Robert Greenfield acknowledges being told that people who love Timothy Leary would hate Greenfield's biography of the '60s icon, while people who hate Leary would never pick up a Leary biography in the first place. So why write the book? Perhaps because Leary's improbable existence was just too damned juicy and incident-packed to resist this kind of thorough documentation. Parts of Greenfield's Timothy Leary read like lurid pulp or an off-Broadway play, like a jailhouse conversation about philosophy between Leary and Charles Manson. The bit about Leary acolytes hating the book isn't a joke, either. Greenfield seems more interested in presenting the case against Leary than in objectively documenting his life. The tone is stern and prosecutorial, and Greenfield seems eager to try Leary—and the hedonistic '60s counterculture he embodied—for crimes against humanity.
Part of Leary's iconic appeal was the sheer incongruity of an Ivy League academic coming out in favor of LSD and psilocybin. If such a respectable figure says mushrooms and acid represent the path to righteousness, then they've got to be legit, right? But rather than validating psychedelic experimentation in the eyes of straight society, Leary's controversial endorsement of turning on, tuning in, and dropping out merely invalidated his credentials as a psychiatrist and scientist. In Timothy Leary, he comes off as a cross between a glorified con man and a narcissistic, deluded false prophet. Leary never stopped donning the flamboyant accoutrements of each successive counterculture, but after his '60s heyday, he devolved into a grotesque caricature of himself, a middle-aged guy still trying to pass as one of the kids. The most damning portions of Greenfield's book concern Leary's treatment of his family. While Leary was busy being the elfin father figure to an entire generation, his own nuclear family rotted and died under his neglect and indifference.
Decades of abusing a wide variety of mood-altering substances may not have done much good for Leary's mind or body, but Greenfield argues convincingly that what messed Leary up the most was the mood-altering, ego-inflating intoxicant of fame. Still, while Greenfield has written a compulsively readable page-turner, his utter lack of empathy for his subject leaves an emotional emptiness at the book's core.