I Have America
Surrounded - FAQ - Common questions for the Author:
Did you know Leary
No I didn't. I came to his life as someone from a different generation
and even from a different continent. Hopefully this has allowed me to
get a clearer perspective on him and his influence.
Why is the book
called 'I Have America Surrounded'?
A friend sent me the
rushes of one of Leary's last filmed interviews (with World of Wonder
LA). He was very close to death at that point, very drawn and frail and
clearly in a lot of pain. When the interviewer asked him about Nixon calling
him 'the most dangerous man in America' he nodded solemnly and replied
in a completely deadpan tone, "It's true. I have America surrounded."
It just struck me as quintessentially Timothy Leary, very funny, utterly
absurd and yet guaranteed to wind up anyone who doesn't get the joke.
I can't imagine anyone but Leary coming up with that sentence, so it had
to be the title.
Is your book Pro-Leary/anti-Leary?
Well I hope it is neither! Leary is much too complicated a figure to paint
as wholly black or wholly white. I'm aware that there has been a lot of
heated 'Pro- or anti-Leary' argument recently, particularly in the United
States. Whenever you have such angry fighting between two entrenched,
opposite viewpoints, it's almost certainly the case that neither side
is wholly wrong or wholly right. The trick is not to seek a compromise
in the middle ground, but to move away and find a completely different
perspective, one which is informed by both sides. Or to put it another
way, it's never either/or, it's always both and more. That's certainly
true when it comes to Timothy Leary! It's my belief that the really interesting
debates will be about his work and the cultural impact of that period
of mainstream psychedelic use. That said, while I don't find the "I
like him/I don't like him" arguments that fruitful or interesting,
I do find the levels of passion with which they stirring up to be very
My approach in writing
the book was to just explain what he did and why he did it, and trust
that the reader is intelligent enough to form their own opinions as the
story progresses. But while I tried to be non-judgmental about his character,
I did write the book from the viewpoint - which I stand by - that his
life was important, and that it was incredibly entertaining. So the book
was written, as an adventure story, based on those premises. I'm sure
it can be considered 'pro-Leary' because of that, which is fine, but please
don't confuse that with a book that tells you what you should think.
Do you cover Leary's
ideas (eg imprinting/reality tunnels/the 8-circuit 'neurologic' model,
Yes, these are very important and I put a lot of work into presenting
them in a way that is clear as possible without being simplistic. You
can't understand Leary without them - his behaviour just doesn't make
sense if you don't understand the ideas that were driving him. What I
found most interesting about Tim was the way his life seemed to validate
his theories. I'm thinking in particular of the way his personality and
beliefs would change so thoroughly whenever he found himself in a different
environment, which of course follows on from his ideas about being responsible
for your personal reality and being able to change it. I find that fascinating
but also deeply unsettling.
I hear a lot, incidentally,
that Greenfield's biography makes no mention of Leary's books or ideas.
If this is true then I find that astonishing. I could understand it if
he wanted to criticise them, but to omit them completely - to me, that
is like writing a biography of Enzo Ferrari and not mentioning that he
made some remarkable cars.
Why did you want to write about Timothy Leary?
Initially because it was such a great adventure story, but I soon realised
just how important his life was. If you look at the late twentieth century
from the viewpoint of some future cultural historian, the most striking
thing is that suddenly, over just a few years, everything changed. You
might not like how it changed, but you can't deny that everything did
change. It started slowly, in around '55, it peaked in around '67 and
nothing has been the same since. Now, you can't explain that by studying
politicians or artists, or factors like the increasing levels of affluence,
etc. They are all part of the story, but the piece of the puzzle that
is needed to make sense of it is the mass use of psychedelics, the fact
that millions upon millions in a single generation took drugs which made
them think differently. And of course if you're going to examine that,
then you will soon find yourself studying Leary, and studying the tricky
question of just what it is that LSD actually does. So I have no doubt
that historians will have a lot to say about Timothy Leary.
A read a blog recently
where someone compared Leary's roll inthe counterculture to that of al-Zarqawi's
in Iraq, as in he was someone who could hardly be credited with all that
was going on, but that he was a handy figure for the media to project
the whole situation onto. I thought that was quite an astute analogy.
I think that as years go by more and more of the detail of those years
will be lost, and Leary's role as a personification of the whole thing
will grow. Historians are a sucker for a scoundrel, after all! But it
is shocking how quickly what happened in those years is being forgotten.
The number one single here in the UK was a song called "I Wish
I Was A Punk Rocker With Flowers In My Hair." As far as I can
tell, that's not intended as some Dada-ish art statement; it's simply
that teenagers no longer know how '67 was different to '77. That, I think,
is a good reason why the book needed to be written.
Do you cover all
of Leary's life?
Yes I do, but I concentrate on the fugitive and prison years. This was
partly because it was the period that most accounts of his life get confused
by. I also found it the most dramatic and exciting, and because it shows
the correlations between his life and ideas so well. In truth, though,
pretty much any period of Leary's life was interesting to support a whole
book, and I suspect that this is how future writers will approach his
story. I know Ralph Metzner and Ram Dass have been working on a book about
the Harvard and Millbrook years, and I've got no doubt that will be the
definitive book on that time. There's also a great book to be written
on the last twenty years of his - and I can think of at least a dozen
people who should step up and write that one!
I have never read
any of Leary's books, where should I start?
I'd start with The Politics of Ecstasy. High Priest is also
good if you are interested in the effects of psychedelics. If you like
a good adventure story, then try to track down a copy of Confessions
of a Hope Fiend, it's out of print but you can usually find it on
eBay. I'd also recommend Timothy Leary: Outside Looking In, edited
by Robert Forte, which gives a good image of the man by those who knew
What's the biggest
misunderstanding about Leary?
Without a doubt - too many people miss his sense of humour! Granted, it
was very dry, but I've lost count of the number of arguments against Leary
that are simply based on someone failing to get a joke. In fact if there
is one thing people should know about Leary it is that - he was fucking