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The Strange Case of the Stanford LSD Stabbing

James Shirvell is as mild-mannered as they come. Then he took acid with his girlfriend and nearly stabbed her to death with a butcher knife. Which begs the question: Who is to blame — the man or the acid?

It happened on a Saturday night almost a year ago. Feeling all cozy inside their new San Francisco apartment on Potrero Hill, 27-year-old James Shirvell and his girlfriend decided to drop acid. 

The couple had dated for about 18 months and dropped acid together four times before. But that night, while she got light and twisted, Shirvell, the Assistant Director of Admissions at Stanford, grew dark. His energy intensified. His behavior became primal. He pissed, for instance, on their carpet. His girlfriend tried to get him to lie down on their bed and relax. She even went to get him a glass of water. 

That’s when he really freaked out. 

He followed her into the kitchen. Perhaps it was hallucinogenic paranoia that motivated him. Who knows? What is known is what he did next. He grabbed a kitchen knife and attacked his girlfriend. He stabbed her in the shoulder and head. He slashed her face. He forced knife wounds into her upper back so deep that one of her lungs collapsed. She also received defensive wounds on her arms as she tried to protect herself from the snick-snick of the blade. 

Eventually, she did fight him off and escaped their apartment. She fled to the front steps of their building and screamed for help. Keep in mind, she was also high on acid. Two witnesses spotted her, covered in her own blood, crumpled on the ground, desperately pleading for help. They phoned 911. When the police arrived, they entered the residence, only to discover Shirvell still there, lying on the kitchen floor. There was a trail of his girlfriend’s blood leading from him to the 8-inch butcher knife he’d used to attack her. They also discovered a little plastic baggie with what they presumed to be LSD. While the victim was taken to the hospital, Shirvell was arrested and taken to county jail. 

When he first appeared in San Francisco Superior Court for his arraignment on March 6, 2019, just days after the attack, he was supported by his family and friends. His girlfriend, the victim of his psychedelic freakout, was there in court, too. She asked the judge for leniency in Shirvell’s sentencing. His girlfriend’s mother also sat in support of Shirvell. 

In fact, rather than ask the judge to punish the man who attempted to murder her daughter, his girlfriend’s mother read a letter that asked the judge to consider what Shirvell stood to lose. She focused on his “pure intentions.” She did acknowledge that on that fateful night, Shirvell was “possessed by another force.” Yet she equally insisted that Shirvell remains the “the best thing that has ever happened” to her daughter — the same man who collapsed her daughter’s lung with a butcher knife. That said, both she and her daughter felt wholly convinced that he wouldn’t try to kill her again with a kitchen utensil while high on acid. They argued that it was all just a “horrific accident.” His girlfriend’s mother only blamed the acid. Not the man. 

Shirvell’s lawyer, Eric Safire, applied that same sentiment when he described the butcher knife attack as an “isolated incident, and, really, an anomaly.” 

However, prosecutor Courtney Burris saw things differently. She called it an “unprovoked random attack on his partner,” and pushed for Shirvell to be held without bail. Judge Rita Lin sided with the prosecutor. She explained her reasoning to Shirvell’s attorney, asking rhetorically, “How can I be sure that he is not going to take LSD again and have another freakout?” 

After his client’s arraignment, Safire spoke with reporters outside the courtroom and attempted to add the proper spin to the story and reframe it all in a light more favorable to his client: “He’s got a degree from Yale University. He’s been employed with Stanford University for the past two years on a permanent full-time basis. He’s had no prior contacts with the court and has lived an exemplary life.”

“My personal opinion,” Safire concluded, “is that it was the result of some adverse drug reaction. There’s nothing in his history that indicates any reason for any kind of psychotic break. I think it was a bad acid trip. I’m no professional, but that’s what it appears to be.”

Stanford University disagreed. After Judge Lin decided to hold Shirvell on attempted murder charges, the university cut ties with their now former Assistant Director of Admissions.

On Reddit, someone remembered a time they spoke with Shirvell at the Stanford Admissions Office, recalling how they “went in to ask some questions about admissions and financial aid and he was the only AO there. I remember him being really polite and well-spoken. He even went on to provide some anecdotes about his experience with college and applications to reassure me. Seemed like a pretty chill dude who was maybe a little awkward. I did a double take when I was reading and saw his picture on the articles today. Never would have expected him to do LSD and stab a girl. It’s pretty scary to think about what people are capable of.” 

Two weeks after his initial arraignment, Shirvell was granted bail by Judge Lin. The conditions required that he must remain within 50 miles of San Francisco, submit for random drug tests, forfeit his passport, assent to random searches by police, abstain from drugs and be confined to his home with an ankle monitor, only allowed to leave to attend school or work. 

However, given that he was fired from Stanford, he has little justifiable reason to leave his house. In a sense then, his home has become a temporary prison, while the court determines if he’ll be transferred to a more official one later.

* * * * *

According to the latest research, there’s been no link found between psychedelic use and psychosis. Although San Francisco was once home to a rather large population of “acid casualties,” the science suggests that it wasn’t the acid to blame, and that, perhaps, it just hastened the arrival of psychosis that was already underway. 

However, that’s looking at psychosis as a clinical diagnosis, not as a one-time psychotic episode (such as possibly was the case for Shirvell). To gauge whether the acid is to blame requires one push further into the leading edges of research, and into what exactly we refer to when we talk about the “self,” or the ego — essentially, what makes us think of ourselves as “I.” Or as Freud said, “Normally, there is nothing which we are more certain than the feeling of our self, of our own ego.”

This idea is most strongly challenged by psychedelics. If you’ve seen someone experience a bad acid trip, you know exactly what I mean. If not, here’s an example taken from a 911 call, placed by a man who was convinced his hands were knives

“911. What’s your emergency.”

“I have knife hands.”

“Excuse me.”

“I looked down and my hands were knives.”

“Your hands are knives?”

“Yeah.”

“Can you put the knives down?”

“No, they’re my hands.”

“Alright, uh, where are you?”

“I don’t want knife hands. I can’t pet my cat. I can’t high five anything.”

“It’s okay, sir. Let’s work this out.”

“What am I gonna do, be a chef? Just chop, chop, chop my whole life. Nothing but chopping. Nah, chop that.”

“How did you call 911?”

“I called on my phone.”

“Uh-huh. And how did you dial the number?”

“With my fingers.”

“Okay, where are your fingers?”

“On my hands. Oh god, they’re back! Oh my god, thank you! Look at them. I love these hands. What’s your name? Is it Sharon?”

“No.”

“Oh, Sharon, you’re an angel.” 

“I am not.”

“Mmmm, that’s what an angel would say. Thank you, Sharon.”

“You’re welcome.”

“This acid is… really messing with me… Oh boy, now my feet are knives.”

For comparison’s sake, here’s another person’s account of their bad trip. Notice how they also tend toward a violent darkness motivated by a sense of fait accompli, this irresistible will that seems to emerge from deep inside them and yet feels foreign at the same time: “The Voice told me that single point in the middle of the living room was to be my final resting place. I tried fighting, but there was nowhere to go. All exits were covered around me. And oddly, when I tried to change my trajectory on the spiral path from side to side, I physically could not. I could only walk forward along the spiral, or backwards along the part of the spiral I had already been on. Doing so was like watching a video tape of someone walking and then rewinding it. This was my path. I was destined for this path and it pointed to the central point in the living room. I finally gave in.

“I collapsed in the middle of the spiral in the living room. Here’s where I’m going to end. Thick pile carpet with a musty smell. It’s really soft. Kind of nice actually. Hmmm. This isn’t so bad really. Maybe Hell’s not that bad. I mean, there’s no fire. Maybe I’m not in H.”

