Mushrooms Talk to Her: A Conversation with Bett Williams
I first did mushrooms with a green-haired mermaid. It was Halloween, we were at an off campus party, and the sea creature invited me to climb into the back of her Bronco with these magic words: “I love your work.”
By “work,” she meant the diary entries I posted online, which were mostly about cigarettes and family trauma. When she unlocked the car, a bright overhead light clicked on, blacking out everything beyond the windows. A pile of blankets covered in dog fur took the place of a backseat and I leaned against the closed tailgate. The light dimmed and then shut off. I thought we might make out. She pulled a brown paper sleeve from her knapsack and shook loose a few chunks of magic mushroom-infused chocolate: “Want some?”
I’d never kissed a girl or tripped on fungal psychedelics. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do either. I swallowed two chalky chunks and waited.
How else would I find out what I like?
Since my formative encounter with the mermaid, I’ve associated psilocybin with search, not discovery. When I set off, I don’t always know what I’m looking for, or if what I’ll find is what I want or need. That’s the difference between seeking and searching.
Bett Williams’ memoir The Wild Kindness: A Psilocybin Odyssey is all about the search.
Williams begins experimenting with fungi during a period of personal turmoil: her relationship with her long-term girlfriend is disintegrating, and she has recently been diagnosed with “high-functioning autism.” When she swallows her first fistful of mushrooms, she hopes she’ll gain clarity. Instead she finds herself on a wild journey to disabuse herself of all expectations and “meet the mushrooms on their own terms.”
I emailed Bett in early summer to ask her about her trips, her writing process, and of course, the ex.
Early in The Wild Kindness, you write about your affinity for author Willa Cather. You describe her as writing about your “settler ancestors’ secret wish to disappear themselves into the West.” You were raised in California and currently live in New Mexico where The Wild Kindness is set. How do you see your book fitting into the complicated history of writings about the West? What role do you think psychedelics play in this region’s story?
Years ago I read Baudrillard’s America while on mail order phentermine, and shortly after, I went into a mental k-hole on the topic of Manifest Destiny – the West as image, manufactured magic in service of empire. Make an image and then step into it. This is a potentially sinister psychedelic ethos. Add into this mix the fact that I own Mabel Dodge Luhan’s actual guest bathtub. Her guest house in Taos was a portal for modernist thinkers to encounter the “West,” from D.H. Lawrence, Willa Cather, Georgia O’Keeffe, Carl Jung, and Aldous Huxley. Mabel hosted a peyote ceremony in New York in 1910 and later married Taos Pueblo Tony Luhan, who was a huge peyotero, but then Mabel went on to actively oppose the use of peyote among indigenous people in New Mexico. There’s a whole thing in my book about how Joan Didion always comes up when I’m tripping – she made so much WEST, you can only invent so much WEST per person, the mushrooms said. The “West” is a psychedelic mind game for those who see what’s going on. It’s always about disputed territories, both physical, political, semiotic and existential.
New Mexico is Indian Land; that’s what we call it here. There are active pueblos, active native art and literature scenes happening, and to engage with the ecosystem means engaging with this living culture and the remembered ancient roots of it. Leonard Pickard made his base camp in Santa Fe, creating the biggest LSD operation seen thus far on the landscape of history. I am surrounded on all sides by cannabis growers and dealers, as well as psychedelic luminaries such as Deborah from Synergia Press and the late Joanna Harcourt Smith. But down to brass tacks, I think the secret wish of many settlers moving West was to disappear, to transcend into an idea of geographically specific otherness, a project that can now be seen as a failure on a large scale, but maybe not on a micro-level or conceptual one. Manifest Destiny lives on in our psychedelic dreams of alien contact, queer potentialities and futurisms – Otherlands we have manufactured that exist as an idea we can step in to and be different, become Other. These new inquiries are perhaps no less sinister. It’s complicated, obv, and yes, in The Wild Kindness I explore these ideas on a deep level.
At one point, you experience a particularly potent psilocybin trip you call The Walk. While the encounter is transformative, you write, “There was no epiphany.” You describe epiphanies as “narratives building up into an ecstasy of a vertical structure” whereas The Walk was “lateral, a meandering.” The same could be said of The Wild Kindness, which deftly weaves research about fungi and modern psilocybin communities with highly personal vignettes of queer domesticity. How did you arrive at the book’s sprawling structure?
Queer domesticity! Ha! The relational scenarios in my book have also been called “lesbian drama.” The central plot trajectory in the book is a Breaking Bad level criminal attack on my person by an ex, a false accusation of burglary that costs me over $30,000 in lawyer fees for a situation where I did nothing wrong. I lived in terror of the law for two years. I was told there was a crowbar in a lab being studied to see if it had my DNA on it. I lost grounding in my entire social world. No one, save for maybe one or two people, was actively helping my partner Beth and I get through it all. I couldn’t leave this out of the story because it tied into the fact that I was, at the time, doing an actual criminal act: growing mushrooms. My ex called the police regularly to tell them so. My reality had gone nuclear. In meeting this situation, I was stretched in my prose. I was also stretched in my general conceptual read on things to a level that I didn’t know was possible. I was forced to invent new ways of saying the truth. Between the situation of being falsely accused of felony burglary, and writing about the psychedelic experience accurately, my innovative prose style may have been a side effect rather than part of an original intention. I remain loyal to a Charles Bowden-esque journalistic ethos.
I’m guessing your ex doesn’t have an ACAB sticker on their reusable water bottle?
The ex who accused me of felony burglary is actually the exact type of person who might have an ACAB sticker on her water bottle.
