Death in the Center Ring

Timothy Leary’s High Dive
by Douglas Rushkoff

“That’s probably the worst place in the house to leave those,” Tim barks at a beautiful young assistant as she clears a pile of videocassettes from the path of his oncoming electric wheelchair. Then he stops short. “What are they, anyway?”

“Dead Man Walking, Nixon, Babe, some documentary…” the purple-haired girl reads off the labels on the tapes.

“Susan gave me those, you know,” Leary says, referring to longtime friend Susan Sarandon who has been smuggling him the special promotional tapes sent to Academy Members. “Take whatever you want. I’ve seen them all already.”

He stares at the writing on one of the cassettes, drifting into deep thought.

“Oliver Stone’s here,” the assistant reminds him. “Out on the back porch.”

“I know that!” Tim says, as if he didn’t care who it was. “So, let’s go.”

His bandaged hand (bleeding cancer sores) nimbly manipulates the chair’s joystick, sending Leary careening through a strobe-lit bedroom doorway into the powder-blue faux-fur-lined corridor that leads to the rest of Leary’s rented Beverly Hills home. Paintings too numerous to display lay on the floor while plastic, mirrors, and fabric cover every other surface, even the windows. The house is a day-glow catacomb.

Tim crashes into a signed Kenny Sharf, then stops short again.

“Is Kenny coming this week? We have to make sure to put it up! Somewhere nice.” Tim likes visiting artists to see themselves on the walls.

He gets distracted again, and slowly reaches up towards a light switch. The movement makes him grimace, but he’s committed to the task, and carefully flicks the switch on and off again, waiting around for a light to respond. Nothing.

“Go find a lightbulb.”

“We’re out,” the assistant answers, sheepishly fingering the small silver hoop in her navel. “We’ll get some more tomorrow.”

“Oh well,” Tim says, nearly running over the girl’s foot with the tire of his chair as he barrels out towards the sunny living room.

“Hi hi hi!” he shouts to the assembled guests. The movie director and two stars, some old Harvard pals, a rock musician and three newspaper journalists waiting for deathbed interviews all sit around the room making contacts, drinking Leary’s wine, smoking his pot, or holding onto something they want Leary to sign or otherwise legitimize. Everybody but Stone and a psychedelics expert from the Bay Area – who are deep into a conversation about a crack in the dashboard of Kennedy’s limo – break off their activities and turn to Leary, crown jewel of a waning psychedelic empire.

A stranger to the home is the first to greet Leary. The young man bends down and patronizingly spaces his syllables.

“Hi Tim-o-thy,” he says. “How are you?”

“Dy-ing,” Leary responds without a pause. “How do think I am?”

Timothy Leary has been rehearsing his death for thirty years. As a longtime admirer and personal friend of Leary’s for the past ten years, I was alternatively thrilled and disgusted by the circus attending him at his final departure. For a man who invented the notion of “set and setting” as the key prognosticators for the quality of a psychedelic session, Tim engineered an environment and mindset for this, his ultimate trip, that were at once inspiring and horrifying.

Leary always saw psychedelics as practice for the final process of de-animation that the rest of us call death. One of his early books on LSD, “The Psychedelic Experience,” is an adaptation of the ancient Tibetan Book of the Dead that Leary and his Harvard cohorts believed was a guide not only to the final exit into the post-life, but for the test-run of that journey experienced on LSD.

Leary began his death act as a continuation of his lifelong stage show – a confirmation of his devil-may-care repudiation of obsolete social customs, from prosecution of drug-users to the persecution of smokers. On learning of his inoperable prostate cancer, he realized he was smack in the middle of another great taboo: dying. And once again, true to character, he wasn’t about to surrender to the fear and shame we associate with death in modern times. No, this was going to be a party. A celebration. Our media-savvy cultural renegade was going to milk it for every second of airtime and column of newsprint it was worth. Timothy Leary, High Priest of LSD and Champion of Cyberspace was back.

