Book Review: The Psychedelic Journey of Marlene Dobkin de Rios


Marlene Dobkin de Rios (2009)

The Psychedelic Journey of Marlene Dobkin de Rios

BOOK REVIEW by Zevic Mishor


Author: Marlene Dobkin de Rios, Ph.D.

Year: 2009

Title: The Psychedelic Journey of Marlene Dobkin de Rios. 45 Years with Shamans, Ayahuasqueros, and Ethnobotanists

Publisher: Park Street Press

Printed in: United States

ISBN: 978-1-59477-313-6

With thanks to Deep Books




“… there is one contribution that is consistently expunged from the record: that of the untold millions of men and women, old and young, who willingly and with delight have lain prostrate before the gates of awe, having taken one of these remarkable magic plants”

(pXV, Foreword by anthropologist, biologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis)


In this well-written and stimulating book, de Rios charts almost half a century of comprehensive work in a field that could be labelled “psychedelic anthropology” – the cross-cultural study of consciousness-modifying drugs and the non-ordinary states they facilitate. The book is divided into two parts; Part One is autobiographical, covering in some detail de Rios’s professional career and her rise as a well-respected figure in the academy. Part Two is ethnographical, bringing together information from diverse sources to paint a picture of psychedelic plant use across a variety of indigenous cultures. This section of her book also discusses broader topics, including psychedelics and healing; psychedelics and art, music and creativity; and drug tourism.


De Rios grew up in a Russian Jewish household in New York, entering Queens College at the young age of fifteen, and majoring in psychology with a heavy emphasis on psychoanalytic theory. Several years after her graduation she enrolled in New York University for a course in social work, but her interests were quickly captured by the discipline of anthropology. Her first foray into the field came in 1967, when a grant from the Institute of Social Psychiatry in Lima supported the production of a brief ethnography of the rural community of Salas (the “Capital of Witchcraft”) in Peru. De Rios’s autobiography in Part One is arranged more or less by decades, beginning with this ethnographical work in Salas, and also her research in the Belen slum in the city of Iquitos. These first chapters are especially interesting to the beginning anthropologist, for the author gives details of her experiences, adventures and misadventures in the course of her field research. She describes, for example, her packing of no less than twenty-three cartons of books, dishes, stationery, bed linen and towels for Iquitos, a decision that would later haunt her. She also recalls her having to abandon, after several attempts to ride it, a motorcycle she procured, due to a continually flooding carburettor. Her recollections of these early periods are replete with humorous detail, bringing the situation alive for the reader and providing insight into the field-working life of a budding anthropologist.


In Belen, de Rios became an accomplished and locally-recognised naipes (fortune-telling card) reader. She calls the naipes an “ethno-projective device”, similar to other Western psychotherapeutic techniques such as the Thematic Appreciation Test (TAT) and the Rorschach. This is because the cards contain culturally neutral symbols and meanings that are relevant to both healer and patient, thereby constituting a point of entry into the patient’s private world. De Rios’s first contact with psychedelic practices was her participation, as an observer, in healing ceremonies conducted in Salas that employed the mescaline-containing cactus San Pedro (Trichocereus pachanoi). Her first personal psychedelic experience was facilitated by LSD in 1968, followed closely by the dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and harmala alkaloid-containing brew ayahuasca. From thereon the majority of her research focused on the cross-cultural use of plant psychedelics for achieving non-ordinary states of consciousness. Interestingly, during an eighteen-month stint in the early 1980s as a health-science administrator at the United States National Institute of Mental Health, de Rios writes that her background in plant psychedelics was rarely discussed amongst colleagues; she needed instead to focus on blending in as a bureaucrat in Washington D.C..


