|Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood
A memoir by Peter Bebergal
Soft Skull Press, 2011
Reviewed by Claire Shefchik
What makes us want to get high? And once we do – what next? One part addiction memoir, one part survey of the history and state of the science of psychedelia, Peter Bebergal’s Too Much to Dream takes a roundabout voyage toward an answer to these questions, on its way covering everything from the psychedelic writings of Aldous Huxley, Carlos Castaneda and Timothy Leary, to the rec-room pseudo-magicianry of The Lord of the Rings, Silver Surfer comics, and Dungeons & Dragons. But Too Much to Dream is no more a work of geek nostalgia than one of narcotic pedantry. They’re never just what Too Much to Dream is all about, in the way that, to Bebergal, getting high is never just what taking drugs is all about.
Born to secular Jews in the late sixties on the cusp of two generations, Bebergal witnesses the normalization of spirituality and mysticism – yoga clinics opened in strip malls, Kabbalah and the I Ching suddenly taught at community centers. Dungeons & Dragons – with its underground wizard’s mazes, extraplanar creatures, and polyhedral dice – served as Bebergal’s awkward, prepubescent non-hallucinogenic first trip: “[T]he game understood, at its core, something about the value of hidden treasures and the even greater value of having to fight your way toward recovering them…I grew up around hidden things, hidden fears, hidden worries. It was the suburbs, after all.” His spiritual guru in those days is a paranoid, drug-crazed mall security guard named Jacob, who teaches Bebergal how to read tarot cards, use chakras, and decode the mystical meanings of Black Sabbath lyrics. Music plays a large part in Bebergal’s story, and as a child Bebergal’s parents allow their son free access to Boston’s hardcore punk scene.
Something of a self-styled anti-hippie, his obsession with the hardcore punk of the early eighties (Minor Threat, The Dead Kennedys, et al.) gives way to the realization that “punk was only going to take me so far; psychedelic rock contained a perfect spiritual system at the ready, the greatest justification of excess a budding addict could ask for.” He acknowledges the tenuous, even incongruous, link between punk rock and psychedelia – punk rock at the time was often paired with straight-edge culture – and his inner longing for some sort of transcendence gradually led him away from “traditional” punk to other, more experimental bands on punk’s margins: the Electric Prunes, The Incredible String Band, and of course, Pink Floyd. For Bebergal there was an unavoidable connection between The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour (a record that was already over a decade old) and his psychedelic awakening. This awakening, it turns out, would eventually lead into a descent into a drug-fueled purgatory from which he and a motley band of fellow addicts, whose vulnerabilities he describes affectionately, would later fight to escape.
“The very first time I ever altered my consciousness with psychedelics, I was changed in an essential way,” Bebergal writes. “The doors of perception had shifted, just enough so that even with only the smallest opening, an unimaginable bright light poured in. For years I tried every conceivable method available to me to push that door open, sometimes even to break it down. All I was left with were the proverbial sore shoulder and bloody knuckles. It budged, but would never give enough to let me through completely.” For much of the book he circles, like a moth just flitting around the light, straining to touch the infinite, but forever beaten back by, as he suggests, his own personal failings and the sheer terror of the sublime.
Bebergal’s drug use starts out as a deep need to alter his consciousness and raise his perception. But the early meltdown of Jacob – his guru, the mall security guard – signals Bebergal’s own eventual trajectory into drug addiction and what will become the central paradox of the book and Bebergal’s own life. “Being an addict,” he acknowledges, “means that I am forced to accept the limitations of my consciousness, be they spiritual or otherwise. What merely bends for others is liable to break for me, as it did once before. And yet I cannot extract that desire for a direct spiritual encounter, like a splinter.” In short, as with many addicts, Bebergal must accept that the aspect of his personality that drives him to use drugs to seek truth will destroy him before he ever finds it. His drug days bottom out with him unemployed in a crack house, living to get high. Here, the book starts to read like a conventional addiction memoir, and the reader is left wondering whether the author’s addictive personality is necessarily entwined to his yearning for mind-alerting spirituality, or whether it’s a convenient, albeit literary, handicap to it. The book never effectively disentangles the two. The punk-rock misfit ultimately recovers to enroll in Harvard Divinity School, in a sense beginning his journey all over again. He writes: “While [20th-century Christian mystic] Evelyn Underhill was a believer in ‘the Reality’ behind the veil,” it was only because of a peculiar tendency among nonordinary people that this reality could be apprehended.”
Bebergal’s portrayal of the sterile, occasionally frightening suburban world in which he grew and lived is at times quite beautiful, recalling the fictional descriptions of industrial New Jersey in Rick Moody’s Garden State, and giving a nod to the frightening-yet-lovely dreamscapes of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. He skillfully shifts the tone of his writing back and forth from the academic to the bracingly lyrical. The result is a fusion of such violently bare drug memoirs as Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries with the kind of wonkiness that should appeal to fans of offbeat journalists like Daniel Pinchbeck (Breaking Open the Head). In fact, Bebergal devotes many pages to the academic debate about the link between psychedelics and spirituality that has been raging ever since Leary and Ram Dass first experienced psilocybin during a 1960 spiritual ceremony among Mexico’s Mazatec Indians.
In 2006, Dr. Roland Griffiths and Robert Jesse of the Council on Spiritual Practices (CSP) at Johns Hopkins University used psilocybin, the hallucinogenic property of magic mushrooms, to try to answer this question: “Is there a universal, core mystical experience that is unmediated by tradition and culture?” They gave the substance to participants of various religious traditions and spiritual bents. “Twenty-two of the thirty-six participants described what would be called complete mystical experiences after psilocybin,” Bebergal notes, with many even ranking their trips among the top five most meaningful experiences in their lives, and likely the closest some of them have ever gotten, in our increasingly atheistic times, to genuine religion. Those of us who have experimented with mushrooms or LSD inevitably nod our heads in agreement, but remain frustrated because we still aren’t any closer to knowing why. Bebergal shares this frustration. Do psychedelics truly give us access to a deeper, transcendental field, or is “what is often described as spiritual…merely an interpretation?” he asks. During and after his divinity studies, he concludes that “People need to put these very alien encounters into some container, and religious language is the most effective at describing the irrational and the mysterious.”
But maybe, says an alternate view, drugs are merely the most accessible vessel through which to find the kind of meaning we’re forever seeking. Near the end of Too Much to Dream, Bebergal discusses the work of psychedelic comic artist Jim Woodring, who Bebergal notes was having hallucinogenic visions long before he ever experimented with drugs. As a final doppelganger for Bebergal, he’s effective, because like the author, he seemed born knowing that what we see is not all there is. However, unlike the author, the strength of his own visions was enough to anchor him to reality without succumbing to addiction – to him, drugs were a means rather than an end. Bebergal sought, on the other hand – from the Boston punk venues at which he started his long, strange trip, to marriage, fatherhood, and ultimate sobriety – to drink deeply from psychedelia wherever he could find it, even if he never quite seems to have felt himself able to drink deeply enough.
Claire Shefchik received an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Revolution House, Compass Rose, Underwater New York, and placed in University of New Orleans Contest For Study Abroad. She received a grant to attend the 2012 Key West Literary Seminar. She lives in Minnesota and is working on a memoir about sailing tall ships as a modern-day pirate princess.