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Terence McKenna and the Secret of the Tryptamines  (Chapter One)

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At home, when his father’s sister Amelia, a nun, visited, he would be thrown off his game by the match of wits with someone as quick and clever as he. Amelia was impressed and amused by Terence’s precocity, not intimidated but invigorated to have an able opponent  (however young) in theological debates. Terence was flustered that he couldn’t get Amelia on the defensive. Normally in arguments, he peppered his family members with verbal thrusts and parries till, with a triumphant rush, he had an interlocutor on the ropes, his conversational dominance demonstrated once more. But his aunt wouldn’t cry uncle.

And she was playful in their interactions in a way that was off-putting to the hard-driving Terence, to whom, as a kid, ideas were combat. He got annoyed when Amelia matched his fierce atheism with wry, unperturbed rebuttals, declining to engage his competitiveness.


Terence was too stubborn to shrug and laugh when one of their conversations ended. Instead, he’d hold onto his tally of points scored and lost, and remember which of Amelia’s defenses of theism had particularly felt constructed on logical sand.


His parents (he said at the end of his life) were “Catholic rationalists – it’s hard to square that.” Terence and Dennis both decided early on that the faith they were steeped in (Sundays, they donned suits) was all made up, a campfire story. They developed a zeal for dispelling superstition, that male adolescent style of self-asserting doubt.


But each was also irresistibly drawn to pondering the big questions, the Mystery. At eleven, Dennis spent a contented summer in a carrel at the Paonia Public Library, hand-transcribing every article on astrology and astrophysics in the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Terence, who was of a more literary than scientific bent, got into the existentialists. But he also went for Meister Eckhardt, Hildegard von Bingen, and the Tao Te Ching, and started to discern the principles that unite mystical thought across cultures and eras—conviction in the interwovenness of all events and in a deep, ultimate identity of polar qualities like light and dark. If Nietzsche and Sartre and Camus had it that (as an older McKenna put it) “meaning is an illusion of the naïve,” the wonderstruck mystical worldview saw all worldly phenomena as part of one single, living presence.

At fourteen, Terence began to read C.G. Jung, who, himself something of a mystic, built his body of thought upon the insight that all qualities perceived by the human mind originate within the mind, which believes its projections actually are there in the form that they appear to be. Also at fourteen, Terence was given Aldous Huxley’s monograph The Art of Seeing – a paean to the activities of drawing and observing – by his mother, Hazelle, who wanted her son to encounter the world with eyes that saw, not caught by habits of pre-judgment and fixed belief, not holding set opinions about whatever was in front of him before he had actually looked at it. To actively look, Hazelle told Terence, is to resist passive acquiescence to conditioning.

She was an unlikely deliverer of the message to not buy into the foregone conclusions of culture: her current address was less than a half-block of Orchard Ave. away from her childhood home. A svelte, beautiful brunette, a gentle and reassuring presence to her family, a woman accepting of her assigned fifties-era wife-and-mother role, her taste in contemporary literature was jarringly sophisticated and her insights apt.

Her husband Joe’s reading was not so highbrow, but it was avid. A WWII vet, he had declined the opportunity of the GI Bill because he was too anxious, when he returned stateside, to reunite with Hazelle and embark on the course of family life. But he became an autodidact and read widely in contemporary scientific thought, as well as in sci-fi literature.

Joe had been a bedridden boy only able to experience excitement vicariously, in the pulp novels—Zane Grey, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard—whose pages he turned while dreaming of one day meeting, himself, with danger and disruption. Later he experienced enough of those aspects of life to sate him while flying B-17 bombers over Germany. He returned home content to live within certain safe, circumscribed parameters, and became a salesman for a company called Central Electric – a devoted husband – a small-town father of two.

And yet another Joe strived to step forward, a complementary self disavowed by the man who accepted the dictates of his community. Joe was movie-star handsome, effortlessly witty, and an outdoorsman and pilot who flew his sales routes around the state in his own plane—a defiantly individualistic act, a symbolic shattering of shackles. He was an exception who wore the costume of normalcy. Even his conversation fizzed with creativity—as his older son one day would, he charismatically told anecdotes that seamlessly wandered between fact and apocrypha. (“Oh Joe, you’re exaggerating,” Hazelle would say). And had the war not left him wanting a predictable life (in ’45, he and Hazelle had backtracked on plans to live in San Francisco, where he had a job in the insurance industry lined up, in favor of their home region), he might have been just the kind of caution-to-the-winds, self-inventing archetype-in-motion his son became.

Yet Terence refused to ever let Joe reach him. He declined to hunt or fish when invitations were presented as choices, and acted bored when he was brought along without being given an option. (Dennis, by contrast, was a sport, even if he wasn’t skilled with a rifle). He was high-handed when Joe tried to join in on his chemistry experiments or asked to be taught about the collections of rocks that Terence took fastidious care in labeling and organizing. And he only got more antagonistic as he grew older.

At fifteen, as a high school sophomore, Terence fell under the influence of a guy named RJ Blatnik, a displaced thirty-something beatnik who’d landed a job teaching math and art at Paonia High, where he was as bored and isolated as Terence was. The two recognized one another as fellow “alienated intellectuals” and, despite their age difference, became friends. Both balked at the joiner’s mindset. RJ modeled membership in the counterculture. He was the first of several teachers whom Terence would treat more like a father than he did his actual father.

