Now playing on Otherppl, a conversation with Tao Lin. His new book is called Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change (Vintage). It is his first book-length work of nonfiction and is the official May pick of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club.

This is Tao’s third time on the podcast. He first appeared in Episode 180 and Episode 181 (a two-part interview) in June 2013 and again with Mira Gonzalez in Episode 371 on July 19, 2015.

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The death of Augustus Owsley Stanley III last week immediately made me see, resting in the palm of my hot little hand, that iconic purple tablet engraved with a tiny image of Batman on its convex surface. In a novel I recently completed, Airtight, the prologue, set thirty years before the story actually begins—it’s the tale of two desperate middle-aged men, now out of work and in debt, who return to their old college to dig up drugs they’d buried three decades earlier in hopes of selling it and getting back on their feet—details an acid trip, in fact my last, taken when I was at my first college. The same college that decided, after two years of me, that I was “socially unacceptable.” Which I think was more true than they suspected at the time.

For reasons best known to my youthful mind, I ended up in a college in southern Indiana, some twenty miles south of Indianapolis (known then as “Naptown,” which I fervently believed had something to do with the fact that, unlike my native New York, there was nothing to do there but sleep). This was an accident, I must confess, an aberration of sorts, and in the end a kind of hilarious mistake. I should have gone to college in New England (which I eventually did) or California, but I ended up in what was most certainly part of the American South.

On my first night there I, and various others from my dorm, were walking to some sort of social event thrown for incoming freshmen. One of these guys stopped me and said, as though reciting lines from a very bad anti-drug movie, “Now that you’re no longer living at home, you might want to consider trying something a little mind-bending.” He handed me a lit joint. As I puffed away he went on, “Of course it probably won’t hit you the first time, and you may have to try it again—“ But by that time I was half out of my mind with glee. I said, “Where can I get more of this stuff?”

By the end of the school year I was addicted to crystal meth and was smoking anything anyone offered me. I spent that summer—what has become known as “The Summer of Love” (though I would call it the Summer of Very Good Dope)—living in the West Village and working on weekends at a store on East 10th Street that sold consignment articles, provided free macrobiotic stew (which I sometimes was asked to cook up, a tasteless, thin, nauseating thing that we served to runaways from Scarsdale, while we, who worked there, ate pastrami sandwiches from the 2nd Avenue Deli), and offered the comforts of a day-glo trip room as well as a “meditation room,” fully outfitted with Indian music, incense and, to the pleasure of some, mattresses. We also sold underground newspapers from all over the country as well as the usual paraphernalia of the drug culture—pipes and screens and such. Once, before coming to work on a busy Saturday night, I shared a joint with the same guy who offered me one that first night of college—his cousin owned the shop and he lived a few blocks away—grass so potent that not long after I stationed myself on the store’s window seat as the crowds of tourists and hippies started to pour in, I rolled onto the floor in a four-hour stupor. Amazingly, there was very little shoplifting, and the register remained closed. Nor did anyone call the police or summon an ambulance. I was just another body sprawled out on the floor. Something we all saw fairly frequently back then. I wasn’t even fired for my indiscretion. Which was fine by me, as I was paid not in cash but in chunks of high-grade Moroccan opium, which, combined with speed, provided one with something pretty close to being asleep and dreaming while you were completely and vividly awake, like some hideous criminal from the pages of Conan Doyle.

A week or so later a friend and I decided to go see Eric Burdon and the Animals, not so much because we were huge fans of their music (“The House of the Rising Sun” and “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” were their big hits; heard once they were fine; heard twice they quickly grew dull), as much as we had two bucks burning holes in our pockets, and it was, well, just something to do. We arrived and got on line, only to be told that Eric was sick and his bass player, Chas Chandler, wanted to put on instead a guy he managed who’d just made a big splash at Monterey. The guy’s name was Jimi Hendrix. I had no idea who this was and suggested we split and find something else to do, such as take more opium and speed and maybe go see “Blow-Up” for the fourth time at the cinema on 8th Street (we’d seen it three times in a row a few weeks earlier). But my friend said that he’d read that this Hendrix played guitar with his teeth. So we paid our two bucks and went in. The club held maybe 150 people, tops. The opening acts were the ubiquitous Richie Havens and a band led by Jeremy Steig, a flute-player and son of the great William Steig. We sensed that something big was happening when a waitress shooed some customers away from a table near the bandstand. “That’s Bobby Dylan’s reserved table.” Dylan didn’t show up—he would’ve stolen the show—but Jimi Hendrix came on and was, well, amazing.

