Neo-American Church

Chapter 1


“Camelot—Camelot,” said I to myself. “I don’t seem to remember hearing of it before. Name of the asylum, likely.”

In the fall of 1963, a lead photo in the New York Times (or was it the Herald Tribune?) with a box story about Tim Leary, Ph.D., Dick Alpert, Ph.D., and Ralph Metzner, Ph.D., moving into the Hitchcock estate in Millbrook showed a corner of the Big House porch. There was a pumpkin in it somewhere, I think. I can’t remember who the pictured people were, or even if the story was before or after Jack Kennedy’s assassination, although I vividly remember another newspaper picture from around the same time showing Dick walking in the slush with Tim’s daughter, Susan, on a Millbrook sidewalk. Susan is looking up admiringly at her tall and handsome, fascinating friend.

Sally, my wife of five years, our three-year-old daughter, Susan, and I were living at the time in the small town of Edwards in the far northwestern corner of the Adirondacks. I was beginning my tenth year of work as a school psychologist and, as usual, I had four school districts to serve. I had also worked as a clinical psychologist in various settings, including three New York State prisons, but I liked school psychology better than anything else available to me, and always returned to it.

Every weekday morning I would drive my Oldsmobile Cutlass convertible through the misty forests of the northern fall, past sparkling lakes and modest dairy farms, to a “consolidated” school which was always the biggest business and the most interesting place in town. I would give one or two IQ tests in the morning, and in the afternoon give projective tests, advice, and “psychotherapy” to some kid who usually had only one genuine problem: the State Compulsory Education Law, which obliged him or her to attend classes instead of screwing around and/or learning a trade as was consistent with her or his interests, abilities and natural inclinations.

The odd “case” was usually more interesting, sometimes desperate, but surprisingly often not; just a bright teenager who, having recognized me as an adult who didn’t click when he walked and play pre-recorded tapes when he talked, had decided to come in and chat. In the past, this class of kids had not only entertained me, but had supported and protected me as well, and I them.

Positive traits are positively correlated.

But the Clinton County kid culture was too primitive and Roman Catholic for informal school psychologists’ fan clubs to develop and flourish. Negative traits are also positively correlated. In 1963-64 no sweet nothings or invitations to help myself and the sooner the better were being whispered in my ear by any teenage cuties, which was probably the main reason for my boredom, restlessness, and general sense of dissatisfaction with it all.

Little things can mean a lot, after all.

The combination of sensations I felt on reading those first newspaper stories about Millbrook was new to me, although it was something like falling in love at first sight.

There are ways to explain it. First and foremost, I had taken half a gram of mescaline, a very heavy dose, four years earlier. I didn’t know another person, aside from my wife, much less another psychologist, who had any psychedelic experience at all. Attempting to describe the experience and explain why it was important had become so tiresome and unproductive that I had stopped trying. This isolation was probably the main reason I hadn’t done it again. The newspaper stories, therefore, had something of the impact that the first sight of Friday’s footprint had on Robinson Crusoe. At last! Other creatures like myself were within reach.

There were peripheral factors also, all attractive. I had grown up in Westchester, and was nostalgic for the lush Hudson River Valley ambiance of my childhood. I had read lots of English novels, and watched lots of movies, in which old mansions on large estates were a common setting for the action, but I had never visited anything in this splendid class of human habitation. It would be nice to see something like it in living color and three dimensions after seeing so much of it in my mind’s eye and on the silver screen. And it was a plus that all three of these guys had been on the Harvard faculty, tossed out or not. Maybe we wouldn’t get along, I thought, maybe they’re nuts, but could they be stupid, ignorant, uncouth jerks? It seemed highly unlikely.

David Riesman, whose comments on American society I thought and still think admirable, taught at Harvard, and had recently written me an appreciative letter about my “Neo-Psychopathic Character Test,” which had bucked me up considerably.

Yes, veritas, with as few reservations as possible. It was just about the only slogan I knew about to which I gave my wholehearted support and always had since as long as I could remember. The truth will make you free. Free of lies, which means free of 99 percent of what’s wrong around here.

And everyone in the pictures that accompanied the newspaper stories looked cheerful and healthy-minded and they were described as being that way by the presumably cynical newspaper reporters who wrote the initial stories about Millbrook.

All of the above taken together, however, didn’t seem adequate to explain my excitement and enthusiasm. I was absorbed and fascinated to the point of being spellbound. Why should a few newspaper stories make me feel like I had been granted a “new lease on life”?

Somehow, I thought, a mysterious power had been restored to a psychic province long shrouded in darkness.

The trip, as is often remarked upon by experienced Psychedelians, starts before the trip starts. My intuition was working right. Something was up. I sent Tim a copy of the mock “test” Riesman had liked, and a brief account of my mescaline trip, and hoped fervently that I would get an invitation.

When I promptly got exactly what I wanted from Tim, written on an old picture-postcard of the Big House, I carried it around for weeks in the breast pocket of the gray flannel suits I always wore at work. Between testing kids and meeting with teachers and dictating reports, I gazed at the black and white aerial photograph on the postcard of the Big House in the snow, evidently taken by some scarfed and goggled daredevil early in the century, as if it had magical properties instead of just being an old picture of an old house I had never seen.

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