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Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner, and we’ve got a bonus episode I’d like you to hear. We just finished a three-part series called “The Curious, Brilliant, Vanishing Mr. Feynman,” about the late theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. When he was in his twenties, he worked on the Manhattan Project; when he was in his sixties, he served on a presidential commission investigating the Challenger space shuttle disaster. In between, he won a Nobel Prize, had a million adventures, and lived a life of — well, “curious” and “brilliant” are pretty good words for it; and then — yeah, then came the vanishing. He died in 1988, and his legacy has shrunk since then — too much, for some people’s taste. That would include me. So, for this series, we sought out a variety of people to talk about Feynman. One of the most unusual interviews happened at the Esalen Institute, in Big Sur, California, where Feynman spent some time in the 1970s and 80s. Our Esalen host was Sam Stern:

Sam STERN: Well, when I think about Esalen, I think about this place where people are able to explore, like, a new way of being through — a lot of it is through humanistic psychology.

Stephen DUBNER: How much do you personally know and care about Richard Feynman?

STERN: All I know about Feynman is that there’s this one talk in the archive that’s from 1984. It’s called “Tiny Machines,” and I listened to it this weekend. It doesn’t necessarily feel aligned with the greater Human Potential Movement in general. He seems like a brilliant, neurotic, fast-talking Jewish guy — doesn’t make him unlike the rest of the teachers from that time, but his concerns seem scientific and mathematical, and not necessarily embodied the way that a lot of the other teachers sort of grounded their work in the body.

Feynman was definitely an outsider at Esalen. He was, generally, an enthusiast — of just about anything that might prove interesting; but he was also a perpetual skeptic who didn’t trust even mainstream psychology, much less the fringier variants being explored in California at that time. But Feynman’s curiosity often led him to surprising places. As a kid, he experimented with lucid dreaming; as an adult, he explored sensory-deprivation tanks, and, toward the very end of his life, hallucinogenic drugs. Among Feynman’s many interests was consciousness, and the different layers thereof. And he was willing to push boundaries to explore it. Esalen encouraged this.

STERN: Esalen, right from the get-go, was a place where non-ordinary states of consciousness were looked at very carefully and with a lot of respect for what could be gleaned from those experiences.

We arrived at Esalen with Ralph Leighton, the longtime friend, drumming partner, and writing partner of Richard Feynman. Leighton had told us, in one of the interviews we did with him, about a meaningful and memorable series of encounters that Feynman had once had at Esalen with three other Esalen pilgrims of consciousness. Leighton had described them to us as the Three Goddesses. Richard Feynman sometimes called them the Three Graces, after the daughters of Zeus in Greek mythology. With their help and supervision, Feynman had participated in at least two psychedelic experiences: one with mushrooms, and one with LSD. If you listened to the third and final part of our Feynman series, you heard some of my conversation with the Graces; but there was a lot more that we couldn’t fit, so we wanted you to hear a fuller version; it was quite an experience. So, today on Freakonomics Radio: Barbara Berg, Cheryl Haley, and Debby Harlow — the Three Graces, at Esalen, remembering Richard Feynman.

Barbara BERG: So, he and Ralph came for lunch, and they stayed for three days.

Cheryl HALEY: I think that Richard had a beautiful combination of playfulness and integrity.

Debby HARLOW: It was like, pow! Tears were pouring down his face.

Richard Feynman takes a trip but doesn’t fall. That starts now.

*      *      *

One thing I want to say before we get going. This conversation was not recorded in a studio, as most of our interviews are, but in a cabin on the Esalen property — and there were four open microphones, so the audio may be a bit looser than you’re used to hearing on this show. But I think you’ll find the tradeoff acceptable.

DUBNER: First, just introduce yourself. Say your name, what you do — and then maybe a little something about Feynman.

Cheryl HALEY: Okay, so my name is Cheryl Haley. I was a psychoanalyst in Manhattan for many years until I got introduced to Esalen, where I discovered a totally different worldview. And I was so glad to have a strong psychological background behind me, because it certainly comes in handy for all kinds of explorations.

Debby HARLOW: My name is Debby Harlow, and I’m a psychotherapist. I worked with MDMA and other psychedelics as a youngster in training with people like Leo Zeff, Stan Grof, and Claudio Naranjo, back in the eighties, shortly before I met Feynman. I went out to Harvard to do a graduate degree and later a post-graduate in research. I have been fascinated with these materials as an adjunct to psychotherapy and personal and spiritual growth. While I was at Harvard, I ended up rooming with three of Marvin Minsky’s students in the A.I. Department. And I got to know these wonderful, quirky guys with brilliant minds, but often who didn’t have the greatest sense of social skills and connectivity. And so, I thought, Oh, this is just the right, you know, milieu for introducing the work that I was doing with MDMA. Long story short, I had heard Feynman’s name mentioned many times. And when I heard he was at Esalen, I thought, Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to go down and hear what he has to say? And I came here and I met Dick, and I spent about three hours walking around Esalen, getting to know him and sharing our personal stories. And then at the end of that time, I asked him, I said, “Have you ever tried psilocybin mushrooms?” And he said, “No.” And I asked, “Would you like to?” And he said, “Yes.” So that’s the beginning of our story together.

