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Uncovered Letters Reveal a Forgotten and Tumultuous Journey

June 7, 2021
by Andrew Leonard
An envelope with the words "Finding Ken"

ON A JANUARY EVENING, sorting through family memorabilia in my basement, I stumbled on a sealed manila envelope, addressed to me in Berkeley, sent by my grandmother. It was postmarked October 2003. I had no idea why I’d never opened it.

Inside, I discovered photocopies of four letters that my Uncle Ken had written to his Uncle Warren while he was a student at UC Berkeley. In the first letter, dated January 28, 1965, Ken begins by expressing thanks for an offer of funds designed to get him through graduation.

“… It is just damn good to know there is someone on the other side of the country who is willing to take a chance on an ex-con like me … But I have an objection to your condition … I know that when I went into Sproul Hall on December 2, it was with the understanding that I was about to break the law, that, if arrested, I and others would be punished for our act, but that by dramatizing the issue in this undeniably effective manner, we would achieve a very specific goal, whose realization, to me personally, was for various reasons worth the punishment inevitable under the law.”

Huh. I rechecked the date of Ken’s letter and did a quick Google search. Just as I suspected—December 2, 1964 was the date of one of the most legendary events in Berkeley’s history: the Free Speech Movement sit-in at which Mario Savio gave his oration about the odious “operation of the machine,” Joan Baez sang “We Shall Overcome,” and some 1,000 students and university employees occupied Sproul Hall. The sit-in ended with the largest mass arrest in California’s history. It also crystallized what the name “Berkeley” would symbolize to the world for decades to come.

I was stunned and baffled. My Berkeley roots are deep. I was born in Oakland in 1962 while my parents were students at Cal. I have two master’s degrees from Berkeley; two of my sisters and my ex-wife earned Berkeley Ph.D.s. I’ve lived in the city for the last 33 years, raising two kids from birth to graduation from Berkeley High. I used to joke that I was the physical personification of a “Berkeley anti-war protest” because my own birth was planned to keep my father out of the draft.

But I’d never known that my uncle participated in the historic sit-in. And

I couldn’t begin to comprehend why my father, a politically engaged writer and passionate storyteller, had never told me about his younger brother’s glorious arrest.

My basement is always cold in January, but as I held those letters and thought about Ken for the first time in many years, I felt an additional chill. Ken was a family tragedy. He was, according to my father and grandmother, a “casualty of the ’60s.” He’d dropped way too much acid in Berkeley, gone crazy, and died young. He started out a golden boy, the president of his high school student body, a whiz at math who began his collegiate career at Caltech, but he became a cautionary tale. Don’t do drugs, Andrew, or you’ll end up like your Uncle Ken.

Maybe my father suppressed his memories of the sit-in because his younger brother’s descent into madness was too painful. Or maybe he never told me about the Sproul Hall arrest because the bold political statement complicated what was otherwise a pretty clear-cut drugs-are-bad narrative. Chroniclers of the social ferment of the 1960s in the Bay Area have often tried to draw a line between the political protests and the druggie excess, as if the latter undermined or invalidated the former. But here, in the person of my Uncle Ken, free speech activism and LSD experimentation were indivisible.

My father and grandmother aren’t around to answer any questions, but I still wanted to know more. In Ken’s cursive scrawl I sensed insights into my own narrative arc. I have long recognized that I ended up raising a family in Berkeley because I was an easy mark for the double-barreled seduction of the city’s progressive history and its legacy of counterculture experimentation. Despite the family warnings, I grew up with a clear case of ’60s envy.

Should I blame Uncle Ken for that, or praise him?

Dear Mother,

Well, things are really popping around here. After ten weeks of abstract support of the Free Speech Movement, I decided at last, on Wednesday, to act in accordance with my convictions; as a result I have a police record, and a head full of mixed-emotions on the wisdom of my act, not to mention a rather painful wrist, commemorating the zeal of one arresting officer. Yes, I am one of the 801 students whose martyrdom you have probably been reading about. …

In the fall of 2010, my son and I cleaned out my grandmother’s house in Lakewood, a suburban town nestled between Long Beach and Los Angeles. The most important object we brought back to Berkeley was a large wooden chest filled with her photo albums and collected letters. That chest had been sitting in my dining room, more or less untouched, for a decade. After reading Ken’s account of his adventures sent to Uncle Warren, it occurred to me that the chest might contain additional clues to his life story.

