Review – Schou, “Orange Sunshine”

Nicholas Schou, “Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Its Quest to Spread Peace, Love, and Acid to the World” (2010) (read aloud by Stephen Bowlby) – Due to various life decisions, despite not being a user of psychedelics (at this point I’m not even really opposed, it just seems like more bother than it’s worth) I have read a reasonable amount about the social history of their use in the US. Not as much as I could! The psychedelic scene is really, really well-documented, or anyway the early scene around figures like Timothy Leary, before LSD became as profoundly, absurdly illegal as it would become! But a fair amount. I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the business end, so I gave a listen to this account of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, an Orange County, California-based group variously described as a cult, a “hippie mafia,” a circle of men with similar spiritual ideas, etc. The Brotherhood might be best known for, at one point, dropping thousands of doses of LSD over a rock concert by airplane, and for commissioning the Weather Underground to bust Timothy Leary out of jail and smuggle him to Algeria.

Author Nicholas Schou is an Orange County-area journalist who tracked down a lot of old Brotherhood members to get their stories. Like most long form crime journalism I read, there’s more in the way of anecdote and name-dropping (visits from the likes of Jimi Hendrix and a lot of involvement with Timothy Leary) than I’d prefer and less detail about organizational culture, strategy, etc., though I will say it’s actually better in terms of analytical detail than most similar books. To me, the most interesting stuff wasn’t how high anyone got, or all the ways the group found to smuggle LSD, hashish, and regular old weed into various places. There’s a cultural transition you see in the very beginning that intrigues me. 

The core of the Brotherhood was made up of a group of fairly nasty young low-level criminals. These were the flotsam of the (white) Southern California dream, kids who born to families who washed up in working-class suburbs (though it’s worth noting “working class” in white Southern California in the fifties still meant cars, surfboards, plenty of leisure time at the beach) and seemingly had no ambition other than making small-time criminal deals and fighting. There’s a lot about fighting here, future Brotherhood members just beating the hell out of people for the temerity to be from another high school or beach town. 

And then, sometime around 1966 or 1967, they discovered acid. And here, depending on how much you buy the Brotherhood’s nonviolent rep – Schou mostly buys it, other journalists less so (and cops much less so, but who cares) – acid transformed these guys from an obsession with random violence to something resembling inner peace. They stopped wanting to beat up everyone not from their clique, and wanting all of them to take acid and feel the oneness of the universe or whatever. Failing that, they wanted to go to a tropical island somewhere and have a Huxley-inspired island utopia. 

In order to achieve both ends – and, one suspects, because it’s what, other than brawling, they knew how to do – the Brotherhood became some of the major dealers of acid, marijuana, and eventually refined marijuana product hashish, in Southern California and beyond. Somewhere between getting in a new market and native business savvy, they turned Laguna Beach into a hub of drug trafficking. They worked with legendary counterculture chemist Augustus Owsley Stanley to develop better and stronger varietals of lsd, culminating in the titular “Orange Sunshine” (one anonymous Brother confessed to giving some — a lot — to the Hell’s Angels at before they killed a guy at the Altamont pop festival, in an effort to calm them down!). They pioneered smuggling hashish out of Afghanistan and into the US. One group bought a yacht in the Caribbean, loaded it with high quality Mexican marijuana, almost died crossing the Pacific, and brought it to Maui, where it became a parent to some famous strains. 

Alas, the Brothers never got their island utopia- the ones who settled on pre-tourism industry Maui came the closest. One of the leaders did set up a sort of commune camp in the mountains outside Palm Springs, but that ended poorly- they didn’t maintain the camp, people left, internal divisions, the leader eventually died there, though the location seems to be incidental to the cause of the death (overdose of psilocybin, which I have never heard of before, but I know it makes you puke so it makes sense I guess). Timothy Leary was happy to make use of them as evangelists, Front men, and a get out of jail free card, but by the time Leary was pronouncing himself the most evolved human of all time in Algiers (just before the Panthers put a gun to his head and made him declare himself in favor of violent overthrow of the US government), the Brothers lost most of their interest in him. In the seventies, the newly-formed DEA caught up with the Brotherhood, a number of them went down, and the group drifted apart.

This is reasonably decent narrative history/journalism. To tell the truth, the individual Brothers tend to merge together- from tediously aggressive beach bum goons to tediously enlightened trickster smugglers. Some of them cared more about the money than others- and all of them did a certain amount “for the cause,” which was one of the things that both brought them to fed attention with their evangelism, and helped keep the group together. If acid really did lead these guys to go from wannabe killers to dudes who just really, really liked acid and surfing, more power to it. There are intimations of darker things — connections to the Manson Family, and something tells me that many Brothers didn’t spend that much time in Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey without some connections to US intelligence (which helped take some of them down in the end) — but Schou doesn’t really track them down. He doesn’t show them as angelic, even post acid-conversion — there were some creepy cult aspects to their behavior (weird biblical patriarchal gender rules, for instance), they were fine with turning on and then screwing underage girls, etc — but isn’t willing to show them doing anything the group itself would consider really wrong… well, maybe it’s truth, maybe it’s stenography. I don’t know. ***’

Review – Schou, “Orange Sunshine”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s