Dennis and Terence McKenna: Parts of an Intellectual Dyad

In 1970, Terence McKenna and his brother, Dennis, traveled to the Colombian Amazon in search of a DMT-containing plant.

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Sep 2 2014, 7:15pm

Book jacket photo of Dennis and Terence

Dennis Jon McKenna was born in Paonia, Colorado, on December 17, 1950, four years after his brother, Terence. In 1971, they traveled to La Chorrera in the Colombian Amazon in search of the DMT-containing plant preparation known as oo-koo-he. Instead, they found Stropharia cubensis—a psilocybin-containing mushroom—and performed "the experiment at La Chorrera," which involved, as Dennis later wrote, "building a hyper-dimensional vehicle out of the 4D transformation of my own DNA interlaced with the DNA of a mushroom."

After La Chorrera, the brothers co-wrote two books, and Terence went on to write three more while Dennis got a doctorate from the University of British Columbia. Dennis' research focused on ayahuasca and oo-koo-he, and he worked at Shaman Pharmaceuticals, Aveda, and other companies before obtaining a teaching job at University of Minnesota and becoming a founding board member of Heffter Research Institute.

Dennis' first solo book project, The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss: My Life with Terence McKenna, was published in 2012. In it, he described his and Terence's post-La Chorrera existence:

While our lives were entangled as only the lives of brothers can be, after the events at La Chorrera we later found ourselves on separate paths. Terence became the spokesman for the alien dimensions accessed through psychedelics, a philosopher of the unspeakable, a beloved and sometimes reviled bard of the marvels and occasional terrors waiting in the recesses of human consciousness. By choice and inclination, I stayed in the background, pursuing a scientific career in disciplines that ranged from ethnopharmacology and ethnobotany to neuroscience.

The Artist and the Scientist: An Intellectual Dyad

The more I engage with the McKenna brothers' work, the easier it is for me to imagine Dennis thinking and understanding—and, given the right context and audience, even expressing—anything Terence expressed, and vice versa. Their identities influenced what they, in each situation of their lives—including the "situations" of a conversation, book, or presentation—were encouraged to think and to feel. But it increasingly seems to me that they were, at least intellectually, less influenced by their ever-shifting identities than by some shared and constant source.

In this way, I like to imagine the McKenna brothers as originally comprising one mind, which decided that the most elegant, effective, uncompromising, satisfying, and compelling way to express itself—and to have a significant, desirable impact—on Earth in the 20th and 21st centuries would be to duplicate itself and take the form both of an artist, Terence, and a scientist, Dennis. It would exist in each brother as an entity that's both scientific and artistic, but in order to be heard—and encouraged, financially and socially, to express itself—to its fullest extent, in the physical world, it would self-consciously, functionally accept the labels "Terence McKenna" and "Dennis McKenna."

At La Chorrera, it was apparently Dennis who supplied all of the ideas and embodied most of the motivation required to perform "the experiment at La Chorrera," but it was Terence who observed what happened and was motivated to place it within a psychologically dense, poignant, literary narrative. After La Chorrera, Dennis wrote the technical parts of Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide, while Terence wrote the parts where "the mushroom" asserts that it's an extraterrestrial seeking a symbiotic relationship with humankind. These collaborations seem to me like successful implementations of a clever, earnest, innovative technique with which to introduce new ways of thinking—or new conceptions of "the mystery"—into the world. It's a boundary-dissolving approach, tending toward interconnectedness rather than hierarchy or mutual exclusivity, and I like to imagine it continuing even now, after half the dyad (Terence) has left the physical world. Dennis, for example, writing in The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss about his brother's account of La Chorrera in True Hallucinations, observed:

Though his account may seem unlikely and bizarre, I believe it is largely accurate, even if interpretations vary as to what it all meant. I can't vouch for every detail, if only because I was lost in hyperspace for much of the time, or overwhelmed by psychosis, again depending on interpretation. Anyone with an interest in the "facts" of our story, if the word even applies, should regard Terence's narrative as required reading.

