Alameda Bookshelf: Don Lattin's "Distilled Spirits"

Alameda Bookshelf: Don Lattin's "Distilled Spirits"

Kristen Hanlon
Photo by Deanne Fitzmaurice.

Photo by Deanne Fitzmaurice.

Don Lattin, Distilled Spirits: Getting High, Then Sober, with a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher, and a Hopeless Drunk (University of California Press, 2012)

Alameda’s Don Lattin is a freelance journalist and the author of five books, including The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America, which was a national bestseller and won the 2010 California Book Award for nonfiction. His latest book, Distilled Spirits, was published last month by UC Press. He maintains a virtual presence at http://www.donlattin.com/ and occasionally blogs at http://redroom.com/member/don-lattin/blog.

Your book weaves together the stories of writer Aldous Huxley, philosopher Gerald Heard, and Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. You also weave in your own autobiography. Could you talk a little about why you chose these three people to write about, and why you chose to include your own life story in the book?
Aldous Huxley was one of my favorite writers back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I read a lot of his books, including The Doors of Perception, which inspired me and a lot of people in my generation to seek mystical enlightenment via the wonders of modern chemistry. So there’s the “Getting High” part of the subtitle. And then there’s Gerald Heard, who most people haven’t heard of. I first found out about him through Michael Murphy, co-founder of the Esalen Institute at Big Sur. Later I talked to Huston Smith, who I wrote about in my previous group biography, The Harvard Psychedelic Club, and he told me that Huxley and Heard were really close. Heard was a great speaker, very charismatic. I had originally written stories about Bill Wilson, the recovery movement, and 12-step spirituality back in the 1990s, and then my personal life got in such a state that I had to turn to Bill Wilson’s Alcoholics Anonymous. Reading more about AA, there was Gerald Heard popping up in Wilson’s life as well. So it seemed a good trio to write a group biography of.

The reason I decided to do another group biography is that The Harvard Psychedelic Club, unlike my previous three books, actually sold a lot of copies. I love writing group biography, looking for the common themes that run through peoples’ lives. Some biographers tend to get a bit bogged down in the details of people’s lives, but group biography sort of forces you to not do that, and tell a more interesting story about the conflict and drama of different lives coming together and drifting apart. And these three guys really set the stage for the changes of the ‘60s, which I show in the book.

I had no intention of writing a memoir. I had pitched the book to various publishers, including HarperCollins, the one that published my previous three books, but they didn’t take it on. So I went to UC Press, and to my surprise, an editor there suggested I write more about my own experience, and the lessons I drew from these three lives I was writing about. I was resistant at first, since I’m an old-school newspaper guy and “I” is a dirty word. But once I started doing it, it really came together. I found that writing a memoir, you have to be deeply personal and brutally honest with yourself, but at the same time you have to look for universal themes. By weaving my story into the lives of these three men, it forced me to look at the themes that run through all our lives.

You started out as a part-time stringer at the San Francisco Examiner in the mid-70s, and eventually became the full time reporter on the religion beat. I was wondering how that came to pass – in the book, you mention your predecessor was a middle-aged, right-wing Episcopalian priest who wore his clerical collar in the newsroom. You write that your colleagues referred to you as “Father Lattin,” “because it was so damn funny putting those two words together.”
Well, the interesting thing is that Lester Kinsolving was my predecessor at both papers – he worked for the Examiner and the Chronicle, and there was a 10-year break, more or less, between him and me at both papers. And a couple of things happened. Peoples Temple happened. I wrote some of the Jonestown stories – a friend of mine, Greg Robinson, a photographer for the Examiner, was killed down there – and I didn’t go down to Guyana, but I did some stories on it. I was fascinated by Jonestown as a journalist, by the horror of it – how these people had killed themselves and each other in the name of God.

So it turns out that the first person who tried to expose Jim Jones was Lester Kinsolving. He did this many years before Jonestown. Kinsolving tried to expose the abuse of power happening in Peoples Temple, including sexual abuse, but he was stopped by powerful interests aligned with Jones. People tend to forget how politically connected Jones was. He was chairman of the housing authority in San Francisco; he led a progressive, integrated church. He wasn’t seen as a crazy cult leader until later. Looking back after Jonestown, the Examiner felt that if they’d had a full-time reporter on the religion beat, they would’ve been more up to speed on Jones.

I was also interested in the beat because I was into meditation and mysticism, partly through my psychedelic drug experiences. In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, it was the time of heightened awareness about cults, and the Religious Right was getting started, so there were a lot of good stories to write about. Plus, before I landed the religion beat, I was the transportation writer, and I was tired of writing about Metropolitan Transportation Commission board meetings and BART breakdowns.

Gerald Heard, the “forgotten philosopher” of the book’s title, was a founder of Trabuco College (1942-1947), a short-lived experiment in the Santa Ana Mountains. The place served as a catalyst for Heard, Wilson, and Huxley, and one might say the seeds for the spiritual seekers of the 1960s were sown there.
The chapter on Trabuco College was the first one I wrote. Originally, I was going to write an entire book on Trabuco. Distilled Spirits hinges on Trabuco in a way, since it was during that time all three came together. It was a place that combined Eastern religion and self-improvement with some of the wackier aspects of the New Age movement. Their interest in psychedelic drugs came out of their interest in psychic phenomena – séances, paranormal activity, X-Files kind of stuff. Which surprised me, in a way, because these were intellectuals, but they were into spiritualism.

The fastest growing religion today is the religion of no religion. One-third of Americans today call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” These people aren’t atheists or even agnostics; they are people who are taking control of their own religious experience and rejecting the doctrine and dogma of organized religion. There are many reasons for this, but I think three important reasons are the lives of Huxley, Heard, and Wilson.

You ended your long career as a newspaper journalist at The Chronicle in 2006. You write that you don’t think you could’ve gotten sober if you’d stayed a reporter. That said, are there aspects of working for a newspaper that you miss?
I miss the camaraderie. I miss the old gang, the old newspaper culture, which did involve a lot of drinking. The newspaper business changed with the advent of the Internet, and things have gone downhill fast.

I was lucky; I started my career when newspapers still had a lot of money and had foreign bureaus. They sent me around the world. I went a lot of places for stories, including China, Fiji, and South America, and I had a really good time. I did have a lot of resentment that it was all ending, and drinking fuels resentment and vice-versa. When I left, I was ready to leave, and overall it was a good thing.

You are now in your sixth year of recovery from a serious addiction to cocaine and alcohol. How has the process of writing changed for you since becoming sober?
Well, it’s interesting. The first book I researched and wrote while clean and sober was my book about drugs, The Harvard Psychedelic Club, and it was also the first book that sold a lot of copies. So maybe there’s a connection there. I mention in Distilled Spirits that I got an obscenely large advance for my second book for HarperCollins, and a lot of that went up my nose. I got into the bad habit of writing behind coke – which works for awhile, but then you become convinced that you need it to write – and then I’d drink after doing the coke to mellow out, and it became a vicious circle.

What is your next project?
Right now I’m between projects. I’ve been doing some freelance writing, magazine articles and book reviews. But this book has been a real commitment – setting up readings and doing promotional work for the book has taken up most of the past six months. Perhaps a bit of a break is in order.

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