PiHKAL (“Phenylethylamines I Have Known And Loved”), subtitled “A Chemical Love Story”, is the autobiography of Alexander and Ann Shulgin. Alexander Shulgin was a chemist who invented lots of new psychedelic drugs. Ann was his wife. Together they discuss their chemistry research and their relationship.
I was expecting a sort of popular science style book that cleverly ties the chemical story into the love story. You know the drill – the bonds between people are like the bonds between atoms, fragile in some ways yet incredibly strong in others. Or something like that. It would use the human interest story to hook you into the chemistry, then use the chemistry to give scientific respectability to the human interest story, so that both science nerds and hopeless romantics could enjoy it and gain more of an appreciation for the other side’s point of view.
Some parts of PiHKAL approached this kind of style. But a lot of them didn’t. Chapters and sections tended to be kind of either/or. You can be reading one moment about how MDMA is an n-methylated homolog of MDA, and the next moment about how Alexander Shulgin’s broad shoulders rippled as he was making love. It was a bit jarring.
The first quarter of the book was about Alexander Shulgin’s childhood and early life. He was born in 1930s Berkeley, went to school, became a chemist, and got a job with Dow Chemical. He invented a pesticide so successful that Dow gave him total freedom to work on whatever he wanted – which turned out to be psychedelics. He met, courted, and married his first wife Helen, a process which receives six sentences (compared to seven sentences a page later on the history of 3,4,5-trimethoxyamphetamine synthesis techniques). He has various scientific and professional successes, including a supporting role in the invention of MDMA/Ecstasy. His first wife dies of a brain haemorrhage.
The second quarter is a love story told from Ann’s perspective. It reminds me a little bit of very bad fanfiction, like “My Immortal”. Ann very briefly talks about her childhood, then gets to the part where she (after three previous marriages and divorces) meets Alexander. Cue lavish descriptions of his eyes, his hair, his muscles, his shoulders, how much better than her he is, how there’s no way someone as awesome as he is could possibly fall for someone boring like her, how many sparks get sent through her spine every time he gazes at her, et cetera. I am okay with people being in love, but this is a bit excessive. We get to hear about how amazing it is that he is a chemist, how amazing it is that he creates new drugs, how amazing it is that he is a brilliant yet dark and brooding loner, how there’s no way someone like that could ever love her (but spoiler: he totally does). Sometimes it seems to strain plausibility – there is a section where Shulgin tells Ann that he is interested in psychopharmacology, and she innocently goes into “Oh my, that’s such a big word for a girl like me, I wonder what it means”. But she has been married to a psychiatrist for ten years at this point, and also, she’s a hospital transcriptionist. I roll to disbelieve that she has never heard the word “psychopharmacology” before – let alone never heard the word “pharmacology” and the prefix “psycho-” from which the meaning is completely obvious.
The third quarter is an assortment of trip reports, social gatherings, and arguments against the War on Drugs. It is probably my favorite part, given that it’s neither as dry as the autobiography nor as overwrought as the love story. The trip reports about weird new psychedelics that nobody else has ever tried are really what I’m here for – they occur throughout, but especially here, and they do not disappoint.
The fourth quarter is a cookbook detailing the ingredients of, synthesis techniques for, and effects of 179 different psychedelic substances. It’s really fascinating, and I’m consumed by a desire to try some of it, except that they all begin by with instructions like “Obtain a professional-quality chemistry lab and several zillion different compounds with names like 2,5-dimethoxythiophenol”, and end with getting raided by the DEA. So I will have to stick to enjoying Alexander Shulgin’s psychedelic experiments vicariously.
There were a couple of levels on which I enjoyed this book, though none left me completely without questions.
