Book Club: June 2024 by Hana Zittel

Book Club
By Hana Zittel
Published Issue 126, June 2024

Tripping On Utopia: Margaret Mead, the Cold War, and the Troubled Birth of Psychedelic Science by Benjamin Breen (2024)

Accidentally created in 1938 by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, LSD is often seen as one of the drivers of the culture shifts of the late 50s and 60s. In Benjamin Breen’s newest book, he takes us back to America in the 30s when a young anthropologist, Margaret Mead, was heading to Nebraska with her then husband to study the Omaha Tribe. There she learned and wrote on the use of peyote, particularly its ability to be, as Breen interprets, “a tool for the creation of a new culture,” and visionary and trance states as “a source of new knowledge, mutual understanding, and social cohesion, not an escape into fantasy.”

Mead’s path alongside the development of psychedelic science takes a darker turn after her third marriage to fellow scientist, Gregory Bateson. With the onslaught of WWII, scientists mobilized to utilize their skill sets toward the common goal of doing anything to defeat the enemy. If it meant bringing down the Nazis, the ends would justify the means, ethical or not. This slippery slope aligned with the data-centered work Bateson and Mead had been doing together in the field. “They had wedded this information-centric approach with a deep interest in altered states of consciousness. Now, in the early months of 1942, those two interests made Mead, Bateson, and the intellectual circle forming around them in New York City important to one of the newest and most controversial methods of waging war: psychological warfare.”

The demand for developing means to control the mind spurred the scientific exploration of substances like LSD and methods like hypnotism to brainwash the enemy and manipulate the will of the masses. Through Mead’s participation in or closeness to groups like the Office of Strategic Services, the Macy conferences, Project MKUltra, and the CIA, Breen explores her complicity in the misuse of science and the manipulation of psychedelics for means of warfare rather than harmony or utopia. Some of the more well-known and shocking experiments like the injection of LSD in captive dolphins or the deceptive experimentation of LSD on sex workers in San Francisco are driven by characters within Bateson and Mead’s circles.

Breen’s dive into the dark beginnings of psychedelic science is massively complex. With a huge cast of actors and multiple layers of secrecy, Breen attempts to unravel an immense web of narrative surrounding this emergent field of study and experimentation. A truly fascinating dive into American culture, consciousness, and good intentions gone wrong, Benjamin Breen’s meticulously researched book illuminates a deeply complex time in American history.

The Werewolf at Dusk and Other Stories by David Small (2024)

Known for his award-winning children’s books and celebrated memoir, Stitches, David Small’s newest release is a collection of three short, surreal and dark graphic tales. 

In the first, a once vicious werewolf finds his powers depleting. Formerly a strong predator, the inevitability of aging and death has left him withered and alone. The second finds a psychiatrist lost and wandering in the “Old City,” where he self-analyzes his reality, imagining every danger on his journey is merely a symbol for his own life and psyche. In the last, a man tries and fails to avoid the musical act, The Tiger in Vogue, when he goes to the theater in 1920s Germany. There, Nazi Storm Troopers have already started berating people on the streets and Hitler can be found in the box seats of Small’s imagined theater.

The Werewolf at Dusk is marked with spare use of colors that play up Small’s ability to capture emotion and dread through his drawings. Each panel has a look of watercolor overlaying scattered line drawings, highlighting Small’s characteristic style. A brief dive into David Small’s work, each story maintains an ominous grip on your thoughts long after you finish.

Hana Zittel is a librarian at the Denver Public Library in addition to being a librarian at the Denver Zine Librarian. She grew up in Steamboat Springs, Colorado and pretty much just likes being outside with her pup when she has some free time, and reading, that might have been assumed though.

Check out Hana’s May Book Club in case you missed it, or head to our Explore section to see more of her past reviews.