I found a shoebox labeled “Ken’s Letters,” containing 65 letters written to his mother between 1958 and 1967. Forty-three are stamped with Berkeley postmarks. The return address for the last one in the box is the Mendocino State Mental Hospital.

Thumbing through the letters, I felt like an intruder. What right did I have to rummage through this archive of mother-son intimacy? And yet: I am co-executor of my grandmother’s estate. Neither my father nor my grandmother ever finished much-anticipated memoirs that could have clarified the historical record. A family line packed with writers bequeaths its own special burdens. Maybe it was my filial duty to set the record straight?

Reading Ken’s letters was a trip, and not an altogether easy one. Some mornings, I could only read two or three before breaking into tears, or succumbing to a splitting headache. A man who had been a mere stick-figure in my imagination—I can recall meeting him only once—came to life in full Day-Glo color. Ken was funny, passionate about music and politics, and, at least at the beginning, painfully innocent—a child of the halcyon 1950s. As I got to know him, I started to miss him. His enthusiasm, his wit, his self-doubt and constant quest for meaning—he reminded me of someone …

He was 17 when he enrolled at Caltech, but bombed out within a year; apparently, he wasn’t as good at math as everyone thought. By the fall of 1960 he was at Cal. He arrived in town, I realized, around a month before I was conceived, when my parents were still living in Berkeley.

In between the usual stuff—pleas for money, updates on his (generally terrible) grades, complaints about his love life and anxiety about the draft—emerge vivid snapshots of cultural history. He reports seeing, along with 90,000 others, President John F. Kennedy speak at 1962’s Charter Day celebration in Memorial Stadium. “He was winning as always,” Ken writes of JFK, before ripping Governor Pat Brown’s accompanying speech to shreds. He is outraged in November 1964 when California voters overwhelmingly repeal an anti-discrimination housing law: “the people of California got what they wanted, and I have lost all sympathy for them.” In 1966, he informs his Uncle Warren that the Beatles’ new album Revolver “is worth a closer listen than any of the others.” In 1967, he jokes to his mother that “the members of our commune found we got along better when we weren’t living together.”

There are four separate references to LSD, a drug he calls, in the fall of 1965, “my newest vice.”

But the jewel in the crown of this collection is an 11-page handwritten letter dated December 6, 1964—just four days after the FSM sit-in. It is a blow-by-blow account of the protest and his subsequent arrest. I could hardly contain my excitement as I started to read. For a reporter or historian, a document of this sort is pure gold, the very definition of a “primary source.” I’ve read many accounts of the sit-in, but most of them are blunted by the passage of time, or the knowledge of what happened afterward. Ken’s account is fresh and of-the-moment.

As regards my fellow conspirators, I will admit to misgivings at first. Looking around me where I sat, I saw so many hair-dos on men which might have been the envy of Jesus Christ himself that I felt compelled to go home and shave off my beard, if only to prove that a Cal student could believe in the FSM without being a hairy malcontent (To your way of thinking, doubtless, that will be the only good thing to come out of all this. … I regained my former clean shaven image just in time to look wholesome for my mug-shots) …

I can honestly say, however, that the vast majority of those with whom I came into contact had a very real understanding of the issues involved, of the possible consequences of their act, and of the very real place in the American political spectrum of the democratic institution of constructive civil disobedience. Contrary to what you may have read in the Times, fully 81% of those arrested were students at U.C. and the bulk of the remainder were university employees in some capacity. I know exactly how the leadership of FSM came to be elected, I know many of them, and I can assure you that despite the amazingly flagrant propaganda perpetuated by most newspapers in the area, the movement is not Communist inspired. (I feel foolish even bothering to deny the charge).

