PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story, Alexander Shulgin and Ann Shulgin. Transform Press, 2017.
Alexander Shulgin had a sense of urgency to his work–the work of studying and inventing new psychedelic drugs. As he told his future wife Ann shortly after they met, “these particular drugs… are a way to bring about new insights and perceptions quickly, and — well, I don’t know if we have much time. Sometimes I suspect it may be too late already.”
Shulgin’s great legacy is the hundreds of psychedelic drugs he created, with the hopes that these drugs could be the catalyst that shift global consciousness from its self-destructive course. In his lightly fictionalized autobiography, PIHKAL, he provides over a hundred recipes for these potent chemicals, and these recipes he distributed freely, so that he could broadcast his knowledge as widely as possible.
Written in 1991 by Shulgin and his wife Ann, PIHKAL is undoubtedly a classic of psychedelic literature. However, while Alexander (often called by the Russian diminutive “Sasha”) was the chemistry genius with a DEA license to create new psychedelic drugs, it is Ann Shulgin who provides the true heart and soul of this book.
The structure of the book is unusual. Book I is story of how “Shura” and “Alice” meet and get to know each other. Book II consists of the chemical recipes and also contains notes about these chemicals’ subjective effects that could prove interesting to the reader–especially if she were considering trying these drugs. The structure of Book I is also unusual. Part One, “Shura’s Voice,” is written by Sasha, Part Two, “Alice’s Voice,” is written by Ann, and Part Three, “Both Voices,” alternates between chapters written by Sasha and Ann.
Alice’s and Shura’s voices could not be more different. Shura is the scientific genius that one would expect, constantly curious, constantly exploring. Reading his section of the novel is like going on a ride with Captain Kirk–life as an endless series of adventures in other-worldly environments. Alice’s focus is much more on the home and the hearth. Switching from Shura’s insatiable curiosity and experimentation to Alice’s narrative can almost cause literary whiplash. One goes from Shura’s accounts of trying experimental intoxicants in rather odd situations to Alice’s focus on emotions and the personal struggles of barely making enough money to get by as a single parent.
Because of this, it is hard to generalize about the book. The book does have a continuous narrative, most of which is supplied by Alice. The book is sprawling, and not short at around 450 pages (450 pages is just the novel — the chemical recipes account for about another 500 pages). The highlights of Shura’s voice let us see a brilliant mind at work solving problems and experiencing new realities. In the chapters “MEM” and “DOM” (the names of two of his chemical creations), Shura analyzes the molecular structure of some of his compounds to make predictions on their potency and duration. In the chemical notes in Book II, he writes that DOM could be predicted to either be “totally inactive” or “potent” and “long lived.”
DOM turned out to be very potent and long-lived. Shura doesn’t know how DOM hit the streets of Haight-Ashbury in the summer of 1967 with the street name STP. Perhaps someone had attended a seminar he gave in Baltimore where he discussed the drug. However it happened, STP was distributed in 20 milligram doses, four times the dose needed for full effect. Combine that with the slow onset, and people would often take another large dose when they didn’t feel anything within the first hour. Many unsuspecting hippies had the bad trip of a lifetime with these massive doses of STP that lasted much longer than expected. Because of this, Shura echoes Albert Hoffman in calling DOM/STP his “problem child.”
Shura’s personal psychedelic adventures are fascinating. He recounts a trip to Tennessee, not long after his first wife died, where he was to give a lecture on biochemistry at the University of Memphis. He had considered canceling, since he was still distraught from his wife’s death. He had thought of becoming “a hermit” and wanted to “avoid the outside world,” but the idea of traveling to a totally new environment with no connections to his life with Helen appealed to him as a way of starting to heal.
One of the professors hosted Shura at his own home, which Shura describes as “large enough to be called a mansion.” Part of Shura’s personal agenda on this trip was to try a higher dose of his creation 2C-E than he had taken before. He takes the drug around noon, and by the one-hour mark, the professor’s wife is calling everyone into the dining room for lunch. Shura writes of this experience, “I managed to carry it off reasonably well, despite the growing awareness of visual changes, which were rapidly becoming visual distortions, most of them hilariously funny. I knew that I had to get out of there and be by myself; there was no guessing where all this could lead.” He leaves the table, explaining he needs some time alone, which the others assume is because he is mourning his wife. He spends the next three or four hours in his room, confronting some “impressive angels and demons.”