The first level, of course, is Shulgin’s work on psychedelics. My opinion on psychedelics hasn’t changed since Universal Love, Said The Cactus Person. I think they’re really interesting and mysterious and show every sign of pointing at something profoundly important. I also think that nobody has ever been able to consistently extract anything useful or scalable out of them, and until someone does, they’ll remain a weird toy where you take them and feel transcendent joy for a few hours, and if all you want is to feel transcendent joy for a few hours then they’re definitely the way to go, but as of yet it’s unclear what relevance they can have to any other project.
Alexander Shulgin disagrees. At least I think he disagrees. He is dark and brooding and quiet, and he doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve even in his autobiography. But he mentions – once – that he believes his project is vitally important for the human race. This is Ann:
It seems to me that the magic plants – and the psychedelic drugs – are there to be used because the human race needs some way of finding out what it is, some way of remembering things we’ve usually forgotten by the time we’re grown up. I also think that the whole 1960s eruption- all that psychedelic experimenting and exploring – was due to some very strong instinct – maybe on the collective unconsciously level, if you want to use Jung’s term – an instinct that’s telling us if we don’t hurry up and find out why we are the way we are, and why we do the things we do, as a species, we could very soon wipe ourselves out completely
Alexander says this is what drives him also, then adds:
Of course, there are many ways to alter your consciousness and your perceptions; there always have been, and new ways will keep being developed. Drugs are only one way, but I feel they’re the way that brings about the changes most rapidly, and – in some ways – most dependably. Which makes them very valuable when the person using them knows what he’s doing. I thought for a while that I could use music to accomplish what I wanted to do, because music can be a very powerful consciousness changer. But when I discovered that I had a certain knack for chemistry, I made a decision to go that way, to concentrate on developing these tools. Mostly, I suppose, because these particular drugs, these materials, are a way to bring about new insights and perceptions quickly, and – well, I just don’t know if we have much time. Sometimes I suspect it may be too late already…I have no intention of getting lazy, and there’s nothing better than a suspicion that time’s running out, to keep you working hard.
Shulgin and his friends seem like good people. But not, crucially, like the best people. Shulgin himself – by his own admission, based on facts that he himself presents in his own autobiography – is consistently kind of a jerk to his wife (and his wife kind of agrees). He gets depressed and ornery a lot, sometimes to the point where it seriously interferes with his work and relationships. His circle of friends seems to have some problems with marital infidelity and random drama, and he tells one story about a distant friend-of-a-friend obsessed with LSD who seems to be an outright con man. I’m not saying they’re bad people; quite the opposite, the book makes them seem very human and if I lived in the same time and place as them I would be delighted to have the opportunity to know them. But they seem, well, about as good or bad as any other set of intelligent, creative people. It’s not clear that their psychedelic use – and man, do these people use psychedelics – has made them morally or spiritually exceptional. It’s hard to shake the thought that these people would be relatively nice and interesting artists and scientists with a little bit of marital infidelity and personal drama even if they’d never taken anything stronger than Tylenol.
Don’t get me wrong – during the trips they are constantly seeing God and understanding the oneness of everything in creation. But even Alexander Shulgin’s close friend group aren’t high more than like 20% of the time. I’m not sure exactly what about them makes them potential human-race-savers. Yes, I think they’re probably anti-nuclear-weapon. But this is the 1970s Berkeley counterculture; anti-nuclear-weapon people are not exactly hard to come by.
And so I was left with one question the book didn’t really answer – why is Shulgin doing this? What is his hope? Does he hope that the 200th new psychedelic he discovers will be the one that really teaches people universal love, to the point where they can’t ignore it? That just having twenty different slightly different permutations of the same psychoactive sulfur compound isn’t enough to create a world revolution in consciousness, but having thirty of them is? Why didn’t he become the scientist in this article, who has come up with a clever way to extend the DMT high in order to be able to enter complex negotiations with the machine elves, hopefully involving factoring large numbers? That’s the sort of project that can go somewhere.
