In grainy black and white, Timothy Leary tells Congress about an LSD trip. It involves being eaten by a snake and exploding. (To be fair, Congress asked.) The footage is a little shocking, but not surprising: I expected humor from Dying to Know, a documentary about Timothy Leary and Ram Dass. I don’t think I was alone in this, given how ready the audience (which seemed to be mostly Leary-enthusiasts) was to laugh and shout when the film described more extreme experiences with narcotics. But Dying to Know also goes beyond shock to be at times genuinely surprising. In footage from that same testimony before Congress, Leary advocates that drugs be regulated, and says that we have a serious drug abuse problem in America. Leary of “turn on, tune in, and drop out” certainly comes through in Dying to Know, but so does Leary the psychologist, the Leary who believed deeply in understanding and expanding the mind, and who also saw the danger posed by reckless drug usage.
Dying to Know is divided into four segments, based on four different stages of existence: “Birth, Life, Death, and Soul,” and with a fifth segment, “Here After” tacked onto the end. Director Gay Dillingham tells the stories of Dass and Leary in parallel – or, almost parallel. Their lives converge at a major turning point – their infamous drug tests at Harvard (and later in the Millbrook mansion), and diverge again, as Leary sticks with a neuroscience and psychology-based perspective and runs into increasing political trouble, while Dass (then Richard Alpert) goes abroad and takes up his old quest for knowing, this time with a new religious perspective.
Ultimately, Dying to Know comes across as more of a film about Leary, with Dass used both as a counterpoint and a means to access Leary’s thoughts, both personal and intellectual. This may have originated from the initial conceit of the film – Dillingham said in a post-film Q&A that she decided to make a movie after she learned that Leary was dying, and later decided to bring Dass into the project. Through interviews, old footage and photos, and conversations between Dass and Leary toward the end of the latter’s life, Dying to Know creates a surprisingly complex portrait of a figure whose image has in recent decades been turned into something of a caricature. I, at least, often found it difficult to dissociate Leary’s and Dass’s stories from the cultural context into which they’ve already been fixed – especially when, after being fired (or quitting, there’s a little ambiguity there) for including an undergrad in the tests, Leary and Dass set up shop in a New York mansion, live communally, continue the tests, and themselves do a lot of drugs. And Dying to Know certainly doesn’t try to downplay the more recreational aspects of Leary’s and Dass’s quest. But as it turns out, the questions they grapple with are universal, and allowed me to see their search as something with significance beyond its effects on the ’60s counterculture. In the process, it also presents some serious thought about how we live, and – Dying to Know suggests, at least as important – how we die.