The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss (2012)

By my estimates, The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss is about 15 percent a biography of Terence McKenna; 15 percent a nuanced history spanning the late 1800s to 2012 in terms of America, psychedelics, and technology; 15 percent an essay on the brothers' shared intellectual interests and influences; 15 percent an investigation into "the experiment at La Chorrera"; ten percent an essay on drugs; five percent an essay on Terence McKenna's career; and 25 percent an autobiography. It's about twice the length of any of Terence's three books. It sounds dense, but it's highly readable and never unintentionally, I think, obscure or vague.

I've extracted 20 memes from The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss. Not all of them are directly related to Dennis and Terence, but I view each as providing a fractal piece of understanding regarding the brothers' relationship to each other and, in the form of what I've imagined as an intellectual dyad, to the world. You may recall from Terence McKenna's Memes that a meme, as defined by him, is "the smallest unit of an idea that still has coherency." Terence elaborated in 1996:

Madonna is a meme, Catholicism is a meme, Marxism is a meme, yellow sweaters are a meme... rainbow-colored dreadlocks are a meme. Launch your meme boldly and see if it will replicate.

Dennis McKenna photo via source images from the "Terence2012" project

20 memes from The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss

1. Reality is a hallucination

At the beginning of The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, after the contents page and before the Foreword, is this disclaimer:

Reality is a hallucination concocted by our brains.
Memory is a fragmented tapestry patched with confabulation.
Within those constraints, I have portrayed the events and people in this book as accurately as possible.
A few names have been changed to protect the innocent, or in some cases, the guilty.

2. Joseph Kemp (1873-1959)

Dennis wrote about his mother's father: "By the time I showed up, he was known among his descendants as Dad Kemp." One reason Dennis and Terence "took an early and lifelong delight in books, language, and all their possibilities," Dennis wrote, was that Dad Kemp "loved language, loved using it, loved writing it." Dennis elaborated:

Our grandfather was famous for his colorful phraseology. For instance, he called something new or unusual a "fustilarian fizgig from Zimmerman." A summer downpour was a "frog strangler," and a delicious meal or dish was "larrupin'." I have no idea where these phrases originated, but they have persisted in our family to this day. In fact, his fustilarian fizgigs from Zimmerman may have been my first introduction to the notion of something incomprehensible and alien, from another dimension or place. Needless to say, that concept became useful much later when we started dealing with DMT and other psychedelics. The things seen on DMT were and are fustilarian fizgigs from somewhere (even if only in one's consciousness) and the characterization is at least as apt as Terence's later descriptions of these alien entities as "singing elf machines" or "bejeweled hyper-dimensional basketballs."

3. The "chin-ee" method

As a child, Dennis was "tormented" by Terence, who was "a month past his fourth birthday" when Dennis was born."I don't remember when Terry instituted his reign of terror against me, but it must have been when I was about four or five," wrote Dennis, calling it "probably normal sibling behavior, at least in America society in the fifties." He elaborated:

Terry was a very creative tormentor, and employed both physical techniques and, even deadlier, a variety of psychological techniques to good effect. For physical torture, tickling was his method of choice. It was a good choice; I was very ticklish, probably in part because I became over-sensitized to it during our torture sessions. But it worked for Terry because it didn't leave marks, and superficially it didn't seem "that bad" because it made me laugh; but the laughter was not voluntary or enjoyable.
Terry was bigger than me, obviously. His favorite method was to hold me down on the floor, placing a knee on my chest and using both hands to pin my arms, then using his sharpened chin to poke and prod me. This became known as the "chin-ee" method.

Dennis concluded: "Other techniques were applied as well, but it was the chin-ee that I hated most."