I’m not saying that everyone needs to have a four-hundred-step plan for how exactly what they’re doing today is going to save the world, Leverage Research style. I can’t tell you how writing this blog post or doing psychiatry is going to save the world. And I’m not saying people can’t focus on their comparative advantage – if you’re a brilliant chemist, maybe you should invent new chemicals and let politicians and religious leaders figure out what to do with them. But Shulgin seems to think he’s doing something more important than coming up with new and better toys, and it’s not totally clear to me what this is.
Shulgin does have a great excuse – the War on Drugs is in full swing by the middle of his career, and this prevents a lot of his products from getting the trial they deserve. For example, he introduces a psychiatrist friend to MDMA, and the psychiatrist finds it to be an immense help to psychotherapy, helping patients realize and come to terms with their issues much faster than the non-chemically-assisted version. I’ve heard this from psychiatrists I know as well, and maybe we could have had a revolution in mental health if the DEA hadn’t banned this kind of thing (there is, in fact, a big literature on psychedelics in psychiatry, most of which shows impressive effects in the very small experiments that have been permitted thus far). So maybe Shulgin’s angle is that he’s developed very useful mental health treatments which unfortunately the medical establishment refuses to consider, but they’ll be there if anybody needs them. But then how come he keeps inventing more of them, seemingly with no interest in whether they help the mentally ill or not? How come he keeps talking about saving humanity instead of curing depressed people?
The only hint I get is during a trip report for a particularly powerful compound called 2C-T-4, where Shulgin writes:
There is a simultaneous union with everything around me, and thus with everything within me too. A complete identification with my environment. And a sense of being at total peace with it, as well. If this is me, then I thank the dear Lord for a wonderful awareness, at least for a short time, of the fact that we can be so rich and beautiful. The mind flows and with it the soul, and no matter what words I put down in an effort to catch the wondrous monolog, I can do it little justice…
I have been fooled, again and again, into thinking that the magic of the unified reality was in the drug, and not in the person. Of course it is in the person – and only in the person – but if a drug could be found that would consistently catalyze this, then it would be one of the most powerful and awesome drugs that could be conceived of by man. If it were this material, 2C-T-4, it would have to be held apart with a reverence that would be impossible to describe or explain on a patent application!!
But Shulgin later reports that the drug does not consistently have this effect; testing it on other people (and again on himself) he gets various interesting psychedelic trips but never a return to the same level of transcendence. So maybe Shulgin is looking for a drug that consistently works as well as 2C-T-4? But I’m not sure what he would do with it if he found it. Ann, for example, describes her first mescaline trip in language a lot like the language Shulgin uses for 2C-T-4, and many others (eg Huxley) do the same – but everyone already knows about mescaline. Would releasing a consistent version of 2C-T-4 to the world do something mescaline hasn’t already done? What has mescaline already done?
Oddly enough, it is Ann – who keeps on insisting that she is not intellectual, that she is hopelessly boring compared to Alexander, that we should be reading her parts only to gain a hero-worshipping outsider’s perspective on Alexander – whose speculations on this subject I really like. This is from her mescaline trip report. She says that on mescaline she understood for the first time that the world was perfectly good, and writes:
I nodded, remembering some of the phrases I’d read in books and articles about psychedelic experiences, phrases like “Everything’s all right just exactly the way it is,” and the equally infuriating “I’m okay, you’re okay,” which had always sounded unbearably fatuous and self-satisfied. I’d often thought angrily that the writers had conveniently forgotten about the babies in Calcutta garbage cans, sorrow and hurt and loneliness, and the rest of a planetful of miseries. I’d said to myself, here’s some whacked-out idiot rhapsodizing about life being all right just the way it is. It had never stopped me from reading about such experiences, but my liberal soul had always ground its teeth at that aspect of the reports.
Now – now I would have to take it all back, all that resentment, because I was beginning to understand. I stopped in the road and looked at Sam and looked past him, and around and up at the grey sky and I knew that everything in the world was doing exactly what it was supposed to be doing; that the universe was on course, and that there was a Mind somewhere that knew everything that happened because it was everything that happened, and that, whether I understood it with my intellect or not, all was well. I simply knew it and I knew that I would try to figure it out later, but that I had to absorb the truth of it now, standing on a wet road in Golden Gate Park.
