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Demythifying the Bard: Terence McKenna’s Disturbing Secret

When it comes to the mind-bending realm of paranormal phenomena, UFOs were definitely my ‘gateway drug’ so to speak. As many young kids of the 80’s –and from the early generations that preceded us– I was obsessed with space flight and the idea of not only traveling to strange and exotic planets, but that the denizens of those worlds could already be visiting our own, as evidenced by the many reports of unidentified flying objects and their mysterious occupants I voraciously read about.

Remember Explorers? It’s a somewhat-obscure little Sci-Fi film from 1985 that never had as much success as Back to the Future or Cocoon so you’re forgiven if you don’t, but to me the whole premise of the movie was –and still is– pure gold: A group of young boys (Ethan Hawke’s first cinematic appearance, plus the late River Phoenix playing the part of a nerd!) are starting to get weird ‘downloads’ of information in their dreams, which are soon revealed to be schematics to build an actual spaceship that will take them to meet aliens from the farthest reaches of the Cosmos. What could be cooler than that??

The Answer: If instead of building a physical spaceship, you turned YOURSELF into an ‘alchemical’ hyper-spaceship; if the aliens you’re trying to reach inhabit other dimensions unbound by our crude notions of Space and Time; and if instead of receiving the ‘downloads’ in your dreams, you received them during mushroom-induced psychedelic trips. This, in a very rough nutshell, is what two real-life boys decided to attempt on a remote little village, hidden deep beneath the Amazonian jungle, in 1971. The two boys were Terence and Dennis McKenna, and the events that transpired during their long stay on that Amazonian village are famously known as “The Experiment at La Chorrera” among psychedelic circles.

The names of the McKenna brothers and “La Chorrera” is the kind of stuff you’re introduced to when you begin to move away from your childhood idealization of the UFO phenomenon; when you notice those ‘perfect’ photos taken by Billy Meier were a little “too” perfect; when you start to question whether the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) is actually the best explanation for the UFO phenomenon; when you begin to read the books written by the likes of Jacques Vallee and John Keel, and realize the phenomenon has too many uncomfortable parallels with folkloric encounters with faeries and mystical experiences; when you begin to wonder whether Consciousness is the missing ingredient for the creation of a “Unified Theory of Weirdness.”

From there on, one is ready to question whether you could actually come in contact with non-human intelligences not via a random encounter on some lonely rural road, but via a ‘heroic dose’ of 5 grams of psilocybin mushrooms, just like Terence McKenna used to admonish to his captivated audience in countless conferences and workshops. It was thanks to those public appearances and his undeniable ‘gift of gab’ –as his brother Dennis put it– that Terence became ‘The Bard’ of the new psychedelic movement, decades after the Summer of Love was nothing but a faint trace left by the cultural wave Hunter S. Thompson wrote about. His ‘shtick’ of defiantly advocating for the mind-expanding benefits of psychedelics, in an age in which Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign had submitted the public with scary visions of fried eggs as metaphors for a fragile brain exposed to drugs (“any questions?”)  turned McKenna into Timothy Leary’s anointed heir to the Tune-in throne –the fact that both were of Irish descent seemed almost fateful– and the official ambassador of the plant teachers, in the minds of the nascent global village who were embracing the World Wide Web as the only nation worth pledging allegiance to.

Terence and Dennis McKenna

Today, 19 years after McKenna’s untimely death in the year 2000, his clout over the ‘cyberdelic’ landscape keeps expanding thanks to Youtube and all the videos composed by loving fans, obscuring other celebrities of the counterculture like Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) or even Alan Watts. When John Harrison (another psychedelic raccounteur) once asked Terence to comment on one of Watt’s most famous quotes, “if you get the message hang up the phone” –which can be construed as a criticism against the overuse (or abuse) of psychedelic substances, and their limitations for acquiring lasting mystical states of mind– McKenna laughed and wittingly replied with his unique sense of humor and tricksterish tone of voice: “Well, I’m still getting good messages!”

