In 2007, my dear friend Peter Bebergal and I released a collection of essays called The Faith Between Us. I’m now very pleased to say that Peter has a new book, Too Much To Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood, released this fall from Soft Skull Press. Identified by Booklist as “one of the best memoirs of the new decade,” Too Much To Dream tells the story of Peter as the failed mystic, the quester seeking transcendence through the detritus of our late-century suburbs. Seeking God, he finds drugs—lots of drugs—and along with those controlled substances, the time-honored tradition of using them to get beyond our own existence, to die to self. Problem is, dying to self nearly killed him.
Killing the Buddha asked me to ask him a few questions about the book. I did. Here they are.
Korb: Reading Too Much to Dream, I can’t help but wonder, amidst all the cultural references that find their way into the book, what was the coolest, strangest, or most troubling piece of the counterculture you included in the book that wasn’t part of your life but makes the book more complete? Maybe that’s confusing. Another way of thinking about this question is this: While the book is in large part about your life, it tries to place your life and experiences in the broader context. Was there anything too obscure or dangerous or mysterious even for you?
Bebergal: Two things stand out: Philip K. Dick’s largely autobiographical novel book Valis and the film Drugstore Cowboy—not for their obscurity, but for their vision of what the drug culture of the sixties wrought alongside expanding minds and love. In Valis, the drugged-up Horselover Fat comes to believe he has been shot in the head by a pink laser that reveals to him secret information about the universe. In Too Much to Dream I describe Fat as a “sad analogue to those who suffered that peculiar sickness of psychedelics mixed poorly with occult metaphysics.”
In Drugstore Cowboy, Matt Dillon’s character Bob is this charming, good-natured drug addict and robber of pharmacies. He’s not out to hurt anyone; his intentions are merely to get himself and his friends high. He is loyal, smart, and, oddly, naive despite how long he seems to have been on the street. But below all this is something sinister, a crippling superstitious and magical thinking that reflects both his stunted adolescence as well as the way drugs have poisoned his mind. Unlike Fat, Bob is not seeking gnosis, he just wants to stay wasted. Nevertheless, like Fat, the correspondences seep through, and he, like many drug addicts, becomes adept at noticing the occult connections of all things.
The warning on the pamphlets about drugs handed out in health class spoke candidly about addiction, the horrors of withdrawal, hallucinations, and violence, but they failed to mention the more sinister way that these drugs can subtly rewire your brain and turn what for me was an earnest desire for a spiritual experience into a futile and manic obsession. Timothy Leary didn’t warn about that. Castaneda offered no clear signs of that danger. After-school specials on TV presented cartoonish and laughable exaggerations. No one, it seemed, was willing to speak candidly about the peculiar mental twist that can be a potential side effect of drug use. Only later when reading Philip K. Dick, and other authors like Baudelaire, did I understand I was not alone and was merely participating in a much larger tragic part of the history of psychedelics.
Korb: Did you think about any risks involved with throwing yourself once again so completely into the world of psychedelics? What’s the difference between the kind of submersion it takes to write about book and the kind it takes to live in the subcultures you write about?
Bebergal: The greatest challenge was not romanticizing my experiences. While some of them were certainly funny and in the telling can seem wonderfully strange and exciting, I have to be on guard to not forget what ultimately happened to me. I don’t regret my past, but I also have to be realistic about what these substances did and how they affected me. For a time I embraced being a freak but believed that drugs were a kind of badge of honor. I’ve since learned how to be a freak without them.
But none if this is to say that when researching and writing the book I was not getting dizzy with nostalgia. Even looking at pictures of LSD blotter art and flipping through underground comix would stir some very powerful feelings, some very powerful longings. I am not immune to how compelling these things were for me. I think the hardest moments came when I was researching and interviewing people associated with the current psilocybin studies at Johns Hopkins. There were times when I thought, “Gosh, in a controlled environment, with scientists guiding me, maybe I could have one more trip.” But quickly I would remember that even if it would be safe for me, I have made a spiritual commitment to my sobriety that goes much deeper than any single seven-hour experience.
Luckily, so many people I talked to who were on the front lines agreed that while the chemically induced psychedelic experience can be powerful reality-smashers, they can never provide the lasting effects that a more patient spiritual practice can give.
Nevertheless, as write this I am listening to some great psychedelic music by Blithe Sons and grooving in the ache that music like this can evoke.
Korb: The last book—the one we did together—was truly and deeply collaborative. We read each others’ stories, asking questions and holding each other accountable along the way. You’ll remember one friend of ours telling us when The Faith Between Us came out, that it felt like the whole thing had been “peer-reviewed.” I’ve had a book come out in the meantime, though it wasn’t nearly as personal as the one you’ve just finished. You mention the challenge of not romanticizing your past while writing Too Much To Dream, something that would be difficult if you had someone reading along with you as you wrote. We’ve often said that faith is something that is best and most effectively lived when it’s expressed in conversation, joint action, or in community. What other specific challenges did you face while writing this book all on your own—without a collaborator? Or were the conversations you had along the way with others from the subcultures you explored a kind of collaboration all its own?
Bebergal: Having done a collaborative work, one that involved intense and difficult conversations but ultimately turned me into a better writer, it was impossible to not hear another voice along the way, reminding me to carefully read over my work, to make sure I was showing not telling, to insist that the most precious bits were likely the ones that had to be discarded. At the same time, I never felt lonelier. Too Much to Dream was partly an interior project, and trying to turn the particular into the universal is a very isolating endeavor—isolating, that is, until those moments when I actually felt as though I had touched on something beyond my own story and was able to see it as part of a larger cultural moment.
The few times I felt back in the groove of collaboration were during some of the many interviews I did during the research phase of the book. A few conversations have even blossomed into ongoing conversations and the talk of future collaborative projects.
Korb: So if the writing was, like most writing, isolating and lonely, where does the book itself point in terms of engaging with community once again? If transcendence is about moving beyond your own experiences, something you challenged yourself to do in Too Much to Dream by setting your story within the larger cultural moments you write about, what does the community you’d “practice” with today look like? It can’t be the conferences you write about near the end of the book, heavily peppered with conspiracy theorists and 2012 gurus, can it? Or, will the mystical experiences you long for always be as lonesome as writing about them is? Will the only religious practice you engage in bring you down, down, down to earth (which is, as you know, where I think we belong anyway)?
Bebergal: I do think the search for a mystical experience will always be a lonely one. I have connections to communities that help me and through which I think I give something back, such as the recovery community. But ultimately it’s in art and music that I think I have found the most, and through them I feel less isolated. I think I am in an awkward position regarding the psychedelic community overall because I don’t necessarily come down on the side of psychedelics as a path towards true spiritual integration. I am sympathetic to the ideas and the intentions, while maintaining a healthy skepticism.
This skepticism has always isolated me a bit. But so has my faith. I consider myself a rational theist, veering strongly towards a kind of mystical deism. But atheists find me insufferable on these issues because I accept the irrational as a necessary part of the human experience. On the other hand, I am loath to engage with anything that smacks of literalism, whether we are talking about creationism, 2012, or DMT machine elves.
Again this is why art and music play such a central role for me. Metaphor is the vehicle by which I find truth.