About Those Psychedelics

An essay by Howard Cruse

Originally published in Early Barefootz
Fantagraphics Books, 1990

A young comics fan showed up at my door a few years ago. I’ll call him Mark. Mark was fascinated to have discovered someone in his neighborhood who actually wrote and drew comic books. He was sharp and enthusiastic, and planned on writing comics himself.

My lover Eddie and I used to enjoy Mark’s occasional visits. When he became estranged from his family and had trouble surviving, we tried to offer encouragement and counsel. But as he became absorbed into the crack culture that feeds the sidewalks of nearby Roosevelt Avenue, we learned to dread crossing paths with him.

The new version of Mark has come by a few too many times now, his hands quivering, his jawbone flexing, pleading for a “loan” until his parents come through with some money they’ve supposedly promised, trying to peddle stolen clothing to us. On one of his visits, a trail of feces dribbled onto our floor from the leg of his jeans.

One night Mark called from a rehab center, proud that he’d sought help as we’d urged him to. Three months later I encountered him again, wired and barely coherent. I worry that Mark is lost.

Crack makes me angry. I hate what crack has done to Mark and to others. But I also hate the use to which well-founded public apprehensions about crack and other destructive substances have been put: to intimidate into silence those of us who have fond tales to share about drugs very different from crack, drugs that liberated rather than enslaved us.

Demagogues have no use for distinctions that intrude on the popular prejudices that give them power. Their heated rhetoric quashes discussion of substances that are no more like crack than caffeine is like alcohol. Bucking the tide of today’s indiscriminate anti-drug sloganeering is like trying to hold a discussion of civil liberties with a lynch mob.

Yet those of us who were once part of the psychedelic scene have memories that provide us with a reality check. Some of our memories are pleasant, some unpleasant. While the drug culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s had its casualties—as do skydiving and the stresses of Harvard Law School—most of us who were there survived. Many of us feel we benefited.

Eddie and I had dinner recently with married friends. Theirs is no hippie pad; although their home is a Manhattan apartment, these parents of a six-year-old enjoy a quiet, non-bohemian life with which most middle-class American suburbanites could easily identify.

I mentioned that I was writing this essay and spoke of how hard it has become to discuss psychedelics calmly at a time when even to hint that such chemicals might have social merit is portrayed as treasonous.

They listened, and then a small silence followed, as the couple remembered the acid trips of their own youth. They weren’t remembering horror stories; they were remembering times that still made them smile, decades later.

Smiles like that (as well as grimaces spawned by recollections of anxiety-filled trips that no one would wish to repeat) are all many of us feel permitted to offer to young people today whose friends have invited them to swallow funny pills or chew on magic blotters. Their ears hear the icy admonitions of anti-drug absolutists while their eyes try to interpret the misty smiles or grim shudders of people who’ve had the experience.

Their elders have little concrete data to offer them, because all serious research about the response of human beings to psychedelics was killed many years ago by the force of public hysteria. When we who were there do speak up, we have only anecdotes to offer a new generation. My anecdotes. Timothy Leary’s. R. Crumb’s. Charles Manson’s. We ask the young to intelligently assess these diverse drug histories while being badgered by the moralistic snarls of politicians and “drug czars” and we hope they’ll make decisions that will leave them unharmed.

Who can draw reasoned conclusions from such an array of idiosyncratic stories? How many youngsters or young adults, correctly detecting the high bullshit content of television messages that suggest that taking any psychoactive drug will leave your brain fried like an egg, will mistakenly conclude that the messages warning them away from crack are also bullshit?

As the rewriters of history would have it, the philosophical issues raised by psychedelic drugs in the ‘60s were demonstrated in time to be imaginary ones propagated by a foolish generation that simply needed reining in. But in reality, those issues were never addressed. Instead they were simply drummed out of our culture’s marketplace of ideas.

I couldn’t have talked truthfully about my reasons for creating Barefootz without talking about those issues and about the connection between LSD and my artistic life in the ‘70s. And such issues should be talked about. From what I hear, psychedelics are in resurgence. That makes me uneasy. But unlike my parents’ generation, I’m not frightened of the new acidheads—I’m frightened for them.

If I can draw any inferences from my own experience, psychedelics will be taken if they are around—if not by fad-driven masses then by a curious few. And since even if every renegade chemistry lab were busted, our nation’s narcs are unlikely to succeed in wiping whole species of cacti and fungi off the face of the planet, psychedelics are likely to persist in being around.

Meanwhile, our nation, for all it righteous pretensions, is as philosophically lazy and spiritually rootless as it’s ever been. Psychedelic drugs, taken in unadulterated form in appropriate settings for constructive reasons, have demonstrated a striking potential for helping human beings break through the creative blocks that have trapped them in self-defeating patterns of thought and behavior. What’s striking are the many levels on which such breakthroughs can occur, from the solution of practical or conceptual problems to profound insights about the metaphysical underpinnings of our lives. As citizens of a culture often characterized by behavior that seems morally haphazard, we should not be too quick to ban a tool that could help us regain our moorings.

