Reading List: Melinda Ferguson

The award-winning South African author Melinda Ferguson takes us through a selection of books exploring freedom, death, truth, as well as psychedelics, which can be a route to pondering such big questions.

Photo by Nicole Wreyford on Unsplash

I began working on my new book, Bamboozled, in 2017. It had been two years since I had embarked on my first guided journey with psilocybin aka magic mushrooms. As a recovering addict since 1999, I was initially terrified to go on that maiden voyage into the unknown. Having once been a slave to drugs like heroin and crack cocaine I knew how easily the doors could swing open to take me back to the dark clutches of addiction. What would happen if I now became addicted to magic mushrooms?

But deep down I knew that while I had been sober for more than a decade, something profound was missing. A spiritual emptiness. I had additionally been suffering from extreme anxiety and PTSD after a recent near fatal car accident and had found no benefits from medication prescribed to me by a traditional psychiatrist.

Before I did that first journey I did a lot of reading on the cutting-edge research that was taking place in the mental health arena, investigating the benefits of psychedelics to address issues such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction .

One of the books of particular interest was Drugs without the Hot Air, written by Professor David Nutt, a scientist who had been sacked as an advisor on drug policy to the British government after he made public claims that alcohol was more dangerous than Ecstasy.

In his book, I was fascinated by the way Nutt totally reevaluated the harm caused by drugs by creating a new framework of assessment. In his research he came to the conclusion that there was very little relationship between how drugs had been traditionally scheduled with regard to the harm they caused the user. On the old scheduling table, psychedelics like MDMA and psilocybin were placed right alongside Class A drugs like heroin and crystal meth.

In Nutt’s revolutionary approach he found alcohol to be the most harmful drug in terms of individual and societal damage whilst he placed a psychedelic like psilocybin at the opposite end of the table, denoting almost zero harm.

Then I came across a book called How to Change your Mind by New York Times bestselling author, Michael Pollen which literally blew a hole in my thinking. The subtitle of the book: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence is exactly what the book brilliantly reveals. Over a period of two years Pollan embarks on highly personal journeys using the psychedelics LSD, psilocybin, Ayahuasca and 5-MeO-DMT. He also delves into the groundbreaking research into the benefits of psychedelics that took place in the late 1950s and 1960s until moral panic around LSD erupted and the US federal government put an end to it by banning all the valuable research. My reading expanded into looking at how the War on Drugs, declared by US president Richard Nixon in 1971, introduced irrational laws that had little to do with fighting drugs, but rather was a sinisterly disguised plot against black people and the flower power generation, who were questioning the establishment and rebelling against US imperialist policies and the war in Vietnam.

A lot of the writing of Bamboozled took place during the first two years of COVID lockdown which was a time of great confusion and panic. The theme of death was at the forefront of our lives. And so I found myself going down many rabbit holes to investigate ideas around death, freedom, truth, and joy. I have always been fascinated by the idea of suicide and so I spent many hours revisiting the works of poet Sylvia Plath who gassed herself during a particularly cold and dark winter in London in 1962. Her posthumously published poetry collection, Ariel, found its way onto my bedside table and I spent many hours reading what I believe are some of the finest works in English literature.

I became increasingly obsessed with looking for truth and answers during this time, where new COVID laws were limiting global freedoms on an unprecedented scale. Since Wikileaks exploded in 2006, I had been fascinated by its founder Julian Assange, who had done much to reveal millions of cables relating to Western war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like many others I had been devastated when allegations of sexual misconduct and rape were leveled against him by two Swedish women in 2010. I had believed the media.

The recently published book The Trial of Julian Assange: A Story of Persecution by Nils Melzer  did much to clarify the vilification of Assange. Like me, Melzer, who has worked as a UN Special Special Rapporteur on Torture, had also believed these allegations until he started digging deeper to uncover the true motives of the CIA, the US, and Swedish government who worked in cahoots to vilify and persecute Assange as a way to diminish the power he was wielding via Wikileaks. I subsequently spent many hours researching the role that the “truth tellers” Assange, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning played in the war against surveillance and the deep state. These three grace four chapters in my book. Many of Melzer’s shocking revelations helped strengthen my theory that we are living in a world where truth is under threat and what now looks like the inevitable deportation of Assange to the US, on espionage charges, will ultimately put a nail in the coffin for courageous investigative journalism.

Further Reading

Reading List: T.J. Tallie

Among the books historian Tallie has on his reading list is one about the food of the American Old South—“… a forgotten Little Africa but nobody speaks of it that way.”