BOOKS: review of Bett Williams’ THE WILD KINDNESS

I was so dazzled by Bett William’s “psilocybin memoir” The Wild Kindness that I wrote a long blog post about it. Then I decided to see if I could get it published somewhere online to increase the readership for this terrific book. Happily, it got accepted by the editors of a recently-launched online magazine called Lucid News, dedicated to “Psychedelics, Consciousness Technologies, and the Future of Wellness.” Check it out here and let me know what you think.

The house style for Lucid News eschews first-person commentary, and the editors thought my review overdid it with direct quotations. So I’m offering here some version of my original blog post, for extra-added incentive for you to check out this important piece of writing.

* * *

When Bett Williams spoke in 2018 at Horizons, the annual “Psychedelics in Perspective” conference in New York City, she read a few tantalizing excerpts from her memoir-in-progress. Everything she talked about fell outside the discourse that I’d been engrossed in as a participant in California Institute for Integral Studies’s year-long training in psychedelics-assisted psychotherapy. Williams shared openly not only about her life in New Mexico as a queer aficionado of psilocybin mushrooms but also about being invited to visit an Afrofuturist psychonaut community in Cleveland and Detroit spearheaded by Kai Wingo and her mentor Master Kilindi Iyi, proponents of high-dose mushroom journeys for transformational purposes. Williams’ language and storytelling were compelling. And she exuded a low-key outside-the-box charisma in her Stetson hat and cowboy boots. I couldn’t wait to read her book, and now it’s here: The Wild Kindness: A Psilocybin Odyssey, published by Dottir Press.

The Wild Kindness does that thing that great books do – give the reader a peek into a world you would never otherwise have known. Come for the psychedelic trip tales, stay for the lesbian domestic drama. Tag along on excursions to other specialized communities (not only Kai Wingo’s but what remains of Maria Sabina’s ceremonial adherents in Oaxaca) and marvel at the author’s knowledge of and fierce respect for Indigenous populations. Enjoy the gender fluidity and mycelial meanderings of Williams’ prose, and relish her political commentary and her sharp critique of the mainstream psychedelic movement. It excited and stimulated me in a way that reminded me of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, another beautifully written and hard-to-categorize text that took mundane descriptions of a highly specific personal life as a springboard for deep dives into a surprising array of smart and evocative philosophical considerations.

Although she has explored psychedelics, especially mushrooms, with a scholarly thoroughness, Williams presents herself as an adventurer more than an academic. She and her partner Beth Hill maintain a center for arts and literature gatherings in New Mexico, and the two of them co-host a podcast called “No Cures, Only Alchemy.” Quotidian details from their daily life form a grounded throughline to the book, including a few hair-raising scenes from legal battles with a crazy ex-girlfriend.

She’s open about good and bad experiences tripping, and she casually offers perceptions that novice journeyers will eat up.

There’s nothing I can compare to the span of time between when a mushroom is ingested and when it starts to take effect. This is when we are the most vulnerable. It always feels like this part of the trip might be hugely important, like our attitude could make or break the entire night, but trying too hard can cause incredible anxiety. To fill this space with any sort of grandiose intent is just asking for the mushrooms to bitch-slap you.

            Just sit back and wait.

            This.

            All your tender hearts who have ever sat like this, sacred and excited, waiting for the entity to arrive. This is real courage.

She’s a serious student of plant medicine but not precious about it.

I personally had no shame in being allied with the tribe of stoners that crowd the Erowid experience vaults with tales of jumping into swimming pools with boots on, making bras out of luncheon meat, or reaching an epiphany while watching Broad City

But she’s not just a rah-rah psychedelic cheerleader.

You know what we all need more than psychedelic mushrooms? Clean water for everyone is what we need, and a good sense of humor, collective hard work, and an ability to chill and appreciate the moment, even when things are hard. Substances, no matter how powerful, can’t compare to basic awareness and an ethical worldview. It’s not the substance but how we employ the substance in service to an ethic that gets results.

Her pilgrimage to North Dakota to stand with the protectors of water rights during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2016-17 inspired a long blog post (reprinted in the book) called “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being at Standing Rock,” containing stellar instructions for white people attending indigenous ceremony. The non-linear narrative reflects how the personal and the political intertwine especially in the ambivalent realm of social media.

