I like to think I’ve finally arrived as a professional writer, now that I’ve been approached by a publisher to read and review a new book tangentially related to one of my own – although I wasn’t expecting that my first blurb would be for a candid memoir of growing up under the combined influences of punk rock, psychedelics, and Mormonism. Christopher Kimball Bigelow’s Acid Test: LSD vs. LDS is, at the very least, a unique account of a sub-subculture most readers wouldn’t know exists, and the one some of the author’s co-religionists would prefer not to acknowledge. Where else might you find a theological critique like this: “The church was always making promises about mystical impressions and burning spiritual sensations, but LSD actually delivered”?
In some ways, admittedly, Acid Test belongs in the same category as other Gen X retrospectives including Peter Bebergal’s Too Much To Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood, Mark Barrowcliffe’s The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons, and Growing Up Strange, and maybe even my old editor Mike Edison’s I Have Fun Everywhere I Go: Savage Tales of Pot, Porn, Punk Rock […] – bright middle-class kid explores a twisted underground before inherent brains and breeding bring him back to respectability – but Bigelow’s Latter-Day Saint lineage and adult status as a Mormon missionary offer an unusual slant on the genre. I’ve known Mormons personally and found their community, like the families and friends of Acid Test, resembles less the stereotypes of hick evangelical Christians than those of smart, self-aware Jews. “When I said I was Mormon, they put me on the Jewish team, which was what I’d wanted,” Bigelow recounts a schoolyard episode. “Nearly all the Jewish kids were Mentally Gifted Minors, and they were more humorous and sophisticated than Christians.” So the believers here are a little less hokey and a lot less repressed than the Fundamentalists of Tennessee or the Baptists of Alabama. Elsewhere, Acid Test depicts experiences of Mormon youth never anticipated by Donny and Marie.
Indeed, after a while the autobiography begins to read like a rather uneventful chronicle of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll among the studenty alternative fringes of Salt Lake City in the 1980s and early 90s, featuring copious amounts of cannabis, acid, and cocaine, dabblings in the era’s occult pop culture (thus connecting with my own Here’s To My Sweet Satan), and some disturbingly frank recollections of sexual experimentation unlike anything in the biography of Mitt Romney – the scene with the Crisco kind of creeped me out. By the end of the narrative, Bigelow is returning to the fold, wiser but not entirely repentant, hoping to find in his native Mormonism a higher form of enlightenment than the one he gained through LSD. He’s a good and often funny writer (of a fleeting liaison with an anonymous partner, he recalls “I felt discombobulated, as if a stranger had run past me and snatched my hat”), but his story itself isn’t particularly dramatic. And it’s hard to quite trust the author’s climactic recommitment to Mormonism, given how deeply lived was his earlier rejection of it; who does he really want to convince, his audience or himself? Still, for an engaging insight into a social scene seldom known for mind-bending debauchery, Acid Test: LSD vs. LDS makes for a fun trip. Just look out for the Crisco.