DUBNER: Okay, Barbara?

Barbara BERG: Barbara wants to run out of the room. My name is Barbara Berg, and I came to Esalen at the age of 28 from Connecticut. I was bored in graduate school. I was looking for greater understanding about the nature of consciousness and evolution. I started here as a work-scholar. I stayed on to end up teaching at Esalen and running month-long programs at Esalen and work with Stan and Christina Grof on the holotropic breathwork, what became holotropic breathwork. And it was a wonderful time in Esalen. There was a lot happening with consciousness and psychedelics at that point. And Feynman was coming to town. Cheryl and I happened to live a mile up the road at the time. He gave a talk that was very, I thought, charming as well as inspirational. And we invited him to our house and that’s how we began our friendship.

HARLOW: Right. And at that time, MDMA — I should point out for my insurance policy, at least — was legal. Because I’d had powerful experiences with it and was training with it, I would sometimes bring it to the Esalen community. I don’t know why we didn’t offer Richard Feynman MDMA at that time. For some reason, it just seemed like mushrooms, you know, that’s what came up. And he was interested.

DUBNER: Did it seem as though somehow he were more of a mushroom guy than an MDMA guy?

HARLOW: I mean, I’m sure MDMA could have been a lovely experience, too, but I had been working with scientists, mostly scientists, but creative people. And I found that working with psilocybin often opened up doors. So wouldn’t it be nice to provide him the opportunity? It didn’t work out like that. It was much more of a personal and deep experience. I asked him afterwards. He said, “Nope, nothing about my work, but wow.”

DUBNER: So he was here for a few days to give a presentation and to hang out.

BERG: Yes, with Ralph.

HALEY: Yes, he was invited to give a lecture at Esalen, which he did beautifully, about computers and whether or not they can think. And he made everything very clear. That was really the reason that he was invited to Esalen, although he made additional use of it along the way.

DUBNER: And when you say, “additional use,” just describe what that additional use would be — in addition to the dancing, the lecture, the drug experimentation, the hot springs.

HARLOW: That wasn’t a part of the official Esalen program

BERG: I think it would also please him that he could come to this wild and crazy place and let loose.

HARLOW: And that was common. I mean, interesting people would come in, give a presentation to the community at large, and then they were invited to stay for, you know, maybe a couple of nights. And they could go to the baths, they could do the drum circle, they could meet people. You know, they could just enjoy being at Esalen.

HALEY: What I remember — that I thought was quite significant — was when Richard was getting off on LSD for the first time, we were watching the water, and the water was moving, and he started saying, “We’ve got to draw the line somewhere. We’ve got to draw the line somewhere.” And I always remembered that, because, to me, it meant that once one started entering that unitive state, where everything becomes interactive and co-mingled, there’s an arbitrary line that is drawn that is consensually agreed upon to be the nature of reality.

BERG: For me, the relationship with him was also just the pleasure of having a personal relationship. And who he was, and getting to know him in his many essences. We all met him under different circumstances over the period of a couple of days. So I’d like to share how I met him, which was he gave this talk “Can Machines Think?” And I kept looking at him as a Jewish New Yorker. I thought, mishpucha, this man’s my family. So for me, that meeting with him was personal. And Cheryl and I were so entertained that we agreed we had to have him back to the house. So we decided to write him an invitation. And we knew that if we wrote him an invitation, that it had better be fairly outrageous to catch his attention. So I wrote something about my theory of something according to Marx, and then in parentheses, wrote “Groucho.” The invitation was delivered. He read it and he said — he crumpled it up, per Ralph, and said, “People always want something from me.” And he threw it on the floor. And then Ralph picked it up later, opened up and said, “I think you better read this.” So when he read the whole note, to our great good fortune, he said, “Let’s go.”

DUBNER: What did he miss? That you were nice young ladies that he would enjoy spending time with, or he —

BERG: Oh, no, no no. That we were going to offer, you know, like, a level of like-minded entertainment.

DUBNER: I see.

BERG: So he and Ralph came, and they came for lunch, and they stayed for three days.

DUBNER: At the house. Oh.

BERG: And that’s when the mushrooms unfolded. And Debby entertained.

