Interview by R.U. Sirius
Zach Leary is the host of both the “It’s All Happening with Zach Leary” podcast and “The MAPS Podcast.” They have helped to cement him as one of the most thought provoking podcasters in the cultural philosophy genre of podcasting. He’s also a blogger/writer, a futurist, spiritualist, a technology consultant and sociocultural theorist.
Raised from a young age by Timothy Leary and his mother Barbara Leary, Zach had the ultimate front row seat to Dr. Tim’s later years. I’m excited to have him share some of his memories and thoughts with us about Dr. Leary’s final years as he was dying from prostate cancer.
R.U. Sirius: Was there any sign of illness that you were aware of before your stepdad got his diagnosis of prostate cancer? Anything you can tell us about this?
Zach Leary: Looking back on it, it becomes much easier to connect the dots and to make sense of what went on with his sickness and physical deterioration. Before the actual cancer diagnosis occurred, he expressed to me many times how he was brokenhearted and dejected that Barbara (Zach’s mother, Tim’s wife) had left him. I remember one night less than six months after she left where he confessed that he felt a sense of completion and a loss of a will to live. He simply had so many personal heartbreaks in his life that eventually caught up to him. I suspect from that point forward, he let his personal state of mind effect his physical one. He started to get old fast, so by the time the actual diagnosis happened, it didn’t feel terribly out of place. To me it felt like it might have even been what he wanted.
The fascinating part that makes him so different than most people is that he didn’t let it affect his work and prolific output. During the last 3-4 years of the downward life spiral he still found time to produce some of his most compelling work and inspire everyone around him. He had a stiff upper lip and marched forward.
RUS: How did you learn of Timothy’s cancer? How/when did he talk to you about it?
ZL: Honestly, I don’t remember the specific moment. I do remember him letting me know, but I can’t recall it being a formal “sit down.” The more severe talk/disclosure occurred after his one and only chemo treatment. He went to one chemo session and said “FUCK THIS. I’m not going to do it. From here on out, I’m calling my cancer Mademoiselle Cancer and we’re going to make friends with it!”
He did gauge my feedback by having a talk with me that he wasn’t going to get any treatment — which, in turn, meant he was going to let it kill him. I was young and didn’t know what to do with that information. He seemed to be at peace with it so I played along. That said, it took me awhile to really make peace with it. I was just starting to be an adult and the thought of not having his paternal wisdom in my adult life freaked me out. He certainly was very open and vulnerable to anyone wanting to talk about it, that’s for sure. He didn’t hide one bit!
RU: Was there a slow or immediate transition to “the mother of all parties” — his public celebration of the dying process? Do you remember any complications around that… practically or emotionally?
ZL: As far as I recall, the transition to what you’re calling “the mother of all parties” was immediate. He instantly recognized the juggernaut potential of making the death and dying process into the final act of his life’s work. That’s how I remember it anyway.
Once he decided that he wasn’t going to get any treatment for the cancer there was a short and very much unsustained grieving process. He somehow charmed us into making his dying into a celebration. Had I been older and more mature, I certainly would have handled that differently. His death, while of course profound and inspiring, hit me after the fact in a very challenging way. I was a lost young man with no identity of my own and part of that was due to me never really having much time to feel the loss and process. We had some really sweet father and son moments towards the end that contained some very necessary tears. But overall I think Timmy’s ability to barnstorm through emotionally difficult milestones was ultimately a downfall of his.
I’m glad the whole “designer dying” idea of his found such strong footing and uncovered so many important topics for our culture, but I do wish there was a more sensitive way to offset the public celebration with some compassion for those close to him. Immediately after he died, my life fell apart very quickly — when that happens it’s no ones fault, but I was by no means prepared for life without him.