If you’ve come across the Psychedelic Timeline on our site, you know that it’s the most comprehensive work of its kind, documenting humanity’s relationship with psychedelics from ancient history up to the modern developments of today. The creator of this singular work is Tom Frame, a Marriage and Family Therapist and professional magician who has rubbed shoulders with some of the great visionaries of the psychedelic renaissance and worked for years on creating this historical document. We spoke with Tom from his home in California to learn about his own personal timeline, from accidentally ingesting LSD in grade school to creating a career empowering others with both illusion and honest self reflection.
Thanks so much for speaking with us Tom. Can you share a little bit about your background and current occupations?
I was born in conservative Canton, Ohio in 1960. My father was an MD and my mother was a retired nurse. I had an older brother and sister. My parents were loving and attentive. Life seemed idyllic, until my father died at home when I was nine years old. I loved him dearly and I was heartbroken for months.
When I was 13 years old, I received a magic set for Christmas and my brain box burst! I discovered that by manipulating peoples’ perception of reality, I could entertain and amaze them by seemingly doing the impossible. Holy high-heeled Hoover! That’s an enormously empowering experience for a fat kid with a bowl haircut!
I soon discovered that magic doesn’t happen in the box on stage or with the cards in my hands. Magic happens in peoples’ minds. That insight kindled my interest in psychology.
Magic changed the course of my life. In the ensuing 48 years, I’ve created dozens of effects that have been published in magic magazines and books. I’ve written four acclaimed books of original magic and I’m the magic book reviewer for Genii magazine.
When I was 18, my sister was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. While working through my heartache, I also struggled to understand why and how someone could kill the person they loved. Attempting to intellectually unravel that Gordian knot inflamed my passion for psychology.
In 1978 I attended Ohio State University and, not surprisingly, majored in Clinical Psychology, with a minor in Film. Despite four years of delicious, debilitating debauchery, I received my B.A in clinical psychology in 1982.
After Ohio State, I had outgrown Canton’s conservative climate. I craved craziness, so I moved to San Francisco. I studied Counseling Psychology and earned a Master’s degree at the California Institute of Integral Studies. While there, I was fortunate to attend seminars by Terrence McKenna and Ram Dass and I took Ralph Metzner’s Altered States of Conscious course.
I became a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in 1996. I’m a Clinical Supervisor and therapist for a mental health clinic in San Francisco. My wife is also a therapist. Due to the plague, we both currently work at home in our tiny treehouse.
Sounds like CIIS was the place to be, that’s an awesome intellectual pedigree. When were you first introduced to psychedelics and how have they influenced your life?
In 1969, a few days after Halloween, I was in my grade school cafeteria. Lunch consisted of leftover Halloween candy and milk. Thirty minutes later, lunchtime ended and I went to my English class.
Ten minutes into the class, I began to feel weird, spacey. Twenty minutes into class, my teacher gave us a quiz. I vividly recall being absorbed by the word “NAME” in the upper right corner of the paper. I knew that I was supposed to write my name in the space beside it, but I never got around to it. I stared, entranced, at the exquisite detail of the ink on the paper. I marveled at how the letters vibrated and the paper gently rippled. Waves of strange, pleasant, feelings and sensations pulsed through my body.
Ding! Class was over. Thirty minutes had passed in what seemed like seconds. I was frightened. What was happening to me? I needed to go home immediately, but first I had to give my quiz to the teacher. I handed the teacher my blank quiz. He looked at me and the look of alarm on his face caused me to panic.
I left the classroom and staggered into a swirling sea of students in the hall. The din of a dozen distinct conversations was deafening. There was too much movement. The floor tilted, the walls breathed and the ceiling descended. I was regressed and lost in an alien, though familiar, world.
One of my other teachers discovered me. Apart from whimpering, I spoke very little. Talking required an enormous amount of effort. When I forced myself to answer one of the teacher’s questions, I experienced the extremely frustrating symptoms of anomic aphasia. I couldn’t find the words for what I wanted to say.
He lassoed me, took me to his car and attempted to drive me home. He had my address, but he needed me to navigate. Ha! I was mesmerized by the visual feast that was whooshing past me as he drove. By the time I became aware of a street onto which he needed to turn, we were already past it.