At least here, she seems to be using the mescaline not to catapult humanity to a higher state of existence, but to make her peace with the current state. I’m not sure making peace with the current state is philosophically justifiable, but it seems to have helped her, and I can imagine it helping a lot of people, as long as they stick to viewing it as a psychological truth and not as an excuse for quietism – something Ann doesn’t seem to have done.
The second level on which I enjoyed this book was anthropology and ethnography.
The Shulgins met through a group that had branched off of Mensa. Their social circle consisted of a mishmash of scientists, underachieving geniuses, mental health professionals, hippies, and people convinced that their new projects were going to save the world – all in the context of Berkeley and the Bay Area. This is also my social circle, thirty years later, so it’s interesting to see how things have changed and how they’ve stayed the same.
Ann starts her narrative while she is dating a fellow Mensan named Kelly. So, ethnographical study number one:
He was an intense man with a striking, angular face who had met me at a Mensa gathering four months earlier. The next day, he came to my house and asked me to marry him. He explained, much later, that of course he knew I would refuse – had counted on it, in fact – but that he had often found proposing marriage to be an effective way of getting a woman’s attention. There was no denying that it had done just that.
Kelly’s passions in life were computers, good-looking older women and the creation of new IQ tests. I also discovered that he had a generalized contempt for humanity, referring to most people ask ‘turkeys’, and a tendency to uncontrolled explosions of rage, which often resulted in his having to apologize later for damage done to someone else’s furniture or a relationship – usually both.
He explained about his painful illnesses in childhood and his demanding, punitive father, and asked me to be understanding a patient. It worked for a while (I’ve always had a soft spot for intelligent neurotics), but after one memorable day when he smashed some of my records in front of the children, screaming at me for coming home ten minutes late from work and keeping him waiting, I told him if he didn’t go into therapy, I was through.
Kelly’s answer was, “I’ve never met a psychiatrist I couldn’t out-think and out-reason, I’m not about to waste my time or my money on one of those cretins!”
This Thursday gathering in Berkeley was an effort on Kelly’s part to bring together people he considered intelligent enough to, as he put it, appreciate what he could teach them about using their minds effectively.
Ethnographic study number two, slightly edited for length; this is Ann introducing Alexander to some of her friends:
[I] proceeded to give him rapid-fire descriptions of some of Mensa’s main attractions, as they stood talking or moved past us. In my best museum-guide manner, I told him, addressing his right ear closely because of the noise in the room, “You see that man there, the tall one with the red vest? He created the SIG – Special Interest Group – which is known as the Orgy SIG; I forget his official title for it, something like Sexual Freedom SIG, but everyone refers to it by the other name. I’ve never been to a meeting, but I hear they’re a lot of fun for those who go in for that sort of thing…”
“That woman over there in the purple dress, the one standing in a straight line between us and the candles – that’s Candice. She’s a very good-hearted, motherish person who gives the Mensa tests in this area, and for a while her little boy, Robin, was the youngest member of Mensa in the country. He’s around ten now, and no longer the youngest.”
I told him about the mathematical computer which inhabited the sometimes bewildered soul of the young man on the couch, and he said he was very interested in that kind of mind, and would go over and talk with him later on. I said I hoped he would want to do that, because few people paid any attention to the boy, and he was very sweet.
I asked Shura [Alexander Shulgin]’s ear, “Why haven’t you joined Mensa, by the way? It’s a good way to meet interesting people, especially when you’ve been divorced – or widowed.”
“Well,” shouted Shura, “To tell you the truth, I never thought of applying, probably because you have to take an IQ tests, and I will not take an IQ test.”
“Why, in heaven’s name?”