For the students, arrests notwithstanding, the protest resulted in total victory. After the majority of Berkeley’s faculty voted in support of the protesters, the administration surrendered and ended its ban. The concession represented a landmark moment for a country with all-too-fresh memories of the McCarthy era. As one participant wrote many years later, the FSM “burned off the fog of Cold War repression.” Berkeley’s example sparked a wave of campus unrest across the country and set the stage for an era of anti-Vietnam War protest.

But then things got messy. In the East Bay, a cycle of escalating protest and crackdowns became progressively more violent. Drug use exploded. The protests and surging counterculture incited a backlash that brought conservative politicians to power both in California and nationally—Ronald Reagan ran for governor “to clean up the mess in Berkeley.” In the blink of an eye, the righteous clarity of civil disobedience was muddied by heroin overdoses and psychedelic freak-outs, bomb scares, and helicopters spraying tear gas.

Ken’s own journey paralleled the larger arc. The last letter in my grandmother’s box is postmarked December 21, 1967, in the middle of the winter that ended the Summer of Love. Ken reports that he won’t be home for Christmas because he has checked himself into an experimental “group therapy” drug rehab program at the Mendocino State Mental Hospital. In closing, he tells his mother that there’s an acceptance process to go through for long-term admission:

“If I’m rejected I have to leave the hospital— I don’t know where I’ll go if I can’t qualify for the loony bin!”

And then the trail goes dark.

For the next ten years, my grandmother rarely knew Ken’s exact location. I have heard stories of panhandling and more arrests—at least one for public exposure—and random phone calls to family members complaining about persecution from shadowy government agents. Occasionally, Ken would show up at his mother’s door in Lakewood. I have a picture of my step-grandfather giving him a haircut. In 1979, at the age of 36, he died of undiagnosed prostate cancer.

I remember only one interaction with Ken. I was 12 or 13, visiting my grandmother during the summer, sometime in the mid-’70s. He smoked a pipe; we played an inconclusive game of chess; he told me that “god” was “dog” spelled backward.

Or was it the other way around? I was unimpressed.


Also, last summer, Jenny and I spent quite a bit of time experimenting with psychedelics, specifically, marajuana [sic] and LSD. Her growing sense of strength and individuality could be in large part attributed to LSD insights… Unfortunately, Jenny’s new sense of purpose could not withstand a long-ingrained sense of insecurity; her parents succeeded in undermining her faith in me (she now tells me) and with her faith in me went her faith in the discoveries she had made with me. So she stayed in Massachusetts. I, in turn, found nothing better to do then renew the experimentation alone. I was looking not for euphoria, but, as I have always been, for meaning. The remarkable thing is, I seem to have found it, after going through the nearest thing to hell on earth I ever expect to encounter. I will tell you all about these things over Thanksgiving, as they will require a great deal of time in the telling.

Ken’s letters paint him as an unabashed evangelist for lysergic consciousness expansion. This is backed up by the memories of his cousin, Susanne, who told me that in the summer of 1965 he tried to get both of his uncles to drop acid. When I was a teenager, my father would often recount a story about going to a party in Berkeley where Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” was blasting at overwhelming volume. At the party, Ken handed him two tabs of LSD. My father did not partake. Instead, he always said with pride, he threw the tabs into the toilet on his plane ride back to the East Coast.

It is one thing to have your father tell you your uncle blew his mind out on acid, and quite another to read Ken’s own words describing his bad trips, his kooky idea for “a new art form, literature and music combined,” and his hopes for the social transformation sure to accompany the coming of age of a “new psychedelic generation.” In March 1966, Time magazine published a story warning of an “epidemic of acid heads” in Berkeley and claiming that 10,000 Cal students had taken LSD. I generally dismiss such rhetoric as scaremongering, but I can’t deny the written record of my uncle’s quest for drug-induced transcendence. When I discovered a journal article from 1969 that described the drug program he enrolled himself in at the Mendocino State Mental Hospital as specifically created to address the explosion of drug addiction and psychosis that sprouted from the Summer of Love, the case seemed cut and dried: Ken was indeed a casualty of the ’60s. He lost himself.

