Book Review: “Acid Test” by Tom Shroder

Egg cracks. “This is your brain on drugs.” Sizzle. “Any questions?”

No questions at all.

I sat in the back of my middle school health class, eyes glazed over by the reflection of the US anti-narcotics commercial. I silently vowed to myself that I would never do drugs, heck, even take a sip of alcohol for as long as I may live. From what I could tell, such sinful recreations only promised one thing: inexorable death. My underdeveloped frontal lobe already had to struggle enough in order to grasp the convoluted adolescent world of pre-algebra and acne -- no way was I ever going to voluntarily allow the evils of drugs to literally fry my brain to smithereens.

I held this stigmatized view of illicit drugs throughout the next decade–until I read Tom Shroder’s recently published book, Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy, and the Power to Heal which smacked me in the face with this grand take-away:

Question everything.

Shroder plays devil’s advocate and the DEA’s worst enemy in his delightfully intoxicating non-fiction novel. Synthesizing years of research on politics, science, world history, and America’s controversial war on drugs, Shroder argues that there is huge potential for psychedelic drugs to heal an array of psychological disorders–in particular, PTSD. Playing the role of a modern muckraker, Shroder uncovers the history and successes of psychedelic therapy through the biographical stories of three main characters: Nicholas Blackstone, a Marine combat veteran who suffered from severe PTSD; Michael Mithoefer, a psychiatrist and advocate of MDMA Assisted-Psychotherapy; and Rick Doblin, founder of one of the only associations for psychedelic studies in the world.

Despite the objective tone, this book reads like anything but a scientific text. Shroder takes the reader on a fascinating 400-page trip that is as colorful as the drug-induced experiences he artfully describes. Readers are guided through a series of stories: Nicholas’s healing through psychedelic therapy, Michael’s metamorphosis from a doctor to a criticized MDMA proponent, and Rick’s personal battle with the government to legalize the study the of psychedelic drugs.

The stories deviate from historical context to biographical narratives seamlessly, uncovering everything from the dark history of LSD in Nazi concentration camps to its more progressive future in the medical field; specifically in aiding recovering alcoholics, survivors of physical and verbal abuse, and clinical depression. Shroder reveals how an accidental discovery came to defy traditional Western Culture and develop into a hot contemporary controversy .

Interestingly, Shroder himself is far from a stereotypical hippie of the drug-laced subculture of the 1970’s. He has spent the better part of the last 40 years as an investigative and narrative journalist as an editor for The Washington Post Magazine, an overseer of multiple Pulitzer Prize winning stories and publications, and as an accessible mentor for aspiring writers. Acid Test, which was published just a few years back, is an exquisite exhibition of decades of research and commitment to his craft.

Acid Test wipes away any radical preconceptions about narcotics through an effective use of research, rather than opinion. Keeping himself out of the story, Shroder demonstrates his skills as a narrative journalist by utilizing his vivacious characters as vehicles for the information, concluding that “considering the enormous scope of the psychic responses it induces, LSD is an astonishingly safe drug.”

The book covers every detail, down to its very title, which is a play on LSD’s street name. “The term ‘acid test’ originally referred to a process in which strong acid is used to distinguish gold from base metals,” says Shroder, “In the context of early LSD use, it was meant to imply that in these circumstances the drug could reveal some profound truth.”

And truth is what readers will find in this convincing compilation of stories, along with the reminder to question everything we (think) we know.

Author Bio: Tom Shroder is an award winning author, editor, and journalist. Shroder was an editor for the Washington Post, oversaw multiple Pulitzer Prize-winning stories, and has written three investigative non-fiction novels. He is a New York native and graduate of the University of Florida.

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