“I feel total, complete disgust for all tests of intelligence, and only limited patience with the people who give them. When I was in the third grade or thereabouts, I was given a so-called IQ test, a Binet-something-something, and I made an honest and diligent effort to complete it. There were angular objects, and number games, and if-this-then-what types of questions and the strategies needed for getting to most of the answers were pretty obvious.”
“You did well?”
“Of course I did, and that’s where I really tangled with the school principal. He accused me of having cheated, since no one could get the results I had gotten without cheating, and so I was in essence thrown out of the testing group, and was pretty much humiliated. They obviously wanted scores that fit on a kind of distribution curve about some sort of a norm. Mine was a bit too far to the right of the curve. My mother was furious with the principal; she pulled me into his office and confronted him and lectured him about my integrity, which made me want to run and hide even worse than before. I swore then that I’d never take another IQ test, and I never will!”
Ethnographic description number three is Shulgin’s colleague, a German professor named Dolph, and his wife Ursula. Shulgin’s first marriage, to the woman he spent six sentences on in Part I, was never very happy – never unhappy, neither of them was abusive or anything, just sort of boring and straightforward. When Shulgin met Ursula, he fell in love, maybe for the first time in his life, and they had a brief affair before Dolph and Ursula had to go back to Germany:
We met, Ursula and I, two or three times in some inn or private place sufficiently far away from the Bay Area to minimize the possibility of being seen by a friend or acquaintance, and I discovered what it was to feel unashamed, uncensored, joyous sexuality.
Being in love, like any other kind of consciousness alteration, makes small but real changes in the way you view things about you, and in the way you behave around others. Over the years, my friends had come to accept me as what they affectionately called a “difficult genius”, and were quite used to my habitually ironic humor, cutting commentary, and somewhat sour view of the world. One of the hardest things I had to do, in my unaccustomed role of secret lover and beloved, was to avoid giving expression – in the company of family or friends – to the feelings of optimism and even outright niceness which overtook me now and then, and which I knew would cause some degree of concern if they were detected.
I really like this passage. Here’s someone who has tried more psychedelic drugs than anyone else in the world, and what really changes his outlook is the power of love.
But then it gets complicated. Shulgin’s wife dies. He corresponds incessantly with Ursula back in Germany, urging her to leave Dolph and come to California and marry him. She says yes, but asks for some time to plan. Shulgin is overjoyed and says to take as much time as she wants. Weeks turn into months. Months to years. They keep writing each other. Ursula insists that she continues to be excited at the impending plan to move to California and marry Shulgin, but she keeps asking for more time. She needs to close up her affairs in Germany. She needs to figure out a way to break it gently to her husband. She needs to stay to comfort her husband during this difficult time. She needs to figure out how she’s going to send her stuff.
Meanwhile, all this time Shulgin is calling her in Germany to talk to her a lot, and a lot of the time her husband answers the phone, and he’s got to suspect something at this point, but he’s still perfectly cheerful and friendly, and finally Shulgin asks, “You know your wife is planning on moving to California to live with me,” and he’s like “Oh yeah, I know”, and Shulgin starts to get a tad suspicious. Meanwhile, this is around the time he starts meeting/falling in love with Ann, and he keeps telling Ann “I really like you, but this is just a fling until my True Love Ursula gets here from Germany”, and Ann is always okay with this, because Alexander Shulgin is Objectively The Best And Most Attractive Person In The World, and obviously having him for a short time is better than having anybody else forever. But it starts to get really annoying and everybody is super confused by what’s going on, and finally one of their psychiatrist friends tells Ann:
Ursula is – how best to put it – she’s a person who, when she’s attracted to a man, intuitively senses what’s lacking in his emotional life, and she has a compulsion to become whatever that man most needs in a woman. She probably convinces herself each time that she’s truly in love, but I doubt she’s capable of what most of us would call real loving. The Jungians have a term, ‘anima woman’. The anima woman lacks a solid identity; like many great actors, she borrows – she takes on – a sense of wholeness from playing a part. In this case, it’s the part of the muse, the inspiration, the adored dream-woman. She fulfills a fantasy, and you can imagine the tremendous emotional rewards there are for her in such a role, as long as the affair lasts. Each affair lasts, of course, only until the next needy attractive man comes along. It’s all unconscious, by the way; I don’t think Ursula has the slightest idea of what she’s doing or why she feels compelled to do it. Or, for that matter, why the men she’s drawn to always happen to be married. When it’s time to move on, she explains – and probably believes – that she’s ending the relationship because she couldn’t live with the responsibility of having broken up a marriage.
