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These therapists and their patients expected the drug to be therapeutic, and, lo and behold, it frequently was: Cohen and Eisner reported that sixteen of their first twenty-two patients showed marked improvement. A 1967 review article summarizing papers about psycholytic therapy published between 1953 and 1965 estimated that the technique’s rate of success ranged from 70 percent in cases of anxiety neurosis, 62 percent for depression, and 42 percent for obsessive-compulsive disorder. These results were impressive, yet there were few if any attempts to replicate them in controlled trials.

By the end of the decade, psycholytic LSD therapy was routine practice in the tonier precincts of Los Angeles, such as Beverly Hills. Certainly the business model was hard to beat: some therapists were charging upwards of five hundred dollars a session to administer a drug they were often getting from Sandoz for free. LSD therapy also became the subject of remarkably positive press attention. Articles like “My 12 Hours as a Madman” gave way to the enthusiastic testimonials of the numerous Hollywood celebrities who had had transformative experiences in the offices of Oscar Janiger, Betty Eisner, and Sidney Cohen and a growing number of other therapists. Anaïs Nin, Jack Nicholson, Stanley Kubrick, André Previn, James Coburn, and the beat comedian Lord Buckley all underwent LSD therapy, many of them on the couch of Oscar Janiger. But the most famous of these patients was Cary Grant, who gave an interview in 1959 to the syndicated gossip columnist Joe Hyams extolling the benefits of LSD therapy. Grant had more than sixty sessions and by the end declared himself “born again.”

“All the sadness and vanities were torn away,” the fifty-five-year-old actor told Hyams, in an interview all the more surprising in the light of Cary Grant’s image as a reserved and proper Englishman. “I’ve had my ego stripped away. A man is a better actor without ego, because he has truth in him. Now I cannot behave untruthfully toward anyone, and certainly not to myself.” From the sound of it, LSD had turned Cary Grant into an American.

“I’m no longer lonely and I am a happy man,” Grant declared. He said the experience had allowed him to overcome his narcissism, greatly improving not only his acting but his relationships with women: “Young women have never before been so attracted to me.”

Not surprisingly, Grant’s interview, which received boatloads of national publicity, created a surge in demand for LSD therapy, and for just plain LSD. Hyams received more than eight hundred letters from readers eager to know how they might obtain it: “Psychiatrists called, complaining that their patients were now begging them for LSD.”

If the period we call “the 1960s” actually began sometime in the 1950s, the fad for LSD therapy that Cary Grant unleashed in 1959 is one good place to mark a shift in the cultural breeze. Years before Timothy Leary became notorious for promoting LSD outside a therapeutic or research context, the drug had already begun “escaping from the lab” in Los Angeles and receiving fervent national press attention. By 1959, LSD was showing up on the street in some places. Several therapists and researchers in Los Angeles and New York began holding LSD “sessions” in their homes for friends and colleagues, though exactly how these sessions could be distinguished from parties is difficult to say. At least in Los Angeles, the premise of “doing research” had become tenuous at best. As one of these putative researchers would later write, “LSD became for us an intellectual fun drug.”

Sidney Cohen, who by now was the dean of LSD researchers in Los Angeles, scrupulously avoided this scene and began to have second thoughts about the drug, or at least about the way it was now being used and discussed. According to his biographer, the historian Steven Novak, Cohen was made uncomfortable by the cultishness and aura of religiosity and magic that now wreathed LSD. Sounding a theme that would crop up repeatedly in the history of psychedelic research, Cohen struggled with the tension between the spiritual import of the LSD experience (and the mystical inclinations it brought out in its clinical practitioners) and the ethos of science to which he was devoted. He remained deeply ambivalent: LSD, he wrote in a 1959 letter to a colleague, had “opened a door from which we must not retreat merely because we feel uncomfortably unscientific at the threshold.” And yet that is precisely how the LSD work often made him feel: uncomfortably unscientific.

Cohen also began to wonder about the status of the insights that patients brought back from their journeys. He came to believe that “under LSD the fondest theories of the therapist are confirmed by his patient.” The expectancy effect was such that patients working with Freudian therapists returned with Freudian insights (framed in terms of childhood trauma, sexual drives, and oedipal emotions), while patients working with Jungian therapists returned with vivid archetypes from the attic of the collective unconscious, and Rankians with recovered memories of their birth traumas.

This radical suggestibility posed a scientific dilemma, surely, but was it necessarily a therapeutic dilemma as well? Perhaps not: Cohen wrote that “any explanation of the patient’s problems, if firmly believed by both the therapist and the patient, constitutes insight or is useful as insight.” Yet he qualified this perspective by acknowledging it was “nihilistic,” which, scientifically speaking, it surely was. For it takes psychotherapy perilously close to the world of shamanism and faith healing, a distinctly uncomfortable place for a scientist to be. And yet as long as it works, as long as it heals people, why should anyone care? (This is the same discomfort scientists feel about using placebos. It suggests an interesting way to think about psychedelics: as a kind of “active placebo,” to borrow a term proposed by Andrew Weil in his 1972 book, The Natural Mind. They do something, surely, but most of what that is may be self-generated. Or as Stanislav Grof put it, psychedelics are “nonspecific amplifiers” of mental processes.)

Cohen’s thoughtful ambivalence about LSD, which he would continue to feel until the end of his career, marks him as that rare figure in a world densely populated by psychedelic evangelists: the open-minded skeptic, a man capable of holding contrary ideas in his head. Cohen continued to believe in the therapeutic power of LSD, especially in the treatment of anxiety in cancer patients, which he wrote about, enthusiastically, for Harper’s in 1965. There, he called it “therapy by self-transcendence,” suggesting he saw a role in Western medicine for what would come to be called applied mysticism. Yet Cohen never hesitated to call attention to the abuses and dangers of LSD, or to call out his more fervent colleagues when they strayed too far off the path of science—the path from which the siren song of psychedelics would lure so many.

• • • BACK IN SASKATCHEWAN, Humphry Osmond and Abram Hoffer had taken a very different path after the collapse of the psychotomimetic paradigm, though this path, too, ended up complicating their own relationship to science. Struggling to formulate a new therapeutic model for LSD, they turned to a pair of brilliant amateurs—one a famous author, Aldous Huxley, and the other an obscure former bootlegger and gunrunner, spy, inventor, boat captain, ex-con, and Catholic mystic named Al Hubbard. These two most unlikely nonscientists would help the Canadian psychiatrists reconceptualize the LSD experience and develop the therapeutic protocol that is still in use today.

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