In the 1970s de Rios quickly rose to prominence in the academic world, teaching at various institutions, organising symposia, and conducting and publishing anthropological research. She received her PhD from the University of California, Riverside, in 1972, and also tenure at Cal State Fullerton, where she would largely remain based for the next thirty years. In 1972 de Rios also gave birth to a baby girl, Gabriela. In the 1980s her academic activity intensified, involving a number of senior teaching positions, research, roles in the university hierarchy, collaborations, and reading grants. She emphasises, however, that closest to her heart was always the practice of teaching. In the course of her varied activities de Rios came into contact with some well-known figures from the academic psychedelic landscape, including Albert Hofmann, Stanislav Grof, Christian Rätsch, Charles Grob, and Michael Winkelman.


Envious of those others who were healers, versus those like herself who only studied healing, de Rios completed a second masters degree in clinical psychology at the beginning of the 1980s. This set her on a path that defined her work until the present day; an attempt to bring and apply knowledge from indigenous psychedelic plant traditions to Western patients and settings. In attempting to explain the efficacy of these indigenous methods of healing, a central theme running through her work is that of hypersuggestibility. Often a defining property of drug-induced non-ordinary states, hypersuggestibility is crucial to the healing process. This idea ties closely with the hypnotherapeutic approach (perhaps, the “Western” version of the same healing process) that de Rios employed for decades as a therapist.


Turning to culture, her book goes on to discuss how these hypersuggestible states were utilised by indigenous groups in initiations, socialising young people into their proper roles as emerging adults, and thereby contributing to the long-term survival of a group. Such transitional initiation rituals were usually managed by elders, within a socially sanctioned and often revered framework. In stark contrast, de Rios points out, there is a lack of such initiatory processes and managerial wisdom in the modern Western world today, and likewise the West grapples with issues regarding the legality of drugs, a concept largely foreign to indigenous cultures.


Although she does not explicitly state it, de Rios’s functional hypothesis regarding psychedelics as a means to socialise young adults implies support for the idea of cultural group selection. This hypothesis emphasises the truly anthropological nature of much of her work, and certainly the admirable emphasis in this book, of interest especially to any scholar of the social sciences, on analysis from a cultural perspective. Another example of such analysis is de Rios’s observation that as societies become more complex, the use of psychedelics becomes increasingly controlled by the powers-that-be. Thus, the drugs become less available, restricted to an elite, or simply made illegal. One of the main reasons, de Rios suggests, for this correlation between social complexity and drug prohibition is the fear that psychedelics, through the power they are traditionally believed to endow, might be used to bewitch state rulers. This is a plausible explanation, but there may be more fundamental motivations for the hierarchical control of consciousness-expanding drugs, motivations that fuelled the modern social backlash against the psychedelic/hippie counterculture at the end of the 1960s. For such drugs, through the novel perceptual and conceptual vistas they reveal to the individual, tend to challenge established social traditions, assumptions, and power structures. They promise the tantalising possibility of a Turnerian “spontaneous communitas” extended into a permanent way of life. As such, these substances threaten the basic power hierarchies of society, and society will do all that it can to control them.


Addressing the long-standing debate regarding appropriate terminology for consciousness-modifying plants and compounds, de Rios prefers the term “psychedelic”, or, somewhat surprisingly, “hallucinogen”. The latter, deriving primarily from the medical discourse, is surprising because it connotes a judgement regarding the ontological status of the experiences it denotes. It is unlikely, however, considering her decades-long work in this field and her approach to it, that de Rios would be intending to pass such a judgement. She has clarified this point with the understandable explanation that when publishing in medical and psychiatric journals, one must use their lingo. In contrast, de Rios does explicitly criticise the more recently coined term “entheogen”, meaning “creating [the one] God within”. In traditional societies where visionary plants are utilised, there are often numerous sources of spiritual power. Monotheism is a very late arrival in human prehistory, and the term “entheogen”, therefore, may not be appropriate for describing psychedelic plants utilised within these societies.