When she first joined [our] group, we had long talks with each other, under the influence of [Shulgin’s psychedelics], and she told me a lot about her involvements with married men; she told me more than she realized or intended to. It was a subtle form of preening, under the guise of telling problems to a wise, sympathetic psychologist, you understand? Gradually, I put enough of the pieces together to understand the pattern. By that time, she had stopped telling me personal things about herself and her life, and I sensed that she was feeling uncomfortable around me […]
The dynamics of this kind of psychological compulsion are more than I want to go into right now, but what worries me is I believe Ursula is simply not capable of true emotional commitment to anyone. She’ll play the role for a time, as I said, until somebody else comes along – someone she finds appealing, with an emotional hole that’s begging to be filled – and she’ll move on to the new challenge. That’s what’s going to happen to Shura [Alexander Shulgin], I’m sure of it. I know it! I love him very much – we all do, you know – and sooner or later, he’s going to be badly hurt. That’s why I’m more pleased than I can say, to see you here. I don’t know what your relationship is with Shura, but it’s clear that you care for him, and I hope that – umm – I hope you’ll stay around. To help cushion the blow, when it comes; to give him something real to hold onto, when the unreal thing begins to unravel. Which I’m sure will happen before long, now that Ursula finds herself involved with a man who has – quite unexpectedly – become free to make an open commitment to her and ask her to do the same. Her bluff is being called.
Everything goes back and forth a lot, the whole social circle becomes hopelessly muddled, but in the end the psychiatrist is proven right. After much back-and-forth, Ursula agrees to fly to California that very day. When she doesn’t actually arrive, Ann sends her a nasty letter, informing her that she exists, that she’s on to her, and that now is the time to put up or shut up. Ursula then sends Shulgin a letter:
Dearest, dearest Shura,
A window has widely opened to you, a soul-window, a love-window, of graceful being – being together. A common space of breathing, of light touch, of inner smile. I could let those hours pass without telling you, and then you would never know what I am feeling – you would have only your own experience. Or I could share this with you. That is what I am doing […]
In a past life, about 2,000 years ago, you took a long knife and cut my throat, took my life, murdered me in the desert! You were the chief of our tribe, and I was a young girl, and you killed me! The whys are irrelevant. I have seen this over and over, and others who lived with us in that time have come to me in this life and warned me to be aware of this old karmic connection. We were, I think, of a nomad people in North Africa when this happened so long ago […]
In this moment of open love, you might be able to believe what I say to you, that I do not have any misgiving or second thoughts about emotional involvements with you because of this vision of what happened so long ago. No, my only concern is, and this is very real to me, to free myself and to give you the possibility of freeing yourself, from these old, old bonds of emotional slavery which must not be repeated in this life. In this life, through our deep love, we have the real chance of changing this by bringing it out into the open. We have broken a karmic consequence and do no longer have to blindly bear the burdens of the past life and tragedy.
I am leaving Dolph and I will go to a place to begin a new life with myself. I do not think I will marry again. I must seek alone my true path of the soul. I love you very deeply and I go to live my own life, of which you are a wonderful spiritual part. Maybe it will come that you will be a material part as well. But now you must live the present as completely as you can.
Shura, my dearest one, I want you to be free as a bird. Unfold your wings and leave all pain behind you, all possible accumulated guilt, all disquietness, all sorrows. Be free, and newly born, and walk into sunrise!!!
