The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss by Dennis McKenna
In the autumn of 2012, ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna’s ‘The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss – My Life with Terence McKenna’ was published to an audience of dedicated fans of the late writer, lecturer and ”psychedelic bard”. Twelve years after his death and close to the much discussed end date of the Mayan calendar on 21 December 2012 – which he was strongly associated with through his Timewave Zero theory – it was time to take a deep look at Terence’s life and legacy.
The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss is a comprehensive work divided into three parts: Beginnings, Into the Abyss and Invisible Landscapes. Told in a chronological manner, the book consists of 50 short chapters. It’s a pleasant touch that makes for a smooth reading experience, which is further alleviated by Dennis’ surprisingly accessible and well-written prose. The book also contains 37 images. One of the most notable is a photo aptly used on the cover. Shot circa 1957, it shows “Terry” – the poet – gazing dreamily into the distance, while younger brother “Denny” – the scientist – is holding a pair of binoculars. It’s as if the picture was destined for the cover of a biography.
The book is obviously aimed towards those who are fairly knowledgeable when it comes to the McKenna brothers’ shared experiences, especially what took place during their journey to Colombia in 1971, which in McKenna lore is commonly known as “the experiment at La Chorrera”, the purpose of which was, in Dennis’ words, “nothing less than to trigger an end to history” (McKenna 285). Fascinating and disturbing at the same time, the experiment nearly pushed Dennis over the edge: “I was acutely aware of how close I had come to losing it completely” (McKenna 278).
In 1976, using the pseudonyms O.T. Oss and O.N. Oeric, Terence and Dennis had a book published called Psilocybin – Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide. Given the success of the book, the McKenna brothers undoubtedly played a big part in raising awareness of nature’s naturally occurring psychedelics, especially psilocybin mushrooms: “Any college student with a spare closet could now produce magic mushrooms in modest quantities and give them to friends. It really was another psychedelic revolution, of a quieter kind” (McKenna 329).
Dennis comes across as a straightforward, honest and fearless storyteller. He is also graced with a great sense of humour. For instance, with regard to DMT’s reputation for being the ultimate psychedelic he makes the following comment: “People referred to DMT as ‘the businessman’s trip’ because of its short duration; you could smoke it on your lunch break and then return to work. That didn’t explain why a businessman would want to return, much less remain a businessman after gazing into the DMT abyss” (McKenna 156).
The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss is the result of a Kickstarter campaign started by Dennis in April 2011. Considering his brother’s continuing popularity, the huge interest in the project came as little surprise. Still, the success of the campaign surely must have exceeded Dennis’ initial expectations; when it ended it had made Kickstarter history raising more money than any other book on the crowd funding website – a testament to Terence’s enormous impact on the post-Leary psychedelic community.
In July 2012, the forthcoming book managed to create quite a stir in the psychedelic culture. An excerpt read by Bruce Damer during an episode of the Psychedelic Salon podcast, recorded at an Esalen Institute workshop, revealed that Terence went through a very bad experience on psilocybin mushrooms in 1988 or 1989. After that he never took mushrooms again. As for other psychedelics, such as DMT and ayahuasca, he only took them on rare occasions. The excerpt wasn’t included in the final version of the manuscript. Nevertheless the word was out; there was clearly more to Terence’s psychedelic persona than had been previously known.
Those familiar with Terence’s books and lectures know that he was strongly associated with taking high doses of psychedelics. He even coined his own term: the “heroic dose”. Needless to say many people were surprised by the news that Terence himself never even touched psychedelic mushrooms from the late eighties up until his death in April 2000. Some were angry or saddened by the information while others expressed relief, saying that Terence’s fear of psychedelics actually made him human.
One should point out that the information regarding Terence’s use of psilocybin mushrooms from the late eighties and onwards has been challenged. For example, documentary filmmaker Schwann claims he took mushrooms with Terence in 1996. Regardless, by the beginning of the nineties Terence’s explorations into psychedelic consciousness was for the most part a thing of the past. Interestingly this period coincided with the release of some of his most acclaimed works such as The Archaic Revival (1991), Food of the Gods (1992) and the print edition of the audio book True Hallucinations (1993).
Even though Terence’s fear of mushrooms was the result of a remarkably bad trip, his decision not to take them presumably also had to do with his personal situation: “By 1994 Terence was dealing with one of the most difficult periods in his life. His separation and eventual divorce had left him depressed” (McKenna 455). Given the circumstances Terence’s unwillingness to take psychedelics at the time was understandable. His decision to keep this to himself was less so.
The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss has been met with praise. Some readers, however, felt that there simply wasn’t enough Terence in the book. Admittedly, a huge portion of it isn’t about Terence at all, but rather about Dennis’ personal life and academic career. Having said that, reading the book is a great way to get to know the less well-known McKenna brother, who is arguably a very interesting character in his own right.
Dennis may have a reputation for being the sensible and academic one of the McKennas, but psychedelicists should feel at home in most of his views, which are sometimes echoing those expressed by the 1960s counterculture: “Psychedelics are not suppressed because they are dangerous to users; they’re suppressed because they provoke unconventional thought, which threatens any number of elites and institutions that would rather do our thinking for us” (McKenna 450).
Brave and beautifully told, The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss is an immensely fascinating tale of two brothers extraordinary journey through life and in the far reaches of psychedelic consciousness.