HARLOW: And this is such an interesting — because, Barb, I didn’t even know that piece of the story until this afternoon. So, my trajectory with Dick just had to do with — I came down, I was house-sitting for a psychologist in Berkeley, and I had the inspiration to come here to get to know him and see if he was interested. And we spent maybe three or four hours talking one afternoon, just walking around the grounds, looking at the ocean. And I was just blown away with the depth and intimacy of that conversation with somebody I had just met, and his capacity to go really deep and yet be playful at the same time. We talked a lot about our early lives. He talked a lot about Arline. I think how it came up, I said, you know, “I know a lot of scientists and I have to say you’re one of the most well-rounded I’ve ever met.” And he said, “Well, that may be true, but if it is, it’s all due to Arline.” And he said that, “I would have been a very narrow computational kind of physics guy, but I knew her in high school, and she introduced me to art, to philosophy, to all the humanities. She opened up my heart. And he deeply loved her. And then he told me, of course, a tragic story. And I could sense that there was some — certainly regret, but also guilt. And, you know, the ways he felt, sadly, that he had failed her. So I knew there was some material there that, you know, he might unpack.

DUBNER: This was what year?

HARLOW: A good question.

BERG: We’re not sure. We think ‘84.

DUBNER: So he was getting toward the end of his life. He was sick for a while, yes? He’d already had surgery by then —

BERG: I think he had a —

DUBNER: A remission.

BERG: Yeah. He didn’t it anticipate to —

DUBNER: He didn’t seem —

HARLOW: And he never complained.

HALEY: He had three surgeries. I think he had had one at that time. We went down to visit him just before his second surgery.

DUBNER: This was in Pasadena, then?

HALEY: This was in Pasadena, yes.

BERG: The U.C.L.A. Medical Center.

HALEY: This was before his second surgery, which it was not known whether or not he would survive it. He had a very difficult time finding a surgeon who was willing to do it. 

DUBNER: I’m not very good at geography, but I know that we are in Northern California and L.A. — Pasadena — is a long way, and the road from here is like a snake made it. What led — the three of you went on this trip?

HARLOW: Sadly, I couldn’t attend. And that’s one of the deep regrets of my life. They sent me pictures on the journey, and we talked and things. But these two Graces made up for it.

DUBNER: But what possessed you to take that long drive?

BERG: It was simply that he wasn’t feeling well. So we thought, you know, bring the mountain to Muhammad.

HALEY: We went down to be with him before the surgery. Nobody knew if he was going to survive it or not, and we just did it to be loving to him, and to support him. And he really enjoyed it.

DUBNER: What was your relationship like with Gweneth, his wife? Was she there for that?

BERG: We met her at the hospital.

HALEY: We met, we met his daughter Michelle and his wife.

DUBNER: What did the family think of these two nice, smart, beautiful young women driving eight hours through the mountains to see their husband/slash father? A little strange?

BERG: They seemed very okay. I think they were respectful that we’d come and really cared.

HALEY: Yeah, I felt very accepted. I did not feel judged at all for our being there.

DUBNER: So the three of you obviously had an intense, happy relationship with him that was formed here under interesting, you know, heightened circumstances. And you formed this band of three goddesses that sound like you feathered into and out of his life for — for a while? Do you have any sense whether that was a typical thing for him? Do you think he had goddesses scattered around the rest of the world?

HALEY: No, no. I think it was rather unique.

HARLOW: He didn’t let on.

BERG: No, I don’t think so either.

HARLOW: Dick showed such deep respect for each of — each of us had a personal relationship with him. He got me at very deep levels. I would say if anything, he maybe was a little bit paternal. He is quite protective. He cared about me as an individual. We talked about my career. We talked about what my goals were, what drove me. He wasn’t a taker. He was a person who gave deeply of himself, shared what wisdom he had. He shared his levity. I really appreciated his friendship. We joked around with, “Oh, the three goddesses feeding him the grapes.” But that was really not the essence of the experience.

Coming up: why did Feynman want to experiment with psychedelics when he’d never done drugs before?

*      *      *

All right, back now to my conversation with Barbara Berg, Cheryl Haley, and Debby Harlow, about the time they spent at the Esalen Institute in the 1980s with Richard Feynman.

HALEY: I think that Richard had a beautiful combination of playfulness and integrity. I always saw both of those things present in him.

DUBNER: Did you ever speak with him, or intuit from him, where that came from?

HALEY: Yes, he talked a lot about his father. He talked a lot about the influence that his father had on him. Because as he was growing up, his father taught him that just because something is given a name, it doesn’t mean that it’s explained. So I could see that his father had a very strong influence on his way of seeing the world, his curiosity about it, and just his whole frame for his approach.

DUBNER: The father strikes me as a lot of men of that generation and that intellect and that place, where they could have accomplished something more or different had they been born a generation later, maybe in a slightly different family. Do you ever think Richard Feynman felt that he was fulfilling some of his father’s intellectual appetites?