Over the years de Rios gathered written information from diverse sources regarding cultures that employed psychedelic drugs in traditional settings, and she presents summaries of some of these ethnographies in her book. They include the Australian Aboriginal use of pituri (Duboisia hopwoodii), Psilocybe and Boletus mushroom consumption in the New Guinean highlands, utilisation of the powerful iboga (Tabernanthe iboga) amongst the Fang people of northwestern equatorial Africa (in the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo), and psychedelic drug use by the Aztecs and Incas in the pre-Columbian Americas. The Aztecs used plants including the mescaline-containing peyote, psychoactive mushrooms, species from the Datura genus, and morning glory seeds (Ipomoea violacea). Ritual psychedelic plant use by in the Incas included utilisation of San Pedro, coca, the nightshade (Solanaceae) family, and DMT-containing snuffs. De Rios makes the important point that post-Columbus, Christianity sought to wipe these practices out, for according to its worldview an individual’s connection to the spiritual world should be mediated only by priests, and only when sanctioned by the prevailing social powers-that-be.


Other themes discussed by the author in her book include women and psychedelics, and psychedelics in the archaeological record. In regards to the former, de Rios suggests that in hunter-gatherer societies psychedelic ingestion was closely related to hunting magic. Women, due to the odours associated with menstrual blood, lactation, and other reproductive olfactory factors, were largely excluded from the hunt. Therefore, ingestion of psychedelic plants by women in prehistoric times was apparently a sporadic affair, and generally not deemed an appropriate practice. Whilst in indigenous settings today female curanderas do exist (one of the most famous in the West being the Mexican Mazatec healer María Sabina, who was key to the modern world’s discovery of psychedelic Psilocybe mushrooms in the 1950s), overall, consciousness-modifying plants are still consumed mostly by men. The chapter on archaeology, delving into the Moche, Nazca and Maya cultures, illustrates the importance of accurate and critical discourse on questions regarding the antiquity of psychedelic plant use. One often hears sweeping and unfounded statements made by psychonauts stating that cultures across the globe have used these substances for millennia and more. In order to do justice to what can truly be a profound experience, facilitated by unique compounds and plants, such statements should be more restrained and fact-based, and this is just what de Rios tries to do. A similar approach, for example, is taken by Andy Letcher, in his excellent social history of the psilocybin mushroom entitled Shroom – A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom.


A key topic finally covered by de Rios, and one that she has become an acknowledged authority on, is that of “drug tourism”. The term refers to the practice of Westerners travelling to countries such as Peru and Brazil in order to consume psychedelic preparations that are either illegal or not easily available in their home countries. Many, although not all, drug tourists have some interest in the ritual and spiritual aspects of the practice; in other words, they come seeking not only the drugs, but also a shaman or shaman-like figure who will administer them in a traditional setting. Two common psychedelics thus sought are the DMT-containing ayahuasca, and the mescaline-containing San Pedro.


From early on in her book, starting with an account relating how her interest in the practice of drug tourism began with the story in 1992 of a woman from the United States who was taking ayahuasca in Peru almost daily, it is clear that de Rios’s view of this practice is largely critical and negative. Most of her criticisms are directed towards “charlatan” shamans who have little or no concern for their clients’ welfare, and are interested exclusively in the making of money. Yet de Rios’s attitude towards this practice as a whole is a little surprising. Regarding the aforementioned ayahuasca drinker, when that woman described herself as “merging with the universe”, a well-known and well-described phenomenon that may occur in the course of intense psychedelic states, de Rios dismisses this phenomenological experience as “clearly a psychotic state!”. She goes on to compare drug tourism to narcotics trafficking, describes the phenomenon as part of the “dark side of globalization”, and emphasises that ayahuasca contains the drug DMT, pointing out that it falls under Schedule 1 of the United States 1970 Controlled Substances Act. Yet DMT, along with the harmala alkaloids contained in the brew, is the very compound that facilitates the profound effects of ayahuasca, effects that de Rios has been studying for decades. Furthermore, the book does not make mention that DMT is found throughout nature, including within the bodies of every mammal (as well as humans) studied to date.