I grunted and pointed back to the street. He drove around the block, got back on the correct street and proceeded. We repeated this plodding procedure at every turn along the way. It normally took 15 minutes to drive from my school to my house. I later learned that our navigational nightmare took over an hour.
I stumbled out of the car, clutching my Laugh-In lunchbox and ran toward my mother shouting, “Mama, mama!” My poor mother was distraught. Her beloved husband died six months earlier and now her baby boy had lost his mind. I hugged her and she took me into the house.
I ran from room to room and turned on all of the televisions and radios. I needed some kind of grounding stimulation, but I couldn’t find it. So I sat on the dining room floor and cried and screamed.
I still had word-finding difficulty, so I couldn’t describe my experience to my mother. She had been a nurse, so she assumed that I was either drugged or that I was having a psychotic episode. I was convinced that I had gone crazy and that I would never be normal again.
At some point, my mother put me in bed. For the first time, I closed my eyes. I was immersed in an indescribable phantasmagoria of beautiful, exquisitely detailed moving and morphing images. The terror vanished and I was swept away on waves of ecstasy.
While I was savoring the show, my mother called her sisters and asked them to come over to support her. They lived an hour away. I was distracted from the other world by the sound of my mother’s fretful, echoing voice saying, “Tommy, wake up. Open your eyes.”
It felt like I had closed my eyes for only a few seconds. So when I opened them and saw the distorted faces of my mother, my sister and three of my aunts looking down on me, it seemed that they had instantly materialized. I was seized by terror and began screaming. My mother whisked the family out of the room, soothed me and urged me to try to relax and sleep.
I closed my eyes and returned to the wonders of the never-never land. Eventually, I began to come down. The magical movies faded, my house and family looked normal and my vocabulary returned. I rejoiced that I wasn’t permanently crazy. I ate some soup and drifted off to sleep.
The next day, I felt good. I attempted to make sense of my incredible experience, but my brain wasn’t developed enough to process it. But I knew that I had glimpsed another realm. Though I couldn’t articulate it, I knew that there is more to consciousness than meets the mind’s eye. That conviction sparked my interest in psychology.
My mother and I tried to determine what had happened to me. I wasn’t taking any medication, I hadn’t been ill and hadn’t eaten anything unusual, so we agreed that I must have been drugged. Due to the propaganda in the newspaper and on television, I was aware of the Menace of Drugs. I had heard about LSD. Experts and law enforcement warned us that it split your chromosomes, drove you permanently crazy and caused you to jump out of windows to your death.
But none of that happened to me. I felt emotionally and physically peachy. So, it couldn’t have been LSD. For years I tried to imagine what compound had catalyzed my amazing journey. Finally, nine years after The Incident, I confirmed that my Halloween candy had been dosed with LSD.
I arrived at Ohio State University in 1978. I didn’t smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol or use drugs. Despite my fervent attempts with my girlfriend, I was still a virgin. I lived in a dorm with my best friend Nezbitt, pre-med student Markable, electrical engineering student Randable and Jim the Druggie.
Two months into life at Ohio State, after much anxiety and resistance, Jim convinced me to try cannabis for the first time. I loved it! I realized that law enforcement and the “experts” had lied to us about the perils of cannabis. I wondered what other drug disinformation had been disseminated.
Two weeks after discovering cannabis, I asked a druggie friend, “Can I get some acid, or am I ten years too late?” He grinned and said, “You’re right on time. How much do you want?”
The next weekend, I intentionally took LSD for the first time. Nezbitt and Markable joined me. We relished an astonishing trip! I called my mother the next day.
“Mom, I know what happened to me nine years ago! I ate Halloween candy dosed with LSD!”
“Oh my God! Why do you say that?”
“Because Nezbitt and Markable and I took LSD yesterday and the experience was wonderful and transformative because I chose to take the journey, instead of having it foisted upon me! This experience changes everything that I know about everything! And I’m going to take it again to see what else I can learn.”
My mother expressed relief to hear a plausible explanation for The Incident that had befuddled her for years. She urged me to focus on my schoolwork and avoid getting arrested. I assured her that I would. I began my second major in Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll.
Wow, that is a story you don’t hear every day. I assumed all the LSD-laced candy tales were just more anti-drug propaganda, but apparently it had some truth to it. Thank goodness you were OK!