You viscerally evoke the terror and emotional aftermath of those years in precise, unsentimental prose. Are there any self-care rituals that accompany your writing practice?
It’s true that writing about the traumatic incident in the book brought its own set of challenges. I invented literary devices that communicated what happened without my having to revisit the scene in more traditional prose. Every part of writing is very hard for me. I wish I had a balanced approach to writing and self-care, but it’s pretty much a pedal to the metal, by-any-means-necessary situation until it’s on the page. I take baths. Sometimes I write in the bath.
“By any means necessary” definitely embodies the Charles Bowden aesthetic! I’d love to hear more about your influences.
I suppose in my early years there was a fear (and in hindsight a not unfounded one) of being swallowed by the feminine. My early influences were Douglas Copeland, Dennis Cooper, Charles Bowden, Raymond Chandler, Larry Fondation, Michael Ventura, Joy Williams, Jim Harrison – a rather specifically macho list of muses. I thank all of them for helping me land in this clearing where I am now absorbing Ariana Reines, Alice Notley, Andrea Lawlor and Johanna Hedva who are no more similar to me than the prior list. They belong to a different side of the same coin I’ve been tasked to hold as a writer.
You detail how your ex weaponized online spaces to alienate and isolate you from your shared community. Elsewhere in the text, the internet becomes a key site of connection with other psychonauts and seasoned growers. What future do you see for world-building in digital spaces?
In my opinion, the current social media ecosystem has become entirely destructive. What begins as a mycelial connection to those we would have never met in real life quickly turns into a matrix where our best intentions are hijacked by evil machine elves in the form of AI algorithms, digested and spat out as artifacts of commerce in service to the empire. I’m conflicted. I find the online world very pleasurable but it’s destroying my soul. New kinds of social media forums may provide an alternative, but there’s nothing out there right now that I can see.
There are several scenes where the mushrooms speak directly to you while you’re high. Often they’re bossy. They pry. They even crack jokes. At what point in the writing process did you decide to include these conversations?
The mushrooms have always “spoken to me.” I think this is because my primary mode of operating in the world is language-based so I am always scanning a mushroom trip for language. I am always surprised when I hear this doesn’t happen to everyone. The things “they say” have been so funny, delightful and smart it became the singular inspiration for me to continue being a writer. If “they” continued to say such cute things then I had to stop pretending that I was no longer an employee of language. I was seduced. “Their” words were always what made this book have to exist.
Throughout the book, you make space for all kinds of psychedelic experiences and pay homage to the “women, indigenous people, old-school hippies, herbalists and teenagers” who have used mushrooms forever without mediation. In particular you describe a psilocybin community and farm in Cleveland organized by the late Kai Wingo. Can you talk a little more about your relationship to Kai and her work?
Kai Wingo was a leader among a mostly Black community of high dose psilocybin psychonauts in the Cleveland and Detroit area. I found her page on Facebook when I was in a really bad place and needed some psychedelic support. She asked me to speak at her Women and Entheogens conference. I went and was privileged to witness what she and her community have achieved which is a living intergenerational psychedelic culture that permeates all aspects of life. Kai passed away unexpectedly and her teacher Kilindi Iyi also died a year ago last April. Many powerful women practitioners in this community are carrying on the esoteric tradition born from this scene. It’s not a template for everyone, but it’s an example of what can happen culturally when people gather together and do psychedelics on their own terms, keeping their own traditions, their own ways. When people talk about access to psychedelics in POC spaces, Kai Wingo and Kilindi Iyi represent access simply by having existed. It’s easy to grow mushrooms at home. There are no established right or wrong ways to do them. In Kai’s scene, the mushrooms are not called “medicine,” because one does not need to be sick in order to benefit from them. They are not just a tool for personal healing and exploration but a technology of reality hacking and communal world building. As psychedelic renaissance goes corporate with Big Pharma and Big Tech backing the psychedelic psychotherapy project, it’s great to see grassroots movements flourishing. It’s my hope that my book inspires others to live their own rogue psychedelic life, leading to the development of small communities like the one Kai helped sustain with her passionate entheogen guided work.
As your relationship with mushrooms deepens, you visit Huautla de Jiménez in Oaxaca, Mexico, the birthplace of María Sabina, a Mazatec curandera who allowed Westerners to participate in sacred mushroom ceremonies. You discuss Sabina’s legacy in-depth, exploring the significance of her birthplace as a popular destination for Western seekers, many of whom claim it’s been “ruined” by tourism. Once there, however, you discover a different reality.
The current discourse in psychedelic circles around María Sabina and rogue psychedelic scenes in marginal communities is mostly a victim-oppressor narrative that ultimately serves the agenda of those in traditional capitalist power structures. They’re used as an opportunity to virtue signal, basically. In terms of what I think of as good non-fiction writing, it was important that I not do this, that I not rope whole communities of people into performative politics or pretend like I understand what’s going on. The independence and adaptability of these communities was something I witnessed. These are people who live life radically on their own terms. I wanted them to exist on the page in that way, too.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am currently working on not writing for a little while, and healing the wounds that writing a long form book creates in a writer. For a work to come to form there are little crimes the writer commits to get it on the page. Writer’s commit crimes of consciousness that mess with the tonal nature of reality. The Wild Kindness messed me up for sure and I’m happy and grateful that it’s in the world now so I can let it go and make a space inside for what’s next.
Elizabeth Hall is a full-time lover and a part-time writer. She is the author of the chapbook Two Essays and the book I HAVE DEVOTED MY LIFE TO THE CLITORIS, a Lambda Literary Award Finalist. You can find her on insta @wilderthanher.