“I don’t talk to journalists anymore,” says the strained voice at the other end of the phone. And then a tiny window: “What do you want?”
I figure I have about twenty seconds to make my case, and it won’t be easy. How do I explain what I want from Gail Kastner, the journey that brought me to her?
The truth seems so bizarre: “I am writing a book about shock. About how countries are shocked—by wars, terror attacks, coups d’état and natural disasters. And then how they are shocked again—by corporations and politicians who exploit the fear and disorientation of this first shock to push through economic shock therapy. And then how people who dare to resist this shock politics are, if necessary, shocked for a third time—by police, soldiers and prison interrogators. I want to talk to you because you are by my estimation among the most shocked people alive, being one of the few living survivors of the CIA’s covert experiments in electroshock and other ‘special interrogation techniques.’ And by the way, I have reason to believe that the research that was done on you in the 1950s at McGill University is now being applied to prisoners in Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.”
No, I definitely can’t say that. So I say this instead: “I recently traveled to Iraq, and I am trying to understand the role torture is playing there. We are told it’s about getting information, but I think it’s more than that—I think it may also have had to do with trying to build a model country, about erasing people and then trying to remake them from scratch.”
There is a long pause, and then a different tone of voice to the reply, still strained but . . . is it relief? “You have just spelled out exactly what the CIA and Ewen Cameron did to me. They tried to erase and remake me. But it didn’t work.”
In less than twenty-four hours, I am knocking on the door of Gail Kastner’s apartment in a grim Montreal old-age home. “It’s open,” comes a barely audible voice. Gail had told me she would leave the door unlocked because standing up is difficult for her. It’s the tiny fractures down her spine that grow more painful as arthritis sets in. Her back pain is just one reminder of the sixty-three times that 150 to 200 volts of electricity penetrated the frontal lobes of her brain, while her body convulsed violently on the table, causing fractures, sprains, bloody lips, broken teeth.
Gail greets me from a plush blue recliner. It has twenty positions, I later learn, and she adjusts them continuously, like a photographer trying to find focus. It is in this chair that she spends her days and nights, searching for comfort, trying to avoid sleep and what she calls “my electric dreams.” That’s when she sees “him”: Dr. Ewen Cameron, the long-dead psychiatrist who administered those shocks, as well as other torments, so many years ago. “I had two visits from the Eminent Monster last night,” she announces as soon as I walk in. “I don’t want to make you feel bad, but it’s because of your call coming out of the blue like that, asking all those questions.”
I become aware that my presence here is very possibly unfair. This feeling deepens when I scan the apartment and realize that there is no place for me. Every single surface is crowded with towers of papers and books, precariously stacked but clearly in some kind of order, the books all marked with yellowing flags. Gail motions me to the one clear surface in the room, a wooden chair that I had overlooked, but she goes into minor panic when I ask for a four-inch space for the recorder. The end table beside her chair is out of the question: it is home to about twenty empty boxes of cigarettes, Matinee Regular, stacked in a perfect pyramid. (Gail had warned me on the phone about the chain-smoking: “Sorry, but I smoke. And I’m a poor eater. I’m fat and I smoke. I hope that’s okay.”) It looks as if Gail has colored the insides of the boxes black, but looking closer, I realize it is actually extremely dense, minuscule handwriting: names, numbers, thousands of words.
Over the course of the day we spend talking, Gail often leans over to write something on a scrap of paper or a cigarette box—“a note to myself,” she explains, “or I will never remember.” The thickets of paper and cigarette boxes are, for Gail, something more than an unconventional filing system. They are her memory.
For her entire adult life, Gail’s mind has failed her; facts evaporate instantly, memories, if they are there (and many aren’t), are like snapshots scattered on the ground. Sometimes she will remember an incident perfectly—what she calls “a memory shard”—but when asked for a date, she will be as much as two decades off. “In 1968,” she will say. “No, 1983.” And so she makes lists and keeps everything, proof that her life actually happened. At first she apologizes for the clutter. But later she says, “He did this to me! This apartment is part of the torture!”
