Today Geek Pride welcomes guest blogger Peter Bebergal, author of the coming of age memoir, Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood (Soft Skull Press), which connects his own story and extensive research to explore the connections among popular culture, drugs, religion, and the craving for spirituality that America’s youth seeks, but rarely finds.
The first chapter of my book Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood details my experience growing up in the suburbs, spiritually bereft, anxiously searching for meaning. I see the suburbs as a metaphor for the American spiritual condition post-WWII, and by extension the troubled spiritual development of this teenage kid.
When I was 13, in the middle of the school year, my parents moved my family from Florida to the suburbs north of Boston. I found myself in the middle of the middle -- that is, mid-way through 8th grade – and in a new school where the cliques and groupings were already deeply entrenched. I was not doing so well up to that time even in Florida at a middle school where half of the classrooms where in trailers to accommodate all the kids during a late 1970s Florida population growth.
I was a geek; a greasy haired, uncool sneaker wearing, Dungeons & Dragons playing, Tolkien reading geek. I had a few friends, but the bullies outnumbered us 3-1. The move to Massachusetts didn't change much. In the town of Swampscott, being a jock was the highest social form. I came into middle school wearing a target -- a fist-shaped target on my chest that jocks could easily hit.
I was already finding solace from my adolescent anxiety in comics, books on ESP, and Doctor Who. In Swampscott, feeling more marginalized that ever, I created a vast internal fantasy world in which to stay safe. The suburbs were a spiritual vacuum. I tried to transcend it, in search of what I believed was a deeper meaning, but that meaning was filtered through the suburbs itself; mysticism by way of New Age book stores, the counterculture by way of the films Woodstock and Helter Skelter repeated every three months on a UHF channel, and psychedelic experiences by way of weak LSD taken furtively behind the local mall. The first time I smoked marijuana my mind was awash with Silver Surfer comic books, D&D, and Rush albums. I ached for something more, but whatever that elusive truth was, the suburbs could not contain it.
The author, Peter Bebergal.
That year I met a security guard at the local mall, someone I immediately perceived as a kindred spirit. He was a mystic in polyester, a babbler of magical spells and cosmic correspondences. But Jacob was also a symptom of a stranger more insidious disease, the schizophrenic spirituality of the 1970s as it manifested in the suburbs.
Here's an excerpt from Too Much to Dream that discusses this moment in my life:
"By the late sixties and early seventies, the commingling of all various spiritual ideas manifested into an impenetrable mixture of correspondences. Go into any New Age bookstore to see the result. Everything is permitted, nothing is discerned. Zen sits side by side with The Satanic Bible; Rosicrucians snuggle up against accounts of UFOs and ancient astronauts; tarot cards, rune stones, astrology, and water divining are just to the left of JFK assassination conspiracy theories and exposés on the truth of the Knights Templar.
"This pockmarked, bumpy, and often treacherous spiritual highway wound its way right into the suburbs north of Boston, where I could be found sitting on the floor, rolling dice and reading the eternal statistics tables in the D&D manual, wishing that the magic within the confines of the game was not merely drawn from fantasy novels and mythology, but a shadow of something genuine. If magic was real, then maybe these suburbs were also a shadow of some greater reality.
"In the winter of 1980 when I was 14, every day after school I went to the tiny mall a few blocks from my house. The mall was located far enough from the center of town that no one from my school actually hung out there. I had moved here in the middle of eighth grade, wearing glasses and last year’s sneakers. I wandered around the bookstore, the Radio Shack, and the department store, thinking my private thoughts, free in the world, away from my parents and the taunts of other kids.
"Every once in a while Jacob, the lone security guard would say hello, and eventually we got to talking. Over the course of a few months, we became strangely close—a shy, picked-on, allergy-ridden fourteen-year old who collected horror comics, and a man in his thirties who had recently lost his father and loved Rush and Black Sabbath. He had long hair and a beard, and to me he looked like a sage or a wizard, hiding out in the uniform of a security guard. He spoke in a mystic babble, and for the first time, all the abstract ideas I was privately interested in took shape in a visible and visceral way. Even though I read books on the occult, part of me refused to believe there really was a secret language that was spoken between the trees and the rocks.
"But for Jacob, everything was a sign, a symbol that obscured some mysterious meaning. We walked back and forth the length of the mall while he told me stories of how rock ’n’ roll could be cracked and listened to as a secret code. Jacob explained that there was no coincidence, that every moment was a serendipitous, fateful event that pointed toward the next and the next. There was correspondence, he told me, between everything we could see and its equivalent in a hidden reality. So above, so below."
Eventually I would watch as Jacob slowly fell apart, and has he did, his paranoia and distrust turned on me. I didn't understand it then, but Jacob was a product of that terrible moment when the seventies skidded out of the sixties. LSD was illegal, so even getting it created a drama of illicitness and paranoia. Psychedelics were also big business and were no longer passed out freely at concerts and trip festivals. Jacob, I think, tried to parse it all as best he could, but he was still mixing his LSD with another "drug" that did him in more rapidly than any other, and that years later would take me down a similar path; new age occultism, the glamour of rock ‘n’ roll, and the quiet desperation of the suburbs.
The insularity of my own imaginings -- heightened by the strange occult permutations that found their way into the suburbs through TV shows like "In Search Of," "Night Gallery," and "Kolchak: The Night Stalker," the lyrics of progressive rock bands like Styx and Kansas, and the detailed maps of dungeons in my D&D campaigns -- left me ripe for inheriting Jacob’s magical thinking.
To read more, visit toomuchtodream.net.
In addition to being the author of Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood, Peter Bebergal is the co-author of The Faith Between Us. He studied religion at Brandeis and Harvard Divinity School and writes frequently on the intersection of popular culture, religion, and science as well as reviews on science fiction and fantasy. Some of his essays and stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Tin House, Times Literary Supplement, Tablet Magazine, The Revealer, and The Believer. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., with his wife and son.