Nothing speaks love and fixes things like going oceanic…Occupy was a brief moment in time when we could collectively set aside what divided us in favor of a utopian spirit that permeated our spaces. Then Occupy was defeated. The new reality was impossible student loans; call-out culture; Abilify and Adderall; trigger warnings; PTSD; GoFundMes; safe spaces; paying rent in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York; Tinder; and MFA or Die. It was years past the time when we found each other on personal blogs. Now anything we wrote on the internet just fed the monster that was Google and we couldn’t pretend otherwise. We said we would quit Facebook, but none of us ever did. No one was equipped to go oceanic anymore, not in real time, not in actual rooms.

After the Horizons conference, her flight home is cancelled so she decides to take a Greyhound bus back to New Mexico. Some mushrooms might have been consumed along the way. Somewhere in West Texas she gets into a conversation with five guys in a barber shop while getting her boots cleaned and shined. She’s steaming at Michael Pollan’s New York Times editorial fretting about too many people taking psilocybin without proper preparation.

Who exactly are these uptight people they say we need to educate? Not these men. Working-class people, who are often living at ground zero of the opiate epidemic, who are familiar with the drug culture of the military and the commerce of dealing, tend to be very smart about drugs. They can’t afford not to be. The population that is uptight about psychedelics, from my own experience – if I may be so vulgar as to use this label – are the liberal elite. They are acquaintances who give that Are you okay? look when I fill them in on what I’ve been up to. They are Michael Pollan, who preaches that we are not ready to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms because more studies need to be done and thus are potentially dangerous and should be used only in a clinical setting with a trained professional. They are Rick Doblin from MAPS (Multi-Disciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), who knows better but keeps silent and allows this doctrine to persist because this is the lie upon which his lifelong project of corporate medicalization depends.

            Psychedelic plants and fungi have had their proving ground for thousands of years and the evidence of their effectiveness as a medicine already exists, noted in anthropological texts and artifacts, and more importantly, in living traditions all over the world. We know this already.

            How many capitalist projects actively depend on human beings forgetting what they already know and possess in order for it to be sold back to them for a price?

            What my heart says is this: The mushrooms don’t like it done that way.

She questions a lot of social norms emerging from the psychedelic renaissance with plain-spoken self-awareness and sophisticated analysis.

Psychonauts constantly emphasize the urgency of integrating the psychedelic experience. To not to so can be very dangerous, they warn. Up until this point, I thought they were talking about other, perhaps less mentally stable people. I had been eating mushrooms for over six years and I didn’t think I had a problem with integration. What did that word even mean, anyway?

            “Integrating is the process of just being alive, right?” Beth said. “You think, you talk to people, you make connections, what else is there to do? Who doesn’t do those things?”

            What if: We obsess over integration because we can’t deal with the fact we are taking Schedule 1 illegal drugs? Framing our drug use in the context of crisis and healing centers psychedelics as a medicine, rather than the crime that it also is.

            What if: Psychedelic integration is an excuse to wallow in our trip-traps, rather than put them away for a while, in order to get down to the business of living.

            What if: Psychedelic integration circles are the only way we know how to make friends with other people who do psychedelics.

            What if: Spending money on therapy and other healing modalities under the guise of psychedelic integration is how we make our realizations feel legitimate in a capitalist society?

I love books that travel intrepidly among the worlds of literature, pop culture, public life, and diaristic self-examination. Her admiration for Joan Didion shows up directly and indirectly. She offers reading lists and YouTube recommendations. She attends a concert by West Texas art icon Terry Allen and is so starstruck she can’t speak. When she meets Kathleen Harrison, psychedelic authority and ex-wife of Terrence McKenna, she at least summons the nerve to ask one question and not be crushed by the answer.

The Wild Kindness joins a growing bookshelf of smart, well-written personal accounts of psychedelic venturing, up there with James Oroc’s tryptamine Palace and Matthew Pallamary’s Spirit Matters. I predict that neuroatypical horny psychedelic queer fans are going to be carrying this book around as a cultural touchstone for years to come. (The pocket-sized paperback is perfectly designed for that purpose.) It’s a totally fun read that lots of people are going to enjoy.

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