For many years, Gail was quite mystified by her lack of memory, as well as other idiosyncrasies. She did not know, for instance, why a small electrical shock from a garage door opener set off an uncontrollable panic attack. Or why her hands shook when she plugged in her hair dryer. Most of all, she could not understand why she could remember most events from her adult life but almost nothing from before she turned twenty. When she ran into someone who claimed to know her from childhood, she’d say, “‘I know who you are but I can’t quite place you.’ I faked it.”
Gail figured it was all part of her shaky mental health. In her twenties and thirties, she had struggled with depression and addiction to pills and would sometimes have such severe breakdowns that she would end up hospitalized and comatose. These episodes provoked her family to disown her, leaving her so alone and desperate that she survived by scavenging from the bins outside grocery stores.
There had also been hints that something even more traumatic had happened early on. Before her family cut ties, Gail and her identical twin sister used to have arguments about a time when Gail had been much sicker and Zella had had to take care of her. “You have no idea what I went through,” Zella would say. “You would urinate on the living-room floor and suck your thumb and talk baby talk and you would demand the bottle of my baby. That’s what I had to put up with!” Gail had no idea what to make of her twin’s recriminations. Urinating on the floor? Demanding her nephew’s bottle? She had no memory of ever doing such strange things.
In her late forties, Gail began a relationship with a man named Jacob, whom she describes as her soul mate. Jacob was a Holocaust survivor, and he was also preoccupied with questions of memory and loss. For Jacob, who died more than a decade ago, Gail’s unaccountably missing years were intensely troubling. “There has to be a reason,” he would say about the gaps in her life. “There has to be a reason.”
In 1992, Gail and Jacob happened to pass by a newsstand with a large, sensational headline: “Brainwashing Experiments: Victims to Be Compensated.” Kastner started skimming the article, and several phrases immediately leaped out: “baby talk,” “memory loss,” “incontinence.” “I said, ‘Jacob, buy this paper.’” Sitting in a nearby coffee shop, the couple read an incredible story about how, in the 1950s, the United States Central Intelligence Agency had funded a Montreal doctor to perform bizarre experiments on his psychiatric patients, keeping them asleep and in isolation for weeks, then administering huge doses of electroshock as well as experimental drug cocktails including the psychedelic LSD and the hallucinogen PCP, commonly known as angel dust. The experiments—which reduced patients to preverbal, infantile states—had been performed at McGill University’s Allan Memorial Institute under the supervision of its director, Dr. Ewen Cameron. The CIA’s funding of Cameron had been revealed in the late seventies through a Freedom of Information Act request, sparking hearings in the U.S. Senate. Nine of Cameron’s former patients got together and sued the CIA as well as the Canadian government, which had also funded Cameron’s research. Over protracted trials, the patients’ lawyers argued that the experiments had violated all standards of medical ethics. They had gone to Cameron seeking relief from minor psychiatric ailments—postpartum depression, anxiety, even for help to deal with marital difficulties—and had been used, without their knowledge or permission, as human guinea pigs to satisfy the CIA’s thirst for information about how to control the human mind. In 1988, the CIA settled, awarding a total of $750,000 in damages to the nine plaintiffs—at the time the largest settlement ever against the agency. Four years later, the Canadian government would agree to pay $100,000 in compensation to each patient who was part of the experiments.
Not only did Cameron play a central role in developing contemporary U.S. torture techniques, but his experiments also offer a unique insight into the underlying logic of disaster capitalism. Like the free-market economists who are convinced that only a large-scale disaster—a great unmaking—can prepare the ground for their “reforms,” Cameron believed that by inflicting an array of shocks to the human brain, he could unmake and erase faulty minds, then rebuild new personalities on that ever-elusive clean slate.
Gail had been dimly aware of a story involving the CIA and McGill over the years, but she hadn’t paid attention—she had never had anything to do with the Allan Memorial Institute. But now, sitting with Jacob, she focused on what the ex-patients were saying about their lives—the memory loss, the regression. “I realized then that these people must have gone through the same thing I went through. I said, ‘Jacob, this has got to be the reason.’”
In the Shock Shop
Kastner wrote to the Allan and requested her medical file. After first being told that they had no record of her, she finally got it, all 138 pages. The doctor who had admitted her was Ewen Cameron.