Will you accept the analogy that the United States has grown up a nation of illegitimate children, alienated from the world and themselves, because, although we have acquired a certain mongrel strength from the ‘melting pot’ we suffer from a national identity crisis, because we don’t know who our collective fathers are, and there is no one to absolve our guilt? That may be one reason why we are so afraid of the new psychedelic movement; we don’t wish to look at ourselves, because we are afraid of what we will find. We won’t be able to overcome the guilt until we have treated the cause (in the best tradition of Freud), but the new generation (or at least some of them) is doing just that. But I think we have to rise above ourselves in order to treat ourselves (America might do well to ‘lose itself’).

Ken was 23 years old when he wrote that letter. When I was 23 years old, I was arrested in New Mexico for the possession of MDMA and marijuana. I was midway through an epic cross-country road trip. My girlfriend and I were on our way … to Berkeley.

I GUESS EVEN THOSE WHO do know history are doomed to repeat it. The best I can say for my family’s morality tale is that it may have slowed down what otherwise would have been a headlong rush. Despite my ’60s envy, I did not try psychedelics until after graduating from college. By that time some of my best friends had been singing the praises of magic mushrooms and LSD for years. They did not appear to be going crazy, and some of them were very attractive.

So I finally succumbed and spent a summer grooving to the obvious organic interconnectedness of the universe, giggling at the crisscrossing black tracers my Frisbee drew across the sky, and discovering profound insights in the music of The Cure. I even, for a minute, considered becoming a vegetarian. That didn’t stick, but a quasi-religious appreciation for recycling did. I do recall with absolutely clarity, even after 37 years, one horrific trip, my own experience of hell, during which I found myself at fault for all the evils of Western individualism and imperialism. But unlike my uncle, I did not share any of the insights my trips provided with my parents. That seemed like asking for trouble.

Looking back, I marvel at the mixed messages that accompanied my upbringing. My parents bought each Beatles album as soon as it came out. So even as I was hearing horror stories about Ken, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was in high rotation, and Lennon was telling to me to turn off my mind, relax, and float downstream. My father even took me to see a screening of Yellow Submarine at an impressionable age. Shouldn’t he have known better?

So of course I was going to drop acid and get to Berkeley one way or another. I was conceived to keep my father out of the draft and weaned on counterculture romance! I had no desire—or capability—to draw a demarcation line between the political and the psychedelic. Quite the contrary: I felt compelled to synthesize them. Berkeley was my manifest destiny.

It took me longer than I expected to get there. The arrest, precipitated by a pot pipe in clear view of an officer who stopped me at a roadblock, proved a serious speed bump. My father, near the nadir of his alcoholism, could barely talk to me. My mother deemed my act so “immoral” that she hung up on my call from jail (although to her credit, her next call was to get me the lawyer who bailed me out). When I asked her, while writing this story, whether my arrest made her think I was following Ken’s path, she laughed. “Oh, absolutely!”

I didn’t end up in a mental hospital. My charges were dropped on a technicality, and I split town for Taiwan, where I had previously spent a year studying Chinese and knew I could be gainfully employed as an English teacher. I finally made it to Berkeley in the fall of 1988, enrolled in a joint master’s program in journalism and Asian studies. By the spring of 1989, I had scored a sweet deal: a rent-controlled backyard cottage in North Berkeley, just a block or two from where Jack Kerouac used to hang out reading the Diamond Sutra in another backyard cottage rented by Allen Ginsberg.

When I picked up the keys to my cottage, the previous resident, a Deadhead who was my older sister’s best friend, heaved a great sigh and said, “Berkeley isn’t what it used to be.”

That felt a little rude, but, new in town, who was I to disagree?


I can and have sat down at a desk and opened the proper books; but I cannot force my mind to consider and commit to memory what is written there, because there are always things, notably music and personal philosophizing, which I would rather do. I realize that everyone is subject to aimless daydreaming; all minds wander once in awhile; but mine is never at anchor.


I conceive myself—and try to conceive others—as flux. Today I am such, tomorrow I may be something else; it behooves me to remember my potential. Otherwise I may get into the habit of thinking of my self according to a rigid pattern…. Whatever I may be today, I know that I will be someone entirely different tomorrow. This, rather than stability, is the basis of what security I have.

