Fascinating Figures: Oscar Janiger, M.D.
LSD was once prescribed as a window that opened inward.
Posted August 3, 2009
One could argue that there are basically three types of psychiatrists (listed from most common to least common): those who try to keep sick people relatively comfortable and quiet; those who try to make sick people well; and those who try to help "normal" people grow beyond "normality." Dr. Oscar Janiger was certainly of the third category.
Back in the days when LSD was still seen as an important, legal tool for studying the functioning of the brain and getting a glimpse at the underlying structure of the mind, Dr. Janiger supervised psychedelic sessions with over 1000 volunteer clients in his southern California office. These were not psychotherapy sessions. They were opportunities for guided self-exploration, with supportive, knowledgeable people nearby to help if needed. Many of these clients were (or were to become) well-known: the actors Jack Nicholson, James Coburn and Rita Moreno, the classical composer Andre Previn, erotic writer Anais Nin, writer-philosophers Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley.... All came to Oz, as he was known, not for a cure for mental illness, but out of curiosity about what they could learn by shining this powerful light upon themselves and their sense of "reality." By all accounts, nobody was disappointed by the resulting insights. Cary Grant got so excited in one of his sessions (he had over 70 with Oz) that the sophisticated star defecated on the good doctor's carpet! Insight affects people in strange ways sometimes!
If we want to blame someone for the psychedelic excesses and subsequent legal backlashes of the 60s, the natural focus of our attention would probably be Timothy Leary (focus of a previous profile). Leary felt that everyone would benefit from this sort of experience. Intoxicated by the fame and power of his hippy-guru status, Leary went around the country encouraging his audience to "turn on, tune in, and drop out."
Janiger, Huxley, and others were opposed this approach. They felt that LSD was too strong and too unpredictable to give to people who didn't know what they were getting themselves into, with nobody there to help if things went wrong. In hindsight, this group was certainly correct. But it's hard to keep a good secret. In fact, it was Janiger's most enthusiastic client, Cary Grant, who first told Timothy Leary about the wonders of LSD. Then Leary told everyone else.
The vision that Janiger and his group had was of something more like the Mysteries of Eleusis-rituals performed each year in Ancient Greece (from around 1400 BC to 400 AD). These rituals were open to all Greeks, from slaves to emperors. Before being allowed to participate however, hopeful initiates had to undergo a week of preparation. This preparation, common to all societies that use psychedelics ritualistically, helps to ensure that no one will have a bad trip. Much of the week is spent cleansing the mind and body of toxins (i.e., the sorts of guilt and psychological conflict that can cause bad experiences). Afterwards, all were sworn to the strictest secrecy - punishable by death. This experience then held a sacred place in the life of those lucky enough to have been initiated - a source of strength and solace forever. In a follow-up study conducted by Rick Doblin of MAPS many of Janiger's clients reported the same sorts of benefits.
Oscar Janiger died in 2001, at 83 years of age.
(Light painting of Janiger by Dean Chamberlain.)