After college you would go on to become both a magician and a therapist. Can you talk about the alchemy of weaving illusions in one line of work, and helping others find their deepest truths in the other?
The two roles may seem diametrically opposed, but they’re simply two different applications of psychological principles.
We come into existence a blank slate, with no words, no sense of identity and no knowledge of anything. Pure, pristine child’s mind. There is no separation of self and other. Everything is everything. And everything is astonishing! Astonishment is our innate state of consciousness.
We develop a sense of self. We experience magical thinking, which is the blissful belief that our thoughts, feelings, wishes, words or rituals can influence events in the material world.
The effects of learning and socialization repress our astonished consciousness at around the age of five. Life seems to lose its magic. But our astonishment isn’t lost. It’s simply buried beneath layer upon layer of all of the psychological clutter that we accumulate in the process of becoming responsible adults.
As a magician, my goal is to orchestrate the audience’s experience of astonishment. The primary tools of my trade are lies, manipulation and deception. But the effects don’t create astonishment. They are simply tools that reveal the latent astonishment within. To paraphrase the brilliant magician Paul Harris, magicians use magical illusions to dissolve cultural illusions in order to unleash a moment of something real.
A power differential exists. The crowd knows that I employ arcane principles and secret sleight of hand techniques of which they are unaware. To orchestrate astonishment, I have to minimize that power differential. I must stay out of the way, both before and after the effect.
So I create and perform effects in which the participant makes all of the decisions and does most of the work. When I do handle the cards or props, the methods that I employ are invisible. My actions seem normal and fair. I seemingly don’t “do” anything. The magic just happens.
It’s crucial that the audience doesn’t attribute the magic to me because I design my effects and performances to empower my participants. Unlike some of my peers, I don’t suffer from what I dub the “Ain’t I Cool” syndrome. I focus on the magic and my participants, not me. And they can’t feel empowered if they believe that I’m doing all the work
To experience astonishment, the participant must turn off their analytical mind, open their hearts, become vulnerable and allow themselves to be swept away. Just like tripping, they must surrender. They must relinquish control.
Most people partially surrender and they are entertained and mystified. I’m happy with that.
Some people, 95% of them male, just don’t like magic and wouldn’t consider surrendering. They perceive magic not as entertainment, but as a personal challenge. They view me not as a performer, but as an adversary. So they remain in their heads and focus on trying to figure out how I did it, but they can’t. To defend their fragile ego and avoid feeling “defeated”, they dismiss the magic as a hokey puzzle and forget about it.
But the handful of participants who dare to fully surrender will experience astonishment.
Astonishment doesn’t look like you might expect. The participants don’t applaud. They don’t speak. Their mouths are often literally agape.
It’s vital that I don’t say a word. I dare not intrude upon the experience that I worked so hard to orchestrate. Even with me out of the way, astonishment lasts only about five seconds before rational reality rudely reasserts itself.
When the participants speak, they all say the same thing. “I felt like a kid again!” They report that they felt wonderful and that everything seemed new and sparkly and amazing. Hmm. That sounds like tripping.
Discovering that their child’s mind persists, like the earliest, innermost tree-ring, is a potent realization. They feel empowered knowing that they can access that state of consciousness again. The wondrous feeling of awakened childhood can have an enduring positive effect on their lives. Astonishment is therapeutic.
That slick segue brings me to my role as a therapist. In that guise, my goal is to empower the patient to develop a healthier state of mind and improved functioning. The primary tool of my trade is my psychological expertise. But I must also evince honesty, integrity and trustworthiness. It is the antithesis of my magician persona.
I reiterate that the patient develops their healthier state of mind, not me. I treat them, but I can’t change them. There’s an old joke that highlights the truth about therapy. How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? None. The light bulb has to change itself.
Psychotropic medications quiet voices, decrease anxiety and stabilize mood, but they don’t change the person. Stop the meds and the symptoms return, often worse. In treating patients, I empathize with them, educate them, help them gain insight into how they got to where they are, suggest different ways of thinking, feeling and behaving and teach them techniques for managing their symptoms. But they have to do the work!
A successful therapeutic outcome boils down to a maxim that I’ve been preaching to patients my entire career. If you want to experience positive changes in your life, you have to make positive changes in your life.
Patients long for better lives, but they often believe that they’re powerless, with no control, incapable of changing their lives. I think that’s a crock of shit and I let them know it.