The first quote above is from a long, distraught, and puzzling letter that my uncle wrote when he was 19 years old. He describes himself as estranged from his math major. He is now obsessed with learning to be a composer. This is problematic, as he is the first to acknowledge, because he plays no musical instruments. Nonetheless, he forges ahead, convinces his dean to allow him to enroll in a slate of music classes, and precipitates an academic disaster. His inability to sight-read music results in failure on most of his exams and consequent dismissal from Berkeley. He spends the next 18 months back in Southern California bringing his grades up at local colleges before returning to Cal in the fall of 1964. After his return, he is an English major, and there are no more references to his dream of composing.

I have read this letter over and over because it is written several years before there is any evidence that Ken was using psychedelics, but its tone seems off, in striking contrast to lighthearted letters he had written just a few weeks prior. The fixation on composing, the unanchored mind … it all sounds, well, I don’t know, a bit crazy?

Time and again I pull myself back from some distant reverie, and concentrate on the page before me once more, only to slip away into the same meditations a half minute later. This sort of thing continues for hours, sometimes, indeed, for as long as I choose to batter my brain over one particular book. Is there any wonder that I grow weary of it, and seek to escape such drudgery as I did last semester, in card games and pool. I have tried—honestly tried—to force my mind to face and comprehend the studies, but every moment is sheer mental torture, when I think that I might easily be engaged in studying solely for that profession which fires my imagination—not solely, perhaps, but principally, for I want to build my world around music, I want to be able to live and breath it, without feeling guilty for having used up precious moments, stolen away from valuable, but intensely hated study time.

I suppose this letter could be read as an ultra-articulate description of attention deficit disorder. But there may be another, more unsettling explanation. After I’d digested all of my uncle’s letters I called up my cousin Susanne, a now-retired college provost who was born a year after Ken. I was chasing rumors I vaguely remembered about incidences of mental illness on my grandmother’s side of the family.

Susanne told me that her older brother had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic at age 18.

The very next day, I read the following sentence in Michael Pollan’s 2018 book on the “new science of psychedelics,” How to Change Your Mind.

“Especially in the case of young people at risk for schizophrenia, an LSD trip can trigger their first psychotic episode, and sometimes did.”

Pollan later told me in an email that patients with a family risk of schizophrenia are excluded from the new wave of medical trials seeking to determine whether psychedelic drugs are useful in treating depression or alcoholism.

So maybe acid wasn’t the primary villain in my uncle’s drama. Maybe he was just a smart young man who happened to be at genetic risk for schizophrenia. Maybe the disastrously bad grades that he was beating himself up for were connected to his mental illness. Maybe the “hell on earth” that he reports about one of his acid trips was the result of a catastrophic intersection between genetic predisposition for lunacy and a powerful mind-altering drug.

It is a very sad story. It is also, I feel, an absolution.

IN THE SPRING OF 2021, I started making hikes from my home in South Berkeley to all the different addresses on Ken’s letters, and other points of related historical interest.

“Chasing the ghost of the uncle I never knew, the passage of time collapsed, and Berkeley, old and new, came together. Sixty years apart, I discovered that my path had crossed Ken’s innumerable

His first stopping point, 2026 Delaware in North Berkeley, was just three blocks due south of my backyard cottage—and five blocks from the famous “Green Factory” on Virginia where Cal dropout Augustus Owsley Stanley III manufactured so much of the LSD that made Berkeley ground zero for the counterculture.

2226 Dwight Way. 2314 Ellsworth. The Free Speech Cafe at Moffitt Library. The Savio Steps at Sproul Plaza.

2420 Ridge Road, just around the corner from North Gate Hall, where I went to journalism school.

2903 Telegraph Avenue: the address of the Institute of Social and Personal Relations, where Ken did computer programming work for an outfit he described as “a non-profit group concerning itself with counseling and therapy, sociological research, and, in general, ‘self-realization.’”

2903 Telegraph is just a mile east of where I have lived for the last 25 years. I have biked or walked past it at least a couple of hundred times on my way up to climb the Berkeley Hills, never once imagining that my long-lost Uncle Ken used to frequent the premises. The institute’s offices were on the second floor of a building occupied at ground level by The Jabberwock, a folk music club and café famous for launching the career of Country Joe & The Fish. The building was torn down in 1969. All that remains now is a parking lot for a nephrology center.

