Allene Symons sitting on the porch of her Craftsman-style Long Beach home where she discovered the photos of Huxley's hands that inspired her new book. Photo courtesy of Allene Symons.
It all started with the discovery of a few old boxes inside the garage of her craftsman-style home in Long Beach. Inside one box were the images of nearly a thousand hands gathered by her father in his quest to discover possible links between hand structure and pathology. The other box contained index cards penned in her mother’s handwriting linking each hand to its owner. One of them was famed British author Aldous Huxley.
Thus started the over 12-year odyssey of Allene Symons, local author and educator at Santa Ana College, that took her on a sprawling journey ranging from the library at the University of California Los Angeles where she read original entries from Huxley, to the Midwest for interviews with one of Huxley’s colleague’s daughters. Her research even took her to an obscure temple in Trabuco Canyon that’s now a hub of meditation and world religions, with the help of Huxley’s planning.
“A lot of that was like piecing together these little pieces as I went along, and it was great fun, for me,” Symons said.
This was done all in the name of exploring Huxley’s fascination with psychedelic science, states of consciousness and unorthodox healing, as well as highlighting its return to the mainstream, which she highlights in her new book, Aldous Huxley’s Hands. The book was published by Prometheus Books and distributed by Penguin Random House.
While the use of drugs like mescaline and LSD have long been studied for their use as treatment in psychiatric settings, psychedelics have just recently been re-visited for medical purposes, namely for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and for end-of-life anxiety.
In what’s self-described as a “genre-bending” book, Aldous Huxley’s Hands serves as a two-fold homage: a memoir of her father and a historical biography investigating one of the more impactful authors of her youth and his fascination with neuroscience and psychedelics. While Huxley is probably best known for his dystopian novel A Brave New World, his fixation with altered states of perception led him to pen other works like Doors of Perception, where he wrote of his experiences with mescaline in his quest to access greater degrees of awareness.
Symons digs deeper into those works, even referencing a trove of letters between Huxley and Humphry Osmand—the British psychiatrist who provided Huxley with the mescaline for his experiments—that span a decade. The correspondences between the two even led to the coining of the word “psychedelic” 60 years ago next month.
As a student at San Francisco State University in the 1960s, Symons had her own run-ins with psychedelics and was exposed to the scholarly side of it, as the university had an on-campus research lab. However, she didn’t expect that, nearly 40 years later, her path would again intersect psychedelics and Huxley, this time through the work of her father.
As a woman who’s worked in literary and journalistic fields her whole life, Symons was shocked to find such a heavy-hitter’s name like Huxley’s stashed in a box in her parent’s garage. Her dad, Howard Thrasher, was studying the grain of hand prints and trying to connect them to pathological diseases. She was aware of her dad’s research as a girl, but few people knew of Huxley’s own private obsession with hands that eventually connected him to her father.
When she discovered that her dad had been invited to weekly salons at Huxley’s West Hollywood home where a star-studded cast of characters, including L. Ron Hubbard on one occasion, explored altered states of consciousness through hypnosis seances, she was floored.
However, Symons said that while her father did include Huxley’s hands in photographs that he studied, as well as other members of Huxley’s group, the innocuous index card that held only his name had no diagnosis.
“Huxley's hand was not one that he analyzed in any of the areas that he was looking at, interestingly,” Symons said. “There was no analysis of Huxley’s hand and my dad died before I even asked that question.”
Huxley’s hand, as well as a flower from the Peyote Cactus grace the cover of Symons latest work, which she will discuss at a book signing and discussion at Barnes and Noble this Saturday at the Marina Pacifica.
Symons said the most intriguing aspect of her delving into Huxley’s history with psychedelic experimentation was a trajectory it could’ve created for the use of the drugs as medicine. Like her dad, Huxley was trying to explore an obscure area of science to better mankind, only he was hopeful that the use of psychedelics could quell the fear of the Cold War. However, psychedelics remained classified as Class A narcotics, due in large part to government efforts.
“They couldn’t get the funding partly because they didn’t know the CIA was tapping off a lot of the funding for this clandestine experiment and research they were doing,” Symons said. “If their study of their own had gone through the psychedelic era could’ve been very different.”
Symons will be signing copies of the book at Barnes and Noble at 6326 Pacific Coast Highway starting at 2:00PM this Saturday, February 27, and a discussion with the author will follow.