“So Rhoney’s basically us from the future?” observed my best gal pal Daniella, soon as we tumbled into the car. On a late summer afternoon at her home in upstate New York, just outside Woodstock, I interviewed Rhoney Gissen Stanley—one of the many women who fueled the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s. She worked in clandestine LSD labs or backstage at Grateful Dead shows, navigating the intrepid waves of free love, law enforcement, and motherhood, all swelling into a sea of acid consciousness, in which she ultimately found herself and a sense of grounding amidst it all.
When I first met Rhoney in San Francisco, summer of 2021 on the set of filmmaker Seth Ferranti’s documentary about the secret history of the LSD trade, I related to her immediately: another nice Jewish girl with a foot in both New York and California; sharp and on point, yet also a hippie; in the same community as my dad—centered around Ram Dass; and a graduate of my alma maters, UC Berkeley and Columbia. Raising her son, Starfinder, on her own, Rhoney eventually pursued a career in holistic orthodontics, and wrote a memoir, Owsley and Me: My LSD Family, a love story about her time spent with Owsley “Bear” Stanley, the world’s largest acid producer and distributor, as well as the Grateful Dead sound engineer.
We were just finishing up when Daniella came to pick me up, first parking her Subaru past a yard full of playful welded sculptures made from found objects, before making her way up the spiral staircase to the fifth floor of Rhoney’s funky, rounded villa atop a hill—a quintessential psychedelic clubhouse—where, in her boisterous Queens fashion, she joined in on the interview. But it felt more like Rhoney and I were just hanging out, anyway, us girls, sitting on the carpet, shooting the shit, talking about boys, life, career, and the role of women behind the scenes of the Sixties, raising kids and helping life run smoothly, while friends and lovers like Owsley Stanley or Jerry Garcia made headlines—which in Bear’s case also landed him in federal prison, where a pregnant Rhoney would make weekly visits until the baby turned two.
As it were, Rhoney wasn’t the only pregnant woman coming to visit Bear behind bars; she and one of his other lovers, Melissa Cargill, gave birth just three weeks apart, sharing a single ID to show the jail guards because, at the time, anyone who was arrested with a federal inmate wasn’t allowed to visit that person in prison—and so, since Rhoney and Melissa couldn’t use their own IDs, they shared the ID (and false identity) of another friend. It was a love triangle that would drive anyone mad, yet when I asked Rhoney how she handled it, her answer was as evolved as one would expect from someone who’s tripped on acid dozens of times. But it’s not so much the acid that Rhoney credits for her sense of compassion and spiritual connection. Rather, it’s just the thing that set her on her path.
The pages of her memoir tell a tale of love and all its challenges; admittedly, Owsley wasn’t always good to Rhoney, hardly ever taking into account her feelings or intuition, and often favoring Melissa. “How did you deal with it?” I asked her that afternoon, knowing all too well what it’s like to be in love, however complicated the relationship. “It was very hard, I realized I had to work on it [because] it wasn’t going to do me any good to be jealous,” she told me, describing the deep spiritual work it took to maintain grace amidst a difficult situation. “You have to open your heart. You attempt to love the person who you’re really jealous of. That’s what I did with Melissa, I learned to love her. We decided we were going to make sure our children loved each other and didn’t feel competitive.” Of course, it “totally” wasn’t easy, says Rhoney. What deep spiritual practice is? That’s why spirituality is so important, she adds. “Because in your life, you’re confronted with so many situations that you just want to scream and shout at the other person, but you have to learn to open your heart, get rid of the bestiality of man, and bring out the compassion. It takes a lot.”
Throughout much of her relationship with Owsley, the three of them lived communally and worked together in the LSD lab: Rhoney, Bear, and Melissa. In the early days of motherhood, even though by then they’d moved on from cohabitating, Rhoney and Melissa were still involved in each other’s children’s lives (even once, Melissa nursed Rhoney’s baby)—reminding me of the type of friendship that Daniella often jokes about, “sisterwives” and our dream of starting a “mommune,” or femaleled collective with the goal of raising children and making shit happen, to put it bluntly.
“Women have so many choices, but in our society, we have to give up a lot in order to make it all work,” says Rhoney. “We want to have relationships, we want to be mothers, we want to have professions, we want to support our community. It takes a village.” And it got hard for Rhoney when she left her village—the Bay Area hippie scene—to study orthodontics in Manhattan. “When I tried to become a professional in a man’s profession, it was an uphill battle. I still remember how poorly I was treated at Columbia Dental School because I went to dental school as as a single parent. I had worked for the Grateful Dead and had also made LSD, but when I went to dental school, psychedelics were illegal, so there was no way I could talk about that.”
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Nevermind her street cred in the counterculture, commingling with George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Ram Dass, and the like—pursuing a career wasn’t about that anyway. “I’ve learned through spirituality, through my contact with Ram Dass [author of Be Here Now] and [musician and Sanskrit translator] Shyam Das, that one of the most important attributes you can have is humility—we are all much more the same and equal than we are unique and different,” says Rhoney.
It’s that humility, though, that so many women of the psychedelic revolution embodied—making things happen behind the scenes, with the men upfront. “I’m a virgo, I prefer to be behind than in front anyway,” says Rhoney, noting certain advantages to that. When the LSD lab in the East Bay got raided in 1967, Rhoney, Melissa, Owsley, and two other men were arrested. “We all got busted together by federal agents, 12 of them who came in with guns on the five of us eating breakfast. It was the most scary thing,” she recalls. Despite the fact that Rhoney and Melissa also worked in the lab, Owsley took all the blame. “‘They’re just women, they were just there for our pleasure.’ This is what you could get away with in those days,” Rhoney recounts. “And so, the women, including me, were not even indicted by the grand jury. There were no charges on us.”
