On the surface, Joanna Harcourt-Smith had the kind of life many people dream of. As a young socialite in the 1960s, she partied with some of the era’s most fascinating and controversial cultural figures. “I always wanted to be with an outlaw,” she told filmmaker and documentarian Errol Morris in his newest feature, My Psychedelic Love Story. And she fulfilled that dream, too, as LSD pioneer Dr. Timothy Leary’s romantic partner and freedom advocate.
Together, Harcourt-Smith and Leary fled across Europe and all the way to Central Asia in 1972 to escape the long reach of US law enforcement. Alas, it did not work for long. The two were captured in Afghanistan. Leary was extradited to be sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for crossing the US-Mexican border with about one ounce of cannabis.
After a few years of heavy activism and media engagement from Harcourt-Smith, Leary was released early, in 1976. He had become an informant for the FBI, although no prosecutions arose from his role and he later said that he did not provide genuinely incriminating information.
Placed together in the witness protection program, the couple moved to New Mexico. But they lived there together only briefly, until Leary abandoned Harcourt-Smith without a word of goodbye.
“There is an appealing quality to entering a story through something other than the front door.”
My Psychedelic Love Story showcases filmmaker Errol Morris in a more tender, introverted mode than when he made his most famous film, The Thin Blue Line (1988). Rather than presenting a grand mystery like its forerunner, his newest film is about the personal truths of a life lived amid a sweeping dramatic arc beyond one’s control.
Joanna Harcourt-Smith died in October—the month before the release of Morris’s film. She apparently never knew whether the FBI and CIA had orchestrated some of the biggest events in her life, using her as a tool to take down Leary, whom then-President Richard Nixon called “public enemy number one.” What she tells us in this film is what she did know and feel, backed up by an impressive amount of archival material stored around her home.
Errol Morris was kind enough to answer some questions about the film, and you can watch the trailer below. Our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Rory Fleming: Given everything that is going on in the world, why Joanna Harcourt-Smith? Why now?
Errol Morris: Often, you don’t choose stories, stories choose you. Joanna contacted me. Before that, I did not know her book or her story. She contacted me because she was a fan of Wormwood [Morris’s miniseries about the life and suicide of Frank Olson, a CIA scientist who experimented with LSD and mind control], as well as my son Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia on Viceland. She hoped we would like her story and that both of us could be involved. Then I read her book and decided I wanted to make the film.
There is an appealing quality to entering a story through something other than the front door. I was not interviewing Hamlet, as Leary is quite dead. Joanna gave unique insight into the Timothy Leary story, and her story is quite incredible in and of itself.
Despite the excitement of many parts of her life, the film shows that Harcourt-Smith also experienced great suffering as a result of childhood abuse and later governmental persecution. Yet she seems to be in such good spirits in the film. What was she like to work with?
I love Joanna. I spoke at her Zoom memorial service after her passing. As I said there, to know Joanna is to love Joanna.
As you make projects, there is this sense that if you know what you are going to get, why bother? Some people think that the documentary as an artform is about sticking someone in front of a camera and having them talk, but it’s more than that on both sides. In a truly great documentary, the person interviewed is a performer. That’s Joanna. She comes alive in front of the lens of the camera. It was a sheer delight.
“It seems that the US always finds a new scapegoat, some new cause undermining the fabric of our country.”
One thing that is fascinating while watching the film is thinking about how much things have changed. Earlier this month, Oregonians decriminalized the possession of all drugs. Cities like Oakland, Denver and DC recently voted to decriminalize psilocybin. Did that come to mind while making this film?
I was amazed that this part of the story with Leary involved him crossing the US-Mexico border with an ounce of pot. A 20-year sentence for that is crazy, what with the modern US now quickly decriminalizing it. It is really crazy. It is also crazy that the entire governmental apparatus was dedicated to taking him down. Nixon called him the “most dangerous man” in America. It was a different era altogether.
That said, it seems that the US always finds a new scapegoat, some new cause undermining the fabric of our country. Many aspects of that speak to our current moment.
The film feels almost postmodern, given that Harcourt-Smith herself is not sure whether she was used by the US government as a “Mata Hari.” Do you think she knew the truth and was unwilling to face it, or that there were so many layers of obfuscation around Leary turning informant that the truth could no longer be ascertained?
One of the final versions of the film had a card at the end telling the viewer that I contacted the FBI and CIA for their investigatory files on Joanna and Dr. Leary. Both agencies responded, telling me they could neither confirm nor deny the existence of such files.
However, I would argue it is not postmodern to not ascertain truth. It is like I’ve said about Rashomon [Akira Kurosawa’s famous film about four people recounting different versions of the events leading to a man murdering his wife]. There is this idea that Rashomon is about how reality is all just different perceptions of truth. But it is more about the avoidance of—rather than the nonexistence of—truth. It is absolutely crucial to find the truth and pursue the underlying reality.
Do I think Joanna ultimately knew? No. I investigated and I do not know either. The center of the film became not whether the CIA used Joanna as a plant. Instead, it became about the love affair, and questions of why did Leary abandon her and “who am I?” And I was immensely moved by the quest.
My Psychedelic Love Story premieres on Showtime on Sunday, November 29.
Top image of Timothy Leary and Joanna Harcourt-Smith from the film trailer, courtesy of Showtime.