Encounters with Sex, Drugs, and Activists
a conversation with James Fadiman
In May, OtP's publisher had the opportunity to chat with James Fadiman. He is cofounder of the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology and the author of a number of books, including The Essential Sufism and Personality and Personal Growth. As a Harvard undergraduate, he worked with Timothy Leary and Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), and he continued doing psychedelic research at Stanford University, where he received his Ph.D in psychology.
His first novel, The Other Side of Haight (Celestial Arts 2001), portrays a world of runaways, drugs, sex, and music. Unfashionably unapologetic about the hippie world, the book is, according to Ken Kesey, "filled with characters that are so clean and clear that I thought of them as friends, forgotten friends, from a long lost landscape."
the west coast as the land of internal refugees
Nada Djordjevich: In the novel's Afterward, you claim that the East Coast didn't understand the Sixties at the time and still doesn't now. Can you expand on this?
James Fadiman: There are some enormous differences between the coasts. I was just looking at a map this morning that said that every state on the West Coast has passed compassionate marijuana use legislation and no state on the East Coast except Vermont.
The difference is partly that the East Coast has a much more determined, accepted cynicism and that the West Coast has really been much more of a frontier where most of the social and cultural movements have started. And it's also where people come when they're getting away from their culture, so it's always been much more of a place where the refugees land, not so much from Europe, but from New York, Pennsylvania, and Florida.
In the beginning of the Sixties, there wasn't much interest in social issues, but there was an enormous awareness of the people that were in front of you.
OtP: The internal refugees?
JF: Yes. And as someone pointed out, if you're running away, by the time you get to the Golden Gate Bridge, that's it.
OtP: Have you found the West Coast more receptive to your book?
JF: It's more difficult to get into East Coast bookstores, other than the chains. The level of unawareness of the good side of the Sixties is quite strong in that part of the country, because if you have not experienced it and you only listened to what the media fed you, you have a rather negative impression.
OtP: The novel portrays a fictionalized version of a CIA program involving experimentation with psychedelic drugs in a brothel in the Haight. What has been the CIA's reaction to your novel?
JF: They haven't acknowledged it. I was hoping they would burn the book.
looking at the world through a psychedelic lens
OtP: A crucial part of the novel, it seems to me, is a sense of acceptance of people for who they are, not trying to change them.
JF: In the beginning of the Sixties, the hippie era, before Vietnam got involved, there wasn't much interest in social issues, but there was an enormous awareness of the people that were in front of you. The notion was that if you work on yourself first, it will actually help people more. The hippie culture believed that goodness, light, and truth were going to have major impact on the social institutions.
OtP: Do you think they did?
JF: My own feeling is that the hippie movement was bulldozed or destroyed by the enormity of the horror of Vietnam and that we all got taken up in that issue. Just as the Castro in San Francisco, before AIDS, was an incredibly optimistic, far-out, creative community, full of love and support and caring—and then AIDS swept through and everyone kind of withdrew from that vision of a truly loving, helping, gay society.
My own feeling is that the hippie movement was bulldozed by the enormity of the horror of Vietnam and that we all got taken up in that issue.
When I was working at Stanford, I ended up with a lot of students who were radical leaders; they had gone to jail and they were leading protests. I had students who were leading all kinds of national movements and they would come in for their weekly hourly therapy. And much to my sorrow, because I believed in a lot of their causes, an awful lot of them were working out their personal issues with their parents on the body of the country.
And what the hippies were saying was, let's clean up our act first and then we will somehow be effective in a different way when we take on social issues. There is a counter-argument, that the issue is more important than the people, and that's also true.
But when you go through the psychedelic lens, you realize, "While my personality isn't important, I'd better clean it up because it's the tool that I use to get things done." In Hinduism, if you use the word soul and give it a capital S, it's like the world's Soul. And if you identify with the world's Soul, whether or not you care about your mother inappropriately isn't a major issue. Then, when you become a social activist, you become a real social activist, as opposed to a repressed social activist who is really just going to all of these political meetings trying to get laid.
sex and drugs in the sixties: adventure and responsibility
OtP: You can still do both, can't you?
JF: That was the nice part of the Sixties, you could do both. Imagine that all the drugs are not illegal. So there's no stigma, no dealing with criminals, and no going to jail. And so you're responsible for your own consciousness, the way you are now for not getting drunk and driving. Imagine that.
...in any high school it's easier to get illegal drugs than it is to get alcohol. It's much easier to get cocaine than beer.
And imagine that for the first time the pill had come out, and most girls, and they were called girls still, most women were on the pill. We didn't know about the long-term effects and were incredibly unaware of sexually transmitted diseases. So here, for the first time, women were in control of their own sexuality and were not in danger when they had sex with someone they didn't know really well. And, as a result, as my brother, who is a professor of international marketing, said, "When you think about the Sixties, it was the first time that, for a very brief time, a very small percentage of the human race was actually sexually satisfied."
OtP: So if we could eradicate STDs and fear of pregnancy—
JF: Wouldn't you enjoy it more?
OtP: You could be more adventuresome.