In some ways, de Rios’s concerns regarding the wellbeing of drug tourists and the effects the industry has had on local communities is justified, and as is apparent in her writing, she has the exposure and wealth of experience to back her claims up. She stresses (separately from this book) that her main concern relates to the neo-shamans themselves; the lack of any kind of official regulation of their work, and the fact that they will sometimes utilise poisonous plants (traditionally used for witchcraft) as additives in psychedelic brews, just for providing extra “kicks” and making more money. Also justified is de Rios’s recognition that anthropologists have inadvertently played a major role in diffusing esoteric knowledge to the general public and thereby, to some extent, encouraging this practice.


However, her disparaging approach to the practice of drug tourism as a whole is somewhat unjustified. Many tourists do come in search of spiritual development, not just to “get high”, and indeed, many connect with just such spiritual and life-changing experiences. These experiences have led to the formation of secretive (for legal reasons) ayahuasca circles in Western countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Israel, and parts of Europe. Even in regards to those tourists seeking to “get high”, we must ask ourselves, from what basic human needs and desires does such a seeking arise? Is it, perhaps, just a baser expression (relative to “spiritual” seeking) of a universal aspiration to connect to something more profound and greater than our ego-bound selves? And in some ways, are these not the same fundamental factors motivating the ethnographer to go out into the field and conduct their research? Whilst drug-tourism practices have the potential to be harmful, they also have the potential, when carried out with integrity and good intentions, to bring positive change both individually and collectively. And whilst the ethnopharmacological technologies involved (such as ayahuasca) are without doubt the intellectual property and birth-rights of the indigenous groups themselves, nobody should have a monopoly on the rights of human beings to modify and expand their own consciousness.


In conclusion, The Psychedelic Journey of Marlene Dobkin de Rios is a lucid and fact-filled book, giving the reader insight into the rich life of the author, and conveying an understanding of the intricate themes and nuances associated with the ritual utilisation of psychedelic plants. Its specifically anthropological approach – analysing these phenomena from a cross-cultural perspective – is especially informative and interesting, and this book is highly recommended to anthropologists and non-anthropologists alike. De Rios’s life’s work has been “… a search for information on these magical plants and how they have contributed to human survival”. Maintaining a critical and scholarly approach, however, without embracing, in her own words, Terrence McKenna-like ideas of astrology, mythic figures, interspecies communication or alien abductions (not to imply that the author of this review is opposed to such ideas), de Rios nonetheless recognises and actively promotes the immense potential these plants hold for positive change in the world. She writes, “There is a real need for the countervailing presence of these wisdom traditions, in light of the tremendous and powerful negative influences of the commercialization of all human values regnant in the world today”. With forty-five years of experience behind her, few are as qualified to make such a declaration, and few are able to express the reasons behind it, as clearly and lucidly as she does.


De Rios and her husband, a Peruvian visionary artist, are both currently involved with a Peruvian mystical order called the Septrionismo, and in the years to come plan to translate and promulgate the doctrines of this group. Her next book, chronicling the work she did in the l960s with the naipes fortune-telling cards and incorporating the Septrionic group’s concept of destiny, is due out in March 2011. She has also recently published a book with Praeger Press, co-authored with Roger Rumrrill, titled “A Hallucinogenic Tea Laced with Controversy: Ayahuasca in the Amazon and the United States”. The book is based on interviews conducted with twenty-six neo-shamans, and is an in-depth exploration of the drug-tourism phenomenon.


Zevic Mishor has a background in both neuroscience and anthropology, and is currently pursuing a PhD, studying Shipibo shamanism in the north Peruvian Amazon. He has a strong interest in psychedelics, non-ordinary states of consciousness, and the deep philosophical questions raised thereby. He is soon to publish a book chapter, co-authored with Dennis McKenna and Jace Callaway, about the historical, phenomenological, pharmacological, and ethnographic aspects of the powerful psychedelic drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT).


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