First, there was the “75th and Final Birthday Party,” in October 95, at which Timothy and about 500 of his closest friends – ranging from Tony Curtis and Liza Minelli to Perry Farrel and Yoko Ono — consumed champagne, nitrous oxide, and a giant birthday cake meticulously designed from 1960’s blotter-acid art into a mosaic of Leary’s head. We praised him and then we ate him, all courtesy of a generous catering budget from film director Tony Scott. As the sun came up on the revelers the next morning, workmen on the bluff overhead bulldozed the last remains of the Sharon Tate house, where Charlie Manson’s family had a party of a very different sort, giving Leary’s vision of a psychedelic future for America a decidedly darker media spin.

Then there was the Web site – – Tutakamen in cyberspace. The thoughts, texts and images of Timothy’s life uploaded into the datasphere for eternity. The next best thing to consciousness on a microchip, the web site was designed to live on long after his death, growing ever bigger as Leary’s tremendous thousand-carton archive is scanned and digitized, and visitors contribute essays or converse in chat rooms. To promote the dying agenda, Leary listed his daily drug intake, both legal and illegal, as well as the status of his disease.

A big book deal (for which I served as literary agent) soon followed. Design for Dying will be published by HarperCollins next Spring. In it, Leary argues for taking charge of one’s own death process, from cryonic freezing of the brain to assisted suicide. A detailed appendix gives readers the chance to calculate their own “Quality of Life Scorecards,” so that they may more accurately assess their desire to stay alive after losing various physical, mental, and social skills. David Prince, a fast-rising music journalist and rave promoter from Chicago, was enlisted to co-write the book based on Leary’s extensive outlines and long, late-night interviews.

Most important, and most controversial, were Leary’s decisions about how he was going enact his death: consciously, by suicide, and over the net for all to witness through live, CUSeeMe broadcast. He would “do” death as he had done everything else: publicly, and in grand style. No fear, and no apologies.

The mainstream media was quick to seize on the spectacle. With Kervorkian still grabbing headlines in Michigan, designer dying was a hot-button issue. Dozens of network news programs and national newspapers and magazines competed for morbid quotes from Leary. Remote video vans were parked in the driveway more often than not, and journalists packed the living room to wait for their fifteen minutes of Q&A. Documentarians faxed contracts for exclusive film rights to the moment of death. Leary was all-too happy to oblige. For a time.

“This is just like it was at Millbrook,” Rosemary Woodruff, Tim’s third ex-wife, tells me as she peels potatoes in the kitchen. And she should know. A member of Leary’s upstate-New York LSD commune in the sixties, Rosemary spent several years in exile with Timothy after helping him escape from jail, and then many more underground in the United States afterwards. Ironically, even after Tim was released for his own crimes, the warrant on Rosemary remained in effect.

Rosemary knew Tim at the height of his popularity and the depths of his infamy. Though she paid dearly for Tim’s transgressions against the State, it sounds like the peace of infamy was preferable to the zoo of popularity. The couple never had a moment alone – even when they went out camping together in the woods near the Millbrook Estate, Tim’s followers would wander out to their tent in the middle of the night to rap with the Great One. Rosemary would collect wood for the fire and cook for the surprise guests.

She could barely tolerate it then, and she isn’t going to tolerate it now. Sighing as she looks out at the mob scene in the living room, she decides to leave for her quiet bed and breakfast up north that night, just one day after she got here.

Out on the back patio overlooking the panoramic haze of Los Angeles, Tim’s hip helpers – a half-dozen young artists and computer whizzes who tend to his needs day and night – set up a video camera to record his interactions with Oliver Stone. But the young man who clumsily introduced himself to Leary out in the living room is so annoyingly persistent that Tim decides to process him first and be done with him.

The boy tells a circuitous tale about his father, who was a graduate student at Harvard when Leary was conducting his LSD sessions. The student was strongly opposed to psychedelics use, and when he wandered into one of Leary’s private, off-campus parties, he was scandalized by the goings-on.

“So what?” asks Leary, annoyed. “Why are you telling me this now? I know all this.” Leary impatiently drags the boy to the conclusion of his story. Leary has much bigger fish to fry.

“My father went to his own therapist,” the boy explains, “and told him what he saw and how it upset him. And it was the therapist, and not my father, who went to the faculty and told them about the party and the drugs.”

Leary could care less about soothing the conscience of a detractor from thirty years ago, especially through a boy one-generation removed. The long letter that the boy’s father sent Tim detailing the whole ordeal had sat unread on the imitation Keith Haring dining room table for the past two weeks.

“Fine,” Leary says, dismissing the supplicant and turning to Stone for the real business of the afternoon.

“Oliver,” he calls across the circle of lawn chairs. Stone is deep in another conversation about the effects and availability of DMT – a short-acting psychedelic joyride of epic proportion – and doesn’t respond to the first summons.

“Oliver,” Tim repeats, a bit louder, as he hands off his glass of white wine for a refill. (Glasses with stems have been outlawed in the house because they topple over too easily.)

Stone finally turns to Timothy and smiles. The power of the entire entertainment industry seems to sit in his chair with him. Tim’s autobiography, Flashbacks, has been optioned by Interscope several times now, and Stone’s frequent visits to the house may herald his interest in signing on as the movie’s director – finally giving the project a “green light.” Tim isn’t sure he wants to become remembered as just another Stone icon, but after Larry Flynt dropped in yesterday and said what a good job Oliver was doing producing his biographical film, Tim warmed up to the idea.

“What can I do for you, Tim?” Stone asks casually. His face is bright red from the heat of the sun, in stark contrast to his snow-white Nautica windbreaker. Tim doesn’t mince words. He didn’t sleep well at all last night, and he’s spent a day’s worth of energy getting dressed, into the wheelchair, through the sycophants, and out onto the porch. Tim’s pretty sure Stone is here to make a deal so he takes a gamble.

“Are you interested in making a movie about me?” Leary asks bluntly. There are at least a dozen of us on the patio, and we are all in hushed attention. We are witnesses to the transaction, and both men know it.

“What?” Stone asks. He is stalling for time, I assume. He must have understood what Tim asked.

Tim repeats himself boldly. “Are you interested in making a movie about my life or about one of my books?” In other words, put up or shut up.

“Um, right now? No,” Stone says. “I’m not thinking about doing that now.”

“Then why are you here? Do you want something?”

“No, Tim.” Stone says. “I’m just here to visit. Just as a friend.”

“Well, good,” Tim responds without a second’s hesitation. “I don’t want anyone to make a movie.”

We are all shocked. It’s all Tim has been talking about for weeks. He even did an interview about the film with the LA Times. Then it hits me. How else could he respond and save face?

“Really?” Stone pursues where perhaps he shouldn’t. “Why not?”

“I just don’t want that right now.”

After a bit of smalltalk, Leary maneuvers himself off the porch and back inside. The owner of a small book company gets Leary to sign a few dozen copies of a reprinted work. Each signature will add value to the stash. As he signs each book Tim asks hopefully “Who is one this to?” only to be reminded, each time, that he should just sign his name. It’s business, not personal.

Before leaving with his entourage, Stone procures the number of someone with connections to exotic psychotropics, and gives his own number to a photographer selling fundraising portraits of Tim. A fair exchange.

Later that afternoon, most of the strangers have left and Tim sits with his loyal assistants – the grad students of Leary U. – going through boxes of photos, signing the back of each one and identifying the subjects. It’s as if he wants to fill his brain with the images of his own life – load up his cerebral ram chips so that at the moment of death he’ll be taking everything he has experienced with him to the other side.

“Who’s that?” a beautiful blonde girl in a satin halter asks. She shows Tim a picture of a man in a strange uniform holding a drink.

“That’s Captain Al Hubbard,” Tim answers, squinting at the photo.

“Who was he?” asks another.

“He, uh,” Tim accesses his cerebral hard drive, “he stole all this LSD from the CIA and gave it out in San Francisco.” He thinks back a bit further. “I remember he had Sheriff’s badges from all over the country, and diplomatic immunity. Strange fellah.”

These quiet moments are the best time – other than 4am in his bedroom – to glean what’s really going on inside the dying man’s head. I wait for a pause to tread on delicate turf.

“What did you mean,” I eventually ask, “when you told Oliver that you didn’t want anyone to make a film?”

Tim doesn’t say anything. I backpedal.

“He kept coming around acting like he wanted to make one,” I offer.

“I said I didn’t want him to and I meant it,” Tim answers.

