June 24, 2014 at 12:15 PM

My Book Report: ‘Tripping the Bardo With Timothy Leary: My Psychedelic Love Story’

A kiss-and-toke-and-tell saga whose subtitle says it all

By Casey St. Charnez

Media Rare

Casey St. Charnez has been video editor for Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide since 1986 and buyer for Lisa Harris' Video Library since 1981. He likes Lisa, cats, crosswords, and the Metropolitan Opera, probably in that order.

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First, a definition: “Bardo” is the Tibetan word for the in-between state of the afterlife, a transitional point akin to limbo. It’s a place where one may see backward, to the life that late was led, and forward, to the mysteries now revealed.      

Next, an explanation: When Santa Fe resident Joanna Harcourt-Smith brought her self-published memoir to Lisa at the Vid, Lisa mistook “Bardo” for “Bardot,” and said, “Great! Casey’s going to love this.”     

Well, yes, a bio about Brigitte Bardot would have been most welcome, but as it turned out, so was Tripping the Bardo With Timothy Leary: My Psychedelic Love Story, a kiss-and-toke-and-tell saga whose subtitle says it all. All I had to do was read merely the first chapter, and there I was, hooked for the 300 pages to come.      

Actually, “hooked” is kind of a weird word to invoke here, as this remembrance of drugs past begins with Robin Williams’ classic dictate that “If you remember the 1960s, you weren’t there.”

For JH-S, that should have applied to the 1970s, too, when she was the paramour of Dr. Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychologist whose therapeutic advocacy of psilocybin, mescaline, and lysergic acid diethylamide—aka shrooms, mesc, and LSD—helped to invent the hippie. Like Aldous Huxley--who was tripping as he died--Leary felt hallucinogens were the key that unlocked the door to the Bardo.

By the time she met Leary in 1973, she admits she was a needy, man-hungry soul looking for sexual approbation, as she sought to fill the emotional void that was her childhood. Leary, meanwhile, was in exile, already long on the run from the law, a celebrity once described by Nixon as “the most dangerous man in America.” Many of his 75 years were spent in some 29 prisons.

But Joanna somehow seems to remember it all, and her recollection of her life with Leary is a tale of flights from both reality and the feds.

Often sad, even tragic, often revelatory, even shocking, her writing is vivid and evocative. This is quite a well-written and gripping autobiography, a bejeweled kaleidoscope of excess on a grand tour scale, involving alcohol, pharmaceuticals, the rich the famous and the titled, and European ritz: Courvoisier, Stoli, Cristal, often literally along with heroin, acid, grass, coke, in the company of Jagger, Warhol, Ram Dass, in St. Moritz, London, Lausanne, New York, Vienna…and Santa Fe, where she has lived since 1985.

JH-S was born into it. The Swiss-born British socialite, whose stepfather was a French financier and whose mother was a glamorous competitor, had a privileged but unhappy (and molested) youth she seemed desperate and eager from which to emerge and escape.

And escape she did. Over and over, man after man, bottle after bottle, pill after pill, puff after puff, snort after snort. It’s amazing she lived through it.

She knows it, too. Her recreation of a world mindset now fully two generations past is a convincing, detailed account of generally reprehensible behavior, choked in the smoke of reefer and Gauloises. Never once does she flinch at revealing her guilt-ridden betrayals, her guiltless bed-hopping, her unexpected collusion with the FBI. Prudence, restraint, integrity—thy name was not the Joanna Harcourt-Smith of the 20th century.     

Towards the end of her confessional, she says she has been sober and clean for three decades, and though she oddly cherishes the self-induced trials she endured, she is wise enough to know she’s blessed to have survived the times.     

With this book, she has transcended herself, in an act of startling courage. You’ll find yourself admiring her, whether you want to or not.

There are no pictures, Too bad. Nor is there an index. If you want to find out if you’re mentioned in it, you’ll have to read the whole thing to find out. Well worth the trip—you should excuse the expression.

At the end, she promises a second book, Healing: The Journey Home.

Hope she makes it.

Tripping the Bardo With Timothy Leary: My Psychedelic Love Story is available at Amazon, but because Amazon lately has become quite greedy and difficult concerning its book offerings, perhaps you should acquire it directly from Joanna through her website. Though I don’t know her personally, I’m sure she would appreciate the support. What author wouldn't?

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