Psychedelic Pioneers: Women and Men

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Before the 1950's, psychedelic research was performed almost exclusively with mescaline, the active agent of the Native American sacred cactus peyote, and mainly concerned the drug's startling visual effects. Anthropologists began observing ceremonial use of peyote by southwestern Indians during the 1890s, but peyote occasionally reached bohemian society where Havelock Ellis, Aleister Crowley, Mabel Dodge Luhan, and Antonin Artaud tried it. Nonetheless, peyote was generally regarded as a bizarre narcotic of the Indians and was rarely used outside of their tribes. The magic mushrooms of Mexico were considered a myth. It was the discovery of LSD in 1943 by Albert Hofmann in switzerland that catalyzed the psychedelic era.

A synthetic substance derived from ergot of rye, LSD was the modern, pharmaceutical relative of the shamanistic plant drugs that had been used for over thirty-five centuries in religious and healing ceremonies. LSD was the first mass-produced, dose-controlled psychedelic. Extremely small doses expanded consciousness without the sometimes unpleasant side effects of plant alkaloids. The psychiatric progession called this class of drugs "psychotomimetic" ("mimicking psychoses"). Although positive results were obtained in treating alchoholism, drug addiction, sexual dysfunction, and some forms of criminal behavior, LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin (the active agent in magic mushrooms) were considered too dangerous to be given to normal people with common neuroses. Gradually this view changed as some psychiatrists and clinicians began testing the drugs on themselves, and then on their friends and associates, because psychedelics appeared to encourage self-knowledge and release creativity. The concept of "psychotomimetic" gradually gave way to "psychedelic" ("mind-manifesting," the term coined by Humphry Osmond in 1957). Aldous Huxley's mescaline books (The Doors of Perception, 1954 and Heaven and Hell, 1956) presented his cautiously utopian viewpoint grounded in mystical and aesthetic awareness, and greatly influenced the small group of California psychiatrists and their patients who pioneered psychotherapy with psychedelic drugs during the 1950's.

Five of the accounts in this section were written by women who lived in the Los Angeles area. Anais Nin felt her "senses were multiplied as if I had a hundred eyes, a hundred ears, a hundred fingertips." She understood the emotional realm of women more clearly than before, but concluded that drugs were too passive an access to the imagination. Laura and Aldous Huxley were the prototype of a couple for whom psychedelic experience was part of the evolution of their relationship. They worked together on analytic techniques, particularly the process of communicating during altered states while acting as guide for each other's inner voyages. The ego-dissolving impact of a psychedelic drug taken at a moment of emotional vulnerability is dramatically presented in Joyce James' "Shouted from the Housetops: A Peyote Awakening." Para-psychologist Constance A. Newland (a pseudonym) underwent a series of LSD trips in conjunction with psychoanalysis, vividly described in Myself and I. Her book demonstrated the way psychedelic drugs speed up the therapeutic process.

Adelle David, the leading American nutritionist of her time, was the first woman to publish a full-length book on her LSD experiences. Exploring Inner Space(1961), written under the pen name Jane Dunlap and not included here, is an account of Davis's five LSD sessions in 1959, conducted under the supervision of a psychiatrist. She experienced the stages of species evolution and interplanetary travel; subsequent to these experiences, her writing blocks dissolved and her relationships with her husband and children improved markedly. Her young daughter called it "the drug that makes Mommy terribly nice for a whole month." World-renowned medium Eileen J. Garrett, director of the Parapsychology Foundation, used LSD to investigate parapsychological phenomena, finding it "a serious method by which one reaches the deep levels of the unconscious self."

Valentina and R. Gordon Wasson played a significant role during the early years of the psychedelic era by discovering, after decades of research and travel, ritual use of the magic mushroom by Mazatec Indians living in a remote part of Oaxaca, Mexico. In 1957 Valentina published an account of her extraordinary mushroom trip with her daughter, in which they felt transported to different places and time periods. A momentous part of the Wassons' discovery was their introduction of the elderly Mazatec shaman woman, Maria Sabina, to Western Culture. Through publicity in Life and the release of a record album of her mushroom chant, the curandera (Spanish word for a female shaman) became a living legend to the young beats and, later, hippies who retraced the Wassons' path to her remote mountain village, seeking the magic mushroom high.

The Wassons' discovery also awakened interest among anthropologists. In the next decade Marlene Dobkin de Rios, Barbara Myeroff, and Joan Halifax, among others, observed and participated in native shamanistic drug ceremonies in Mexico and South America. Most interesting to them was the importance placed on the diagnostic and healing value of the drug plants when consumed in age-old rituals. Psychedelic therapy with the dying was first suggested by Valentina Wasson, and later performed by Laura Huxley and Joan Halifax. By their writings and example the psychedelic pioneers of the 1950's influenced the growth of alternative medicine and holistic health in the 1970's.

Consciousness-expanding drugs were legal for research when Nin, Huxley, and others took them. There was as yet no psychedelic movement, media hysteria, or public outcry. The situation changed in the 1960's, prompting Margaret Mead, dean of American anthropologists, to view with alarm "a flood of poorly conceived legislation which could interfere with both academic and religious freedom."

Text: Shaman Woman, Mainline Lady: Woman's Writings on the Drug Experience. Cynthia Palmer and Michael Horowitz, 1982.


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