Sam Harris had always been something of a mystery to me. How so? Harris is one of the Four Horsemen, along with Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett. But something didn’t make sense. I knew who Dawkins was. I knew who Hitchens was. I knew who Dennett was. They all were successful in their respective fields before ever becoming a Horseman. But Harris? He was a guy with a BA in Philosophy who wrote a book that Publishers Weekly described as “simplistic and misguided” and “ineffectual.” His arguments were not new or powerful. In fact, his book flirted with mysticism and reincarnation! So how did Harris ever become one of the Four Horsemen? He wasn’t accomplished, he wasn’t original, and he just wasn’t that smart.
Yes, he sold a lot of books. But there were atheists who were selling books long before Harris. Victor Stenger, for example. He was writing atheist articles and books long before Harris and Stenger was a physicist. But Harris’s book received attention from the media and Harris began getting published in the NYT, Newsweek, and other forms of mainstream media. Ah, maybe that’s they key. Harris, as one of the Four Horsemen, is a media creation. The media chose him. The media helped make him. How in the world did Harris pull that off?
Then, around 2006, I read an article that gave us some biograhphical information about Harris – he dropped out of college and travelled the world getting high and attending meditation retreats:
He flew around the country and around the world, to places such as India and Nepal, often for silent retreats that went on for months. One of his teachers was Sharon Salzberg, a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass. Harris stood out, she recalls, not just because of his relative youth — everyone else was a generation older — but because of his intensity.
During his 11-year dropout phase, Harris read hundreds of books on religion, many of which are listed in the lengthy bibliography of “The End of Faith.” His interests eventually turned to philosophy of the mind, which led him to re-enroll at Stanford in 1997, this time to study philosophy. He wrote a lot before and after he got his diploma, but nothing was published.
There was a clue staring me in the face. Just how in the hell could someone who dropped out of college afford to spend 11 years traveling the world, attending retreats, reading books, and writing unpublished works? Someone who can fly around the country and world, “to places such as India and Nepal, often for silent retreats that went on for months,” is someone who comes from money.
And it looks like I was right.
Over at his blog, Sam Harris posts the first chapter of his book about drugs and meditation as tools to uncover truths about our reality. The chapter begins with a personal story:
I once participated in a twenty-three-day wilderness program in the mountains of Colorado. If the purpose of this course was to expose students to dangerous lightning and half the world’s mosquitoes, it was fulfilled on the first day. What was in essence a forced march through hundreds of miles of backcountry culminated in a ritual known as “the solo,” where we were finally permitted to rest—alone, on the outskirts of a gorgeous alpine lake—for three days of fasting and contemplation.
I had just turned sixteen, and this was my first taste of true solitude since exiting my mother’s womb. It proved a sufficient provocation. After a long nap and a glance at the icy waters of the lake, the promising young man I imagined myself to be was quickly cut down by loneliness and boredom. I filled the pages of my journal not with the insights of a budding naturalist, philosopher, or mystic but with a list of the foods on which I intended to gorge myself the instant I returned to civilization. Judging from the state of my consciousness at the time, millions of years of hominid evolution had produced nothing more transcendent than a craving for a cheeseburger and a chocolate milkshake.
I found the experience of sitting undisturbed for three days amid pristine breezes and starlight, with nothing to do but contemplate the mystery of my existence, to be a source of perfect misery—for which I could see not so much as a glimmer of my own contribution. My letters home, in their plaintiveness and self-pity, rivaled any written at Shiloh or Gallipoli.
When I read this, it struck me that Harris had a rather unusual childhood. At age 16, he was part of a twenty-three-day wilderness program in the mountains of Colorado. He was “in essence a forced march through hundreds of miles of backcountry” which culminated in a ritual known as “the solo,” where he stayed alone in the wilderness for three days of fasting and contemplation. He didn’t do this with his family, because he sent “letters home” full of self-pity and plaintiveness. In fact, the nature of those letters makes it look like he was sent to this wilderness camp.