A week later my friend suggested I drop acid. Until then I’d been cautious about doing acid, and the people who owned the store where I worked were adamant that taking any hallucinogenics was a serious matter. Acid was a way inwards, fraught with all matter of dangers, and one could only do it with a guide. And, they insisted, if I was really intent on taking LSD I should only take one of Owsley’s products, as they were very clean and very reliable. In fact, I’d been fully aware of how they managed to get their supply of acid. I quote from Airtight:

The Owsleys came via Railway Express in duffle bags all the way from San Francisco. Trading on the street for twenty bucks a pop, these were bought wholesale and by the gross for a nickel apiece from a dealer known only as Superspade, who lived somewhere in the Bay Area. People took turns going to Grand Central to claim the thing, handing in their ticket and hefting the bag onto their shoulder for the long tense walk past the cops that always seemed to be hanging inside the Vanderbilt Avenue entrance where, especially in the winter, the heating vents were most active. Deliveries ended when Superspade was found stabbed, shot and left dangling in a sleeping-bag from the top of an oceanside cliff in Marin; though there was also a rumor back East that his torso was found floating in San Francisco Bay, and that every few weeks another essential element of Superspade—a Superhand, a Superleg—would bob up to be retrieved.

My guide was my friend with whom I’d gone to see Hendrix. An acid trip is made up more or less of three parts, the middle being the riskiest, and it’s why a guide is important. It’s when you can lose your identity, and when, if you’re not guided, you can lose your mind. For good. I managed to retain a good portion of mine, and once I got through it my friend put on a record that had just been released—Jimi Hendrix’s first album. I was hooked. It was then I began taking weekly trips, almost always with one of Owsley’s products. Once I was back in Indiana I would drop a tab every Friday afternoon before my Romantic Poetry class, and by the time class was dismissed I was a happy guy, floating back to my dorm room for my eight hours of bliss. By then I no longer needed a guide, though I’d taught my roommate, a responsible, serious psychology major, how to help me out if I needed help. I also began to build up a tolerance to acid, so I’d drop a tablet, then five hours later take another. Sometimes I took two at once. That was when I decided I needed something a little stronger. A friend in Brooklyn, who’d been asked to leave the college the previous year, was my connection. He’d always been able to provide me with anything I wanted, from drugs to electric guitars (“Where’d you find this?” “It fell off the back of a truck on Bay Parkway.”) This time he outdid himself. Enclosed, as always, between the covers of birthday cards designed for four-year-olds, the white powder was flattened between sheets of foil. I had no idea how much was there or what a single dose would look like, so I took most of it, that February afternoon, and headed for class. What I write in Airtight happened exactly as I relate it. The main character, whom I call Nick, stands in for me, just as the fictional town and college of Allenville, Pennsylvania, stands in for where I really was at the time. I set it a few years later than it actually happened:

He drifted back to his cinderblock dorm room, with its Tensor lamp, KLH stereo and poster of Allen Ginsberg in an Uncle Sam hat, put Jimi Hendrix’s first LP on the turntable, and lay down on his bed to settle in for the remainder of his trip. He held a hand out in front of his face, and though it was numb, though when he touched it with his other hand it was like something made of rubber, it shimmered like a bulb about to burn out, then—zzzzip—disappeared. He made a fist and it reappeared. Groovy, man, he would have commented under other circumstances, but something was different. He sat up and looked at the record spinning around and it was no longer black, it was flesh-colored and soft and the needle seemed to be carving canyons into it. He reached over and pulled the plug and Jimi sang “Manic de…press…ion…is…”

“Okay,” he said to himself as he sat up. “Be calm. Be cool. Relax.” He put his hands on his thighs and they seemed to sink into them.

Deep breaths. Nice thoughts: pretty girls, good music. Happy, happy.

Nick stood in front of the mirror mounted over his desk. His first twenty trips or so had been guided by one friend or another who knew what they were doing. But Nick was a pro by now, and this time, when things were starting to tilt into the Very Weird and Abnormal he had no one to count on; at least no one any closer than a specialist in freak-outs known as Magic Mike, who lived on 13th Street and Avenue A, which required a toll call and a bus ticket. He lit a Camel and when he went to take a drag his hand blended in with his face and his cigarette fell to the floor.