“But what if he walked in with a briefcase with $100,000 and said ‘here, let’s make the movie.’”

“Well,” Tim replies, “first, it doesn’t happen like that. It would be much more complicated than that.”

“But you said you didn’t want it.”

“I don’t want anything,” Tim pierces me with his gaze. He’s still here, all right. “That’s all I meant. I don’t want. I wasn’t asking him to do something because I wanted it.” After a few more minutes of photo-gazing, Timothy goes back to his bedroom to work on some felt-pen word-paintings with Los Angeles artist-photographer Dean Chamberlain. These sketches are about the only creative expression Tim still has the patience to complete and, according to the wild-eyed, bleach-blonde artist egging him on, the paintings could be worth a lot someday. If nothing else, their execution affords Tim some privacy.

Everyone else spends the rest of afternoon decorating the apparatus that the cryonics people have brought to drain Timothy’s blood at the moment of his death as preparation for freezing his brain. It’s pretty morbid stuff: large plastic tubes and bottles for collecting blood, nitrogen for cooling it, buckets, needles, catheters, worklights, and, at the center of it all, an aluminum gurney where the body will rest.

By the time the artists and web designers are done with it, the equipment has been transformed into a pagan shrine to Timothy. The gurney has been filled with items Tim might desire on the other side, such as wine, pot, a bong, Tylenol, balloons for nitrous, the poetry of Allen Ginsburg, a book by William Burroughs, photos of Tim’s friends, and junk food. Where Tim will lie rests a shiny mylar mannequin with Yoda mask affixed to the top. The lights have been gelled blue and red, and strings of beads hang over everything else. A picture of Tim, adorned with flowers, sits in front of the whole installation.

They should probably be working on that web site instead. Despite almost a year of effort, the four or five kids assigned to the project have gotten frightfully little done. The skeleton of the site is ingenious – a tour through Timothy’s real house, where clicking on doors brings you into different rooms. But so far the rooms are still empty. Each bookcase and cabinet, though neatly labelled “archives” or “unpublished works” just brings you to an empty page apologizing for being “under construction.”

Tim’s older friends and patrons – mostly part-time visitors – have been grumbling for weeks that the kids, while sweet to the core and dedicated to Tim’s well-being, are just slackers. The patrons resent that Tim has put the kids on salaries, and that the money they have “loaned” Tim during these lean years is leaking out faster than it goes in.

What they don’t see is that these kids are with Tim 24/7, changing his linens, responding to his whims, and jumping into action whenever he shouts “Hello????!!!!!” only to find him collapsed, bleeding, and disoriented. If it looks like they’re just sitting around rapping and smoking cigarettes, it is because they are shell-shocked. These kids are right there with Tim in the piss and blood-soaked trenches of his losing battle against death. And just when they need their mentor the most – to explain to them how to take all this in stride – he is slowly fading away. It’s a traumatic experience.

Meanwhile, the kids watch each of Tim’s weekend guests with wary eyes. Everyone has a “deal” to make with Tim, and nobody is to be trusted. In most cases this is justified – the sharks visit every day – but sometimes it’s pure reflex. Danny Goldberg, of Gold Mountain (Nirvana) fame and a longtime supporter of Timothy’s career, has gotten Tim to agree to a record deal for a tribute album. He believes he can get stars like Madonna to record songs that use passages of Tim’s writings or samples of his voice. But the kids from the house also have ideas about releasing their own tribute album using lesser-known but “cooler” artists.

They pore over Goldberg’s contract after he has left, objecting to points of law and tiny stipulations – partly out of concern for Tim’s welfare, but just as concerned for the competition this deal could create for their own project. However earnestly they attempt to separate their own interests from Timothy’s, the conflict is inevitable. Tim is both the greatest friend to them in the world, and their best shot at personal growth and successful careers. Love mixed with aspiration mixed with fear mixed with guilt.

None of us at the house can help ourselves from checking the huge monthly calendar on the wall for advance notice of which celebrity is going to show up when. Ram Dass and Ralph Metzner on Sunday afternoon attracts the rising psychedelics scholars, while Larry Flynt catches a budding journalists’ eye. We all take note of Wynona Rider and William Burroughs’ names, though the latter won’t be arriving until mid-July, which will turn out be too late.