4. Tickle-attack mode

Dennis described an alleged technique of Terence's:

According to Terence, he would sometimes quietly slip out of his bed, tiptoe across to mine, and stand above my sleeping form, hands raised in the tickle-attack mode, ready to pounce. And in this position he'd stand for hours, savoring the psychological meltdown he'd trigger if he acted. But he never did. It was satisfying enough just knowing that he could. Looking back, I doubt he really did this. I think his story was just another way to maintain the climate of fear.

5. Ambivalence

In another passage regarding being "tormented" by his brother, Dennis expressed ambivalence:

Certainly I pretended not to enjoy Terence's psychological tortures, but I suspect a part of me did enjoy them. I was titillated; there was a kind of thrill in being frightened, and it was not entirely unpleasant. To titillate now means to stimulate or excite, especially in a sexual way, but its archaic meaning was to touch lightly, or tickle. Ah hah! As I've noted, Terence refined the practice of tickling me into a dark art; and though I hated it, I was ambivalent. Sometimes I almost liked being tickled mercilessly, just as I sometimes liked being frightened to death.

Elaborating on the above situation, Dennis revealed he was not completely helpless:

I was not always the innocent victim, of course, though I got very skilled at playing one. Like many little brothers before me, I developed offensive countermeasures as well as defenses. My offensives had to be stealthy. I cultivated the art of timing. I became skilled at selecting, or creating, situations in which it appeared that Terry had done something to me, but hadn't really (or in which I was complicit), and I'd make sure our parents noticed. While presenting a picture of angelic innocence to them, I'd telegraph Terry, via a smirk, that this was sweet revenge.

6. High-functioning autism

"I may have had a touch of Asperger's syndrome or perhaps even high-functioning autism as a child," wrote Dennis, who had severe myopia from birth and wore thick glasses. "I hazard this self-diagnosis because I loved to rock, and often did so, back and forth, in my chair, quite happily for hours," he wrote, observing that:

Unlike the present era, where the slightest behavioral anomaly is viewed as pathological, my rocking was seen as a little "quirky" but not really harmful, and anyway, "He'll grow out of it." And I did.

7. Big Picture people

Dennis wrote that he and Terence, from the beginning, were "Big Picture people." Despite living in a small town where, as Terence said, you were considered an intellectual if you read TIME magazine, they wanted "the answers to the ultimate questions." Dennis observed:

This inclination partly explains our early interest in metaphysics and philosophy. We were dissatisfied with the pat and shallow answers proffered by our Catholic faith, and with the priests who, with a few exceptions, responded angrily, or disingenuously, to our insistent questions.

8. "Extra-environmental"

Dennis described himself and his friend Madeline, whom he met in seventh grade:

We were "extra environmental," a term coined by the media theorist Marshall McLuhan to describe someone who is in a culture but not of it, like an anthropologist living with some exotic tribe. Both introverts, we came to see ourselves as kindred spirits trapped in a milieu of meatheads, jocks, and "mean girls." We weren't part of the cool cliques, and didn't care; we took pride in our extra-environmental status and cultivated a bemused detachment from the games that shaped the social dynamics among our peers.

9. The curse of the Terence McKenna library

Terence's first library, which contained 1000+ books, was destroyed in a fire in 1970 when he was 24 years old (as you may recall from One Version of One Version of Terence McKenna's Life). Dennis observed in The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss:

It took him 30 years to reproduce that wonder. His second library is the one that has become part of the Terence McKenna legend. Following his death in 2000, his books and papers were given to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. After considerable struggle I managed to ship them back from the Big Island of Hawaii where Terence had been living before he passed on. Esalen's curators temporarily stored the collection in an old building in downtown Monterey, awaiting the construction of a proper place for it on the Esalen campus. The century-old structure turned out to be a tinderbox. In early February 2007, a fire broke out in a sandwich shop on a lower floor, consuming a number of businesses, and Terence's books, which were stowed above. Yet again, a priceless trove had been reduced to ashes in a matter of minutes. The volumes included rare first editions of alchemical texts that existed nowhere else. It seemed almost like a curse, the curse of the Terence McKenna library! It was a terrible, terrible tragedy—for Terence's legacy, for Esalen, for our family, and for esoteric bibliophiles everywhere.