There is a mountain somewhere in the U.S. with a particularly treacherous face that attracts skiers who love to take risks. When the snows fall a pilgrimage to this mountain begins. There is no ski lift there; the only way to reach the slope’s top is to suffer through a laborious trek upward on foot. Every year bones are broken and spines are snapped on this slope, but the skiers still come. There is a primal need to face down that danger, and no matter how many bodies are crippled and no matter how many families or tax-supported agencies are burdened afterward with the costs of medical care, a new wave of skiers always follows the one before.

Obviously not every skier who tackles that mountain is killed or maimed. If 100 percent mortality were the test of courage, we’d have the legions of the brave skiing down the face of the Empire State Building every day. No, most skiers make it safely to the foot of the slope, having had an experience words can’t describe. No explanations that any of them offer, no talk of “thrills” or “adrenaline rushes:’ seem profound enough to justify the risks of pain, lifelong paralysis, or even death that have been accepted as the price of a high. Yet describable or not, some profound imperative is obviously at play when these skiers look at this mountain and feel compelled to risk all.

I know about the mountain because a television news reporter did a feature on it recently. And it was clear from the tone of the correspondent’s report that he looked with awe upon the daring skiers I’ve just described. Their bravado was obviously not for everyone, but the newsman displayed only admiration for those mad enough to seek that high. There was no finger-wagging about the possibility that hardship or grief might be inflicted on a skier’s loved ones should a mishap occur. I heard no resentful tongue-clucking at the possibility that tax money might be required to alleviate the suffering of an injured skier who certainly could have stayed home and left the public coffers undisturbed.

No, there are brands of daredevilry that must always be countenanced. Safety is not the only value in life. Some adventures of the spirit are worth taking risks for. Knowing that truth, humans have walked on the moon.

But safety is no trivial concern, and risks should be calculated, not courted mindlessly. An unprepared skier has no business on some slopes and an astronaut should understand the machine he intends to fly. When risks are assumed, there should be criteria by which an intelligent person can determine whether the terrain ahead is in fact negotiable.

Psychedelic drugs are not play toys (though my crowd, in its youthful recklessness, did its share of treating them as such). There are real psychological hazards to assess before setting out on any journeys “to the center of the mind.” People thinking about braving those hazards should be emotionally prepared and armed with accurate information about the nature of this slope they’re thinking about whizzing down.

But whiz they will. Let’s face facts. Just as healthy humans will express their fundamental sexuality whether or not the forces of repression approve, people who are alienated by the soulless materialism of our day will inevitably scan the horizons for other, deeper ways of looking at life’s fundamental realities. When avenues of searching for alternatives are forbidden, would-be searchers can’t be faulted for looking skeptically at who is doing the forbidding, or for asking what the stake the forbidders may have in keeping the public mind under control and keeping power where it currently resides.

Unbiased scientific research on psychedelics should never have been discontinued. But it was, and none of the politicians occupying the national stage at present seem likely to propose a resumption of funding anytime soon. So the new generations who are poking tabs of this and blotters of that into their mouths are left to fly even more blindly than we old-timers did. The only information available to them must be ferreted out of dusty science and psychology books, out-of-date works of advocacy or condemnation, the occasional countercultural history, and the firsthand accounts, with all their limitations of perspective, of those who have traveled the drug roads before.

Those attracted to acid adventures should know about the bad trips, the bouts of paranoia, the unexpected terrors. I experienced all of those, and they weren’t fun.

On the other hand, some of my most distressing tripping moments precipitated emotional breakthroughs that have contributed to my happiness in the years since. And the hallucinations—how great to remember those glorious hallucinations! Even the scary ones were luminous.

All in all, the memories of my trips—all the memories: the spiritual ones, the sensual ones, the hilarious or visually awe-inspiring ones—all are memories I’m happy to have tucked cozily into various crevices of my memory bank. Not that I’m inclined in my creaky elder years to scale the mountain and challenge that slope anymore. Enough is enough. I’d rather draw pictures.

Still I wonder: would I value the beautiful memories so unequivocally if I had been one of those left permanently scarred by a trip that turned mean? It’s impossible to know for sure. What does the skier who is disabled on this tenth run down the mountain think about the joys of the previous nine?

No doubt it varies with the individual.

But the more truth-telling and the less sloganeering about drugs, the better. The truth will eventually surface anyway, whether the drug warriors like it or not. Suppressing truth only teaches children that their elders lie.

In talking about Barefootz’s genesis I’ve tried to be truthful. But there are many truths beyond mine. They should all be told, the bad stories and the good. And the people who behave as if grass equals heroin and acid equals crack and who moralize rabidly about drug use while sipping their wine, smoking their cigarettes, and smoothing out life’s creases with Valium should put their rhetoric on hold long enough to ask: why is a mountain a cosmic challenge to one person when to another that same mountain is a tower of doom?

Howard Cruse
August 1990

©1990 by Howard Cruse