HARLOW: I don’t know, but my sense of him is that his father just gave him this gift, of a way of looking at the world, which so excited him and turned him on that, you know, it’s like he’s so excited about every day, solving these problems. If it turns out to be a little answer or a big answer, it doesn’t matter.

HALEY: He was inspired by his dad.

HARLOW: Yeah, I think he was inspired.

BERG: Definitely. He spoke — you can see that in documentaries. But I think he was just insatiably curious in the most, you know, lovely way.

DUBNER: How did he feel about being the center of attention?

BERG: His favorite role.

HARLOW: He enjoyed it.

DUBNER: Was he good, however, at not going over the line and becoming obnoxious and arrogant?

BERG: For the most part.

HARLOW: Oh, I don’t think — obnoxious, arrogance might have been his best quality, you know?

BERG: He had high self-esteem. He loved attention.

DUBNER: So, many people who love attention and have high self-esteem are not fun to be around. What made him different?

HARLOW: Humor.

BERG: Reciprocation?

HALEY: He was genuinely good-natured. I mean, he genuinely enjoyed himself, and that was contagious. So I think that he supported other people having a good time as he was having a good time.

DUBNER: How was he different when he was on a trip — on acid or mushrooms, versus not?

BERG: He was quieter. I wanted to say for the record that I, you know, I have a background as a psychotherapist, so I, I know about confidentiality. So even in 1984 or whatever year, we were very specific to ask him whether we did or did not have permission to reveal that he had taken psychedelics. And he gave carte blanche permission.

HARLOW: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that Barb, yeah. He didn’t really go around and tell very many people about it.

HALEY: It was quite confidential.

BERG: Yeah, yeah, thank you.

DUBNER: Yeah, and in his books, he’s kind of careful. He’ll say like, you know, I tried a few things here and there, but I feel like my mind is my best attribute, and I don’t want to mess it up.

HALEY: And that was a lot of the reason that he had never done any drugs prior to that time, because his mind was so precious to him and he didn’t want to do anything to tamper with it. And so he did confide to me that the reason he was willing to do it at this time was because — well, like I said, he had already had surgery for cancer. He was going to be undergoing his second surgery. I think he knew that his time was coming. And because he was so curious and he was such an adventurer, I think he really wanted to try it before he died.

DUBNER: What was he hoping, do you think, to accomplish?

HALEY: Well, the nature of what a physicist does is explore the nature of reality. And I think he was equally curious about his own nature of reality. And so anything that he could learn or experience that was new was welcome to him. He told me about how he used to experiment in his dreams. He would set up a task where he would have a nail on the wall and he would try to feel it in his dreams and see if he could actually sensorially feel the nail. And so he was curious about his mind in the same way that he was curious about all facets of reality. And so I think he was genuinely curious and he knew that he did not have too much time to live.

HARLOW: Ralph told me that until he did that big mushroom trip, he could never talk about Arline, at least with another guy, with Ralph. And he said that after that, he was able to open up, he was able to really share emotionally things that he just wasn’t able to do before. So whether that happened as a result of relationships and, you know, talking, or whether it happened some combination with that and the mushrooms, I don’t really know.

DUBNER: And that was 40 years earlier by that point, right, more than 40 years.

HALEY: Oh, he deeply loved Arline, and he did talk to us about her. I mean, he said he met her when she was 16. She was shortly diagnosed with TB. They got married anyway.

BERG: I think that his love of Arline was not some kind of idealization of romantic love. I think he touched into a deep kind of love and I think that kind of love will stay — can stay with a person for the rest of their lives.

HARLOW: And I think she became very much a part of him. You know, it’s like he expanded who he was through knowing her. And so I think that the main thing that I saw that was still haunting him was the sense of some regret and grief and a little bit of guilt as well. So I think he still was carrying some, you know, internal conflict about that. And so it felt to me like these sessions helped him to release that sense of guilt. But I think that he was definitely in a felt sense carrying that still even these 40 years later.

BERG: I think the fact that we were genuinely loving with him and I think it allowed him to remember, to re-experience, some of what he felt with Arline that, you know — just kind of love with integrity. This was what we had with him, was nothing romantic.

HARLOW: Yeah. And the same here, it was —.

BERG: But it allowed that to emerge.

HARLOW: That was the idea. He mentioned to me something like, I can’t remember the phrase, but he said that they shared ideas, you know, but from these very different perspectives. And she enlarged his vision of what it was to be human. He took an art class just to be near her. And then he got really into drawing. And so I think it was more like a platonic love like that. It was like a deep friendship. And it was unique, I think, to each of us. And I’m sure he had other people as well, men and women, who had these kinds of relationships with him. He certainly struck me as a person with a tremendous capacity for intimacy. I treasure the hours that I spent with him.

DUBNER: Do you think it made it easier for him to have the kind of relationship he had with the three of you because there were three of you, and if it had been just one —

HALEY: Yes, I do. I do.