Worse yet is the fate of the archives. What happens when Tim dies? Will the archives get sold to Stanford? Will the IRS – who has agreed to leave Tim’s estate alone until after he’s gone – jump in and take everything? Does the film company have rights to them? Where’s that contract? What about the electronic rights?

Tim is no help in sorting these questions out. Like a guru with competing devotees, Tim entertains everyone’s visions, and then lets them fight it out amongst themselves. He just says “yes” to everything, leading each of us to believe we alone are exercising Tim’s true will. If only we heard him – “I don’t want anything!”

By evening Timothy is back in bed with a fresh Fentanyl patch on for pain relief, and a nitrous balloon in his hand. Everyone siphons off a balloon of his or her own from the fresh tank next to Tim’s bed with a loud SHHHHHH!

Tim winces at the sound.

“You can tell a lot about a person by the way he fills a balloon,” Tim complains.

Dave Prince, Leary’s co-writer, comes in with a belligerent fax from a biographer named Peter O. Whitmer. Apparently Whitmer believes he is Leary’s official biographer based on an agreement he and Leary signed back in the seventies while Leary was in jail. Whitmer wants to know how Leary could now be making biography agreements other people (including me).

But Leary has gone cold on Whitmer, who wrote a scathing biography of Hunter S. Thompson and reportedly posed as flower deliveryman to get access to Hunter’s mom’s house. Leary declares that the writer’s insolence must be avenged – and in style. After attempting to conceive a few practical jokes of his own, he has Prince send a fax to Hunter. “I’m being mugged by a literary soundrel,” Leary dictates, praising Thompson for his ability to “deal with this rascal,” and asking him for help crafting a cunning scenario to “punish him and his ilk.” Thompson eventually responds with a phone call, and outlines a plot to invite Whitmer to Leary’s house on the pretense of working out a deal; Thompson would be waiting at the door with a shotgun, and scare the poor writer away. While the payback never comes to pass, the cordial conversation allows two old friends to connect one last time.

Everyone who comes by has his or her own way to say good-bye. Yoko Ono opts for a relatively private audience in Tim’s bedroom – a chaotic mess of articles and photos, blood-stained sheets, pill bottles, empty glasses, a few roaches and old balloons on the nightstand, and a huge isolation tank humming ominously in the corner. Art by friends – some great and some just weird – hangs everywhere, even on the ceiling. All four seats in the room are wheelchairs, so Yoko clears a place for herself on the bed next to Tim. A giant, 5×6 foot photo of Timothy with John and Yoko at the “bed-in” recording of “Give Peace a Chance” just happens to hang on the wall.

“You were a great man,” she tells him, patting his knee.

“Was?” he responds.

They laugh over the gaff. After she’s gone, Tim tells us, “She comes only when she wants to. On her own terms.” I look at Tim, ready to diss her. “But that’s just fine,” he says. “I love her so much. Isn’t she just so lovely?” Nothing makes Tim happier than to hear his friends praised. Too bad he had to do most of it.

William Burroughs calls later that afternoon. Timothy extols the virtues of his pain-relieving fentanyl patch, and then takes down Bill’s mailing address. The old beat wants to try one on. Tim is honored to be turning on “the Bill Burroughs” to a new opiate. We send it to Kansas by Federal Express.

John Lilly visits a few nights in a row to share some of his favorite drug, Ketamine. He administers a syringe to Timothy and then one to himself, and the two old friends lie on the bed together as the dissociative anesthetic draws them out of their failing bodies for a time. It is Timothy’s first experience with the chemical – now snorted in smaller doses as a club drug – and he doesn’t have the best trip.

“The whole universe had turned into a book,” he tells me at about 3 the next morning. “But the binding had come out and the pages were floating free. I knew it would take some work to find out which page to climb back onto.”

All Tim’s friends say farewell in their own ways – some by getting something, and some by giving something. Timothy accepts and receives with the same graciousness.

“Everyone sees their own Timothy Leary,” he tells me, then drifts off to what looks like sleep. He suddenly stirs, stares at me, and asks, “what do you want?”

