Dying to Know


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.
dying to know posterUltimately, 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.

The double entendre in the movie’s title becomes apparent by the end, when dying becomes a necessary step to knowing. The movie’s treatment of Leary’s death, and death in general, is one of its of high points. Filming began once Leary was already dying of cancer, and footage continues through his last hours (and even after, when his remains are catapulted into space). Dying to Know really is about the journey of death, and how we deal with it, and to its credit manages to take an optimistic and unflinching perspective, without trying to provide hard and fast answers – actually, by not trying to provide hard and fast answers. Here Dass becomes an excellent counterpoint: his belief in something beyond death contrasts completely with Leary’s vision of death as an end, yet still a mysterious and, he hoped, transcendent experience. Their discussions about what happens during and after death, conducted toward the end of Leary’s life, are invigorating simply because of Dass’s and Leary’s own curiosity and excitement.
Dying to Know is hampered by some decisions that appeal more to cliches of the hippie era than to the film’s content. The psychedelic graphics and music sometimes go so far as to distract from the interviews, such as a dramatic highlight on the face of Ram Dass, or the decision to cut in and out of commentary to play psychedelic animations and sounds. It undercut the importance and timelessness of the questions being posed by boxing them into a very specific time period, and even a specific aesthetic.
This ties into a more serious flaw of the movie, at least for me – its engagement with larger issues of spirituality and politics. The events shown in the movie had serious implications for U.S. spirituality (Dass being on the forefront of young Westerners who journeyed to India to find spiritual enlightenment) and politics. But the film tends to essentialize the spiritual side of things to the psychedelic idea of Eastern religion that became prevalent during the ’60s: At one point, as someone talks about a trip, a series of religious statues flash across the screen. Watching it, I recalled hazy Instagram photos of people blazing alongside iconography from Hinduism, stripped of meaning and treated as just another element of the drug-culture aesthetic. Is this what all this spiritual searching has come to? I want the answer to be no, or at least not entirely no, but for a movie that is so intent on exploring what is possibly the greatest spiritual topic there is, death, Dying to Know somehow shortchanges the actual religion. Religion is largely simplified into Western and Eastern, confining and freeing, in a way that seemed to me reductive all around.
Also strangely, the film doesn’t come down too hard on the broader political implications of the events it documents – Dying to Know shows Leary’s brief gubernatorial contest with Reagan, which ended with his incarceration. But there’s no indication of how drugs continued to develop as a means to incarcerate people the U.S. establishment saw as a threat, like the War on Drugs that has devastated communities of color. (It’s an oversight reflected in the interviewees themselves, all of whom are white.) It may not be fair to expect a documentary about two men to look at an entire political history, but it does seem reasonable for the film to look at the longer-term evolution of the movement that began with them, beyond grainy footage of police storming all-white college parties.
While watching Dying to Know, I kept remembering a European history teacher I had, who liked to repeat, “Remember! The most important moment of a Medieval Christian’s life was the moment of his death.” And then I thought about how in that same class, some classmates passed around a doctored cookie and went on to hallucinate through seventh-period math. (One classmate mentioned seeing goldfish in the air, which is still the most spiritual experience I’ve ever heard of a personal acquaintance having while high). I can’t make myself believe that somehow everyone in that room, teacher and students, were all exploring the same question.
When it comes to how to deal with the question of death, Dying to Know implies that responsible LSD usage, religious conversion, and communal living are still the way to go, without looking at everything that has happened between Then and Now. This is hard to accept for me: I grew up at a point where the idea that drugs could really expand spiritual and mentally, sounds like a nice memory or a sad joke. Are drugs worth detangling from what they have become? Is it even possible to do that? How do we continue Leary’s search at a time when drugs are mostly used for recreation by people and criminalized by the state, and when the interviews seem to be testifying out of the distant past?
Dying to Know did, at least, remind me that at one point there was something genuinely radical at the heart of the counterculture movement, but it’s hardly a point we can return to. It’s not as if there’s anything to revive. The movement never died, it’s just been repackaged and commercialized so many times that it’s completely divorced from the meaning it once had – to the point that Leary himself disapproved of it. The footage of Leary’s death, which he prepared for with excitement, close friends, and extensive drug intake, could be from another era. But outside his room, drugs had become entangled with a million other things, and the complexity of the interconnectedness makes it impossible to pull out only the threads we want to. By glossing over how the world has changed between then and now – Dying to Know fails by for once offering answers, none of which feel like the right ones.

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