Fly and be!
So much for ethnographic study number three.
All of this seems somewhat more dramatic than normal reality. I don’t know how much liberty the Shulgins took when writing their autobiography – maybe this is another one of those things like Ann not knowing what “psychopharmacology” was. But one last thing I noticed about the book was how clear and coherent the psychology of everyone in PiHKAL was.
The Shulgins and everyone they know are Freudians – not explicitly, nobody ever says “I am a Freudian”, but just on a deep level they assume that it’s obviously true. Sometimes if it is an especially good day they’re Jungians as well, in the same implicit way. They’re always getting messages from their unconscious, they’re always rediscovering psychologically repressed material, and they’re always meeting people like Ursula who seem driven to behave in dramatic and unusual ways which are very predictable to any of the approximately one zillion psychoanalysts and psychiatrists whom the Shulgins know. Even their drugs are good analysts – the psychedelics are always helping them remember repressed childhood memories, after which they feel much better from whatever was bothering them at the time.
This is interesting, because I almost never see anyone behave in as dramatically Freudian a way as the Shulgins and their friends seem to behave all the time – even though I occasionally do psychodynamic therapy on people! I’m left a little baffled. Part of me wants to say that the primitive mind sees omens everywhere – I’m sure medievals were always seeing various signs of Christ in their daily life, and pattern-matching has never been a difficult sport (ask me how I feel about that brilliant and humane reflection on theodicy above being by someone named Ann). Another part wonders whether, if you’re Freudian enough, your subconscious starts acting in Freudian ways just to keep up – although that itself is a Freudian idea and I’m not sure whether you can get it without presupposing Freudianism anyway. A third possibility is just that the more crazy drugs you’re on, the more Freudian you act – wasn’t Freud a coke fiend anyway? A fourth possibility is that the problem is with me – I’m somehow so closed to all this kind of thing that when people around me tell me Freudian stuff, I completely miss it without Ann Shulgin’s narrative voice to tell me how Freudian it is – or even actively repress it.
Maybe the most interesting chapter of the book was where Ann had a spiritual crisis. She takes a psychedelic called DESOXY which Shulgin thinks is pretty weak, and she has a very strange reaction where the world starts seeming hostile, emotionless, and run by a perfectly rational demiurge that doesn’t care about humans the tiniest bit. The psychedelic leaves her bloodstream, she reaches the point where she should feel normal again, but she can’t shake her feeling of the demiurge’s obvious and palpable presence, to the point where she becomes barely able to function. She goes to one of the zillion or so Jungian psychologists in her friend group, who matter-of-fact tells her she’s having a spiritual crisis, and the only thing to do is wait for her soul to process it and gain the necessary enlightenment to go on (I wish I could get away with saying this kind of thing to my patients). Then she starts having extremely vivid visions of what is very obvious her mind doing Internal Family Systems therapy on herself, despite this being way before Internal Family Systems was invented, and despite the inventor being one of the three or so psychologists who was not a personal friend of the Shulgins. Finally she gets all the IFS steps right, accepts her parts, frees her repressed memories, and stops feeling like the Demiurge is harassing her at every moment. It’s pretty fascinating, but that’s just the thing – even though I’ve tried really hard to do Internal Family Systems on myself, armed with an official book and everything, I get nothing. I never have these sort of exciting spiritual crises that partake of exactly the right amount of symbolism from each of the world’s great mystical traditions. I’m sort of jealous of all the people who do, and sort of suspicious of them. Maybe I need to take more psychedelics.
(I will note, though, that the book is appropriately skeptical about some of this. Shulgin describes going to a psychedelic conference and meeting an academic who worked in ethnobotany. He was studying a certain psychedelic plant, and was especially interested in why everyone who took that plant had hallucinations of jaguars in particular. He theorized that the plant was from the Mexican jungle, and that in some deep way our collective unconscious knew this, and so came up with appropriate hallucinations. Another psychedelicist who happened to hear the conversation interjected “I synthesized that chemical a little while ago, and all I got was wiggly lines.” Shulgin left them as the first was getting increasingly agitated and demanding of the other whether he might have seen something that looked kind of like a jaguar.)
