Robert Anton Wilson Interview

Carolyn and I have enjoyed our friendship with, and have been inspired by the late author and philosopher Robert (Bob) Anton Wilson.

Bob is the author of over 35 popular fiction and nonfiction books, dealing with such themes as our future evolution, unexplained phenomena, synchronicity, the occult, quantum mechanics, altered states of consciousness, the nature of belief systems, and the link between science and mysticism, with wit, wisdom, and personal insights.

Bob was born “Robert Edward Wilson” in 1932 in Brooklyn, New York. He suffered from polio as a child and found effective treatment through the Kenny Method, an unconventional treatment using hot moist packs applied to the muscles, that the American Medical Association refused to acknowledge at the time. Lingering symptoms continued, and he walked with a cane due to post-polio muscle spasms, but as a result of his positive experience with the Kenny Method, Bob remained open to alternative medical perspectives throughout his life.

Bob attended Catholic grammar schools in New York before gaining admission into Brooklyn Technical High School. After his graduation from high school in 1950, he worked as an ambulance driver, engineering aide, and salesman. From 1952 to 1957 Bob studied electrical engineering and mathematics at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and English education at New York University from 1957 to 1958.

It was in the late 1950s that Bob first began writing professionally, as a freelance journalist and advertising copywriter. Around this time is when he adopted his maternal grandfather’s name, “Anton,” for his writings. In 1958 Bob married Arlen Riley, and they remained married until her death in 1999.

In 1962 Bob edited two magazines, one in Ohio called Balanced Living, and a New York magazine called Fact. Then in 1965, Bob started a job at Playboy Magazine, where he worked as associate editor until 1971. Bob co-edited the magazine’s Playboy Forum, a section consisting of responses to letters, and it was here that ideas for his most famous work, The Illuminatus! Trilogy began to percolate.

Published in 1975, Bob coauthored the cult classic trilogy with his associate Playboy editor Robert Shea. The trilogy consists of three novels that weave together a surreal, satirical, science fiction adventure that revolves around a web of intertwined conspiracy theories and historical facts involving a hidden organization called the “Illuminati” that is secretly running the world. Some of Bob’s other well-known fiction books include Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy, Masks of the Illuminati, and The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles.

In 1977 Bob published his autobiographical book Cosmic Trigger: Final Secret of the Illuminati. This was Bob’s personal story of how his “self-induced brain change” experiments affected him, and it contains a whirlwind of radical ideas. It’s the single most transformative book that I’ve read in my life, and it inspired my career as a writer. Many of the people that I’ve interviewed—such as Timothy Leary and John Lilly — I first learned about from this extraordinary book. Bob later published two additional Cosmic Trigger volumes, and some of his other non-fiction books include The New Inquisition, Right Where You Are Sitting Now, and Quantum Psychology, which I wrote the introduction to in the latest edition.

Bob went back to school in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in psychology from Paideia University in California in 1978, and his Ph.D. in 1981. His dissertation on the 8-circuit model of consciousness, first developed by Timothy Leary, was reworked and later published in 1983 as Prometheus Rising, which became one of his most popular books.

In 1981 Bob and Arlen moved to Dublin, Ireland, where they lived for six years. They moved to Los Angeles in 1987, and to Capitola, California in 1995. Bob was a huge admirer of James Joyce and was an expert on his literary work. Bob once remarked, “Dublin, to me, is a James Joyce theme park.”

Bob had a remarkable talent for leading his readers into a perspective where they question assumptions that they didn’t even know that they had, and redefine their unconsciously-constructed notions of reality. He had an uncanny ability to guide people, unsuspectingly, into a mutable state of mind where they are playfully tricked into “aha” experiences that cause them to question their most basic assumptions about what is real and what isn’t. Remarkably, he accomplished this with a wonderful sense of humor, and his writings had a powerful, shamanic quality to them.

I first met Bob at one of his lectures in Santa Cruz in 1988. At the end of his talk, I asked him if he would consider writing a blurb for the back cover of my first book, which I was working on at the time. He didn’t respond with much enthusiasm, as though he got asked this question too many times that day, but he said to have my publisher send him a copy. You can only imagine my excitement when I later learned that he wrote an 11-page introduction to the book, Brainchild,” and Carolyn did the artwork for the cover!

From 1989 to 2007 I saw Bob at least once a week when I attended book readings, discussions, movie nights, celebrations, and other gatherings at his home in Los Angeles and then in Capitola. We read from great literary works, such as Joyce’s Ulysses, Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, and Bob’s own Illuminatus! Trilogy. We watched films by Orson Wells and episodes of The Prisoner.” Our friends Valerie Corral, Nick Herbert, and others used to come regularly. It was the best of times.

One evening in the early 1990s I brought Carolyn and Oz Janiger over to meet Bob and Arlen when they were living in Los Angeles. At the time Carolyn had an art exhibit at the Gallerie Illuminati in Santa Monica, which was a striking synchronicity that night.

Bob participated in the roundtable discussions on technology and consciousness with Carolyn and me (along with Ralph Abraham, Nina Graboi, Nick Herbert, Rebecca Novick, and Stephen LaBerge) at UC Santa Cruz in 1993. He sat across from Carolyn on the stage during the event— Mavericks of the Mind Live!— which was recorded by Sound Photosynthesis.

Bob died in 2007 at his home in Capitola. I miss him dearly. Bob had an uncanny ability to perceive things that few people notice, and he had an extraordinarily wide and well-integrated interdisciplinary mind, with an incredible memory. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of many different fields— ranging from literature and psychology to quantum physics, Buddhism, and neuroscience.

Despite some serious personal challenges over the years, Bob always maintained a strongly upbeat, optimistic, and perpetually cheerful perspective on life, and— regardless of the circumstances, and up until his final moments — he never failed to make me smile every time I saw him. Everyone who was fortunate enough to know him agreed; there was something truly magical about Robert Anton Wilson.

I interviewed Bob in 1989 for my book Mavericks of the Mind, which includes my interview with Carolyn. (Exciting news: The third edition of Mavericks of the Mind will be published next year by Hilaritas Press — more on this soon!) I interviewed Bob again in 2003 for my book Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse. Here is an excerpt from our conversation:

David: Synchronicity is a major theme that runs through your books. What model do you use at present for interpreting this mysterious phenomenon?
Bob: I never have one model. I always have at least seven models for anything.

David: Which one is your favorite?
Bob: Bell’s Theorem combined with an idea I got from Barbara Honegger, a parapsychologist who worked for Reagan. . . . Long before Barbara became a controversial political figure, she gave me the idea that the right brain is constantly trying to communicate with the left. If you don’t listen to what it’s trying to say, it gives you more and more vivid dreams, and if you still won’t listen, it leads to Freudian slips. If you still don’t pay attention, the right brain will get you to the place in space-time where synchronicity will occur. Then the left brain has to pay attention. “Whaaaat!?”

David: What do you think happens to consciousness after physical death?
Bob: Somebody asked a Zen master, “What happens after death?” He replied, “I don’t know.” And the querent said, “But you’re a Zen master!” He said, “Yes, but I’m not a dead Zen master.” Somebody asked Master Eckart, the great German mystic, “Where do you think you’ll go after death?” He said, “I don’t plan to go anywhere.” Those are the best answers I’ve heard so far. My hunch is that consciousness is a non-local function of the universe as a whole, and our brains are only local transceivers. As a matter of fact, it’s a very strong hunch, but I’m not going to dogmatize about it.

by David Jay Brown