Oh, Brother

Steve Marsh talks drugs, science, and sibling rivalry with Dennis McKenna.

Photo by Stephanie Colgan

By day, Dennis McKenna is a mild-mannered ethnobotanist with expertise in medicinal Amazonian plants who has been teaching at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing for 11 years. By night, he’s a mild-mannered ethnobotantist living with his wife in Marine on St. Croix. But his new book, The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss: My Life with Terence McKenna, chronicles another life: the long strange trip with his more famous psychonaut of an older brother, who died from brain cancer in 2000. The two chronicled their mind-expanding 1971 journey to Colombia in The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens, and the I Ching. It changed both of them forever.

Your brother was a merciless tickler—a provocateur from an early age.
That was his role as he saw it.

In the memoir, your tone volleys between worshipful and resentful. What are your feelings for him now?
I have great affection for him. As time went on we outgrew our sibling rivalry. He was my torturer, but I don’t think it was different than what goes on between brothers. Part of it was the awkward age difference—he was four years older than me. After a while he came to respect me—he realized I was into cool shit.

He was hell-bent on existing outside of the academic and scientific establishment. Was your path a reaction to his?
In some ways. Terence didn’t really reject science until after La Chorrera [in Colombia]. He was interested in esotericism, Jungian psychology, alchemy, black magic—all this stuff. He came back from South America feeling that science could never explain what happened to us and there was no point in even trying. I came back less sure of that. I felt we had to understand science before we rejected it.

I went into this book thinking Terence was the crazy one and you were the sober professor. But you might be the crazy one.
I am the crazy one!

You lost your mind on psilocybin mushrooms in Colombia. You got it back, but you weren’t sure you would.
No, I wasn’t sure. You can say it was a simultaneous psychosis—we both lost our minds in a complementary way. There’s actually a psychological term for this: folie à deux. Or the model that I like to apply is shamanic initiation. All the themes were there: to be literally torn apart and then reconstructed, but you’re not the same.

Do you think that experience was more transformative for you than for Terence?
Oh, I have no doubt. Definitely. I think that was part of his frustration—he didn’t get to go. He was taking care of me and holding down the fort while I was cruising the cosmos.

Terence was behind the meme that the world would end in 2012. You were a vocal skeptic of that notion.
Initially it was Terence taking March 4 as the date of our experiment [in Colombia] and counting backwards from there. If you counted back 128 days it was the date of my mother’s death. If you counted forward a multiple of 64 it was his birthday in 1971. Then it became more and more elaborate, and he noticed the relationship between the I Ching and the structure of DNA. This might sound unkind to say, but you could say I recovered and Terence never did—in the sense that I had my psychotic break, then I came back. I was very invested in getting back in ordinary reality. And that was partly why I grabbed onto science: I wanted to do something tangible. Terence remained interested like a schizophrenic with a complex idea about how the world is put together. He didn’t abandon that when he came back—he worked on it for a decade. He further elaborated this concept based on a delusion and a misunderstanding.

A delusion as a result of a massive mushroom dose and grief over losing his mother.
I don’t think we understood at the time, and may not even understand now, that on a very subconscious level this whole trip to La Chorerra was all about the regret that we had over our mother’s death. We wanted to tear apart time.

There still seems to be resistance against the study of psychedelics in the culture and academia.
Yes, within the culture. Yes and no, within academia. Interest is emerging. We’ve got numerous FDA-sponsored studies now, and top-notch institutions are involved: Johns Hopkins, NYU, UCLA, institutions in Europe.

What’s opening the academy up?
I think the hysteria that characterized these substances in the ’60s is fading away. They’re not so scary now. And there are no demagogues like Timothy Leary out there saying everybody should take LSD. The big challenge in neuroscience for the 21st century is to understand consciousness. How does what we know about the brain—which is quite a lot but still an incomplete picture—translate into our experience of being a conscious entity? That’s the holy grail of neuroscience. And these psychedelic compounds are to the study of consciousness what the telescope is to astronomy.