DUBNER: Say a little bit more about that.

HALEY: I think that he picked up on the fact that we very genuinely had no ulterior motive, which was true. We’re very trustworthy, which was also accurate. And so there was an all-the-way-around feeling of trust. And that feels really good.

HARLOW: Yeah, and that’s really kind of ideal. Because initially I was just looking for a place, you know? He said — well, and he was very — it was so sweet. He was very protective of Ralph because he said, “Well, my young friend, I’m” — he was all-in, you know, ready for an adventure, and I was happy because I was sure he was resilient enough. But he said, “But my friend Ralph is going to be very nervous about this.” So he did a lot of work to, like, sort of bring Ralph into the fold, and introduce us and everything. But initially I was just looking for a place and didn’t really want to do it on the Esalen grounds, out of respect for, you know —

DUBNER: Out of respect for what?

HARLOW: Well, not wanting to, you know — Esalen, it’s an institute, it has its rules and things and, you know, it could have been okay. But I think he was rooming with Ralph at the time too, right? And then when I ran into Cheryl and asked Cheryl, and Cheryl had already met him. So each of us had had an encounter with him within the last two days, each individually, very different. And then I said, you know, “Would it be okay at your house?” And she said, “Oh, absolutely.” She said, “In fact, I danced with him.” So then we decided to do it there.

DUBNER: Tell me about the place and about that night.

BERG: We should tell him about the chocolate.

HARLOW: Oh, yeah.

HALEY: Yeah, yeah. But, no, the house. There’s a darling, beautiful, hand-built little cabin right on the edge of the cliff of the ocean. And it was all stone and glass and wood and hand-built with a lovely little trail that went down to a cabana down by the ocean. It was an exquisite, magical, fanciful place to have —

DUBNER: And this is where you lived?

HALEY: Yes, this is where I lived. So it was a perfect location, only a mile-and-a-half from Esalen. And because mushrooms taste very bad, we devised this wonderful way to eat them, where we made up this big batch of delicious chocolate, and we treated it like fondue. So we dipped the mushrooms into the chocolate and fed them to him. And it was a very palatable way to eat the mushrooms.

BERG: He was lying back on the couch. We would feed him the mushrooms, dipped in chocolate, and he was in ecstasy.

DUBNER: Now, had you all done mushrooms before this?

BERG: Yeah, we had worked — well, I had worked as a psychedelic psychotherapist, I guess we all had.

HARLOW: And so had I. And Cheryl, I believe as well.

DUBNER: And when you’re doing mushrooms for your personal — not treating someone else, what were you trying to accomplish in your lives — like, what did you get out of it, and what kind of gift were you trying to give to him?

HALEY: Well, I have always been extremely curious about the phenomenology of mind, and perception, and the astonishment of being a human being. So anything that helped to explore that further was something that I was going to be very interested in. That included hypnosis. It included learning about shamanism and traveling around the world, doing psychedelic drugs. But I was genuinely interested in the phenomenology of mind.

BERG: I — ditto. If you’re insatiably curious about the nature of reality, then you might study yourself or your community, you know, it’s an anthropological perspective. And then you have to study cosmology, and, you know, religion and then you have to study physics, and then you have to study math. So to me, there’s sort of a natural succession, and psychedelics fit right in.

HALEY: I would like to take this opportunity to say that I am so relieved and grateful that using substances therapeutically is really experiencing a renaissance, because I think there is so much potential therapeutic use that is so valuable. And Rick Doblin, who also we knew at Esalen, has done so much to further that cause, to bring about the legitimacy, the legality, and the therapeutic use. And I’m very, very grateful to watch this movement happening.

DUBNER: So is there anything more from the experience with Feynman in the house, whether it’s the mushroom in chocolate or the acid — which was later, right? Any other just details, description, what was going on, what the experience was like?

HARLOW: Well, I think for me, there was just a little bit of a conflict with the other two goddesses initially. Because I had planned a session, like a one-on-one very deep session where I would basically just sit for him, try to get him to go inside and explore as deeply as possible on high dose.

DUBNER: Not a party, in other words.

HARLOW: Not a party.

DUBNER: And these goddesses turned it into a party a little bit?