This wasn’t the only time Rhoney’s quiet influence worked to her advantage. She likes to talk about the time she got Jerry Garcia to allow for a voter registration table at the Grateful Dead’s office in Marin. A marijuana decriminalization measure was on the ballot, and Rhoney hoped to activate all the people who came through the door.“ Jerry hated politics, he had a terrible experience where politics were violent, and so he said the most political thing he could do was play music, but if anyone asked him to do a benefit for a political cause, he said no,” Rhoney explains, admitting that nonetheless, here she was hoping to set up tables in the Dead’s office to encourage voting. So she talked to Mountain Girl—Carolyn Garcia—formerly Jerry Garcia’s wife and one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. “Jerry loved Mountain Girl so much, and she had written one of the earliest books on how to grow marijuana, so I knew that would do it,” says Rhoney. And it worked.
But Mountain Girl, like so many women of the psychedelic Sixties, did so much more than what she’s credited for. “Mountain Girl tells me that when she first met Jerry there were nine people living in the house, all men. She took over and made the meals, did the laundry, she kept the house going and she said that that was an important role because they needed to be able to create, and chaos wasn’t the best environment. This way the women could provide a home and security and comfort and give them space to create, which is what happened.”
I imagine women of today’s generation reading this might cringe, wondering, is that all these women back then wanted for themselves? And the answer is yes and no.
There were times when Rhoney lost herself in the acid, losing sight of her identity, while other times, it helped to steer her back on track. Her memoir details moments of destabilization, whilst living on a ranch in Marin one summer with the Grateful Dead, all on a steady diet of 270 micrograms of LSD every five days, as Owsley prescribed.
“I was nothing,” Rhoney writes. “Anyone could be me…The LSD experience of oneness dominated…We lay under the stars on the ground. The Earth felt like a cradle, and the midnight blue sky glittered with the rays of thousands of stars…My self had shattered like an exploding star, and I was afraid [of ego loss].”
Yet, there were also moments of sheer psychedelic “nirvana,” like dosing acid intravenously with Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass, who Rhoney describes more as a friend and “dancing partner,” than the guru-type that many know him as). “I took LSD with him and we danced wild at parties,” she says, but even so, it was always clear that Alpert saw beyond the acid. When Rhoney, Bear, and Alpert injected LSD into their veins, it was pure ecstasy: “I was instantaneously transported to another realm,” Rhoney writes. “I felt fluid flowing through me, as if my body were ejaculating.”
In those days, “there was no such thing as microdosing,” she tells me that afternoon, some fifty years later. “We didn’t think about it.” Her home is filled with Grateful Dead paraphernalia, old tickets and the like, and on her fridge are disposable camera photographs of the satsang, the same community I grew up in that coalesced around Ram Dass’ and other friends’ guru Neem Karoli Baba. After helping spark the psychedelic revolution in the US with Timothy Leary, Ram Dass famously left for India after realizing psychedelics weren’t enough to maintain his desired state of spiritual enlightenment. Rhoney was alongside him for that revelatory moment, among so many others. “Ram Dass realized that the value of LSD was the connection to the divine in all, but as the effects of the medicine wore off, so did that sense of divine presence,” she says. “He wanted to find a way to stay high and not come down, and believed spiritual practice could give us this consciousness.”
With psychedelics, the idea isn’t to just get high, but for the medicine to help you find a path that enables you to integrate and maintain that high, as Ram Dass, among others, sought out. “What happened to me is I started to have a similar trip, I started to have the same questions, the same visions, the same ego loss dilemma, and I thought to myself, ‘Now you know what you have to resolve. You don’t need any more acid.’ So I stopped, I didn’t take acid, and then I got pregnant,” says Rhoney. “[The psychedelics] told me my material aura wasn’t clear, you don’t have a profession, you don’t have a way to earn a living and you need to work on that. I said, ‘Wow, I love being in the lab, I love the meticulousness of doing science, which was the opposite of the psychedelic experience, it was grounded and real and based on facts that were repeatable. I never thought honestly that the Grateful Dead would be performing more than 50 years later, and I could have hung on to their coattails, but as an independent woman, I’m not a coattail person. I had to have my own profession, so I went back to school to study science.”
Today, as a practitioner, Rhoney describes getting into a flow state when she does orthodontic work. “That sense of being in the zone and being all present and open, you allow any of these cosmic influences, these divine influences to come through you to help others,” she says. It’s an act of service that lives at the core of her spiritual work, and represents the natural evolution of her psychedelic integration.
It’s one of the central teachings of the guru Neem Karoli Baba, endearingly known as Maharajji: To serve others is to serve God. This is the philosophy I was raised with, my father a devotee of Maharajji, like many of the friends he and Rhoney share. “The thing that Shyam Dass got me into was the religious aspect, this concept of bhakti [Sanskrit for ‘faith, love, devotion’],” says Rhoney. “That really spoke to me, the idea that everything you do, you do with devotion. I love that.”
I see Rhoney’s values as relatable. Sure, like a doting Jewish mother she can interrogate me about boys and where I’m going in life, and, sure, I can relate to her psychedelic shenanigans: dating hippies, getting high and dancing to jam bands, tripping through the Bay Area and upstate New York. But it runs deeper than that. As a woman, she represents someone who’s been through it all, has done so much, and holds her head up high, with grace and modesty. “For me, being able to do the kind of things that I wanted to do, which was to have my own profession, be a good mother, have a relationship, earn a living…it was difficult,” she says. “And to have a spiritual path, that was also very important to me. And to have fun.”
*This article was originally published in DoubleBlind Issue 6.