Crossing Over

Supernatural memoirs chart strange sojourns.

New Yorker Daniel Pinchbeck felt lost in his own cynicism. Like many lost souls, he turned to drugs, though less as an escape than an exploration. Dissatisfied with what the world had to offer, he set out in search of strange new worlds through a spectrum of psychoactive fungi and chemical compounds, seeking evidence of a spirit world. And you know what they say about seeking and finding.

Pinchbeck’s book Breaking Open the Head bears the heady subtitle “A Psychedelic Journey Into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism.” By “contemporary shamanism,” he means many things, from the anarchistic techno-spectacle of Burning Man to the remnants of ancient African and Native American rituals performed for tourists for a price. But the “heart” in question is always drugs, the more mind-altering the better.

Late converts have always made the fiercest evangelists, but it was only the spiritual goal that was new to Pinchbeck, not the means. He simply shifted his drug focus from the coke and heroin he’d been doing with his New York pals to good old LSD, and from acid to more elusive hallucinogens.

Pinchbeck isn’t interested in shamanism per se, unless it involves drugs. He doesn’t seem to believe that drug-free shamanism exists: He cites former J.P. Morgan president R. Gordon Wasson’s suggestion that references to magic mushrooms might be found in Genesis, the Eleusinian Mysteries, and the Rig Veda, and that hallucinogens might have been responsible for the evolution of language and self-awareness in the human species. Pinchbeck describes Central and South American tribes settling anywhere tryptamine could be found, in much the same way Western civilizations are generally understood to have grown around rivers.

The narrative is at its best when simply recounting the author’s attempts at scoring in faraway lands: mushrooms from the Mazatecs in Mexico, DMT at a Visionary Entheobotany conference. A Bwiti shaman in Gabon tries to scare the rubes into coughing up more money before he’ll let them eat iboga and trance out, and an ayahuasca-dispensing Secoya shaman in Ecuador first has to hunt down with a shotgun the guys who stole his canoe. Pinchbeck swallows his visions as literal glimpses into the spirit world (even the laughing green elves with pointy hats), as he does the ready interpretations of the shamans when he’s coming down. Untroubled by his role as a psychedelic tourist, he describes his hallucinations as if he were sampling hors d’oeuvres: “I often pass through such an Old Testament God phase of the LSD trip — a program running before or after the swarming, multi-tentacled, million-eyed Hindu/Buddhist wrathful deity section, which is also standard fare.”

No one’s going to be converted by this book. The already predisposed or initiated will dig it (though Pinchbeck’s barbs at Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna might piss off a few), and folks who are dubious about the harder stuff are unlikely to be swayed by being called dupes of repression and propaganda. Pinchbeck rarely cites evidence for his assertions about shamanic culture, except anecdotes, vague “many have found” sidesteps, and the dutifully quoted opinions of past psychedelic avatars. More mainstream scholarship attracts only this author’s venom: “The history of anthropology is made up of a series of misunderstandings and projections, deliberate obfuscations, outright blunders, sellouts, and criminal acts.”

Not to be labeled anti-intellectual, Pinchbeck tosses big thoughts like he’s making a salad. The destruction of the environment and the attack on the World Trade Center (mirroring, he suggests, the Tower of Babel) are cited as symptoms of a sick world that can only be healed by speculative, transformative navel-gazing.

Why, he asks, do entheogenic (“god-releasing”) plants go through the bother of creating psychoactive alkaloids? Why would chemist Albert Hoffman resynthesize LSD when it seemed of no value the first time around, unless an “extradimensional intelligence” needed a portal into our world? And is it a coincidence that this happened at the time of Hitler’s Final Solution and the birth of the atomic bomb? Isn’t it obvious that when Siberian tribesmen urinated after eating red-and-white magic mushrooms (fly agarics, that is), the reindeer who loved to lick the yellow snow were the original inspiration for Santa Claus? It’s all connected, man.

The enhanced state Pinchbeck seeks was Eileen J. Garrett’s natural condition from a very early age. As the late psychic medium recounts in her 1949 memoir Adventures in the Supernormal, newly rereleased by Garrett’s own Helix Press, she had visions from her very earliest years while growing up on her strict Protestant aunt’s farm in Ireland around the start of the 20th century. She conversed with spectral children, saw people’s auras (or “surrounds,” as she terms them), and drowned ducklings just to watch their souls rise from their bodies and to learn about death: “For weeks, then, birds and little rabbits became the victims of my need for knowledge.”

So ethereal is Garrett’s existence on Earth, so abstract and tubercular, that these wispy spirits seem more real than the husbands (and, sadly, the children) she gains and loses along the way. If at times she strikes the reader as a little dotty, that seems less invalidating of her psychic experiences than symptomatic of them.

Where Pinchbeck alienates with his evangelicalism, Garrett makes us accept all manner of uncanny occurrences, simply because she never forces any interpretation upon us. She doesn’t seem to know what to make of her experiences herself. Yes, she says, she can speak to the dead, read minds, project herself astrally, see the future, et cetera, but she couldn’t possibly tell you what it all means. She’s not at all sure whether Uvani and Abdul Latif, the “control personalities” who help her to channel spirits, are actual entities or symptoms of a multiple personality disorder.

In hopes of resolving these mysteries, she eagerly submits to various psychic research experiments, and in 1951 founded the Parapsychology Foundation in New York City. Like Pinchbeck, Garrett strongly advocates further study of the phenomena into which she has delved. For her, however, there’s a lot more riding on it than personal evolution. “That is why the work of scientists in this field is of such supreme importance,” she writes. “Their work can give ‘rationalists’ exact evidence that man has a soul.”

There are some excellent ghost yarns hidden among her accounts of exorcisms, and Garrett describes these lost souls as simply experiencing a disassociation akin to that of dreamers — or, one might add, of visionaries, madmen, psychics, and the stoned. In celebrating the path of the mystic, Garrett makes a statement that could as easily be said of Pinchbeck’s “psychonauts,” or of anyone else exploring the fringes of reason:

“The river of human experience has flowed across the plains of this planet for a long time, but always there have been those in every age who have wanted to survey the rapids; today, with the accelerated force of science, there are more. Each one has used his territory with different feelings, and when the traveler returns to speak of what he has found, it is claimed that the results are often incoherent and insignificant.”

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