It was a few hours before dawn and I was in the attic of a centuries-old French castle tripping on acid with an applied mathematics professor I’d met three days before. We sat in a small circle on the floor while he sobbed and told us how he realized at age ten that his parents would never love him. Five minutes later, a cadre of beautiful young cryptocurrency millionaires, Instagram celebrities, and Israeli Burning Man enthusiasts started emerging from the narrow stairway, tentatively taking seats on the inflatable mattresses scattered around the room. They were not expecting to find a mathematician passionately describing the insatiable void in his soul, but rather the exclusive sex party they’d been told would be happening in the castle’s small loft.
Being considerate human beings, they didn’t start fucking on the floor in front of us. Instead, they joined Nadine, Mandy, and me in politely listening to Xiao Wang talk about his existential loneliness. Over the next fifteen minutes, as more of the castle’s hornier denizens entered the attic, the group grew from four or five would-be orgy participants to over a dozen. Though many of them were now listening intently and nodding along as Xiao Wang poured out his heart, I started to get the feeling that the current situation was unsustainable — that at some point the growing crowd of attractive revelers expecting sex would reach critical mass and our psychedelic group therapy session would spill over into a jumble of naked bodies caressing each other to repetitive ethereal electronica.
Now seems like a good time to mention that this was my first time taking LSD. Contrary to my expectations, the drug hadn’t given me hallucinations or any kind of spiritual experience, but rather an increased sense of self-awareness accompanied by a wild decrease in self-consciousness. The latter was definitely appreciated, as this whole situation would normally be pushing right up against the border of my comfort zone. But instead of feeling uncomfortable, I felt like an outside observer in my own life, enjoying the show from the audience (while paradoxically realizing I was also part of it). It seemed to me the perfect drug for what was about to go down.
I grew strangely excited as I tried to guess at the tipping point that would transform Xiao Wang’s heartfelt monologue into a drug-fueled fuck fest. I looked back and forth between my new friend and his audience, scanning their faces. You could almost taste the cognitive dissonance as the partygoers struggled to reconcile their stated ideals of Communication, Openness, and Vulnerability with the more practical goal of capping off their hedonistic week with the best orgy yet. Though they nodded empathetically with Xiao Wang, they were also clearly wondering how long it would be before they could get nude and start putting their tongues on each other. I’m not sure if it was due to the mood altering effects of acid or my natural predilection for insane, chaotic, and uncomfortable situations, but the impending conflict had me almost giddy. I reveled in the awkwardness.
Right as Xiao Wang was saying how grateful he was to share himself with such a receptive group, a man dressed like a storybook pirate entered the room. His name was Alexander. And while his long dark hair, tight black pants, and billowy white shirt were probably meant to make him look like some kind of bohemian brigand, he was actually the young multimillionaire whose tech company had organized this week’s disorganized events. He’d also been the one to invite his favorite (read: most attractive and highest status) guests up to the attic for a private party on our final night at the castle. As an outsider who’d been invited through an internet survey and hadn’t known any other guests until four days earlier, I was definitely not included in this group.
Alexander came in ready to take charge. “Hey guys, what’s going on? Let’s get the party started.”
The crowd looked at Xiao Wang. Xiao Wang looked at Alexander. “No. Let’s not.”
Alexander, who’d until now displayed the confidence so often found in 26-year-olds with excessive levels of wealth and status, looked unsure of himself for the first time since I’d met him. “What?”
Everyone looked uneasily from Alexander to Xiao Wang. I could feel it — the awkward climax was just around the corner. I was grinning like a maniac, but no one seemed to notice. Xiao Wang locked eyes with Alexander. “We all feel this incredible loneliness all the time and no one ever talks about it. I’ve been waiting all week for a chance to connect with a larger group like this.”
Alexander clearly wanted to save his bewildered, fuckable friends from Xiao Wang’s discourse on emotional isolation, but also needed to uphold his reputation as a radically open person who valued consciousness-expanding experiences. After all, he’d organized this entire event, referred to simply as “the Castle,” under the guise of bringing together the world’s most innovative young thought leaders to “improve the user experience of the human race.” No one was ready to admit that the Castle’s stated purpose was just a flimsy excuse to hold a good old fashioned bacchanal. Alexander forced a smile. “I totally get that. It’s super valuable to connect. But I think most people here kind of want to listen to some music and have a good time.”
“I was here first, and people are really responding to what I have to say. This is important to me.”
Alexander was desperately trying to be cool about this, and doing a pretty good job, considering. While I sympathized with his dilemma, I was also enjoying this moment more than any other in the four days that preceded it. He took a breath. “Okay, well how about you talk to people over there and the people who want to have a party can put on some music and do it over here.”
“If you put on loud music and start having an orgy over there this whole moment will be ruined.”
“Whoa, nobody said anything about an orgy.”
Xiao Wang got sassy. “Call it what you want, but it’s an orgy.” He had a point.
“How about we just put on some quiet music and–”
“I think you should ask the people whose room this is what they want to do with the attic.”
The attention shifted to Nadine and Mandy, the women sitting between Xiao Wang and I, who, it should be noted, were also tripping on LSD. They had presumably paid an exorbitant amount of cryptocurrency to stay in this room, so it made sense that they should get a say in what was happening there. The two looked at each other for a long moment before Nadine spoke up. “I think we should break into smaller groups and all discuss what we want for this space and then come back and talk about it after.”
