Acid Dreams by Bruce Shlain & Martin Lee

Title: Acid Dreams
Author: Bruce Shlain & Martin Lee
Genre: Nonfiction

Rating: 2 / 5

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This book was somewhat interesting but didn’t really live up to its subtitle—“The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond.” It conveys something…ambitious. And I think that maybe that is this book’s problem—in the end, it just tries to cover too much ground.

I felt like the book was way too focused on Tim Leary, and the problem is that he’s just not that interesting of a guy. Or if he is, this book didn’t do much to get that across. For all the ink spilled about him here, I didn’t even really come away with an idea of what he’s actually like, or even a biographical sketch—just some in depth information about a few episodes in his life which I found, frankly, boring. Okay, so he got a new girlfriend and drove around Europe. And…? What’s this got to do with LSD, the CIA, or the sixties?

I think I was just expecting too much. Most of the information was not revelatory to me, and what’s more, the writing style did not really appeal to me. It would have been fine if the authors had been talking about things I cared about more, or found more relevant to their subtitle and premise, but as it was…not so much. They did touch on some important things, though, like how the CIA smuggled heroin inside corpses of dead soldiers coming back from Vietnam, and the class politics of LSD usage.

Also, the authors talk around the sexism and homophobia in the drug subculture but never call it that. They quote Leary as saying that “LSD is a cure to homosexuality,” while never pointing out that, um, homosexuality doesn’t need to be “cured.” The authors write, “a man with bisexual proclivities, Stark used drugs and sex to manipulate people,” as if oh yeah, being bisexual obviously goes hand in hand with manipulating people with drugs and sex! They relate stories of people spiking drinks with LSD and never say that it was problematic or really frown on it, despite the fact that was totally non-consensual and kind of a messed up thing to do. It’s all “oh haha so funny wasn’t that great” instead of like, wow, some people might not have appreciated that and everyone should decide for themselves whether they want to do drugs or not. The authors quote people saying things like “fuck your woman until she can’t stand up…total freedom for everyone!” (except for the woman who may or may not have agreed to that treatment, I guess) and that one of the “three inevitable goals” of an LSD trip is “making love to a woman.” Oh right then. What if you’re a woman, like half the population? Does it also involve making love to a woman—isn’t that homosexuality, something that needs to be cured?! I mean this kind of talk is completely unsurprising and par for the course for the 1960s, but I would have hoped that from this vantage point the authors could have at least paid lip service to how these points of view are sexist, making women objects instead of agents. Then again the authors are two straight old white dudes whose “politics” are probably of the “turn out, tune in, drop out” variety… still, disappointing.

Ultimately I feel like this is an interesting subject but we only got glimpses of that in this book. It wasn’t not horrible but I feel fairly confident that there are better books on this subject out there.


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