And what camp would that be? Sure sounds like Outward Bound to me:
Named after the nautical term for a boat leaving its pier, Outward Bound was the brainchild of a progressive German educator named Kurt Hahn, who wanted to raise survival rates among sailors at sea during World War II. His hope was to toughen young men’s resolve through teamwork and compassion and a sense of shared mission. When Outward Bound came to the U.S., in 1961, its curriculum was adjusted to meet the American landscape head on: Every student in Elisa’s nine-person “patrol,” for example, would summit a high peak, rappel a cliff, climb a rock face, live for weeks in the wilderness, and, as the climax of their experience, sojourn alone for two days in the rite of passage known as the “solo.”
Once again, we see the money, given that a 23-day Outward Bound trip costs around $5000. That’s a significant chunk of change to drop on your child for something to do in the summer.
But then it all became crystal clear when I recently noticed something on Wikipedia that was not there the last time I checked it:
Harris grew up in a secular home in Los Angeles, son of actor Berkeley Harris and The Golden Girls creator and TV producer Susan Harris.
Now I’m not one to trust Wikipedia, so if you read the reference 10, it takes you to a 1985 article where Susan Harris says: “Kids love the show, even mine. If my kid (Sam, 18, a Stanford freshman) gives his reluctant nod of approval, I know I`m doing something right.”
Sure enough, Sam was born in 1967, making him 18 in 1985 and Stanford was the place he discovered ecstasy.
Susan Harris was also an extremely successful TV producer. From her entry on Wikipedia:
Harris created numerous TV series: Fay, Soap, Loves Me, Loves Me Not, Benson, It Takes Two, The Golden Girls, Empty Nest, Nurses, Good & Evil, The Golden Palace and The Secret Lives of Men. She also wrote or co-wrote all of the episodes of Soap and appeared on two episodes of that show as a hooker named Babette. Her most successful show was The Golden Girls. Harris married television producer Paul Junger Witt on September 18, 1983; he co-produced all the shows she created. She was married from 1965 to 1969 to actor Berkeley Harris, with whom she has a son, Sam Harris who is a neuroscientist, philosopher and author.
The first script Harris sold was Then Came Bronson. She then wrote for Love, American Style, All in the Family, The Partridge Family and the TV adaptation of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park. Her abortion episode for the Bea Arthur-starring series Maude in the 1970s won Harris the Humanitas Prize. She would later work with Arthur again in the 1980s when Arthur took one of the lead roles in The Golden Girls.
Harris formed the production company Witt/Thomas/Harris Productions with Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas. She was honored with the Writers’ Guild’s Paddy Chayefsky Award in 2005 and inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 2011.
So it turns out I was more right than I ever knew. Sam Harris not only comes from money, lots of money, but he also comes from media. When your dad was an actor, and your mom and step-dad are TV producers, you have not only money, but something more important…..media connections. Sam Harris, one of the Four Horsemen, is a media creation.
Suddenly, lots of things about Sam Harris start to make sense – his passion for meditation, the New Age-flavor to his thinking, the contacts with gurus, his history of psychedelic drug use, getting published in mainstream media outlets, debating with actors, and, of course, his starring role as one of The Four Hoursmen.
UPDATE: The above was written in 2014. Recently, an article was published in The Guardian that reinforces the main point. The article begins as I did, noting the oddity of Harris:
At the time, Harris, who was actually the first to publish, with his book The End of Faith, was unquestionably the junior partner. The others had global reputations in their fields – Dawkins in evolutionary biology, Hitchens in journalism and public speaking, and Dennett in philosophy and cognitive science. All Harris had was his book and a BA in philosophy…….By some way the youngest, Harris looks a little as if Ben Stiller, whom he physically resembles, had joined a meeting of great minds and made a good fist of being serious. He could easily have been the Ringo Starr of the quartet
And then gets to the main point:
He had not long before completed a philosophy degree at Stanford University, having taken an 11-year break from an English degree he had been doing. In that earlier university stint he had experimented with MDMA, which led to an interest in meditation, studying in India and Nepal and two years on silent retreat in one-week to three-month increments. His life in those days sounds like something from a Herman Hesse novel – lots of reading philosophy, contemplation, and nothing so dull as a day job. Throughout his long educational and professional lacuna, he was supported by his parents, the actor Berkeley Harris and the TV producer Susan Harris, who created The Golden Girls (his parents divorced when he was two).
“It was a blessing and a curse,” he says of their financial backing, because while he was able to read, write and do what he wanted, he neglected to build a career in writing.