10. Getting stoned alone

As a teenager, Dennis enjoyed getting stoned with friends, but, he wrote, "some of my best experiences were when I smoked alone, rambling around the sagebrush-covered hills outside of town." He observed:

Being stoned was the only time I felt normal. I loved nothing more than to sit in my room, have a toke or two, and "ruminate."

11. Science fiction novels

Dennis wrote about himself and Terence:

In the early sixties, the sci-fi authors we loved were the old-school giants: Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, James Blish, and especially Arthur C. Clarke. Jules Verne was an early favorite, as was H.G. Wells, whose novel The Time Machine had a big impact on me in my preteen years. The notion of time travel fascinated me then (and does now) and fed a preoccupation with the future and the nature of time that Terence and I shared. But it was Clarke who had the greatest impact on our thinking, thanks largely to his novels Childhood's End (1953) and The City and the Stars (1956).

They also enjoyed Philip K. Dick, whose later novels—VALIS (1981), The Divine Invasion (1981), and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982)—were, Dennis wrote, "centered on characters confronted with continuum-disrupting events that teeter on the thin edge between psychotic breakdown and mystical revelation." Dennis observed:

These tales bear uncanny similarities to our own experiences at La Chorrera to the extent that they seemed like a validation when they came to our attention in the mid-seventies. Dick was heavily influenced by the ideas of Carl Jung, as were we.

12. Carl Jung's idea of "synchronicity"

Dennis wrote: "For Terence and me, discovering Jung was a revelation. We were aware of psychedelics by then, of course, and deeply interested in what qualified as a cultural phenomenon. If cosmology was the lens through which we learned to view the universe at large, Jungian psychology became our cosmology for the universe within." Dennis described Jung's idea of synchronicity:

Jung's understanding of the I Ching was tied to his idea of "synchronicity," or the occurrence of two events that are somehow related but not in terms of cause and effect. He also referred to this notion as an "acausal connecting principle" or "meaningful parallellism." Synchronicity is not just random coincidence; rather, it is a phenomenon that expresses both in the mind and in the outer world, in a way that reveals a meaningful but not causal tie between these expressions

13. We are made of drugs

Psychedelics are drugs; they do what they do because we are made of drugs. You can't get more biological than that!

14. DMT is as astonishing the hundredth time as it was the first

The problem with DMT, and part of its challenge, is that the experience is inherently ineffable; it cannot be described in ordinary language, it is translinguistic. You come down, slam back into your body, out of breath, suffused with ecstasy, babbling, sobbing. And yet we are linguistic creatures, and there is a nearly irresistible impulse to try to describe it. This begins almost immediately following the trip, as if verbalization were a protective reflex. DMT is more than the mind can handle; it's overwhelming in its raw nakedness; we feel compelled to try to stuff it back into some kind of linguistic box, and yet to do so is to diminish it. All of the descriptions, even Terence's, as elegant as they are, fall short of the actual experience. This is part of the mystery of DMT. It is a phenomenon that can be repeatedly experienced, and yet it is as astonishing the hundredth time as it was the first, and something that strange is worthy of our attention.

15. We will become individual nodes in a globe-spanning mycelial network

Dennis speculated that, at some point in human evolution, "there must have been a feedback between the acquisition and practice of language that resulted in a relatively rapid change in primate brain structures over a few hundred thousand years." He observed:

The consequences are seen in the rapid emergence and spread of civilizations and technologies that started about 100,000 years ago and has been accelerating ever since. Having now literally wrapped the globe in our externalized nervous systems, we are nearing a moment when we'll find ourselves constantly embedded in an ever-expanding totality of human knowledge.

