Ann Shulgin, matriarch of psychedelic-assisted therapy, widow of and co-conspirator with legendary chemist Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, and anchor of an extended community of therapists, scientists, scholars, and explorers of the worlds opened by psychedelic substances, died at home in the company of people who loved her on July 9, 2022. She was 91.
Ann was born Laura Ann Gotlieb in New Zealand on March 22, 1931. Her mother was a New Zealander and her father a U.S. Consul. As a result of her father’s profession, the family moved around a bit, and most of Ann’s childhood during the 1930s was spent in Italy, first in Sicily and then Trieste. With the coming of World War II, the family moved to the United States, on the Texas-Mexico border, and later lived in Cuba and Canada, before returning to the U.S., this time to San Francisco, where her father retired.
In San Francisco in the 1950s, Ann studied art, and explored the possibilities of commercial art as a profession. She married a fellow artist and they had a child. There was divorce and a subsequent marriage to a medical student. At this point Ann worked as a medical transcriptionist at UCSF. Another divorce was followed by marriage to a Jungian psychoanalyst. They lived near San Francisco in Marin County and had three children, before eventually divorcing.
In 1978 Ann met Sasha Shulgin, and it was clear early on that this was a coupling meant to be. They were married in a ceremony in their garden on July 4, 1981, a surprise event added into what was otherwise a conventional holiday celebration. The person officiating their ceremony was a close friend who worked as an official of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Sasha was already a renowned chemist, widely recognized as a genius in synthetic chemistry, developing and testing new psychoactive (mostly psychedelic) compounds, providing expert consultation to academia and law enforcement, and teaching an annual class in forensic toxicology at UC Berkeley. Among the compounds Sasha had already created were 2C-B and other related molecules. And he had famously described the chemistry, psychoactive properties, and therapeutic potential of MDMA.
Quickly, Ann and Sasha became close collaborators. As Ann would later say: Whereas Sasha was a genius in chemistry, it was she who understood people and the complexities of the psyche. Ann became a pioneer in exploring the therapeutic utility of MDMA and of 2C-B. Neither of these substances was illegal at the time. As a lay therapist she developed methods of working with these materials and provided counsel and mentorship to many. Bringing concepts from Jungian psychoanalysis into her work with psychedelics, Ann became skilled in doing shadow work with clients and mentored other therapists on the process. A beautiful presentation on doing shadow work was delivered by Ann at the 2019 Women’s Visionary Congress.
Ann and Sasha were equals in their relationship and muses for one another. They traveled together when invited to conferences and both often gave presentations, each speaking to their particular expertise. They conceived and authored two celebrated books together – PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story (1991) and TiHKAL: The Continuation (1997) – telling stories of their relationship and their community, interwoven with descriptions of exploring the properties of Sasha’s molecular creations, explorations often done in collaboration with a small group of close friends, sometimes referred to as their “research group.” When Ann and Sasha sought a publisher for PiHKAL, no one would take it on. It was considered too controversial, and every publisher they approached was too fearful to publish the book. So they started their own press, Transform Press, to make PiHKAL available when no one else would do it.
Among the greatest of Ann and Sasha’s contributions was their anchoring of community. Their home, affectionately referred to as “The Farm,” was a gathering place for like-minded souls to assemble and talk, as friends, colleagues, and collaborators on a major societal project. The project: to keep alive and flourishing the community of scientists, scholars, and practitioners working with psychedelics; to provide a safe place for conversation and community connection. Their Easter Sunday and July 4th gatherings were especially well attended.
For many years, a smaller collective of friends also gathered regularly for potlucks that began in the 1980s as “Wednesday Night Dinners.” At some point there was a shift to “Friday Night Dinners.” The food was delicious, as people brought passion and care to creating really tasty dishes to share. Until his death, these dinner gatherings were held at the home of Ann Shulgin’s ex-husband in Marin County, but at the center of the gathering were always Ann and Sasha.