From self-realization to kidney disease—I didn’t set out on my journey into Ken’s past to find a metaphor capturing what happened to the generation that survived coming of age in Berkeley in the 1960s, but some truths are inescapable. Berkeley in 2021 is definitely not the same as it was in 1964, or 1967, or, for that matter, 1988.

But in my traipsing around Berkeley, marveling at the magnolia flowers that announce the arrival of the spring, peering into the Little Free Libraries that dot every other block, chasing the ghost of the uncle I never knew, the passage of time collapsed, and Berkeley, old and new, came together. Sixty years apart, I discovered that my path had crossed Ken’s innumerable times. He was a computer man who dabbled in Zen Buddhism and dropped acid; I was a journalist who wrote about computers, dabbled in Daoism, and dropped acid. With each step I took, each letter I read, his world came closer to mine, and the more I became convinced that his Berkeley was my Berkeley. That, in fact, Ken was responsible for creating my Berkeley.

A funny fact I discovered while researching this story: According to historian William Rorabaugh’s Berkeley at War, between 1924 and 1959 Berkeley’s voters rejected every single bond measure aimed at funding schools except one. This made me chuckle because since I arrived in 1988, Berkeley’s voters have passed every single school bond measure on the ballot, and endorsed plenty of other tax hikes besides. It’s kind of a shock when we don’t raise our own taxes.

The change in voting patterns was the result, argues Rorabaugh, of a wholesale demographic transition that swept through Berkeley over the course of the ’60s. Conservative voters—fleeing the newly desegregated schools, the rampant drug use, the constant protests—moved out. Liberal voters moved in.

This change did not start with the Free Speech Movement. Civil rights activists had been raising a ruckus all over the Bay Area throughout the early ’60s, and as early as 1957 UC Berkeley students founded the campus political party SLATE in an effort to contest the power of the existing fraternity-dominated conservative establishment. But on December 2, 1964, Berkeley’s nascent radicalism went national. There would be no going back. Berkeley became Berkeley.

“The wonder of the journey that started when I opened the envelope from my grandmother, 18 years after she sent it, is that Ken is now a real person instead of a sad caricature.”

When I was choosing between graduate schools, the myths and legends that attach to that name enticed me on multiple levels. But when the time came to raise a family, I must confess to having some concerns. Was it really a good idea to do so in a place where access to such a wide variety of “recreational” intoxicants was so readily available? Call me hypocritical, but the last thing I wanted was for my kids to get a head start on Ken’s trajectory. If they were anything like me, or him, they would be vulnerable.

That concern now seems ludicrous. The upside of exposure to Berkeley values far outweighed the dangers. I am beyond thankful to the politically engaged writers and historians and teachers who cluster here; the lesbian preschool caregivers and the organic farmers and the extreme recyclers; the bearers of the civil rights torch constantly urging us to do better on constantly advancing fronts. Some may trace their intellectual heritage back to the Free Speech Movement and radical political organizers of the 1960s; some may have been inspired by an awesome mushroom trip to start a sustainable organic farm in Sonoma; all of them together helped rear a daughter who protests against travel bans and police brutality at the drop of a hat and a son secure in his gender-queer identity.

I wish Ken’s restlessness—his mind, never at anchor—hadn’t come to such a disastrous end. I wish my kids could have grown up with their uncle joining in feasts at the Thanksgiving dinner table, trading barbs and banter with his older brother. His absence is a sorrow.

But the wonder of the journey that started when I opened the envelope from my grandmother, 18 years after she sent it, is that Ken is now a real person instead of a sad caricature. Who knew? He turned out to be one of the pioneers who helped build the psychic infrastructure of my town. That makes the uncle I never knew an integral part of the community that raised my children. I know my gratitude for this cannot assuage my father and grandmother’s grief. But I feel a lightness of spirit, as if somewhere, a ghost has finally found his long-sought peace.

Andrew Leonard, M.A., M.J. ’91, has been writing about technology and culture for 25 years. His current passion project is a newsletter about Sichuan food and globalization (

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