Fall 2012: Don Lattin's Distilled Spirits: Getting High, Then Sober, With A Famous Writer, A Forgotten Philosopher, and A Hopeless Drunk (University of California Press)


Distilled Spirits: Getting High Then Sober with a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher, and a Hopeless Drunk
Don Lattin
University of California Press | 9780520272323 | $29.95 | Oct 2012

In 2010, longtime San Francisco Chronicle religion reporter Don Lattin published The Harvard Psychedelic Club – a book that explored the little-known history and connections among Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert (now better known as Ram Dass), Huston Smith and Andrew Weil at Harvard in the early 1960s. His thesis was that their explorations into psychedelics created the primal conditions for what we now recognize as “The Sixties” to come into being.

From the NY Times review of The Harvard Psychedelic Club:

The earliest years of the 1960s were a heady time to be in and around Harvard. … And, thanks to Leary, heady things of a different sort were brewing, too. In the fall of 1960 he had returned to Cambridge after ingesting psilocybin mushrooms in Mexico, an occasion he called “the deepest religious experience of my life.” He began to spread the word.

Leary immediately set up what would become known as the Harvard Psychedelic Project, experimenting with psilocybin and later LSD in tests he and others thought would revolutionize psychology and change the world. … 

Mr. Alpert, Dr. Weil and Mr. Huston all fell, at least briefly, under Leary’s spell. So did scene makers like Allen Ginsberg, Alan Watts and William S. Burroughs, all of whom began spending time at Leary’s sprawling home. There were late nights, new drugs, unhinged libidos. A version of the 1960s was being invented, one dazzling trip at a time.

Now, Lattin is back with a prequel of sorts that continues the vein of group biography and exploration of the spiritual and psychedelic expansions of the mind in the 20th Century. This time, it’s with a twist. His new book’s subtitle says it all: "Getting High, Then Sober, With A Famous Writer, A Forgotten Philosopher, and A Hopeless Drunk”.

Huxley2 Heard Orange BillW B
(left to right, Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, Bill Wilson)

In Distilled Spirits, Lattin begins further back in time – at the end of the 19th Century – with the birth of the titular famous writer, Aldous Huxley, in 1894. We are soon introduced to Gerald Heard, the forgotten philosopher, born in 1889, and Huxley’s best friend and mentor. And then along comes Bill Wilson, the hopeless drunk, born in 1895, who survives his alcoholism to grow into his role as “Bill W” of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Like Leary, Alpert, Smith and Weil at Harvard, these three earlier travelers through the worlds of spiritual investigation and psychedelic experiences have surprising connections. And their mutual journeys are a big part of this book.

But the other part is the fourth subject of Distilled Spirits, also hinted at in the book’s subtitle: “Getting High, Then Sober”. Lattin is his own fourth subject. The reader discovers that this investigation into Huxley, Heard and Wilson, is also a journey back into the formative years of Don Lattin’s life and through his years of addiction and ultimately, his twelve-step-aided recovery.

I would argue that it’s this new element that makes Distilled Spirits an even more compelling read. The previously little-known connections among his other subjects are fascinating, and well-drawn. Huxley’s career and personal life, Heard’s formation of a proto-Esalen retreat center called Trabuco College, and Bill W’s creation of Alcoholics Anonymous with his wife and other colleagues form the prologue to their mutual exploration of LSD and other psychedelics ahead of Timothy Leary’s own discovery of them.

Lattin’s journey is just as compelling as the three larger-than-life figures he’s writing about and he draws their ultimate connections to each other and to his own life into an illuminating portrait of their times and ours.

Huston Smith has already provided a review of the book:

This remarkable book deserves the widest readership it can get, for more clearly than any other book I know it shows the depth to which the human spirit can descend and still rebound. Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard were close friends and my most important mentors, and I spent one memorable afternoon with Bill Wilson. Don Lattin's astonishing book brings their life stories alive. It is carefully researched and disarmingly honest.

Further reading & research:

Don Lattin online: web site  |  blog  |  twitter

Aldous Huxley: wikipedia

Gerald Heard: web site

Bill Wilson: wikipedia