HARLOW: No. Not a party. But Dick was very extroverted. And so when he was coming on, he’s looking at all the beauty — you know, the stained glass, and he’s wondering and everything. And I’m trying my best to get him back onto his little pallet on the floor and say, “Close your eyes. I promise you that it will be even more wondrous if you go inside.” Eventually he did, and when he did, we did some breath work, and so when he released that, it was like, pow! It was like, he started — tears were pouring down his face and he was — I could tell he was in ecstasy. He was just laying back and it was bliss, you know, and eventually he opened his eyes and he said, “Oh, Debby,” he said, “it’s even more beautiful than you promised,” you know. And then he went back inside. So he had his inner journey, and I was hoping to keep that focus and to continue that, and then to do the integration. My beautiful, gracious goddesses, of course, were weaving in and out, and he couldn’t help himself. I mean, he opened his eyes and there’s Sheryl, all pink. She looks like a cherub, you know, from heaven with her blond curls. And then he’s going kind of like, “Oh!” And so, in some ways, I was a little frustrated because I was hoping to continue this journey. But then on the other hand, what came out of that, the deep friendships, the playfulness, the joy that their energies brought to him, it was probably even a better session. Because, you know, then I have to go, “Okay, that’s my agenda. What does Dick want?” So they were glorious, but it was just we were slightly, you know, not completely aligned.

DUBNER: That’s really interesting. I’d love to hear your perspectives, too, of that night, that session.

BERG: I saw us as — we’ve been having a lot of fun realizing we all have different recollections.


BERG: So I saw us all weaving in and out through that, doing it as a foursome, which is completely different than Debby’s experience. You know, not everything that happened with him was about psychedelics. I mean, we developed a much broader relationship with him. But I remember pulling one of the LSD, the LSD session, I thought it was so funny. He was lying on the same couch, staring at a banana for three hours, quiet as could be. Debby had trained him well. He would just turn it once in a while. And afterwards, I asked him what was happening? And he said, very sincerely, he said, “I don’t know. I was just looking at the banana.”

DUBNER: Sometimes a banana is just a banana.

HALEY: And I think there’s room for both the outer and the inner —

BERG: Yes.

HALEY: — and to able to have both, and to journey with both.

If you’d like to hear more about Rick Doblin, the founder of MAPS — the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies — he was interviewed by Steve Levitt on the People I (Mostly) Admire podcast, that’s another show on the Freakonomics Radio Network. The episode is called “The Future of Therapy Is Psychedelic.”

*      *      *

When I spoke with Barbara Berg, Cheryl Haley, and Debby Harlow, three friends that Richard Feynman made at Esalen in the 1980s, we talked about the conversations they had with him while he was serving on the presidential commission investigating the Challenger space shuttle disaster. Here is Barbara Berg:

BERG: He would talk about it. And I know this was public — he didn’t have a great fondness for politicians. And he said he was the only person on that commission who did not have a political obligation.

A lot of our conversation about the Challenger already appeared in part three of our series, “The Vanishing Mr. Feynman,” so I won’t repeat it here. But if you haven’t heard that, you should check it out; it’s interesting. From that topic, we moved on to Feynman’s participation in the Manhattan Project. That was the U.S. government’s secret plan to build the first atomic bomb, in Los Alamos, New Mexico. If you’ve seen the film Oppenheimer, you know something about that. I asked the three women whether they ever spoke with Feynman about building the bomb. Here are, in order of speaking, Haley, Berg, and Harlow.

HALEY: I talked to him about it, because I believed that his cancer was a result of having been there, at Los Alamos. He denied it, adamantly. But I always thought that it was. I don’t think we really talked so much about the ethics of it. Did any of you?

BERG: He talked about guilt. But what he loved to tell were the stories of safe-cracking and how much he missed Arline.

DUBNER: But then also, like when he went to Japan not long after the war to help kind of rebuild their physics industry in a way, I sense that was out of —

BERG: Absolutely. And he would continue to go back to Japan to give talks on quantum electrodynamic theory.

DUBNER: And do you think that was why?

BERG: I would assume both, both because he found like-minded physicists and also to compensate.

HARLOW: He didn’t talk to me about the regret, but he talked to me — the decision at the time, he just felt that it was no great stretch of the imagination that the Nazis were working on the same thing. And so you just had to weigh, you know, do you have enough faith in your — it’s not like you really want your own government or anybody else to have a weapon of this kind of devastation. But, you know, that was the devil’s bargain.

HALEY: Yes, and he felt things deeply. And he did have a sense of grief and regret and guilt. Those were not foreign feelings to him. Although I think there was a certain amount of denial around it. In the same way that he denied that his own cancer came from that experience, I think there was also kind of a shielded protection that he had inside emotionally about the role that he played.

DUBNER: Hmm. It struck me — this is just a theory and I’m probably wrong — but that after helping build the bomb, after losing his wife, then he went back to Cornell, which wasn’t a great time for him. And then he got this offer to come to California. And my sense is that, I don’t know how much California needed Feynman, but Feynman really needed — like this was the place where Feynman kind of became who he needed to be.

 HALEY: Oh, I think that’s true. He loved being in Pasadena. I think he felt in his element. He really loved California. I think he was very relieved, like you’re describing, to be there.

DUBNER: What was it about California?

BERG: I think it was not only California, but just teaching.

HALEY: Yes, teaching, absolutely.

