of “increasing pain, increasing anxiety, increasing morphine, increasing demandingness, with the ultimate disintegration of personality and a loss of the opportunity to die with dignity.” But the human mind, the site of all pain and the seat of all joy, can inoculate itself against the grimmest of futures: “On several occasions patients who had psychedelic sessions later experienced brief episodes of deep agony and coma, or even clinical death, and were resuscitated. They not only described definite parallels between the experience of actual dying and their LSD sessions, but reported that the lesson in letting go and leaving their bodies, which they had learned under the influence of LSD, proved invaluable in this situation and made the experience much more tolerable.”

Sylvia, seventy-one, breast-cancer with multiple metastases, tripping: “It was such a beautiful life; no-one would believe what a beautiful life I have had.”

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