And Joe felt it. That RJ, by conventional standards of masculinity, fell short of Joe—pudgy where Joe was fit, bookish where Joe was outdoorsy, single where Joe was married—only made it plain that Joe couldn’t compete at RJ’s game, which was to know and have thoughts about things that Terence found interesting, things people didn’t talk about in Paonia. Joe ordered Terence not to hang out with RJ, which was a mistake because Terence always did exactly what he was told not to do.

RJ introduced Terence to the work of Jackson Pollack. Terence was entranced by the tableaus of patterned chaos and adopted Pollack as his hero. He took to envisioning a flight to New York, like a jailbreak, and an ensuing career as a disparaged-then-vindicated artistic enfant térrible, with nights of hard drinking and days of driven creative activity – an undammable eruption of the id. As small-town kids twenty years later would get pumped up on the fury and force of Black Flag and the Sex Pistols, Terence tuned into a quivering, cusp-of-violence feeling in Pollack. That this made his taste in art controversial (“the notion of a man hurling paint at a canvas, it just outraged the inner Amish of the place where I was living”) was more than incidental. Dennis, decades later, commented, “Much of what [Terence] says, he says it because it’s gonna get a rise out of somebody. He’s always been that way.” Under RJ’s guidance, Terence created his own eight-by-four-foot abstract-expressionist mural, and gleefully insisted on hanging it in his and Dennis’s bedroom over Joe’s objections. (“Looks like somebody spilled a bunch of paint and then rolled in it,” said Joe).

These quiet, calculated digs at his father’s custom-bound sensibility - subtly aggressive gestures directed against a sensitive temperament that hid behind masculine reserve - were regularly acted out by Terence through his high school years. At dinner-table conversations, he’d challenge Joe for disguising his true interests and critical cast of mind. He dated a girl a couple years older than he was, in at least some part to needle his cautious dad, who feared that his son would squander his future by impregnating someone who surely (given that she was seeing a younger boy) could not be upstanding.

Once, when Terence was three, Joe had come upon him in a sandbox with another boy his age. The kids were handling one another’s feces and genitals. At the sight, Joe snapped and started to spank Terence, furiously and severely.

Terence told this story to Dennis when the brothers were middle-aged men. As he spoke, his voice constricted and his tone became indignant and aggrieved. Dennis thought it was as though Terence had inwardly turned his back to their father that day and had never unturned, to again face Joe with an open heart.

And in a lifetime of traversing alien landscapes, Terence McKenna would always remain as driven to leave the quotidian behind as to arrive at some other, more inspiring destination—since transcendence and transportation must occur relative to the place where one’s journey begins, and since the daily world, grounded in human relations, was, for Terence, a site of acute discontent, prickly boredom, and a perennial itch to depart.

Word began to reach the teenage Terence of drugs that could deliver you to a place wholly unlike this daily world.

Hazelle’s recommendation of The Art of Seeing led him to start reading his way through Aldous Huxley’s body of work. Eventually, he arrived at The Doors of Perception, an eloquent essay, from 1954, about Huxley’s experience tripping on mescaline (the psychoactive compound in the peyote cactus, immemorially employed in the religious ceremonial rites of certain Native American tribes). Terence burned with excitement at Huxley’s vivid word-paintings of the world revealed to be alive and charged with mystical significance, like some vast organism—all its is-ness and eternal self-renewingness known incontrovertibly, because one had drunk a clear liquid.

Terence emulated RJ by subscribing to The Village Voice, which brought word to the hinterlands of the literary activity of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and Snyder, and the experiments with “consciousness expansion” that their crowd was undertaking as part of the hunt for creative inspiration.

He saw Reefer Madness, a dated anti-marijuana agitprop film that inadvertently made the habit look enticing, screened at a Paonia High assembly. In the papers, he read articles cautioning about a trend that had subversive types using—misusing—the seeds of Morning Glory flowers to get high and hallucinate. When he ran to a bindweed that grew near his home, gathered its seeds and ground them to dust, mixed the powder with water and drank the paste, he did not trip, because it was the wrong strain of Morning Glory seed; but waiting for the come-up that didn’t arrive, he turned his attention inward and, for the first time, gazed directly upon his own consciousness.

Terence was sixteen and itching—for drugs, for sex, and for a departure to somewhere else. His Aunt Tress (Hazelle’s sister) and Uncle Ray lived in Mountain View, in the Bay Area. Terence spent months begging and badgering his parents to let him finish high school out there on the coast. When Joe had a heart attack and took to bed, Terence just became pushier and more aggressive about his endgame; seeing that his dad's health could be a factor in his escape, he grabbed at the chance that he saw. (He would have punched through walls to satisfy his urge to go). He argued until Joe gave up arguing back and Hazelle – worried her husband could have a second heart attack – relented, too.

And so in the fall of 1963, as what we recall as the sixties were about to begin, Terence McKenna set forth for California.

twelfth moon

Terence McKenna and the Secret of the Tryptamines

Chapter One

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