Acid Christ: Ken Kesey, LSD, and the Politics of Ecstasy
by Mark Christensen
Reviewed by Jeff Baker
It's been almost nine years since Ken Kesey died of complications from liver cancer at age 66. There have been a few posthumous publications, notably Kesey's Jail Journal (2003) and a 40th-anniversary edition of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (2002) that included sketches Kesey made while working as an orderly at a California hospital. There haven't been any books of previously unpublished or uncollected material, the way there usually are for an author of Kesey's stature, because there apparently isn't enough quality writing to complete a book. Kesey wrote throughout his life, but after Sometimes a Great Notion in 1964 he turned his prodigious energies in different directions.
There also hasn't been a biography, a surprise considering Kesey was such a colorful and influential figure. Robert Stone's memoir Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties contains an insightful, affectionate portrait of Kesey, and there are plenty of other mentions in histories of the counterculture, but until now no one has tried to make sense of who Kesey was and what his life meant.
Mark Christensen, who grew up in Raleigh Hills and went on to edit Oregon magazine and write several books, has made an ambitious attempt with Acid Christ: Ken Kesey, LSD, and the Politics of Ecstasy. Christensen knew Kesey and believes "it's likely everything people think they know about Ken Kesey is wrong." In particular, Christensen thinks Kesey's "decision to ditch literature was (or at least could have been) as brilliant and misunderstood as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and he never burned out -- at least not in the sense that he lost his talent."
Before considering the evidence that might back up Christensen's claim, it's necessary to briefly examine a few of the myths that have grown around Kesey and obscured a true understanding of his significance. Christensen is right that "the collective portrait of Kesey amounts to pastel idolatry. Though he dedicated a good part of his life to drugs, romanticized their use with terrible effectiveness, and ultimately died because of them, in most popular portraits of Kesey he appears as a gentle giant, and at worst the high priest of a failed religion." The lovely statue in downtown Eugene of Kesey sitting on a bench reading to his grandchildren makes no mention of his leading role as a proselytizer for LSD and other drugs.
Kesey was exposed to psychoactive drugs while he was in graduate school at Stanford University. A graduate of Springfield High School and the University of Oregon, Kesey was in the creative-writing program at Stanford when he volunteered for a CIA-sponsored study in which, for $20 per session, he was given what Christensen calls "a kaleidoscopic array of mind-blowing drugs. For six months." He was later hired as a night shift nurse's aide at a hospital, where he sketched and took notes and stole more drugs from a doctor who was involved in the study. Cuckoo's Nest, a novel Kesey later called "a simple Christ allegory taking place in a nuthouse," was published in 1962 and was an immediate success. After Sometimes a Great Notion came out two years later and Kesey and the Merry Pranksters drove a brightly painted bus across the country, LSD replaced writing as his primary means of expression.
One common misconception about Kesey was that the Merry Pranksters were somehow a democracy. Larry McMurtry, Kesey's Stanford classmate, and many others have noted Kesey's need and desire to play to an audience. He was approachable and charismatic, a natural leader, and one who loved to be the boss. Christensen says the famous saying "You're either on the bus or off the bus" can easily be read as "my way or the highway." At the time of the bus trip chronicled in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Kesey was 28 -- too young for the beat generation and too old for the hippies, as he put it -- but ready and eager to use his celebrity to espouse the mind-opening possibilities of acid.
Kesey was the life-of-the-party host to legendary gatherings in the woods of Northern California, "Acid Tests" attended by hippies and Hell's Angels, with music by the Warlocks (soon to be known as the Grateful Dead) and LSD for all. The Pranksters took the show on the road, including at least one visit to Portland, and in San Francisco came to the attention of music promoter Bill Graham, who wrote about Kesey in his memoir.
I had not seen the acid thing in full force,' Graham wrote. 'That night, I did. It shocked me. They might as well have been offering hand grenades to people. When LSD exploded inside the body, how did they know how much damage the shrapnel could cause? They had ices spiked with acid, available to all, children as well. There were big tubs on the balcony and downstairs for anyone to consume. From the outset, that has always been my one ongoing argument with Ken Kesey. There has to be a warning. If people don't know, how can you assume their body can take what yours can? How can you know that?