BERG: And being an instructor and being an inspiration to others. And also, as we know, the peer group at Caltech at that time was extraordinary. So I think he was immensely satisfied intellectually, as well as entertained by his own teaching.

DUBNER: Let’s talk about — I’d like to hear from each of you what you felt or experienced when you learned of his death.

HALEY: It’s interesting, Barb, you and I learned about it together at the same time. We just happened to be together, and see it in the newspaper. And so it was not unexpected, but it certainly was emotional. And I was very glad that we were together when we learned about it because we had shared so much.

BERG: It’s good that one of us remembers. What I remember is a phone call from a friend in Connecticut who said, “I saw that Feynman died.” So maybe that’s when it hit me.

HARLOW: For me, I mean, it’s just — oh, such sadness and regret. I mean, both gratitude for the time that I was able to share with him, but real regret that I wasn’t with the other two Graces in the hospital. And one of the things, at least in my relationship, in my experience of him, he was not a complainer. I never knew about his early bout with cancer. He never, ever emphasized his own suffering and his — you know, he wasn’t like that. And I just felt so bad. I mean, I knew he was in the hospital, I knew that he had cancer, I didn’t know he was going to die. I was devastated, felt a lot of guilt that I couldn’t have somehow extricated from my life to at least just be there to, you know, give him a hug and joke with him.

BERG: I think to his credit, when Cheryl and I went — I’m sorry you weren’t with us — when Cheryl and I went to U.C.L.A., to the medical center, to see him, I was impressed because, I mean, I think at that point, I think he knew I saw him as a dying man.

HALEY: Oh, yes. I think we knew that at the time, yeah.

BERG: And they were just seeing could they do something to delay it. But what was impressive to me was when we walked into the rooms, he was dressed, sitting up in bed. He wasn’t in a hospital gown. He was sitting up in bed reading The New York Times and being lovely and nice and kind to the nursing staff. And I thought, what a great attitude, because this man knows that he’s got a death sentence.

DUBNER: What I really want to hear about is his character. How would you describe his character as a human, and the way he treated other humans?

BERG: That’s who I think we loved, or at least I could speak for myself.

HALEY: I really appreciate the sense of respect that he showed to me and to us. I mean, he never came on to us sexually. He would spend the night. We’d be very cozy together. But I really trusted his character, his intention, and his integrity. And I thought that was a really beautiful thing.

HARLOW: Well, I can’t speak for the other two goddesses, but it was just a deep friendship. And he never flirted with me. He never came on to me in any way.

BERG: Just a very sincere, smart, not-conniving kind of person, just principled.

HALEY: Yes. And very authentic. Very real. It’s like, whatever you saw, was what was genuine. And I think that that made him, for me, very trustable, because he was so sincere and so genuine. And there was no guile, no guile about him.

BERG: And a hell of a lot of joy. I mean, everything was so exciting and interesting to him.

HARLOW: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

BERG: And that was contagious.

HARLOW: Yeah. It was like he didn’t need to go there because, like you said, the banana was fascinating. You know, we had so much fun, just — we’d walk around the garden at Esalen and look. He taught me the lesson his father taught him about looking at, say, a plant in this case, you know. And say, “Do you know that plant?” And I said, “Oh, yeah.” “No,” he said, “But do you really know the plant?” He sort of taught me that looking at the world almost in that Blakean sense of, you know, the wonder of it, exploring it, how is it constructed? What does that mean? Look at it in its environment. So he’s like that about everything. So everything was a joy.

DUBNER: It’s so interesting and useful for us that you knew him well toward the end of his life. And obviously, you know, you have a whole life of experience, a life of accomplishment, a life of regret, disappointment, etc., then the fact that he knew he wasn’t going to last forever, obviously, because of illness. How do you each think that he would have described his life, his accomplishments? Was he satisfied?

HALEY: One thing that I will say about him is that he did not believe in an afterlife. And when Arline died, and she would come to him in dreams, he would tell her, “Go away, go away.” He did not believe in any kind of afterlife after death.

DUBNER: It’s heartbreaking. I don’t mean the disbelief. I mean, it’s heartbreaking that he would conjure her and then, considering how much he loved her, not want to —

BERG: It was possibly a threat to his identity.

DUBNER: What do you mean by that?

BERG: It would be such a terrible — it would be a total paradigm shift to say, “I believe that I had contact with my wife in the afterlife during a dream.”

HALEY: Oh, that’s a good point, that’s a good point. That’s a good point.

DUBNER: But don’t you think his love for her might have outweighed his identity? No?

BERG: If Shakespeare had written it, yes.

HARLOW: One of the things I really appreciated about him was that, it’s like a childlike sense of wonder, you know, with a brilliant mind. Every day there was something to think about, to explore, to look at. You know, he made life worth living, just being around him. It was an inspiration.