JF: It allows you to be both adventuresome and responsible. This is especially true about drugs. And the question is were people really hurt by drugs? Of course, some were. This was exploration and there were things people didn't know about. The death toll has never been as high as it was for automobiles. I always ask, "Do you know how many people died in the history of the U.S. for using marijuana?" The answer is none. So it wasn't as dangerous as many things which are out there.
OtP: Or if you compare it to alcohol—
JF: Well, tobacco is easiest as it kills 400,000 people a year and it's legal.
But now, it's different in part because the kinds of drugs that are out there are really bad for you. In a sense, when you criminalize something you prevent any regulation. What I read in all these surveys is that in any high school it's easier to get illegal drugs than it is to get alcohol. It's much easier to get cocaine than beer.
"When you think about the Sixties, it was the first time that, for a very brief time, a very small percentage of the human race was actually sexually satisfied."
idealism, communes, and the cultural divide
OtP: It's quite different now in other respects, too. In the Sixties, you had a whole generation that felt alienated from their parents and kids that didn't want to emulate their parents.
JF: This was a cultural divide. When the major institutions of the culture are no longer delivering what they promised, then new institutions start. So if you look at the Sixties, the suburban family didn't work, the church was not delivering religious experience, the universities were not delivering deep, meaningful education.
There's a wonderful film clip of Clark Kerr, the chancellor at the University of California at Berkeley, giving a speech at graduation about the purpose of school. And he doesn't quite say this, but it's hinted at, that the purpose is to prepare people to fit into the military/industrial complex. Round people to fit into round holes, to serve the job market. You look at this guy, and you think, how can he say this without being embarrassed?
"Wow, man, we got 100 pounds of rice for $14; we could live for six weeks."
In the Sixties, students started setting up alternative universities and teaching themselves. At one point, I taught a free university course at Stanford, on intentional communities and communes. At the end of it, most of the students had gone off to set up their own communes, but I was convinced that it wasn't a good idea.
JF: I lived on communes. It was a very idealistic position. And it has all the complications of a family without the structure. Many of us set up agriculture communes but were city kids. Like a kibbutz without anyone knowing what to do.
I once talked to a wonderful guy who had been on a commune in Santa Cruz. I said, "What happened to the commune?" He said, "Well, it broke up after a while." I said, "Why do you think it broke up?" He said, "I think all of us fucked all of us. And then we went home." Their commune was built on sexual freedom, and once they had experienced it, they didn't have a reason to exist.
OtP: How can you maintain and live within a structure and still evolve and change?
JF: Being a responsible adult doesn't mean you have to be a square or a nerd. There was never a feeling in the hippie world that one was not responsible, but that the responsibility was not to acquire a lot, but just to acquire enough. I remember someone saying to me, "Wow, man, we got 100 pounds of rice for $14; we could live for six weeks."
In that time, one was a vegetarian out of economic reasonableness and because killing things didn't seem to be a good idea. And then when you got to the notion of Vietnam, going thousands of miles away to kill perfect strangers who had never done anything to you, it seemed really bizarre.
on activism, victimhood, and the power of a good quote
OtP: You have said that Vietnam intruded on the hippie world. Don't you think both the hippies and the activists believed that our involvement in Vietnam was a bad thing?
JF: Only when the hippies realized what was going on. And in the novel I describe that point in history when the hippies and the political people meet, on January 14, 1967. This was the first "be in," later to be known as "love ins," and it was enormous. The fact that 25 to 50,000 people showed up surprised everyone.
Either you're going to take responsibility for your own life and make changes that serve you or you're going to blame other people who are not interested in making any changes at all.
And the political people, meaning Berkeley people, showed up. They had actually not used drugs and they thought that the hippies were a bunch of fruitcakes. And Mario Savio or one of the other activists would say, "What do you think about the fact that we don't have free speech in Berkeley? And that they're shipping us out to be shot out of cannons?" And the hippies would say, "Well man, in 2000 years would this really matter?"
In a sense, the activists were victims. The problem is when you're a victim, you need to wait until the oppressor changes. One of the things about the culture these days is that everyone figures out how they've been made a victim. I used to tell people that everyone had a childhood and it's over. If it wasn't good, you're not going to undo it. Either you're going to take responsibility for your own life and make changes that serve you or you're going to blame other people who are not interested in making any changes at all.
OtP: That reminds me of the chapter titled "Shadow and Sweeps," when you quote Henry Fielding: "Those of true wisdom and goodness are contented to take people and things as they are, without complaining of their imperfections or attempting to mend them."
JF: The quotes and the chapter headings are something that distinguishes the book from most modern novels. It's really an old-fashioned style. Someone I know who doesn't read much said, "Oh, I loved your book, I read every quote from each chapter. It's just great." I said, "Did you read the book?" She said, "Yeah. I skimmed it. I'm going to get to it, too." I said, "Okay, it's cool."
One of my favorite quotes is from Basho:
From time to time
The clouds give rest
To the moon-beholders.
We're always chasing after the moon. And here are the clouds, and they say, "Take a break. It's all right."