Dennis McKenna

Dennis Jon McKenna was born in Paonia, Colorado, on December 17, 1950, four years after his brother, Terence. In 1971, they traveled to La Chorrera in the Colombian Amazon in search of the DMT-containing plant preparation known as oo-koo-he. Instead, they found Stropharia cubensis—a psilocybin-containing mushroom—and performed “the experiment at La Chorrera,” which involved, as Dennis later wrote, “building a hyper-dimensional vehicle out of the 4D transformation of my own DNA interlaced with the DNA of a mushroom.”

After La Chorrera, the brothers co-wrote two books, and Terence went on to write three more while Dennis got a doctorate from the University of British Columbia. Dennis’ research focused on ayahuasca and oo-koo-he, and he worked at Shaman Pharmaceuticals, Aveda, and other companies before obtaining a teaching job at University of Minnesota and becoming a founding board member of Heffter Research Institute.

Dennis’ first solo book project, The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss: My Life with Terence McKenna, was published in 2012. In it, he described his and Terence’s post-La Chorrera existence:

While our lives were entangled as only the lives of brothers can be, after the events at La Chorrera we later found ourselves on separate paths. Terence became the spokesman for the alien dimensions accessed through psychedelics, a philosopher of the unspeakable, a beloved and sometimes reviled bard of the marvels and occasional terrors waiting in the recesses of human consciousness. By choice and inclination, I stayed in the background, pursuing a scientific career in disciplines that ranged from ethnopharmacology and ethnobotany to neuroscience.

The Artist and the Scientist: An Intellectual Dyad

The more I engage with the McKenna brothers’ work, the easier it is for me to imagine Dennis thinking and understanding—and, given the right context and audience, even expressing—anything Terence expressed, and vice versa. Their identities influenced what they, in each situation of their lives—including the “situations” of a conversation, book, or presentation—were encouraged to think and to feel. But it increasingly seems to me that they were, at least intellectually, less influenced by their ever-shifting identities than by some shared and constant source.

In this way, I like to imagine the McKenna brothers as originally comprising one mind, which decided that the most elegant, effective, uncompromising, satisfying, and compelling way to express itself—and to have a significant, desirable impact—on Earth in the 20th and 21st centuries would be to duplicate itself and take the form both of an artist, Terence, and a scientist, Dennis. It would exist in each brother as an entity that’s both scientific and artistic, but in order to be heard—and encouraged, financially and socially, to express itself—to its fullest extent, in the physical world, it would self-consciously, functionally accept the labels “Terence McKenna” and “Dennis McKenna.”

At La Chorrera, it was apparently Dennis who supplied all of the ideas and embodied most of the motivation required to perform “the experiment at La Chorrera,” but it was Terence who observed what happened and was motivated to place it within a psychologically dense, poignant, literary narrative. After La Chorrera, Dennis wrote the technical parts of Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide, while Terence wrote the parts where “the mushroom” asserts that it’s an extraterrestrial seeking a symbiotic relationship with humankind. These collaborations seem to me like successful implementations of a clever, earnest, innovative technique with which to introduce new ways of thinking—or new conceptions of “the mystery”—into the world. It’s a boundary-dissolving approach, tending toward interconnectedness rather than hierarchy or mutual exclusivity, and I like to imagine it continuing even now, after half the dyad (Terence) has left the physical world. Dennis, for example, writing in The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss about his brother’s account of La Chorrera in True Hallucinations, observed:

Though his account may seem unlikely and bizarre, I believe it is largely accurate, even if interpretations vary as to what it all meant. I can’t vouch for every detail, if only because I was lost in hyperspace for much of the time, or overwhelmed by psychosis, again depending on interpretation. Anyone with an interest in the “facts” of our story, if the word even applies, should regard Terence’s narrative as required reading.

By my estimates, The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss is about 15 percent a biography of Terence McKenna; 15 percent a nuanced history spanning the late 1800s to 2012 in terms of America, psychedelics, and technology; 15 percent an essay on the brothers’ shared intellectual interests and influences; 15 percent an investigation into “the experiment at La Chorrera”; ten percent an essay on drugs; five percent an essay on Terence McKenna’s career; and 25 percent an autobiography. It’s about twice the length of any of Terence’s three books. It sounds dense, but it’s highly readable and never unintentionally, I think, obscure or vague.

I’ve extracted 20 memes from The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss. Not all of them are directly related to Dennis and Terence, but I view each as providing a fractal piece of understanding regarding the brothers’ relationship to each other and, in the form of what I’ve imagined as an intellectual dyad, to the world. You may recall from Terence McKenna’s Memes that a meme, as defined by him, is “the smallest unit of an idea that still has coherency.” Terence elaborated in 1996: