Born Robert Edward Wilson in Methodist Hospital, in Brooklyn, New York, he spent his first years in Flatbush, and moved with his family to lower middle class Gerritsen Beach around the age of four or five, where they stayed until relocating to the steadfastly middle-class neighborhood of Bay Ridge when Wilson was thirteen. He suffered from polio as a child, and found generally effective treatment with the Kenny Method (created by Elizabeth Kenny) which the American Medical Association repudiated at that time. Polio’s effects remained with Wilson throughout his life, usually manifesting as minor muscle spasms causing him to use a cane occasionally until 2000, when he experienced a major bout with post-polio syndrome that would continue until his death.
Wilson attended Catholic grammar school, likely the school associated with Gerritsen Beach’s Resurrection Church, and attended Brooklyn Technical High School (a selective public institution) to remove himself from the Catholic influence; at “Brooklyn Tech,” Wilson was influenced by literary modernism (particularly Ezra Pound and James Joyce), the Western philosophical tradition, then-innovative historians such as Charles A. Beard, science fiction (including the works of Olaf Stapledon, Robert A. Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon) and Alfred Korzybski‘s interdisciplinary theory of general semantics. He would later recall that the family was “living so well… compared to the Depression” during this period “that I imagined we were lace-curtain Irish at last.” After graduating in 1950, Wilson was employed in a succession of jobs (including ambulance driver, engineering aide, salesman and medical orderly) and absorbed various philosophers & cultural practices (including bebop, psychoanalysis, Bertrand Russell, Carl Jung, Wilhelm Reich, Leon Trotsky and Ayn Rand, whom he later repudiated) while writing in his spare time. He also studied electrical engineering and mathematics at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute from 1952 to 1957 and English education at New York University from 1957 to 1958 without getting a degree from either institution.
After smoking marijuana for nearly a decade, he first experimented with mescaline in Yellow Springs, Ohio on December 28, 1961. Wilson began to work as a freelance journalist and advertising copywriter in the late 1950s. He adopted his maternal grandfather’s name, Anton, for his writings, telling himself that he would save the “Edward” for when he wrote the Great American Novel and later finding that “Robert Anton Wilson” had become an established identity. He assumed co-editorship of the School for Living‘s Brookville, Ohio-based Balanced Living magazine in 1962 and briefly returned to New York as associate editor of Ralph Ginzburg‘s quarterly fact: before leaving for Playboy, where he served as an associate editor from 1965 to 1971. According to Wilson, Playboy “paid me a higher salary than any other magazine at which I had worked and never expected me to become a conformist or sell my soul in return. I enjoyed my years in the Bunny Empire. I only resigned when I reached 40 and felt I could not live with myself if I didn’t make an effort to write full-time at last.” Along with frequent collaborator Robert Shea, Wilson edited the magazine’s Playboy Forum advice column. During this period, he covered Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert‘s Millbrook, New York-based Castalia Foundation at the instigation of Alan Watts in The Realist, cultivated important friendships with William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, and lectured at the Free University of New York on ‘Anarchist and Synergetic Politics’ in 1965.
He received a B.A., M.A. (1978) and Ph.D. (1981) in psychology from Paideia University, an unaccredited institution that has since closed. Wilson reworked his dissertation, and it found publication in 1983 as Prometheus Rising.
Wilson married freelance writer and poet Arlen Riley in 1958. They had four children, including Christiana Wilson Pearson and Patricia Luna Wilson. Luna was beaten to death in an apparent robbery in the store where she worked in 1976 at the age of 15, and became the first person to have her brain preserved by the Bay Area Cryonics Society. Arlen Riley Wilson died in 1999 following a series of strokes.
Among Wilson’s 35 books, and many other works, perhaps his best-known volumes remain the cult classic series The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975), co-authored with fellow Playboy editor Robert Shea. Advertised as “a fairy tale for paranoids,” the three books—The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple, and Leviathan, soon offered as a single volume—philosophically and humorously examined, among many other themes, occult and magical symbolism and history, the counterculture of the 1960s, secret societies, data concerning author H.P. Lovecraft and author and occultist Aleister Crowley, and American paranoia about conspiracies and conspiracy theories. The book was intended to poke fun at the conspiratorial frame of mind
On the Illuminati
Richard Metzger interviewed Robert Anton Wilson near the end of his life, including the following exchange:
Richard Metzger: You have studied the Illuminati for years. Have you come to any conclusion about their aims?
Robert Anton Wilson: Usually when people ask me that question, I give them some kind of a put-on, but I can’t think of a good and original put-on that I haven’t done several times before.
So I’ll tell you the truth, for once. After investigating the Illuminati and their critics for the last 30 years, I think the Illuminati was a short lived society of free thinkers and democratic reformers that formed a secret society within Freemasonry, using Freemasonry as a cover so they could plot to overthrow all the kings in Europe and the Pope. I’m very happy that they succeeded in overthrowing all the kings, I just wish that they had completed the job and gotten rid of the Royal family in England too, but they did pretty well on the continent. I’m sorry they haven’t finished off the Pope yet, either, but I think they’re still working on the project and I wish them luck.— Disinformation: the interviews. By Richard Metzger.
Robert Anton Wilson and his wife Arlen Riley Wilson founded the Institute for the Study of the Human Future in 1975.
From 1982 until his death, Wilson had a business relationship with the Association for Consciousness Exploration, which hosted his first on-stage dialogue with his long-time friend Timothy Leary entitled The Inner Frontier. Wilson dedicated his book The New Inquisition to A.C.E.’s co-directors, Jeff Rosenbaum and Joseph Rothenberg.
Wilson also joined the Church of the SubGenius, who referred to him as Pope Bob. He contributed to their literature, including the book Three-Fisted Tales of “Bob”, and shared a stage with their founder, Rev. Ivan Stang, on several occasions. Wilson also founded the Guns and Dope Party and its corresponding Burning Man theme camp.
As a member of the Board of Advisors of the Fully Informed Jury Association, Wilson worked to inform the public about jury nullification, the right of jurors to nullify a law they deem unjust. He advocated for and wrote about E-Prime, a form of English lacking all forms of the verb “to be” (such as “is”, “are”, “was”, “were” etc.).
A decades-long researcher into drugs and a strong opponent of what he called “the war on some drugs”, Wilson participated as a Special Guest in the week-long 1999 Annual Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam,and used and often promoted the use of medical marijuana. He participated in a protest organized by the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Santa Cruz in 2002.
On June 22, 2006, Huffington Post blogger Paul Krassner reported that Wilson was under hospice care at home with friends and family. On October 2, Douglas Rushkoff reported that Wilson was in severe financial trouble.Slashdot, Boing Boing, and the Church of the SubGenius also picked up on the story, linking to Rushkoff’s appeal. As his webpage reported on October 10, these efforts succeeded beyond expectation and raised a sum which would have supported him for at least six months. Obviously touched by the great outpouring of support, on October 5, 2006, Wilson left the following comment on his personal website, expressing his gratitude:
Dear Friends, my God, what can I say. I am dumbfounded, flabbergasted, and totally stunned by the charity and compassion that has poured in here the last three days.
To steal from Jack Benny, “I do not deserve this, but I also have severe leg problems and I don’t deserve them either.”
Because he was a kind man as well as a funny one, Benny was beloved. I find it hard to believe that I am equally beloved and especially that I deserve such love.
Whoever you are, wherever you are, know that my love is with you.
You have all reminded me that despite George W. Bush and all his cohorts, there is still a lot of beautiful kindness in the world.
Robert Anton Wilson
On January 6, 2007, Wilson wrote on his blog that according to several medical authorities, he would likely only have between two days and two months left to live. He closed this message with “I look forward without dogmatic optimism but without dread. I love you all and I deeply implore you to keep the lasagna flying. Please pardon my levity, I don’t see how to take death seriously. It seems absurd.”
Wilson died peacefully five days later, on January 11 at 4:50 a.m. Pacific time, just a week short of his 75th birthday. After his cremation on January 18 (also his 75th birthday), his family held a memorial service on February 18 and then scattered most of his ashes at the same spot as his wife’s—off the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in Santa Cruz, California.
A tribute show to Wilson, organized by Coldcut and Mixmaster Morris and performed in London as a part of the “Ether 07 Festival” held at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on March 18, 2007, also included Ken Campbell, Bill Drummond and Alan Moore