In the 1970s Timothy Leary, the US high priest of getting high, decided to end his myriad legal troubles by becoming an informant for the FBI. He’d previously escaped prison and been chased around the globe before being cornered, and he would go on to enter witness protection for a time after being released from incarceration. Like so many other leading figures of the radical ’60s, he succumbed to the Man in the end. At Leary’s side during this time was Joanna Harcourt-Smith, his paramour 26 years his junior, whose own relationship to law enforcement has been in question for a while. Was she an informant too? Or even an agent? (Allen Ginsberg thought so.) A scion of the Swiss upper crust who jumped headlong into the radical spirit of the times, she had already partied with the Rolling Stones and Salvador Dalí before meeting Leary in 1972. Generally a footnote in his biography, with the new film My Psychedelic Love Story, she takes the lead.
Errol Morris interviewed Harcourt-Smith at length about her experiences during those turbulent times and her relationship with Leary. In the process, Morris delves into his usual fascinations with conflicting versions of the truth, both in the historical record and people’s own memories. Harcourt-Smith, who died this past October, got to tell her side of things on camera at last. Hyperallergic sat down with Morris over Zoom to discuss the film, and like with his work, it went places we never expected at the outset. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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H: Where did this story come from, for you?
EM: The story came out of nowhere; the best stories always do. Joanna was a fan of both of my work and my son’s work. (He was producing and directing a series for Vice, Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia.) She wanted both of us to be involved, so she reached out to me. You might consider that ill-advised, but that’s how it happened.
H: How deep into research, like reading her book, did you go before you actually talked to her? Is there a certain amount you like to read up on before sitting down with someone?
EM: It varies. I don’t think there’s any kind of algorithm or rule of thumb about how to make a movie or investigate a story. Say you’re confronted with an unsolved murder. There are lots of those; God in his generosity has given us many unsolved murders to conjecture with. You’re going to want to interview a lot of people to try to get some kind of purchase on what happened. But here’s a different kind of storytelling all together. People seem to have a hard time wrapping their heads around an exploration of an individual. I suppose that yes, in such an investigation, you could interview, whatever, 20, 30, 40, 50 people. My choice is to interview one, and only one. I guess it simplifies the arithmetic.
But the story I’m telling is not just about one person, but about how they see themselves. There’s this crazy Cartesian idea that somehow you have privileged access to your own mind. Well, that’s clearly untrue. Most of us, and I would say that including myself, remain a mystery to ourselves. Who in hell are we? What are we really thinking? What are we really doing? What do we really want? As I got to know Joanna better, aside from being incredibly moved by her story, I was also fascinated that here’s a kindred spirit. She’s investigating her own life, unsure of exactly what happened, who she is, what role she played.
H: Do you find your subjects are more often convinced of their own narratives, or do they have a more questioning approach?
EM: There’s no rule of thumb for dealing with people. You talk to me, I would be incredibly questioning of my own narrative, such as it is. It’s also fascinating that people undermine their narrative in so many diverse ways. The beginning of My Psychedelic Love Story is Joanna saying she doesn’t know who she is and what role she played. ‘Was I a CIA plant? Was I being used by the government? Was I being manipulated in ways that I myself didn’t understand?’ That’s really interesting. I should ask, are you being manipulated by the government?
EM: You look like you are.
H: Really? What’s the look of someone who’s being manipulated by the government?
EM: You ask endless questions, as if you don’t know.
H: Do you think that in talking to you, Joanna came to any new understanding about what had happened to her? Did your own understanding of her evolve?
EM: The sense that I got is this movie was very important to her and she was moved by it. I guess if you can’t be moved by a story about your own life, what can you be moved by? I showed her an almost-finished version of the movie the week that she died. I had to ask the inevitable question of the CIA itself: ‘What do you have on Leary and Harcourt-Smith? What’s in the files?’ I got the, if you like famous or infamous answer from them: ‘We can neither confirm nor deny that we have any information on them.’ As to what I think about it … Did Joanna cooperate with the US government? Did she betray Timothy? I don’t think so. She played some kind of role. I suppose if I put myself in their shoes and imagine I’m about to be incarcerated for the rest of my life, I would start to think, ‘How the fuck can I get out of this situation?’ I do believe it speaks directly to our current age. It may go back to the ’70s, but it’s certainly an important story as we speak.
H: Out of something like the war on drugs, you’re going to get a huge mess of conflicting stories which might be impossible to reconcile. Half the information is gone, half the people are dead, and many people left have no incentive to tell the truth, or don’t even know what happened. Having told several different stories out of that time, does sorting through that ambiguity appeal to you?
EM: I started my career being obsessed with solving crimes, this idea that if you pursue a case long and hard enough, you can solve it. Call it the ultimate exercise in epistemology, of trying to uncover what’s out there in the world. I’ve changed. I haven’t changed in the sense of my belief in truth, but there’s another story that emerges for me, and that’s our desire to avoid the truth. It’s interesting, because in this supposedly postmodern world we live in, people have questioned whether there is even such a thing as truth. We have a president, hopefully not for much longer, who has told tens of thousands of untruths. So I become fascinated with the denial of the truth even when it’s sitting right in front of you. I was watching CNN last night, and there was a nurse in South Dakota attending to patients dying of COVID-19 who were still denying that there was such a thing as COVID-19. What do you make of something like that?
H: It seems like a good example of how political reality has increasingly been subsumed into the culture war. Things that you would think would be objective, scientific, instead become signifiers for whatever side you’re supposed to be on. Spite plays a huge role in conservatism, this perception that the liberals or the left control everything, and so anything one can do to defy that becomes part of their identity. Why wouldn’t that persist on one’s deathbed?
EM: I made a movie about Steve Bannon, American Dharma. My takeaway from spending all this time with him is that I’d never seen anyone who was so explicit about how their main impetus is to destroy, to undermine, to obliterate. Then you find people like Joanna, who is such a romantic, and such an adventurer — not just in the notion of experimenting with drugs, psychedelic and not. She’s open to so much experience and really articulate. I loved talking to her. Do I believe she could have been used by the government? Of course. That can happen to anybody; maybe I’m being used by the government as we speak. But I actually believe in her good intentions and goodwill. Extraordinary person. I miss her.
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H: Back during that time, did you ever have any of your own psychedelic experiences?
EM: The reason I still function at all is the unremitting constant use of psychiatry. My beloved childhood psychiatrist had treated a lot of little kids who had taken LSD, either unwittingly or who had been given it by their parents, with very adverse effects. She scared me straight. She said, ‘Someone who’s on the edge like you shouldn’t do that.’ Although I’ve taken almost everything other than LSD, ironically.
H: A big eye-opener about Simon Kinzer’s Poisoner in Chief was the sheer scale of how many people the CIA did that to, dosing them without their knowledge. How many lives they ruined. It’s grim to think about.
EM: Well, the world is populated with grim stories. I feel very personally connected to this movie. You never know how these things are going to turn out. As I point out to people, if you know what you’re going to hear in an interview, why bother doing it? That certainly is true of Joanna. The best way to enter a story — not the only way, but maybe the best — is what I call the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern method. You don’t interview Hamlet, you interview Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. You enter a story not through the front door, but in a way that’s totally unexpected, and hopefully as a result, you’ve gained some kind of insight that would be unavailable otherwise. So before executing the sentence, those are my final words.
My Psychedelic Love Story premieres on Showtime on November 29.