Shura’s notes regarding this experience are alternately hilarious and terrifying. As Shura left the dining table, he happened to notice the professor’s rear end, which he describes as “monstrous. It dominated the room.” Three hours and fifteen minutes after taking the 2C-E, Shura writes, “I have cracked up. I must control. Am scared shitless.” He sees himself as an “old, old man,” dying alone in bed. Later, Shura becomes an “arrogant” two-year-old, seated on his father’s lap while his father teaches him Cyrillic. He questions the decision he made, and his motivations, when he let Helen be taken off the respirator, consigning her to a natural but dignified death.
Finally Shura begins to emerge from the trip; he thanks Helen for guiding him to a new idea of where to go next with his chemistry experiments. He returns to the host family towards dinner time, and casually chats with the professor’s wife, who had just a couple hours before been “a 17th century lady” out of a Vermeer painting. Despite Shura’s hours of terror, the ultimate outcome of the trip was emphatically positive: “I had made another decision… I would not cut myself off from the richest resource I had. I would stay with people, work with people, and learn from people.”
Alice and Shura meet about a year after Helen’s death. The heart of Alice’s voice is the focus on the growing relationship between Alice and Shura, as well as the threat to that relationship posed by the mysterious Ursula, an unseen but omnipresent force in the budding relationship, even though Ursula lives a continent and an ocean away. But Alice’s narrative also details her own episodes of personal growth. The most significant of these is described in the chapter entitled “Crisis.” The beginning of Alice’s crisis is marked by her trying another of Shura’s creations, this one called DESOXY.
This crisis takes the form a psychedelic trip that lasts nearly a week. Alice considers the possibility that she has gone psychotic, yet her thinking remains lucid. As Alice describes the situation to a friend, “I’m living in a universe that is full of some kind of cold intelligence that watches and records everything and has no feelings at all, and it may very well be the truth of what God is.”
During the course of her crisis, Alice sees what might be the darkest side of herself–Alice as a “disgusting” maggot, which knows that it is “unbearable, impossible to love,” and thinks that it is the true essence of herself. Alice asks what to do with that maggot–“how do I heal this sick little piece of shit?” Then the answer comes to her: “love it.”
The maggot is in a basket attached to a rope at the bottom of a well; as Alice pulls the rope to lift up the basket, she sees that it is not a maggot at all but a baby who is dying. A door opens up in Alice’s stomach, and she literally brings the baby into her womb, to nurture it and heal it until the baby is “beautiful and strong and proud of herself.” Whether Alice’s crisis was actually triggered by DESOXY is unclear–she and Shura found this chemical to be completely inactive every other time they tried it.
PIHKAL is subtitled “A Chemical Love Story,” and Shura’s vast array of psychedelic chemicals help deepen the connection between Alice and Shura as they explore each other’s minds and bodies. As Alice writes about their experience on 2C-B, “We were a single knot in a vast mesh which linked us to every other human being making love, everywhere… For an eternity, neither of us moved, neither tongue nor lips not hands. We were. There was no separation between us.”
Later, they dive into Shura’s home-synthesized psilosybin: “The two of us were joining in the net of light that covered the earth, adding ourselves, our emotions and thoughts, our experiences of each other’s smells and tastes, to flavor the whole. In the slowing of time, each touch of hand and mouth was an act of beauty, an offering of our own livingness and power to affirm.” The ego-transcending qualities of the psychedelics allow them the space to merge in and out of each other’s selves in an erotic and emotional dance as their relationship grows.
There are grounds for criticizing the book: the narrative meanders here and there, perhaps necessarily so because of the book’s unusual structure. One could argue that Alice’s voice seems a little long-winded at times. But those are minor quibbles with a book like this. For such a sprawling book, no review can truly do it justice; it contains many wonderful nuggets of experience and thought that one must read the book to discover. Shura’s terror that his sense of time has become permanently warped, Alice’s childhood experience of being sucked into a mental spiral, and Shura’s eloquent defense of personal freedom in the last chapter are all gems in a jewelry box full of must-read episodes.
But this book is not just about the Shulgins as individuals; it is about humanity and the human condition. This book is highly recommended for anyone who wants to learn more about how psychedelics foster emotional growth, both in oneself and in a relationship. And despite the length of the book, it is a fairly quick read–when a chapter ends, another wild story of psychedelic adventure and romance is only one page turn away.