“I don’t want anything,” I joke.

He laughs. “You got me! Now you know how I feel!”

It has been a long night, but Tim gets one of his second winds and we are all sucked in. He makes us take him to two parties, and then the Viper room for a quick listen to an LA band whose members are friends. On the way back, he directs us as we steal huge round driveway mirrors from the mansions on Benedict Canyon Drive. We put them up all over his bedroom – the deanimation chamber – so he can see around the whole room without moving his head.

“Are you scared of dying?” I ask him after the last mirror is fixed in place.

“Not a bit.”

“And you’re going through with the freezing of your head?”

“It can’t hurt.”

“But what if you’re already dead, going through the Bardos you wrote about in the Psychedelic Experience, and then all of a sudden you’re stuck – frozen in the process?”

“Well,” he says, looking away for a moment, “I don’t think it works like that. I hope not.”

I am suddenly overwhelmed by guilt. How dare I try to pull him into a bad trip? Why did I feel the need to project my own fear of death onto him? Because for me, like everyone else, he’s just a mirror for my own unfinished business.

While I don’t believe my questions caused him a moment’s doubt, a few days later one of the “Cryocare” representatives comes to visit with a covert photographer, and something in Timothy snaps. He kicks them out of the house and they dismantle the shrine and take back their equipment. Timothy later spun the story for the media: “They were so serious, I was scared I’d wake up and there’d be all these people standing around me with clipboards.” I still think it had more to do with the “strings attached” to his cryonics deal. They wanted to exploit their access to his dying and freezing for a photo spread in Wired. Tim would rather just die than be reanimated with someone else’s spin.

In the next couple of weeks, Timothy becomes more protective of his private space. A photographer who has known him for years is stunned to tears when he tells her she is too demanding and to leave. Several people are banished this way. Then he begins granting interviews only to those he knows, or those who pay. When his stepson Zach returns from music school, Tim begins to treasure his time with family and friends at the expense everything else.

The hospice nurses tell us that his level of pain is extraordinarily high, and that we shouldn’t be surprised by new behaviors. But what surprises us all the most is his final decision not to go out as he had originally planned. He says he doesn’t want to implicate any of us in an assisted suicide legal charge, and then cancels the online death.

The next week, after a string of Ministry concerts that he, John Barlow, and some of the kids attend in a wheelchair convoy, Tim becomes too weak to make any real decisions at all. No one has been fully entrusted to make the suicide decision for him, and we realize that Timothy Leary will end up dying pretty much like the rest of us: quietly succumbing to the inevitable. Besides, he finds he loves life so much, that he can’t even conceive of ending it. He will endure any amount of pain for the pleasure of another day.

Zach, Rosemary, the kids at the house, and a few close friends are at his bedside in the last moments. It is an intimate and loving finale, where the politics, personal issues, and media hoopla surrounding him finally give way to the deep love and respect all Tim’s friends have in common. A hi-8 camcorder discreetly tapes the final vigil.

Just before losing consciousness for the last time, Timothy asks “why?” The room goes silent. Is he afraid? Does he feel forsaken? Then he smiles and says “why not?” Everyone laughs. He repeats “why not” about fifty times in fifty different voices. Comical, loving, tragic, afraid. His reassures his audience through a clownish performance, which somehow gives him the strength he needs to face the final curtain himself. The last thing he does is applaud, for himself and his audience. In this paradoxically dignified fashion, Tim provides the comic relief at his own death. By dawn, helicopters are already swooping in to capture aerial footage of the house; but Leary has left the building.

While some see Tim’s final retreat into the solitude of death as a lack of conviction, or a submission to the same forces that seem to conquer everyone else, I think he has more than proved his point. He died the way he wanted to, even if his chosen method and expression changed over time. He didn’t owe it to us to die spectacularly online any more than he owed it to consensus culture to die shamefully in a hospital.

Just as in the 1960’s, when he was jailed for telling us to turn on, it is those of us around him who are unable to let a free soul do as it pleases. Timothy Leary has been imprisoned twice by a culture incapable of seeing who he is through its own fears and prejudices.

It is we, and not Timothy Leary, who have failed to meet the challenge of the center ring.