Speaking of weird things that Ann Shulgin sees, I’ll end this with something that might be interestingly testable. She writes that when she was young and going to sleep, every so often she would have a strange experience:
Lying down for naptime (as a child) or at night for sleep, I would have reached that point of relaxation where one is not very much aware of the body…when I sensed it beginning (I never knew when it was going to come), I would immediately snap into alertness, excited and pleased, then I would just lie quietly as it unfolded…every part of it was the same each time. It was always in black and white…and I could never extend it, by so much as a few seconds. When it was finished, it was finished.
First came the image-sensation after which I named the entire experience – the spiral. I felt my entire self drawn rapidly into a tiny point which kept shrinking, until it could shrink no further, at which time the microscopic point became a tunnel in which I continued traveling at great speed, inexpressibly small and implacably diminishing.
Simultaneously, I was expanding. I was expanding to the edges of the universe, at the same tremendous speed as that of the shrinking, and the combination, the contraction-expansion, was not only an image, it was also a sensation the whole of me recognized and welcomed. This experience of myself as microcosm-macrocosm lasted exactly four minutes.
The next stage came abruptly, as did all the changes. I was looking at standing figures which were vaguely human, dark thin figures being pulled into elongated shapes, like the sculptures of Giacometti. They stretched out, arms and legs like black string, until it seemed they could elongate no further, then the scene changed and I was watching obscenely rounded bodies, Tweedledums and Tweedledees without costumes, their small heads and legs disappearing into their puffed, bloated flesh. The sensation accompanying this stage was one of discomfort, unpleasantness, a feeling of something grating on my soul. I once timed this part and the one that followed; they lasted a total of six minutes. I disliked them intensely.
Abruptly again, the inner screen became white, a horrible dead-white, nasty and aggressive like the underbelly of a sting-ray. After presenting itself for a few seconds, the flat white began to curdle from the outer edges into black, until finally the screen was totally black. A thick, awful, dead black, a pool of tar in an unlit cave deep underground. After another brief pause, the black began to curdle at its edges into the white again. The process repeated itself once, and the sensation was similar in every way to the previous one: irritating, grating, a feeling of unpleasantness that approached repugnance. I always endured it with a mental gritting of teeth, knowing it had to be gone through because that’s the way it always went and it was not to be changed.
And then, finally, I broke out into the last stage, the final part for which I had always been and always would be willing to undergo the middle parts. Now I was at the edge of an unseen cliff, looking out into a very different blackness, the deep, cradling blackness of the infinite universe, of space which stretched without end. I was completely happy and comfortable in that place, and would have stayed there indefinitely, had I been allowed, breathing in the beautiful darkness and the exquisitely familiar sense of infinity as a living presence, surrounding me, intimate and warm.
After a moment of this pleasure, came the greeting. From the upper left-hand corner of the universe there came a greeting from Something which had known me, and which I had known, since before time and space began. There were no words, but the message was clear and smiling: Hello, dear friend, I salute you with respect-humor-love. It is a pleasure with laughter-joy to encounter you again…
Then it was over. It had taken exactly twelve minutes.
According to Ann, she had this experience every so often “since I was born”, maybe once a week or so when she was a child, but becoming gradually less and less common until it finally happened for the last time when she was twenty-five. She said it was what got her interested in psychology and spirituality in the first place, and that her later access to psychedelics seemed to be sort of a substitute for the connection she had lost.
She also said that she met two people at cocktail parties who had exactly the same experience with exactly the same sequence of steps (though cutting out earlier). I am sure more people read Slate Star Codex than Ann Shulgin talks to at cocktail parties. So come on, people. Any of you ever have a very specific black and white vision of infinity?