Next, their trip starts to get really weird (and violent): “Several times around the loop, I thought about killing myself. Once, I thought if I just jump off the balcony head first, this will all end. The Voice seemed to want me to do it. Not directly, but he’d coax me and tell me that it could all be over… Oh hey a knife! It was very tempting at times. But the Real me would always swim as hard as he could to the surface and yell one thing… IF YOU’RE ALREADY DEAD, KILLING YOURSELF WON’T WORK. RIDE THIS OUT AND YOU’LL BE OKAY!!! Me saved me from me.”

As for the science of psychedelic psychosis, the literature is limited. But there are researchers, like Robin Carhart-Harris of Imperial College of London, who have been putting forward illuminating ideas about how our minds work and how they evolved to do the mental work we require as animals. In particular — in his research investigating the intersection of psychedelics and the mind — he’s conceptualized what happens when a person has a bad acid trip and how their brain processes that trip, as well as how that dynamic process is tied to our caveman and cavewoman ancestors.

“The idea that the brain is closer to criticality in the psychedelic state than in normal waking consciousness has some intuitive appeal as some of the signatures of criticality, such as maximum metastability, avalanche phenomena and hypersensitivity to perturbation are consistent with the phenomenology of the psychedelic state,” Carhart-Harris has written. “For example, if we consider just one of these: hypersensitivity to perturbation, it is well known that individuals are hypersensitive to environmental perturbations in the psychedelic state, which is why such emphasis is placed on the importance of managing the environment in which the psychedelic experience unfolds. Indeed, one explanation for why some people celebrate and romanticize the psychedelic experience and even consider it ‘sacred,’ is that, in terms of criticality, brain activity does actually become more consistent closer with the rest of nature in this state, i.e., it moves closer to criticality-proper and so is more in harmony with the rest of nature.”

While that may sound good and spiritually uplifting, it’s also not that helpful for James Shirvell’s attempted murder case. As Carhart-Harris explains, the idea that psychedelics cause us to act out-of-character isn’t exactly true. In terms employed by Freud, LSD mutes the superego and allows the id and ego to roam the earth unencumbered by whatever they’ve been told that society thinks they should do. We’re motivated only by the parts of ourselves that we haven’t fully integrated. In other words, acid releases the feral parts of our psychology; it lets our true beast loose. 

* * * * *

At Shirvell’s most recent court appearance earlier this month, there is no girlfriend present. Nor is her mother there. No friends are there to support him either. This time, the only one in court with him is his own mother. 

After a couple hours, Judge Lin calls Shirvell’s name. He rises from his seat in the gallery and approaches the judge. He’s raw-boned and lean the way most star college runners are (he was captain of the Yale track team). While the prosecutor and judge discuss the particulars of his next court appearance, Shirvell’s lawyer puts forth a motion to move up his client’s next court date so that he can get his ankle monitor taken off and his conditions of bail can be changed. He asks for a court date on Valentine’s Day.

Judge Lin considers the court date switch, but prosecutor Burris has travel plans for that day. They decide to schedule Shirvell’s next court appearance a week or two later, meaning at least two more weeks of home detention. Shirvell’s shoulders tighten and rise closer to his ears. He’s been on house arrest for nearly a year now. 

Shirvell’s lawyer mentions to Judge Lin that he’s currently trying to negotiate a plea deal “upstairs,” meaning the district attorney’s office. But Burris says she’s not aware of any such deal. (When I call the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office and ask if any deals have been offered or accepted, the rep on the phone confirms that no deal is on the table.) In the meantime, Judge Lin is satisfied with the next court date and moves on. 

Shirvell steps away from the defense attorney’s desk. His lawyer, Safire, steps out to have a small conference with his client in the hallway outside of the court. The two men speak in hushed tones, but their body language isn’t hard to read. Shirvell is still tight. His mother stands wordlessly next to him and listens. It would appear as though his lawyer is delivering the news that they weren’t able to work out a deal after all. He places his hand on his client’s shoulder; it’s meant to calm him down, but it has the opposite effect.

And so, James Shirvell will continue to stand trial for the attempted murder of his girlfriend. Per Judge Lin, he’s due back in court on February 24th. Ultimately, then, it’ll be up to the judge and jury to decide if it was the acid or the man who’s to blame.