Upon first speaking with them, I assure them of two things. I will never ask them to do something that I don’t think that they can do. I will never do something for them that I think they can do for themselves.
Like in magic, a power differential exists between me and the patient. I have expertise that they don’t. To empower the patient to improve their life, I have to minimize that power differential. I do so by attributing all of the patient’s progress to them and by deflecting their efforts to credit me with their achievements. They can’t feel empowered if they think that I did the work.
To empower these folks, I ask them to take control of their lives. I challenge and encourage them to make a tiny positive change to their thoughts or feelings or behaviors. The change must be easy for them to implement and it must quickly produce a positive, desired outcome. When they succeed, I commend them for taking a risk and I applaud their success.
We repeat this process again and again, for years. Successes build upon successes and the patient gains confidence in their ability to change their lives for the better and to maintain their new, healthier way of being. They feel empowered.
In therapy, patients take control to feel empowered. In magic, the audience relinquishes control to feel empowered.
What a fascinating dichotomy, using totally different means to achieve the same end. Let’s talk about the Psychedelic Timeline now, which is an amazing feat. What inspired you to create this, and why is it important to have a comprehensive perspective on psychedelic use throughout history?
I’ve always enjoyed trivia and the attribution of innovative ideas. I like to remember and celebrate the game-changing players that advanced their fields of endeavor. With psychedelics, the first fact that I committed to memory was Albert Hoffman’s intentional ingestion of 250 mics of LSD on April 19th, 1943. Bicycle Day. Then I memorized that on June 12th 1943, twenty-one-year-old Susi Ramstein became the first woman to take LSD.
For my own entertainment and edification, I went down the rabbit hole and researched the history of psychedelia. I focused on the pivotal events, the “firsts.” I memorized as much of the fascinating information as possible, but quickly realized that I couldn’t remember all of it. I had to document this data for future reference,
I created a Word document that chronicled the contributions of psychedelic pioneers. During my research, the details of every entry opened fractal-like pathways of inquiry, which I had to explore. I was surprised when the timeline chronicled over 250 entries.
I hoped that other like-minded folk might appreciate my efforts. So I sent PDFs to friends and kindred spirits and thrusted printed copies of the manuscript into the hands of attendees at the MAPS Psychedelic Science conference in Oakland in 2017. The positive feedback that I received from respected psychedelic researchers, chemists and outlaws exceeded my expectations and motivated me to continue my research. The timeline continued to grow.
This information demanded a wider audience. So I pitched my Timeline to Joe Mattia at Psychedelic Times and he brought it to the world in 2018. The Psychedelic Timeline currently features 451 entries.
I hope that viewing the use of psychedelics through a wide historical lens illustrates the successes and challenges we’ve faced in our attempts to determine our relationship with them. We’ve been using psychedelics for well over 7000 years. Our ancestors used psychedelics for diagnosing ailments, healing, divination, rites of passage, communal celebrations and communing with nature and deities. Their most important contribution to psychedelia is that they achieved community consensus regarding the practices and goals of use. They created well defined rituals and they agreed on why, when, how and who would use psychedelics.
Western man arrived ludicrously late to the party and has been documenting and scientifically analyzing and experimenting with psychedelics for less than 600 years. Perhaps we haven’t had enough time. Because, as a global community, we still can’t agree on whether or not psychedelics should be used at all, much less why, when, how and who should use them! We haven’t achieved or regained community consensus.
I think the primary reason for the lack of consensus lies with the compounds themselves. Stan Grof best described a psychedelic as a non-specific catalyst and amplifier of the psyche. He was referring to how it affects the mind of the person who ingests it. But I believe its effects also affect the minds of people who don’t ingest it.
The crucial phrase in Grof’s definition is “non-specific.” A psychedelic compound is the ultimate psychological Swiss Army knife. It’s a tantalizing tabula rasa tool onto which a researcher or practitioner or policy-maker projects their personal need, desire, intent and expectation of its use. The same compound offers many different things to people, based upon their personal agendas.
So it’s important to be aware of how our relationship with psychedelics has evolved, yet endured over thousands of years. I hope the Timeline’s historic snapshots inspire others to further research entries that interest them. It’s a pleasure to acknowledge and honor the psychedelic pioneers upon whose shoulders we stand as we attempt to kiss the sky.