Book Review - I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary by John Higgs

Ok, so I know that John Higgs has had several titles published recently (which I haven't yet read), but the occasion of his biography of Timothy Leary (which I have read), first published in 2006 on the 10th anniversary of Leary's death, coming out in paperback in the U.S., provides an excuse for me to write a belated review of it.

The title of the book refers to Leary's typically-megalomaniacal response to a question regarding Richard Nixon's alleged description of him as "the most dangerous man in America": "It's true, I have America surrounded."

In an e-mail interview with Paul Krassner, Higgs himself describes Leary as "probably the best example of the "trickster" archetype that the 20th Century produced, and his ambiguity is key to understanding him".

Higgs' insight into, and balanced treatment of, Leary's character contrasts with his his less-favourable portrayal at the hands of Robert Greenfield, so it will appeal more to those with a level of respect for the man, in spite of his flaws.

Higgs' fascinating account explains the contradictions in Leary's non-stop adventure of a life (a life of 'flat out epic grandeur', according to Winona Ryder in her foreword for the book) in terms of both the events which changed its course and Leary's response to those events - the rebuilding, with the assistance of LSD, of his 'reality tunnel'. As a behavioural psychologist at Harvard in the 50's, Leary had a better appreciation than most of his peers of how we create our own reality, but despite his adaptability, he seemed incapable of escaping the less admirable aspects of his own character.

The book opens with Leary's prison escape and largely focuses on his subsequent life as a fugitive, arguably the most interesting phase of Leary's life, whilst setting it within the context of his earlier rise to notoriety. You can tell that Higgs has a fascination with fellow Englishman Brian Barritt's not insubstantial involvement with Leary during this time.

It may be some time before Leary's legacy escapes the reality tunnels of those who 'know' him only as an unmentionable scientist who 'went too far' or as a hippy cultural icon, and his intellectual and cultural influence of the second half of the 20th century becomes more fully appreciated. Higgs' biography of Leary takes us closer to such a time. Essential reading. Buy it at Amazon US/UK).