My Psychedelic Love Story, streaming now on Showtime, is the latest from Oscar-winner Errol Morris – the eyes responsible for The Thin-Blue Line, Wormwood, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., A Brief History of Time and, among others, an unfinished film on the life and strange times of cannibal grave-robber, Ed Gein. Based on the memoir Tripping the Bardo with Timothy Leary, the film offers a look into the life of Dr. Timothy Leary through the eyes of his whirl-wind lover, Joanna Harcourt-Smith. It’s also a re-examination of a key ‘counter-culture’ figure in a period of American change, raising the question: Was Leary caught in a tantrika Mata Hari’s vise-like vaginal squeeze, courtesy of the CIA?
It’s a question I last considered in the nineties. I first wondered if Leary was CIA when Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver put his ass under “revolutionary house arrest” in Algeria after he escaped from prison with the help of the Weather Underground. Why would the Weather Underground choose Leary out of all the black political prisoners in the country? Many of them are still in jail fifty years later. Don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows….
In the nineties, The Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal (the magazine, not the label), with its colorfully painted cover of Lee Scratch Perry, asked Was The Sixties Revolution A Government Plot? According to the article, Leary tuned in, turned on and turned coat. Mark Riebling, the author, extensively details the CIA’s history with LSD and Leary’s relationship with the intelligence community. It turns out, Riebling is co-founder and former research director of the Center for Tactical Counterterrorism. Cat knows his espionage (although, if I listen to my Discordian home-slice, Robin, Riebling’s article could’ve just as easily been a disinformation plant). Who the fuck knows? This shit reminds me of the hype promoting the “computer revolution” in the ‘90s. And Leary was there, too, before his head was sawed off and turned into a block of ice.
But the question in My Psychedelic Love Story is whether or not Joanna Harcourt-Smith is CIA. In an early scene, Allen Ginsberg, with “revolutionary” indignation, and incantatory imprecations, accuses Ms. Smith of being a sex-tool of the CIA. I laughed and laughed. Out of the bearded mouth of NAMBLA.
Joanna’s tale is a real eat me/drink me drop down the rabbit hole. Here’s a taste:
She’s hanging out with the Stones after hooking up with some cat the Stones nicknamed Tommy the Tumbling Dice and stuck him on a 45. Presidential hopeful George McGovern asks the Stones to do a gig at one of his campaign rallies but sympathy from the devil ain’t in the stars so she ends up on the floor of Diane Von Furstenberg’s Manhattan apartment, lounging on a mink blanket. Diane hands her the phone and it’s international arms dealer Michel Hauchard. Over drinks at the Regis, he tells her he got a check for two hundred fifty thousand dollars for Leary’s attempt to “emulate” Aleister Crowley with Confessions of a Hope Fiend (apparently, Leary believed he was the reincarnation of the Great Beast, probably in the same way Crowley believed he was the reincarnation of Eliphas Levi). Why? Leary signed over thirty percent of any book royalties he earned to Hauchard. In return, Hauchard had his ass thrown in jail.
Eventually, Joanna and Tumbling Tommy end up at Leary’s chalet in Laucern, Switzerland. Instantly, she’s impressed by the Porsche-driving High Priest who tells her – after dosing some Clear Light acid – You’ve come to free me!
Curiously, this film has a moment tangentially related to Stan Grof’s theories of psychedelics and the trauma of the birth canal, discussed in my review of The Way of the Psychonaut. Before coitus, Leary shows a nude and bejeweled Joanna x-rays of the brain pictured in an issue of Life magazine. Pointing at the x-ray, he tells her I am going to make love to you here. It reminded me of a Charles Manson seduction in Ed Sanders’ The Family.
The story she tells is pretty incredible, justifying Morris’ use of Disney animation clips and imagery from Crowley’s Thoth tarot deck. In fact, the film’s design is one aspect I love most. His kaleidoscopic use of archival footage gives it the look of the sixties underground tabloid, The San Francisco Oracle. The other aspect I love is Joanna Harcourt-Smith.
I can’t believe I am about to write this sentence, but she is a woman who operates from her heart chakra. She is quite moving in openly telling her story. Was she an operative planted by the CIA?
It’s complicated. Her best response:
“A lot of people have been manipulated to manipulate history.”
Sadly, on October 11, 2020, she succumbed to breast cancer at her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, surrounded by her family. She was seventy-four years old. Errol Morris said of Ms. Harcourt-Smith, “I was privileged to show her the completed movie just before she died. She watched it, I’ve been told by her family, six or seven times the week of her death and she loved it.”