The silver bullet had been fired — these were people who loved breaking into smaller groups and discussing what they wanted for spaces. Alexander looked around, bewildered. It seemed like he wanted someone to step in and save him. But as the highest-status person in this status-obsessed group, it was his job to call the shots. “Okay, groups sound good…”
Xiao Wang, Nadine, and Mandy scuttled over to a corner of the attic and sat thigh-to-thigh beneath one of the eaves. Another group or two broke off and began quietly talking about their intentions for the room that night. The would-be orgy had broken into focus groups. It was a weirder conclusion than I ever could have hoped for and there was no containing my glee. I stood up and threw my hands into the air. “Best first acid trip ever!”
People laughed and the tension broke. Someone put on the aforementioned electronica and clothes began to hit the floor. While I felt a little guilty for contributing to the loss of Xiao Wang’s audience, I told myself that it would have only been a matter of time before the crowd’s desire for sex overpowered his want for emotional connection. Plus if Xiao Wang was upset with me I figured I could blame it on the psychedelics. I left the attic and wandered the castle’s grounds, giving into the introspective effects of LSD. The next hour felt like a century. Every thought I had was relentlessly analyzed and I had an acute sense of just how bizarre my current situation was.
Eventually, I found some distractions from extreme self-reflection. In the courtyard, I had a long talk with a self-proclaimed “neurohacker” who tried to convince me that epistemological frameworks should be relational instead of absolute. On a brief excursion back up to the attic, I offended a naked Russian actress holding half a watermelon by not licking fruit off her fingers. In the 11th century carrier pigeon roost referred to as “the dovecot,” I took a brief soak in an enormous marble bathtub with Alexander’s naked parents. Even as it was happening, I had no doubt that this had been the strangest Thursday night of my life.
Shortly before dawn, I returned to my small tent on the field overlooking the castle. Closing my eyes, I saw the first visuals of my acid trip — colorful geometric patterns swelling and swirling over a black abyss. Unable to sleep, my thoughts turned in on themselves once again. I felt like I was pushing up against some kind of important truth that I couldn’t quite access. I think if I’d had a little more time I might have found the numinous actualization I’d wanted, but I’d been tripping for ten hours and I was ready for it to be over. In an attempt to divert my thoughts from the last few moments of LSD-fueled self-examination, I listened to a podcast about an airport in Newfoundland until sunrise. I was certain three hours had passed, but when I looked down at my phone I saw that the podcast had only been playing for nineteen minutes. I went off in search of a shower.
Unfortunately, the only shower accessible to us tent campers was the enormous marble tub in the dovecot. It was currently full of naked bodies, so I made my way to the Moroccan loft. I disregarded the “staff only” sign on the bathroom door and walked in. After using a discarded towel to wipe up a small puddle of semen in the antique bathtub, I took a long shower and finally started coming down from the acid trip.
An hour later I’d packed up my tent, said some goodbyes, and hopped on a Friday morning commuter train to Paris. The view from my window alternated between archetypal French countryside and the kind of suburban landscape that’s impossible to accurately place. Though I was grateful to no longer be high, I still hadn’t slept in over a day. It had been an insane week, and I was more mentally and physically exhausted than I’d ever been. All I wanted in the world was to check into a hotel and collapse on a big soft bed. Instead, I headed to a café near the Eiffel Tower to meet my parents for lunch.
It just so happened that my parents had flown in from Nebraska that morning. They’d planned a French vacation long before I’d decided to go to the castle, and our two trips had a couple days of overlap. A big part of me wanted to call them, cancel, and go to sleep for a day or two. But another part of me knew that meeting my mom and dad right after a week of debauchery would provide a pretty good coda for my time at the Castle. As usual, my love of a good story beat out my desire for comfort.
I have a close relationship with my parents, and as I’ve grown older, I haven’t kept much from them. So, a few blocks from the café, I decided to be honest about what I’d just experienced. I’d already told them about the time I had a session with a professional dominatrix and how I’d performed in a drag show off the Las Vegas strip, so I figured telling them about the castle wouldn’t be too shocking. We sat down on a sidewalk patio, talked about their flight, ordered baguettes, and I then jumped into a brief recap of what had happened in the attic the night before.
I told them how the conflict between Xiao Wang and Alexander felt like a microcosm of my five days at the Castle. I explained that the attic story took almost all the topics I’d found most interesting — the clashing dynamics of guests, lack of event planning, psychedelic drug use, casual group sex, status and privilege issues, and problematic young tech culture — and encapsulated them in one thirty minute experience. I got inordinately worked up about the importance of it all.
Then, in the middle of a spiel about how the orgy breaking into focus groups was a perfect metaphor for how openness and communication could be taken too far, my mom interrupted me to say that my aunt had recently visited some family in Ohio and that my cousin still talks too much. I took the hint and the conversation moved into more parent-friendly territory.
I don’t blame my parents for not being enthralled by what I was saying. It’s got to be weird to have your son tell you stories packed with sex and drug use. And my sleep-deprived rambling was far too heady and analytical — no one wants to hear lengthy context-less lectures on how cryptocurrency millionaires are inadvertently propping up the capitalist systems they think they’re rebelling against. I realized if I really wanted to discuss these ideas and unpack everything that had happened at the Castle, I’d need to start by telling stories worth hearing.
Luckily for me, spending a week in a renaissance castle full of young millionaires, blockchain enthusiasts, internet intellectuals, psychedelic drug advocates, Instagram celebrities, techno-fetishists, sex workers, and festival-goers from around the globe left me with plenty of stories to tell.