Charles Petzold

Timothy Leary at “PC Magazine”

July 23, 2006
Roscoe, NY

I have little desire to read a recent biography of Timothy Leary by Robert Greenfield, but I've read reviews of the book in the Times and The New Yorker, and these brought back memories of Timothy Leary's visit to the offices of PC Magazine in the early 1990s.

I began writing for PC Magazine in 1984. The offices at One Park Avenue were within walking distance of my apartment and even closer to my job at the time (New York Life Insurance), so I spent a lot of time hanging out at the magazine, often testing and reviewing products, but sometimes sitting in on product demos and conferences. It was common for companies to drop by and show us what exciting products they were working on.

And then one day, Timothy Leary came by to discuss some software he was developing. (Although I don't remember details, this must have been an update to Timothy Leary's Mind Mirror, and I'm pretty sure he didn't do the actual programming.) He was accompanied by a woman who seemed to serve as his translator. Although Dr. Leary ostensibly spoke English, very often the actual content of his speech was not intelligible to those of us trapped within the prisons of rational thought. The translator helped tell us what the program would actually do rather than its effect on our pathetically unexpanded minds.

But another obstacle prevented me from fully concentrating on what Dr. Leary and his translator were trying to tell us: Leary had a prominant gash on his cheek that was actually dripping blood, and I couldn't take my eyes off it.

Nobody had ever delivered a presentation at PC Magazine with a bleeding gash on his cheek. What was it? Was it a stigmata of sorts that Leary had developed after decades of drug use? Or had Leary's mind reached such an exalted plateau that his body had become just a cumbersome object he had to drag around regardless of the damage to it?

Or was it I who was hallucinating merely by being in Leary's presence? Would the gash soon begin to grow and open up, and would Leary's skin start to slip from his face and fall in big globs on the conference table? I looked around. Leary's translator didn't seem to notice the gash, or perhaps she was accustomed to it. The several PC Magazine editors sitting around the conference table only appeared to be suitably befuddled, but who wouldn't?

I tried to snap myself back into focus. Then it occurred to me that somehow Leary had managed to pull me into a world of virtual reality without actually running software on a physical machine, or at least not a machine that I could see. I tried to persuade myself that this was ridiculous. And yet it didn't make less sense than the talking bleeding head of Timothy Leary.

All in all, it was the most debilitating product conference I ever attended. I didn't know if Timothy Leary's Mind Mirror would change the world, but I certainly hoped not.