In Kesey's case, not many could take what he could. Owsley Stanley, the infamous LSD maker, was quoted in Rolling Stone
as saying that for most people 150-200 micrograms is a proper dose. "When you get to 400, you just totally lose it," Stanley said. "I don't care who you are. Kesey liked 400. He wanted to lose it." Wolfe reported that Kesey sometimes took as much as 1,500 micrograms. "But what may have braked (Kesey's) literary output and ascent was the cumulative sledgehammer effect of 400 to 1,500 mg. doses," Christensen writes.
The notion that Kesey fried his brain makes some sense but is incomplete. Throughout his life, he offered all sorts of explanations for why he quit writing novels for almost 30 years. A popular one was that his life became his art and that, as he said in 1965, "to continue writing would mean that I couldn't continue my work." Christensen is at his sharpest when he points out how much time and effort Kesey put into filming his life, an enterprise that anticipated reality TV by decades. Kesey spent $100,000, most of the profits from Cuckoo's Nest
, and shot countless hours of footage, on the bus and everywhere else. There were problems with sound and film speed that were never solved, and bigger problems. As Christensen put it:
a) Just because you are a genius of the very words you are abandoning, doesn't mean you'll be a genius at film -- no more than Babe Ruth could have been a great quarterback in the NFL.
b) As Kesey was about to discover: Making a great movie about the wonders of acid while on acid is tough.
Bobby Miller, Arthur Miller's son and a friend of Kesey's, told Christensen that "Kesey felt that writing no longer spoke to the audience he wanted to reach. He'd be writing for the old folks and they already had enough writers ... He was trying to speak to his followers, and writing wasn't going to do it."
Writing was boring. It was hard. It wasn't in the moment. It's difficult for most writers to match their early success. Kesey said as much many times. That doesn't mean he didn't write. Last Go Round
, a novel written with Ken Babbs and set at the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up, is overlooked by many, including Christensen, who has a long chapter on its origins as a screenplay and nothing much on the novel. Sailor Song
is an ambitious failure of a novel. The Sea Lion
and Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear
are two delightful children's books. There were essays and journalism for Esquire
and Rolling Stone
, including a brilliant meditation after the Kip Kinkel school shooting in Springfield. None of it is Sometimes a Great Notion
, not even close, but it's not nothing.
After Kesey settled into a quieter life in Pleasant Hill, he involved himself in the community and led a respectable life built around his family and friends. He also drank heavily, something that isn't widely known. Jeff Forrester, who took Kesey's creative writing class at the University of Oregon, told Christensen, "Ken drank himself to death. Even after he found out he had hepatitis C, he kept drinking. He had diabetes. But he kept drinking, and he just wasn't gonna stop." Acid Christ
is an admirable book in many ways. Christensen did tons of research, knows what he's talking about and writes with an edgy energy that often produces surprising revelations. He also, for some reason, thought it was a good idea to write a "participatory biography," which he defines as "how a major modern cultural figure, in this case Ken Kesey, affected the life of the author personally and subjectively." What this means is Christensen included long, tedious chapters on his own coming of age and drug history that have nothing to do with Kesey. He also writes at length about journalist/provocateur Paul Krassner
and Portland poets Walt Curtis
and Marty Christensen, interesting characters who are not (with the possible exception of Krassner) key figures in Kesey's life. Christensen believes participatory biography is "about the best new format idea ever." Based on his book, it is not.
Kesey was a loquacious man who gave hundreds of interviews. The question of why he stopped writing novels and started taking massive amounts of drugs when he was on his way to becoming the greatest novelist the Pacific Northwest has ever known will never be answered. He tried, and in a 1989 talk at the Yachats Community Presbyterian Church he sounded like he had second thoughts.
"If I were to redo my life, I would try to develop a really steady writing everyday thing," Kesey said. "I would."