"I'm not a master of anything," Bett Williams tells a psychedelic disciple who has traveled to her home in Northern New Mexico to take magic mushrooms and hallucinogenic Syrian rue with her. "I learned this on the internet."
Like many of the nuggets of hard-won wisdom in Madrid resident Williams' new memoir, The Wild Kindness: A Psilocybin Odyssey, the statement is accurate—but also not. It's a grain of truth that contains a Russian doll of contradictions and countless other truths, kind of like the internet itself. Or life, even.
You don't need to be interested in doing psychedelic drugs to find yourself in deep with Williams' chronicle of finding meaning and healing through mycelium. You might start by merely appreciating the book's colorfully shroomy cover and compact, ride-along size before you dip a toe into the pleasant warmth of the free-flowing narrative.
But soon you're swimming with abandon. You can't see the shoreline anymore, and you don't care. You're out there in the wild kindness a reader receives from any great writer of psychedelia. That is, you're traveling with a seeker—one who may have learned a lot online about growing mushrooms, but who has also done her literary and anthropological and cultural homework, calling on philosophical guidance from forebears and influences like Joan Didion, Aldous Huxley, Peter Kingsley, Carrie Fisher and the Mazatec curandera María Sabina.
At the outset of Williams' mostly solo forays into mushroomland, she's blocked—spiritually, creatively, romantically. She was drawn to the desert after a childhood in Santa Barbara, California, and as she drifts around New Mexico "looking for land" in the early '90s, she meets a Scottish seer in Ojo Caliente. He helps her cut a savvy swath through the New Age crowd and their "force fields of fraudulence, mental illness, cultural appropriation and psychic theft."
But it still takes years for Williams to set herself on a path to enlightenment through mushrooms, and she goes on several trips before she experiences "the God Trip," those elusive, epiphanic hours that help make sense of every cell of existence. Even then, she writes, "I was just a beginner. I still am."
This refreshing guilelessness is what makes The Wild Kindness so immersive. I read it on a long night's journey into day and greeted the dawn with unclouded eyes, having absorbed Williams' roving intellectual curiosity and lust for life. I was delighted to follow her down multiple rabbit holes; one involves the litigation of picaresque lesbian relationship drama, while another is a taxonomy of the dogs who live with her.
"She's capable of killing a dog out of sheer confusion as to whether love lasts forever," she writes of a brown brindle cattle dog named Rosie. A Chihuahua, Littledeer, "makes me feel bad about myself because she brings to mind Yolanda Saldívar, Selena's manager, which I know is a wrong thing to think." As Williams' store of knowledge grows and she starts to make panel appearances at conferences on psychedelics, it's easy to see why strangers seek her out in Madrid: In addition to her mushroom mastery, she's the dynamite host of a wild, lyrical imagination.
The book casts an intensely critical eye on matters of cultural appropriation. Williams travels to the Mexican village of Huautla de Jiménez, home of the late psychedelic guru María Sabina. There, she finds that it is not at all the place that was supposedly "ruined by hippies" after the writer R. Gordon Wasson published a Life Magazine article in 1957 about Sabina and the Mazatec people's ceremonial use of magic mushrooms.
In Mexico, she ponders the stories Anglos tell each other about appropriation: "What do white Westerners gain from promoting the idea they ruined Huautla de Jiménez, that it's wrong to visit there? …Doesn't it discount the innate resiliency of the Mazatec and how they've adapted amidst so much cultural change?" Williams' constant examination of her whiteness has her feeling like "a late-stage Jack Kerouac" as she stands in front of a curandera and her daughter. A few chapters later, that same self-consciousness leads her to write a set of directives for the well-meaning white people at Standing Rock Indian Reservation in 2016 who were helping to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline (and they're handy for current protestors, too).
"Educate yourself," "You are not a hero," "Be self-reflective," "Work hard," the guidelines sensibly read—but also, more cuttingly, "be aware that even the New York Times is cropping the white hippies with the dreadlocks screaming on the frontlines out of the picture, so even you, watching the images on your computer screen, can feel like you're the only white person who cares." As in all the best memoirs, Williams' self-examinations transcend navel-gazing to become a gift of shared insight.
As a writer, Williams' central mission in mushroom-taking is to dissolve her tendency toward hyper-analysis, naming and assignation. She illuminates this struggle without pretense, hilariously telling her partner Beth she's "really trying to get out of the Anthropologie store of philosophical inquiry." But by the middle of the book, she's already hit on the most profound enlightenment there is—that any substance "can't compare to basic awareness and an ethical worldview," and that small doses of mushrooms may be able to repair hippocampus cells, but blueberries can, too. The power of the medicine is in using it to see a different side of things.