Acid Baby

by Jason Tougaw

 

It’s been nineteen days since insemination.

My teenage parents-to-be don’t know about the accident in her womb or the wedding. The sand in their toes and the sound of the Pacific Ocean might as well be in another dimension from the near future that is their fate. The moon is a blazing chartreuse, bopping around the night sky, a glowing pinball bouncing off planets and stars. The light tints their tan skin a nuclear yellow.

“Usually, you think the moon hangs in place,” Charlie says. “But you’re just thinking it.”

“I know,” Cathy replies. “What a drag.”

“But that’s the beauty of Johnny May’s acid. I told you, didn’t I? It’s not a drug, it’s a prayer. I wasn’t shitting you, was I?”

“Nope.”

“It’s proof right there in front of our eyes that all that Galileo reality crap is bullshit.”

“An illusion.”

“Exactly.”

They’re in front of The Mausoleum, which is what Charlie and his friends call the house Midge and Ralph built on Nineteenth Street. It’s a three-story latte-colored neo-Classical cake with dark brown shutters and a wall of windows that lead out onto the patio on the beach side. The lights are all off, but the moon shines bright enough that they can see the interior of the first floor, crystals in the chandeliers beaming yellow splinters onto terra cotta tiles.

My grandparents, Midge and Ralph Neves, were profiled in The San Diego Union after they built their dream house on the beach in Del Mar. They’d never have guessed the place would become ‘the mausoleum’ to the local hippie and surfer kids. The original caption, blurry here, reads: “ALONG DEL MAR’s BEACH: Large, luxurious homes, new and remodeled, are appearing along the sands of Del Mar, giving this seashore a new look. Ralph Neves, recently retired jockey, and Mrs. Neves, relax on the surfside terrace of their new Mediterranean villa-styled house at 1846 Ocean Front. In background is home of Desi Arnaz of television fame.”

 

“I think someone’s playing the piano,” Cathy says. “Do you hear that?”

“The End” pumps out of The Mausoleum, the impatient blood in its pliable veins. Jim Morrison’s voice oozes right through the glass into the moist, salty air, singing about the end of elaborate plans and everything that stands.

“But they’re all asleep,” she says.

“Go with it. Just listen.”

When space and time disintegrate, reckless rock stars climb through black holes and play recitals in beachfront mausoleums. Out here in the beach air, the music isn’t bloody any more. Jittery atoms of Morrison’s buttery voice cling to the fog. They feel beads of it on their skin. Everything seems just right. The beach is a world without accidents.

 

“Everybody smoked back then,” people like to say, referring to the fact that pregnant women commonly smoked cigarettes in the sixties. “But your mom,” my step-dad Stanley would joke, “your mom, she dropped acid.”

It seems obvious that what the biologists call the internal milieu or chemical bath of a pregnant woman’s body would suffuse the embryo in her womb. It’s a given that I soaked in my mom’s chemical bath, absorbing substances that provided the amino acids her body needed to make the proteins that enabled mine to grow and develop. Her chemical bath, of course, was full of the food she ate, the air or smoke she breathed, and the acid she dropped.

I still don’t know how true Stanley’s story was. It probably depends on the exact date of conception. But either way LSD is a big part of the early story, everywhere in the external milieu of my early life. Acid seemed to promise a reality preferable to the dull middle-American life my mom and her brothers were rejecting, even though they had never lived that life. Few have been raised with greater liberty than the children of the Portuguese Pepper Pot.

Albert Hoffman in the lab.

My parents and uncles didn’t know the discovery of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD-25) was an accident, like my conception. I didn’t know about it when I started dropping acid as a teenager. We didn’t know about 1938, the year Chemist Albert Hoffman stumbled on LSD when he synthesized the twenty-fifth compound of an experimental drug derived from ergot, a fungus that grows on rye and has been used as both poison and medicine for centuries.

Hoffman was experimenting with derivatives that might treat migraines. He spilled some of the compound on his hands, and it went to his head. The effects on his imagination piqued his curiosity, so he ingested 250 mg of the substance, two-and-a-half times its hallucinogenic dose. Hoffman had a bad trip. He thought a demon had invaded his body; his furniture morphed into a tribe of monstrous enemies; his neighbor, he swore, was a hideous witch.

You’d have to be a chemist to look at this model of the LSD-25 and guess at the effects Hoffman experienced that day.

After Hoffman’s discovery was made public, researchers began feeding LSD to humans and monkeys and rats, with two goals in mind: to figure out how it worked and find some concrete applications for it, applications as diverse as neurological warfare and mapping the path to enlightenment. They’d dose them and watch them trip, prodding them with swirling psychedelic patterns and colored lights. A century of questing has yielded modest results.

We now know that Hoffman’s compound stirred itself into the chemical bath of his internal milieu. It traveled through nerves in his digestive track to his brain stem, which connects brain and spine. First stop, the reticular activating system (RAS), a very important collection of neurons. The RAS punctuates our days. When you wake up, you’re putting it to work. When you go to sleep, the RAS again. The management of its trinity—sleep, dreams, arousal—is a grand responsibility. When my parents dropped acid in 1968, their RAS sent neuronal axons far and wide, into the perceptual, cognitive, and emotional systems of their brains—just as mine did nearly twenty years later, when I put that first blot of paper with a picture of Snoopy on my tongue.

According to some theories, the RAS is also a way station for basic emotion that helps regulate the body’s homeostasis, or chemical balance. It traffics in feelings, and monitors the body for imbalances. Antonio Damasio, probably the world’s most famous neuroscientist, believes this monitoring may be a key to understanding consciousness itself. My parents could have told you that, and so could I—so could just about anybody you’d talk to after a first acid trip. Hoffman’s compound has a way of convincing people they are privy to the secrets of consciousness. This may be because RAS is involved in the basic processes that shape us.

When the alarm buzzes and you feel dread, that’s the RAS strong-arming emotion networks of your brain. That’s the everyday experience with RAS we all have. When hyper-stimulated by LSD, it snaps dormant networks into action, too much action. Otherwise routine sensory stimuli cross paths, trade details. Profound synesthesia ensues. Music becomes color, furniture marches, your own viscera transmutes into a demon, beige evaporates into violet, countertops melt, thoughts kill words and words fight back. Life is like a dream. If infants are synesthetics anyway, as many neuroscientists believe, is life like an acid trip for them? Like a dream?

I don’t think anybody can tell you precisely how acid affects fetal development, but it’s interesting to think that my teenage parents were replicating the sensory experience of the infant I was yet to become when they stood on the beach in front of my grandparents’ mausoleum of a house. Of course, acid trips wear off. Homeostasis does its work. You come down, buzzing and aching. The world gradually shakes itself still, squeezes itself ordinary. But the drug leaves traces, shifts perspectives, shapes worldviews. Whatever acid might to do the internal milieu of a person’s body, the external milieu—which my teenage parents were about to face, with all its expectations and responsibilities—becomes subject to doubt. After all, a tiny dose of chemical can change it entirely. Sometimes I think my childhood was a nonstop, wobbling war between our species’ default drift toward homeostasis and the determination of my family to throw our world off balance.

[Excerpt from my memoir, The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism (Dzanc Books).

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