Despite the shared interest of people attending Wednesday and Friday Night Dinners and Farm gatherings, it was made very clear that there was to be no illegal drug use of any kind on the premises, and no exchange of illegal materials. With this they were very adamant and strict. Ann made an announcement at the beginning of every gathering. And those in attendance readily agreed.
These days, with so much positive media attention on the virtues of psychedelics, the favorable outcomes of clinical trials with MDMA and psilocybin, successful decriminalization efforts in cities across the country, and rampant commercialization of these materials, it may be difficult to appreciate that not long ago psychedelics were not only demonized by governments and the media, but the law enforcement related to them was truly draconian. Long prison sentences were not uncommon. And one could, without a trial, have one’s home and property confiscated simply for having illegal materials on the premises.
Ann and Sasha were courageous indeed for hosting such gatherings, and for speaking publicly on numerous occasions on the science and clinical utility of psychedelics, wisely and respectfully used. Following the publication of their first book, PiHKAL, law enforcement invaded their tranquil home and Sasha’s backyard laboratory, levied heavy fines, and caused a great deal of disruption and distress. Their second book, TiHKAL, opens with the story of these events.
These days it is often thought that although some scientific and clinical studies with psychedelics did take place in the 1950s and 1960s, nothing much came from that, and the good science and clinical investigations are only now happening. To the contrary, excellent science with psychedelics has continued throughout all the decades between the 1950s up to today. Sasha Shulgin was personally responsible for some of this. And there have been many others: chemists, pharmacologists, ethnobotanists, neurobiologists, mycologists. What is mostly new today is the application of new methodologies to the study of these materials. And the unbridled commercialization.
And while current clinical work has moved legal availability forward with clinical trials according to the FDA’s required protocols, one could argue that no new or unexpected therapeutic properties have been discovered. Between the academic researches of the 1950s and 1960s, and the decades of underground therapy that has continued since, a great deal has been learned and described and transmitted from mentor to student.
We owe a great debt to Ann Shulgin and numerous others for continuing the lineage of exploration, innovation, practice, and mentoring that has resulted in the progress that is manifest today.
Ann modeled how to live as a good citizen in psychedelic community. Kind, generous, present in connection, ethical, an exemplary therapist, and a skilled mentor, her big heart shown through in the sparkle in her eyes. She loved her family above all, her husband, her children, and her grandchildren. And she loved those around her. In return she was surrounded by a circle of love and care to the hours of her last breath and beyond.
More than 30 years ago, Ann wrote in PiHKAL about an experience she had had more than 30 years prior to that, her very first psychedelic journey when she was in her 20s. Ann and a friend were strolling about in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
“We stopped and looked around us at the earth, the sky and each other, then I saw something forming in the air, slightly above the level of my head. I thought that it was perhaps a few feet from me, then I realized I couldn’t actually locate it in space at all. It was a moving spiral opening, up there in the cool air, and I knew it was a doorway to the other side of existence, that I could step through it if I wished to be finished with this particular life I was living, and that there was nothing threatening or menacing about it; in fact, it was completely friendly. I also knew that I had no intention of stepping through it because there was still a great deal I wanted to do in my life, and I intended to live long enough to get it all done. The lovely spiral door didn’t beckon; it was just matter-of-factly there.
“Any fear I might have had of death, of the actual crossing of the border, was left behind at that moment. I was seeing the way through, and there was nothing to be frightened of. As I gazed up at the energy-charged patch of sky, I was again aware of being unsurprised, because some part of me remembered this.
“(I still have the fear of dying before I have done all I want to, but I have no fear of the journey itself, nor of what lies on the other side of that opening. I know that when I get there, I will recognize the territory very well indeed, and that it will be truly a returning home.)” [PiHKAL, p. 129]
Ann modeled how to live, and she modeled how to die. And she accomplished truly enormous things in the 60+ years between seeing that spiral and intuiting its significance, and her passing this month. Thank you, Ann, for the community you fostered and for all the wisdom gifts and love transmitted to this community over such an expanse a time. The world is a far better place for your having been here.
Photo credits: David Presti.