The thing is that, like many of McKenna’s repertoire of provocative albeit-unproven (or improbable) ideas –like his Stoned Ape theory, or his infamous TimeWave Zero, which predicted an apocalyptic crescendo in the irruption of Novelty coinciding with the end of the Mayan calendar on December 21, 2012– that remark might have been a gross over exaggeration; if not a flat-out lie…

Indeed, 2012 came and went and the Eschathon prophesied by McKenna did not happen –how many other ‘future events’ communicated by alien intelligences turned out to be false? What did happen that fateful year was the publication of The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss,” a wonderfully honest crowd-funded chronicle of Terence’s life written by his brother Dennis, who didn’t shy away from sharing how difficult it had been for him growing up next to such a brilliant –but also callous, and sometimes even cruel– older sibling. During their early years Terence played the part of both mentor and tor-mentor to poor Dennis, and later in life when the Experiment at La Chorrera became publicly known thanks to their co-authored book “The Invisible Landscape,” and Terence started to amass fans and notoriety once he became a regular figure in the alternative lecture circuit, Dennis began to notice the growing gap between ‘Terence’ his brother, and ‘Terence the Bard’ the spokesperson for the mushroom teacher that had communicated with them during their tumultuous stay in the Colombian rainforest.

But before Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss got off the printers, Lorenzo Hagerty and Bruce Damer organized a workshop at the legendary Esalen Institute –where McKenna was a frequent lecturer and ‘residential academic’– called “Terence McKenna: Beyond 2012.” For people unfamiliar with those names, Lorenzo is the host and producer of the Psychedelic Salon podcast, which is arguably the best archive of McKenna’s lectures on the Internet, and also contains many other historical recordings from other psychedelic celebrities; Lorenzo is also a regular participant in the Palenque Norte workshops and lectures that are organized each year at the Burning Man festival. Bruce Damer is another fascinating individual: A polymath and multi-disciplinary intellectual who helps NASA design the spaceships that will one day be used to send the first human beings to Mars, he’s also co-written scientific papers proposing a new hypothesis of how Life began on our planet billions of years ago –unlike the most popular hypothesis that puts the oceans as the cradle of the first single-cell organisms, Bruce thinks clay ponds were a likelier candidate; so to call this man a genius would be something of an understatement! Bruce was also a very good friend of Terence McKenna, and was also close to him during his last days, when he died of brain cancer.

During that Esalen workshop, Bruce read his ‘Ode to Terence’ which goes to show how much love and admiration he had for his long-gone friend –you can find the recording of that session at the Psychedelic Salon archive here— and after that Bruce read a few paragraphs from the still-unpublished manuscript of “The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss” (with Dennis’s permission, of course) which revealed a rather disturbing secret that was only known (until then) by Terence McKenna’s inner circle of friends and family: That during the last decade of his life, the Bard avoided taking magic mushrooms.

The paragraph that contained such a bombshell to the public persona of the ‘godfather of the heroic dose’ was this:

“Terence’s pivotal existential crisis came abruptly, sometime in ’88 or ’89; everything that happened after that event was fallout. I don’t know exactly when it happened, and I don’t know exactly what happened. I am piecing it together from what Kat [Terence’s spouse at the time] has told me, and she has volunteered few details –and I am reluctant to probe. It happened when they were living for a time in the Big Island [Hawaii]  and it was a mushroom trip they shared that was absolutely terrifying for Terence [emphasis mine]. It was terrifying, because for some reason the Mushroom turned on him. The gentle, wise, humorous Mushroom Spirit that he had come to know and trust as an ally and teacher, reaped back the facade to reveal an abyss of utter existential despair. Terence kept saying –so Kat told me– that it was, “a lack of all meaning… a lack of all meaning.” And this induced panic in Terence, and probably –I speculate– a feeling that he was going mad. He couldn’t deal with it. Kat’s efforts to reassure him were fruitless. After that experience he never again took mushrooms, and he took other psychedelics –such as DMT and Ayahuasca– only on rare occasions, and with great reluctance.”

So here you have it. The Psychedelic Hero for the new Millennium became terrified of his beloved plant teacher –as if Luke Skywalker found that old Master Yoda had suddenly turned into a malevolent red-eyed gremlin. The famous Cyber-Shaman was secretly unwilling to take his own medicine, unbeknownst to all his many fans and colleagues; something that undoubtedly must have caused a great deal of stress and personal doubts in him. Imagine if we were to learn that Pope Francis was secretly an atheist! And imagine how worried he would be if his flock were ever to learn this terrible secret.

