Saturday, February 3, 2024

A Valentine for Valentina Wasson

Those in the know about the discovery of psilocybin mushrooms by Western civilization are hip to the 1957 Life magazine article written by banking executive and author R. Gordon Wasson about his experience taking mushrooms with curandera Maria Sabina in Mexico. 

What is not commonly known or appreciated is that Gordon's wife Valentina Pavlovna Wasson lead him to become interested in mushrooms, and that she published an account of her own experience with psychedelic mushrooms six days after Gordon's article. Valentina's account of her psychedelic journey appeared on May 19, 1957 in This Week magazine, a nationally syndicated Sunday magazine supplement that was included in American newspapers between 1935 and 1969.

"The walls suddenly receded and I was carried out—out and away—on undulating waves of translucent turquoise green," she wrote. "My mind was floating blissfully. It was as if my very soul had been scooped out and moved to a point in heavenly space, leaving my empty physical husk behind in the mud hut. Yet I was perfectly conscious. I knew now what the shamans meant when they said, 'The mushroom takes you to a place where God is.'" She traveled in her mind to the Caves of Lascaux and to 18th century Versailles, where, "I was struck again by the magnificence and intensity of the colors. Everything was resplendently rich. I had never imagined such beauty."

The Wassons' ethnomycological studies began on their honeymoon in the Catskill Mountains in 1927 where Valentina, a Russian pediatrician, happened upon some edible wild mushrooms, which her husband refused to eat. Fascinated by their different attitudes towards fungi—with Valentina and other Slavs being "mycophiles" while "micophobe" Anglo-Saxons like Gordon thought of them as mere poisonous toadstools—the couple began researching the subject, ultimately corresponding with missionaries, linguists and anthropologists around the world, looking for regions where mushrooms were used for spiritual or medicinal purposes. 

In 1952 the poet Robert Graves sent the Wassons an article mentioning the 1938 discovery by ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes of the use of intoxicating mushrooms in Mexico. Valentina and Gordon soon began to organize yearly research expeditions to the remote mountain village of the Mazatec Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico, leading to their soon-to-be-recorded 1955 experience with sacred mushrooms. 

After thirty years of research (fit in between their busy careers and family lives), the couple published the extensive and expansive book Mushrooms Russia and History in 1957. Valentina's name is listed first as the lead author of the book, but the copyright is ascribed to Gordon, who usually gets the credit for it. In the book's preface, written in October 1953, Valentina says, "Without my husband's enthusiasm and help this book would never have come to term, and I insist on making clear that he is personally responsible for the recondite lore concerning toads, vanished words, poisons, and many other matters in chapters IV and V." The rest it seems is hers, or theirs together. 

"The Russians never discuss the weather to make conversation, and our lack of interest in golf scores and sporting events generally, both amateur and professional, is complete. But mushrooms are different," Valentina writes. "They are not only raw material for the kitchen, they are a theme for endless discussion. They are ever present in our minds, even when we are not discussing them." She notes that "references to them are scattered everywhere in Russian literature - in poetry, fiction, essays," including three mentions in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina

What began as a cookbook broadened to address the ancient religious, cultural and medicinal uses of mushrooms, informed in part by their experiences in Mexico. Masha Britten, the Wassons' daughter, took mushrooms with her parents at the age of 18, later recorded "on one occasion she seemed able in her visions to hop all over the world and come down, alighting to visit friends far away," writes Carl Ruck. "Her mother also had a clear view of a city, and later as they approached Mexico City from a different route, looking down on it from a mountain, she realized that this was the city of her vision."

"The first suggestion that psychedelic substances could be useful in the therapy of individuals dying of incurable diseases came from pediatrician Valentina Pavlovna Wasson," wrote Stanislaf Grof and Joan Halifax in The Human Encounter with Death (1978). In her article in This Week, Valentina "stated that as the drug would become better known, medical uses would be found for it, perhaps in the treatment of alcoholism, narcotic addiction, mental disorders, and terminal diseases associated with severe pain....Aldous Huxley followed Valentina's suggestion that the transition to death could be eased by a dose of LSD. "Several hours before his death he asked [his wife] Laura to give him 100 micrograms of LSD to facilitate his own dying. This moving experience was later described in Laura Huxley's book, This Timeless Moment."

Gordon Wasson retired from banking in 1963, and, as Ruck relates, "on the afternoon of the very day, he boarded a merchant ship for the Orient to gather material that he would publish in 1968, Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality, with the collaboration of a young Indologist, Wendy Doniger O’Flattery, where he sought the origin of the European mycophobia in the importation of an Indo-European mushroom cult, documented among the ancient Aryans, identifying the Vedic plant-god Soma as Amanita muscaria." So along with Valentina and Maria Sabina, Gordon's collaborations with women like Doniger O'Flattery were key to his work. 

The year after her writings were published, Valentina Wasson died of cancer on December 31, 1958, at the age of 57. "Unfortunately, while Gordon is lionized in the story of psychedelic history, Dr. Valentina Wasson and her many accomplishments are forgotten, obscured, and pushed into the background, much like many other women of this time," writes Amy Bartlett for Chacruna.  

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