He bent down to pick it up and when he stood he was gone. He had no reflection. He had disappeared. It was a completely finished hallucination, something brilliant and ingenious that he would have admired had he not been the object of it: all three dimensions were covered. In his eyes he had become nothing, not even a faint outline. In the mirror he could even see through himself to the furnishings behind him: the Jimi Hendrix record as it melted into the turntable; his bed, last made, oh, some three weeks ago: he was the haunter and the haunted, all at the same time. And then it came to him: he’d opened a metaphysical door and was standing on the threshold of his own death. He was both in a dorm room in Allenville, Pennsylvania and in a place that was beyond time. One step and he would be gone forever.

This was the big one, he thought, the thing bands from San Francisco to London had sung about, that sacred texts had so reverently spoken of as something attainable only after a life—or many lives—of contemplation and abstinence; the state of grace that would change his life forever: the Clear White Light itself. At least one of the Beatles had been there (he could never see Ringo or Paul communing with the Great Divine, and as for the edgy John, well that was anybody’s guess); David Crosby had a permanent round-trip ticket to it, as though he had access to a shuttle between Times Square and Grand Central Nirvana; and the Velvet Underground, who wrote a song with nearly the same name, had achieved it through different means. But now he had joined the pantheon of the Enlightened, he had been ambushed by the One Magnificent Truth. It was staring him in the face and his fate was sealed. He knew the meaning of life. He understood what people tried to say when they spoke of God. Kubrick’s 2001 now made perfect, impeccable sense to him. All that was left was for him to step up to the window, crack it open and let himself drop. He wouldn’t die; only his body would be crushed and mutilated, but he sensed—no, he knew—he would live on somehow, and in that state, whatever it may be, he would be a force in the universe: a shadow in an afternoon world; a breeze that breaks the stillness of evening. He pressed his forehead against the cool glass and peered down to see not a monolith standing in a lunar crater, but a red Firebird, a black VW Beetle, and the housemother’s shit-colored Buick. One of them might be in for a big surprise.

But there was a choice. There was a choice, there was a choice, there is a choice, and the words kept running through his head as he paced the room and caught glimpses in the mirror of his not being there out of the corner of his eye. He could live through this. He’d be damaged in some obscure way, he knew that much, he might end up in a vegetative state in an institution outside Buffalo for the rest of his days, dutifully visited by his aging parents each week until they ran out of money, time and patience for the eight-hour bus ride from Jersey; or he might turn out to be a valuable member of society; brilliant and blazing beyond anyone’s expectations, a kind of savior or prophet, a man whose eyes glowed with intelligence and insight. Women would flock to him, chauffeurs would open doors for him, he would walk on water and when he wasn’t walking on water he’d be counting his millions. The choice was his to make. And with that, death was off the table.

There was nowhere else to go but back to the beginning. Carrying the knowledge of the nature of existence, he had to start all over again, this time from scratch. He was a baby in a bubble, rising up over Jupiter, far, far away from home. Cue the music. Bring on the awe.

But first he had to bang like hell on the wall and get some help.

And that ended my drug career. No more grass, no more acid, certainly no more meth. That last acid trip came to revisit me, though, sporadically over the years, coming upon me at odd times: once when walking into Grand Central I went into full trip-mode and somehow made it on to the subway without hurling myself onto the tracks; another time, in my next college, where I passed for a Very Serious Student, in a Victorian Novel class, when I began hallucinating and had to restrain myself from standing up and doing something very dangerous either to myself or the person sitting in front of me. For years after that I could summon up what’s known as a flashback, and I could probably do it now, all these many years later. But I’m content in having gone to the very edge, to seeing what it was all about, and to appreciate the lessons of the Clear White Light. Thanks, Owsley, for paving the way for me.

When I was about to publish my novel, Banned for Life, I had a number of exchanges with Jonathan Evison, whose counsel I sought with regard to promotion, among other matters. He was aware of certain aspects of my past, and he advised me to be forthcoming about them, since to do otherwise, he said, would amount to breaking faith with readers.

Jonathan is a wise man, but I regarded Banned as my child, and so wanted to shield it from the sins of its father. I imagined dismissive reviews based less on the book and more on my rap sheet, as well as sneering remarks posted on message boards. Paranoia? But I’ve been the target of such remarks, and I wanted to give Banned a running start before falling on my sword.

Now, I figure, the time has come. Banned has barely been noticed since it appeared more than six months ago, and I’ve tested the waters with friends made since, and none have responded as feared.

Emery and Me

By Peter Gajdics


When I was thirty-three years old I interviewed several gay men as part of a sex research project being conducted through the AIDS Organization where I’d started working as a “Public Sex Environment Outreach Worker.” Most of the men met me at my downtown office. First names were all I knew. I asked them a series of questions about their life, their sexuality, their coming out process, then let them talk. Some went on for hours. An opportunity to tell their story, to be heard, was all that many of the men needed. ,I listened to them as I’d always wanted, when I was a teenager, someone to listen to me.

One mid-50’s man asked that I interview him in his home. Emery lived on the main floor of an old, three-story walk-up near the outskirts of the city. The long, dimly lit corridor inside his building smelled of cigarettes and fried food. I knocked on Emery’s door and when he opened it, the first thing I noticed were his eyes, their kind, youthful glint that seemed to contrast against his lined face, like cracks in the earth of his age-toned skin. He smiled and invited me into his sparsely furnished room, the room of his life, with a single bed pushed up against one wall, and a mini fridge and hot plate on a blue laminate counter against the other. Next to his bed were a stack of yellow egg cartons upon which were several paperbacks, a framed black and white photograph, and a nightlight. We took a seat at a small foldout table in front of the window where we began our conversation almost immediately.

In 1960, when Emery was twenty-five years old, the Canadian Public Service “purged” him from his job for being a “practicing homosexual.” Soon after, his parents sent him to Montreal’s Allan Memorial Institute, the Psychiatric Department of the Royal Victoria Hospital, which had been at the forefront in Canadian psychiatric education and research. Emery spoke openly about his involvement with the Institute, and about its Director, Dr. Ewen Cameron, a former head of the Word Psychiatric Association, who had been awarded funds from a CIA front-organization to conduct brainwashing experiments on innocent civilians, both Canadian and American.

“Can I ask you a question?” Emery said, interrupting his own story.

“Of course.”

“You’re gay, right?”


“And you’re okay with that? With who you are?”

“Now I am, yes.”

“You’re lucky.”

“How so?”

“Growing up in a different time and place the way you have. Back then we were all considered mentally ill. Cameron thought he knew how the human mind was wired and what he needed to do to fix it. He hooked us up to electrodes, gave us drugs like LSD or sleeping pills. Massive electroconvulsive shock treatments, sensory isolation, insulin-induced comas that lasted months on end.”

“Why? What was he trying to do?”

“Wipe our brains clean of all thought, and identity, including what he thought was our neurosis. Break us down so that he could build us back up again, his own way. Imprint a new, healthy identity on top of our blank minds. Depatterning: that’s what he called it. Most of what happened to me personally I only read about years later, when I finally got a hold of my hospital file. I have no real memory of any of it. I don’t know if you can imagine what it’s like to have gaps in your life. Years, literally stolen from you.”

I wanted to tell him that I did know what it’s like, but I listened as he continued.

“For months we were confined to the Institute’s ‘sleep rooms,’ not just homosexuals but married woman, straight men, all of us wearing headphones and listening to taped messages, endless taped messages, sometimes sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. Everyone’s tape was different, depending on what your problem was. I thought I was a homosexual: that was my illness. Cameron’s goal was to erase my brain of all association with homosexuality, and replace it with my innate heterosexuality. So his theory went. We became like children. Grown men and women: incontinent, with no past life. By the time they released me in 1962, I was a shadow of my former self. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t process information, or make decisions. My memory of the 50’s and early 60’s, well, of my life–it was gone. Wiped clean, like a chalkboard. Everything, I had to reconstruct everything, my entire personal history, from pictures or slides, from stories people told me, or from letters that I wrote or received from family and friends. Everything about my former self was a mystery. Erased. Except for my homosexuality. I was still attracted to men.”

So reflective of my life was Emery’s description of his that it took all my effort not to sink back into my past. Nine years earlier I’d started therapy with psychiatrist, Dr. Alfonzo, after my family rejected me for being gay. Within months, Alfonzo presented me with conflicting causation theories, including that an incident of childhood sexual abuse had “created” my attraction for men. Believing that my homosexuality was based in anger and driven by pain, Alfonzo said that by releasing my anger and by feeling my pain, I could undo the knot of what he termed the error of my misguided way of thinking: the erroneous belief that I was homosexual. To facilitate treatment, various antidepressants, sedatives and an anti-psychotic, even though I’d never been psychotic, were prescribed. Doses increased rapidly. So too did the medications’ side effects: dry mouth, difficulty breathing, heart palpitations, involuntary twitching, constipation, urinary retention, weight gain of over forty pounds. Weekly injections of Ketamine hydrochloride, an animal anesthetic, soon followed, which were administered before reparenting sessions with a surrogate mother who, according to Alfonzo, would imprint a new, “healthy” identity onto my child self.