He reflected on this possibility, which he called "a mythos built into the human imagination" and "what psychedelics have been telling us is our destiny ever since the first mushroom was tasted by the first curious primate":

To a large extent, this has already occurred. Nature—the biosphere—is now encased within the cybersphere, and though the current instantiation is somewhat crude, made of machines and fiber optic networks and satellites and electromagnetic signals, I think that will probably change very soon. As new biotechnologies and nanotechnologies emerge, we will reintegrate our externalized neural networks, and they will again disappear back into our bodies, the boundaries between "bio" and "techno" will dissolve, and we will become a new type of human, individual nodes in a globe-spanning mycelial network.

16. Psychedelics may be alien artifacts seeded into the biosphere

Psychedelics, particularly psilocybin and DMT, may in fact be alien artifacts seeded into the biosphere millions of years ago by a super biotechnological civilization that has mastered the art and science of planetary biospheric engineering. Our planet, our biosphere, and our species could be the result of a kind of science experiment lasting hundreds of millions or even billions of years, an experiment initiated by a superior technological civilization partly out of curiosity (the real motivation behind all good science) and partly, I would suggest, out of loneliness. This hypothetical civilization may have wanted someone to talk to and thus created an intelligent species that could talk back.

17. Opium for diarrhea

In 1981, while searching for a plant called chagropanga in Tarapoto, a city in northern Peru, the McKenna brothers got "serious cases of dysentery." Dennis described the situation:

For the next two days, we lay wracked with diarrhea and abdominal cramps in our hotel room. It was all we could do to crawl to the toilet and back to the bed. We could barely muster up the energy to smoke hash, and that was all we wanted to do. Terence had thought to include a small bottle of laudanum (tincture of opium) in his medicine kit, so we alternated between smoking hashish and taking periodic droppers of opium. There is nothing better than opium for diarrhea, and I believe we would have been much worse off without it.

18. Psychedelics are suppressed because they provoke unconventional thought

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.

19. Terence McKenna was anti-dogmatic by nature

In a number of passages in The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, Dennis shared his opinions on his brother's career. In one, Dennis observed:

Terence put his ideas out there, but he was never wedded to them, or inclined to present them as scripture. He was anti-dogmatic by nature. He always maintained a sense of humor and a bemused perspective about his theories, and that was part of his appeal. He insisted that people should think for themselves and make their own judgments about his "crazy" notions. His ability to keep those notions at arm's length, so to speak, was an affirmation of his inherent stability. He was able to say, "Hey, here's a whole set of really wild ideas that are fun to think about; maybe some are even true. What do you think?"
It was an irreverent stance for a guru, which he never wanted to be. He had no desire to tell people what they should think; he just wanted them to think, period. I believe he viewed himself as a teacher, perhaps in some respects an entertainer, but never a guru.

Later, in the same passage, Dennis wrote:

Sociopathic or psychopathic personalities who achieve fame are usually quite happy to exploit their status, unburdened as they are by conscience, self-insight, or doubt. Terence wanted no part of that sick dynamic.

20. Showing up in a village with a butterfly net

Dennis wrote about how Terence, at age 10 or 11, began collecting insects and "built up a fine butterfly and moth collection, including a few exotic specimens he purchased." In his 20s, Terence "continued to seek out butterflies on his global ramblings." Dennis reflected:

Though his passion was very real, he found the persona of the collector to be a good cover when traveling in tropical countries. As he noted, "When you show up in a village with a butterfly net, it's immediately obvious to even the youngest child why you are there; and it's non-threatening, it's friendly. You are immediately tagged as a harmless eccentric."

Terence McKenna in the Amazon in 1971. Photo via The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss

Next week, I'll interview Klea McKenna about The Butterfly Hunter (2008), the book which resulted from the insect collection she inherited, at age 19, from her father when he died in 2000. As Dennis wrote in The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss:

An excellent photographer with a highly refined aesthetic, Klea, the younger of Terence's two children, eventually used her artistic skills and vision to transform the collection into a beautiful tribute to her father. She didn't mount the specimens in the conventional way. Instead, she created a work in which each butterfly was photographed together with its envelope.

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