HALEY: Yeah, I agree. And I never saw him to have any self-aggrandizement. To be like, like overly proud or stuck up or, you know, full of himself. I think that was very far afield from his character.

DUBNER: It’s funny because we hear these stories where he would say, “Ah, winning the Nobel was the worst thing ever, because it brought all this attention.” And I think, well, he might mean that partially, but he must have liked the attent — you’re saying he really —

HARLOW: No, I think he’d rather have the camaraderie of being a drummer with someone, that kind of attention, you know?

BERG: I would agree. And, you know, about the Nobel. I don’t remember his exact words, but it was sort of, you know, “The prize is not the thing.” The knowledge and the discovery was the thing for him.

HALEY: And that’s why he loved working at Los Alamos, because all the scientists were working together. There was that camaraderie, and that shared goal and quest and I think that’s what he really loved about it.

HARLOW: Well, I don’t think he was not competitive. I mean, he certainly had that side as well. But the person that we knew was a person who was just overflowing with energy and joy.

BERG: But I also think he could be totally full of it sometimes. He could be full of himself.

HARLOW: Yeah, but, but, but, not in a serious way.

BERG: No, no.

HARLOW: In a fun way. You know, it’s like we could tease him about that and he would tease us. I was often too serious in those days, and he would tease me and he’d tease me out of it.

HALEY: He drummed for us, and would make up songs. One of the songs, the lyrics, I remember, it’s, “Everything I say is false. Everything I say is a lie. And I love you.”

DUBNER: Did anyone ever give him a hard time about the fact that he had just stared at a banana for three hours?

HARLOW: I doubt, was that you —

DUBNER: You did? What did you say? “Yeah, Nobel Prize winner, we get you —”

BERG: So much for insight.

DUBNER: What do you think of Feynman’s reputation today, such as it is? Because a lot of people don’t know his name even anymore. I’m just curious whether you’re surprised, frustrated, that he hasn’t magnified out into the future a bit more?

HALEY: Well, any physicist that I’ve ever known just falls all over themselves when they learn that I actually knew him personally. So I think he enjoys a very high reputation.

DUBNER: But, you know, one reason we wanted to make this series was because it seems that the world could use more of him, or people like him, who were very smart, very down-to-earth, and could speak truth to power, including at the Rogers Commission thing. I feel like we don’t have a lot of that now.

HARLOW: I think I agree, Stephen. And the gift he had of taking very complex topics and explaining them in a way with metaphors and images that of course, it’s not like understanding it at the level he understands it, but I’m very excited about when Ralph showed all of these slides and what Caltech has done, I’m hoping that that will get into middle schools and high schools. I think kids can watch these, be excited about physics, get excited about science. I think he’s a real inspiration for people who don’t already have that level of knowledge.

HALEY: I agree with that, and also he said that if you truly understand something, you can explain it in such a way that a 12-year-old can understand it.

DUBNER: There are those who argue that physicists were great at making things, like — the bomb being the chief example, you know, that was a weapon of destruction, and, you know, nuclear power came from that but the energy benefit wasn’t as great as people wanted, and that the world has kind of been taken over by a different kind of scientist, which is the computer scientists, who’ve built, you know, networks that make people hate each other a little bit more.

BERG: I mean, I’m interested to hear you say, is Feynman falling out of favor or familiarity? Because I’m thinking at the same time — I mean, people are so excited about quantum physics, right? So there’s talk of, you know, string theory. What’s the legitimacy of string theory? Dark energy, dark matter. So, I see him as one of the sort of antecedents in that larger conversation. So I hope he’ll live on. I mean, what I love about it is that his lectures are not time-constrained.

HARLOW: Well, hopefully this podcast will get more people interested.

DUBNER: All right. I can’t thank you all enough. This was just such an interesting and generous conversation. I really appreciate it. So even if we weren’t recording it for a show, I’d say this was still a great gift and blessing, so thank you.

HALEY: And it brought the three of us together in reminiscence also, so thank you.

That, again, was Barbara Berg, Cheryl Haley, and Debby Harlow, the Three Graces of Esalen. Thanks to them and to Ralph Leighton for bringing us together, to Sam Stern and Esalen for hosting us, to Mike Buffo for the engineering. We will be back soon with a regular episode in our regular time slot. Until then, take care of yourself and, if you can, someone else too.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Zack Lapinski. Our staff also includes Alina Kulman, Eleanor Osborne, Elsa Hernandez, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Jasmin Klinger, Jeremy Johnston, Julie Kanfer, Lyric Bowditch, Morgan Levey, Neal Carruth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Ryan Kelley, and Sarah Lilley. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of our music is composed by Luis Guerra.

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  • Barbara Berg, friend of Richard Feynman.
  • Cheryl Haley, friend of Richard Feynman.
  • Debby Harlow, friend of Richard Feynma
  • Sam Stern, content creator at the Esalen Institute.


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