When it became clear, after four years of therapy, that my attraction for men wasn’t diminishing, Alfonzo ordered me to bottle and to sniff my feces whenever I saw a man I found attractive. Then he threatened to hook my genitals up to electrodes in order to “retain” my penis, and added a fourth tricyclic antidepressant to my regime of now over 600 milligrams of daily medications. Any light that had remained alive in me was switched off, as if the fire in the furnace of my body were being extinguished by medication: erections were eliminated, fantasy and arousal, eradicated.

Another two years of so-called therapy would elapse before I’d stand naked in front of my bedroom mirror, staring at a sad and pale reflection of my former self–at my body, bloated from years of overmedication, and into my thirty year old eyes: dark and sunken and unhappy. There would never be a heterosexual in me waiting to emerge; instead, I became more like a shell that had had its innards scooped out.

Thirty years separated Emery’s experiences from mine, but the similarities between what he went through with Cameron, and what I had with Alfonzo, were shocking. The psychiatric community may have ceased classifying homosexuality as an illness in 1973, but beneath the banner of gay liberation and political progressiveness, as I had learned all too well, beat the hearts of some of its practitioners that still treated it like one.

Emery walked to his egg carton bookshelf, picked up a picture of a young man with greased black hair, sea-blue eyes and a dimpled smile.

“His name was Jim,” he said, displaying the framed photograph with pride. “Such a handsome man, don’t you think? His parents sent him to the Institute. To help cure him. By the time he left he was physically and mentally impaired. Like a vegetable. They killed him, but left him alive. Two years later he killed himself.”

Emery dusted the frame with his shirtsleeve and replaced it back on the egg cartons. “There’s more than one way to murder a fag,” he said. “Cameron was an architect for genocide.”

Question after question raced through me. I wanted to ask Emery about his road to recovery, whether he’d ever found love, or forgiveness, somehow reconciled himself with his past. I wanted him to tell me what I could not figure out for myself. But before I knew it our interview was over and Emery, visibly shaken, was ushering me out his front door.

I was scheduled to hand out condoms in the park that night–the “public sex environment outreach” part of my job. It was also the part of my job I liked the least, that seemed the least productive. At least it would have been for me, had someone handed me a condom through all the years, as a teenager, that I’d had sex in parks. Not to mention all the sex I’d had in cars, and public toilets, bathhouses, parkades. Condoms, I knew, would not have saved me from my self, my use of sex to fill a void, the hole inside my heart that became, with every passing year after the year I was sexually abused as a child, like a crater in my soul. But part of our funding at the AIDS Organization depended on the number of condoms distributed, so I distributed as many condoms, as many “safe sex packets,” as possible. At least the men liked the flavored lube.

The park seemed busier than usual. Nighttime brought with it the need for sex, the need for something, and everywhere I looked, once my eyes adjusted, shadows of men, like hunters, roamed back and forth between trees. My routine had always been to wait until a man approached me along the trail, then to tell him that I wasn’t there to “play,” but as an outreach worker–would he like to talk instead? That night, however, all I thought about was Emery, the years he’d lost to ignorance, to hatred, years that he would never get back. His words “There’s more than one way to murder a fag” echoed through me as outside, all around I heard the sounds of ravaged, hungry souls, breeding in the dark. The memory of Alfonzo was with me too, as was the knowledge that whatever he did to me I did to myself. Six years of trying to change myself had taught me that I could not change, and yet I’d tried. And tried. Like stabbing myself, I’d tried to kill that part of me, and in the process, almost killed myself. I had been both the written word and the eraser erasing itself. If Alfonzo was a monster, then when I met him there were monstrous demons inside of me just waiting to emerge. I was Pandora’s box.

I left the forest before distributing my quota of condoms. Back home, alone, naked and in bed, Emery’s phrase “an architect for genocide” haunted me to sleep. And before I opened my eyes the next morning, not yet awake but not still asleep, balanced liminally in between, for a moment I thought I heard someone next to me in bed crying, sobbing.

I awoke to realize it was me.