So why is it that, 7 years after the publication of “The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss”, this dark little part in the life of Terence McKenna is not more widely known by now? For starters, because when the book was published, all references to that terrifying mushroom trip were completely edited out. The paragraph read by Damer in that Esalen workshop came from a chapter titled “A Symbiosis Shattered,” and yet the final version of “Brotherhood…” (of which I have a copy) contains no such chapter; instead the chapter’s title that delves into Terence’s fame and later existential crisis was renamed “The Bard in Light Shadow,” and only mentions in passing that “(he) was active on the lecture circuit promoting psychedelics but taking them only rarely;” without the paragraph referencing the negative psilocybin experience, Terence’s personal crisis –which also coincided with his divorce from Kat– and the pressures he was experiencing in keeping with his public persona are not well understood by the reader. Instead one ends up with the idea that what weighed more on his psyche during those last years was the criticism of his Timewave Zero that a mathematician named Mathew Watkins proposed by 1996, which turned out to be devastating since it proved once and for all his beloved theory had no real scientific basis at all. The plans for the hyper-spaceship were just another joke from The Trickster.

I can only assume that Dennis was forced to edit that chapter on his book. By whom is anyone’s guess, but it’s not hard to deduce that there are still people out there who benefit from Terence’s popularity –and his royalties… 

As for me, learning this obscure revelation was a sobering experience. Yes, it tarnishes the legend of “The Bard” for posterity somewhat, but it also brings back Terence McKenna into a much needed human dimension, by showing he was plagued with the same flaws and doubts we all possess. Both Lorenzo and Bruce coincide in saying how after they revealed the secret to the participants of that Esalen workshop, almost all of them felt a sense of deep relief, because no longer were they feeling inadequate for not being able to reach the high goalpost of the ‘heroic dose’ planted by McKenna. 

And ultimately, isn’t the worst thing you can do to an iconoclast to be put into a marble pedestal and be adored as a cultural idol? When the Messenger is starting to be considered more important than the Message itself –to the point that censorship is enacted to preserve the Messenger’s reputation– then it is time to either question things or look for answers elsewhere.

At the end of Episode VIII, an older and disillusioned Luke Skywalker gets a final and unexpected encounter with his long-gone Master, Yoda. “I’m going to burn the sacred texts,” says Luke to the apparition, but his old Master beats him to it and commands the Force to turn the ancient Jedi teachings to smithereens. A similar thing happened to Terence McKenna’s own legacy of precious alchemical texts and rare books, which he painstakingly collected for several decades, some years after he passed away: the warehouse in which they were stored suffered an unexpected fire, turning all those expensive volumes to ash in 2007. A tragedy for sure, but if we see Fire as Cleanser instead of a mere Destroyer, perhaps there’s an alchemical lesson to be glimpsed from that event? To purge what’s unneeded from McKenna’s legend and retain only its essence?

So here’s hoping that “The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss” gets a revised edition in which that ‘forbidden paragraph’ is reinserted into the text. Or if it isn’t, that eventually all the young seekers of psychedelic transcendence who are tuning into the myriad of Youtube videos featuring Terence eventually learn the truth about him, so they take the necessary precautions and prepare themselves if they ever do attempt that ‘heroic dose’ of his. 

Another thing that was edited out of the book, was the mention that the brain tumor that took Terence’s life had the synchronistical peculiarity of having a shape resembling a cap-shaped mushroom; a final last joke enacted by the Trickster perhaps, although Damer offered a beautiful speculation in that 2012 Esalen workshop that maybe the plant teacher had had no other choice in trying to open his pupil’s heart, than by colonizing his mind first in such a way that rendered the student helpless, and reluctantly accepting the care and generosity of his friends and family when his health took a nosedive; something he had always been resistant to do, for –as Dennis explains in the book– Terence had always resorted to creating an emotional ‘shield’ as a defense mechanism against the suffering of rejection. But on those final days the cancer (or the Teacher) shattered those last remaining defenses, and Terence was finally able to welcome the affection of the people who helped him through that final material transition, and –according to Damer– he was also able to receive the final lesson: that in the end it’s not about ideas, but about Love. 

According to his faithful brother, Dennis, Terence’s expression after he passed away was one of peace and ecstasy. Perhaps he did manage to ride that hyper-space into the 5th dimension after all.