The letters, notes and charts in Gail’s medical file tell a heartbreaking story, one as much about the limited choices available to an eighteen-year-old girl in the fifties as about governments and doctors abusing their power. The file begins with Dr. Cameron’s assessment of Gail on her admittance: she is a McGill nursing student, excelling in her studies, whom Cameron describes as “a hitherto reasonably well balanced individual.” She is, however, suffering from anxiety, caused, Cameron plainly notes, by her abusive father, an “intensely disturbing” man who made “repeated psychological assaults” on his daughter.
In their early notes, the nurses seem to like Gail; she bonds with them about nursing, and they describe her as “cheerful,” “sociable” and “neat.” But over the months she spent in and out of their care, Gail underwent a radical personality transformation, one that is meticulously documented in the file: after a few weeks, she “showed childish behaviour, expressed bizarre ideas, and apparently was hallucinated [sic] and destructive.” The notes report that this intelligent young woman could now manage to count only to six; next she is “manipulative, hostile and very aggressive”; then, passive and listless, unable to recognize her family members. Her final diagnosis is “schizophrenic . . . with marked hysterical features”—far more serious than the “anxiety” she displayed when she arrived.
The metamorphosis no doubt had something to do with the treatments that are also all listed in Kastner’s chart: huge doses of insulin, inducing multiple comas; strange combinations of uppers and downers; long periods when she was kept in a drug-induced sleep; and eight times as many electroshocks as was standard at the time.
Often the nurses remark on Kastner’s attempts to escape from her doctors: “Trying to find way out . . . claims she is being ill treated . . . refused to have her ECT after having her injection.” These complaints were invariably treated as cause for another trip to what Cameron’s junior colleagues called “the shock shop.”
The Quest for Blankness
After reading over her medical file several times, Gail Kastner turned herself into a kind of archaeologist of her own life, collecting and studying everything that could potentially explain what happened to her at the hospital. She learned that Ewen Cameron, a Scottish-born American citizen, had reached the very pinnacle of his profession: he had been president of the American Psychiatric Association, president of the Canadian Psychiatric Association and president of the World Psychiatric Association. In 1945, he was one of only three American psychiatrists asked to testify to the sanity of Rudolf Hess at the war crimes trials in Nuremberg.
By the time Gail began her investigation, Cameron was long dead, but he had left dozens of academic papers and published lectures behind. Several books had also been published about the CIA’s funding of mind-control experiments, works that included plenty of detail about Cameron’s relationship to the agency. Gail read them all, marking relevant passages, making timelines and cross-referencing the dates with her own medical file. What she came to understand was that, by the early 1950s, Cameron had rejected the standard Freudian approach of using “talk therapy” to try to uncover the “root causes” of his patients’ mental illnesses. His ambition was not to mend or repair his patients but to re-create them using a method he invented called “psychic driving.”
According to his published papers from the time, he believed that the only way to teach his patients healthy new behaviors was to get inside their minds and “break up old pathological patterns.” The first step was “depatterning,” which had a stunning goal: to return the mind to a state when it was, as Aristotle claimed, “a writing tablet on which as yet nothing actually stands written,” a tabula rasa. Cameron believed he could reach that state by attacking the brain with everything known to interfere with its normal functioning—all at once. It was “shock and awe” warfare on the mind.
By the late 1940s, electroshock was becoming increasingly popular among psychiatrists in Europe and North America. It caused less permanent damage than surgical lobotomy, and it seemed to help: hysterical patients frequently calmed down, and in some cases, the jolt of electricity appeared to make the person more lucid. But these were only observations, and even the doctors who developed the technique could not provide a scientific explanation for how it worked.
They were aware of its side effects, though. There was no question that ECT could result in amnesia; it was by far the most common complaint associated with the treatment. Closely related to memory loss, the other side effect widely reported was regression. In dozens of clinical studies, doctors noted that in the immediate aftermath of treatment, patients sucked their thumbs, curled up in the fetal position, needed to be spoon-fed, and cried for their mothers (often mistaking doctors and nurses for parents). These behaviors usually passed quickly, but in some cases, when large doses of shock were used, doctors reported that their patients had regressed completely, forgetting how to walk and talk. Marilyn Rice, an economist who, in the mid-seventies, spearheaded a patients’ rights movement against ECT, vividly described what it was like to have her memories and much of her education erased by shock treatments. “Now I know how Eve must have felt, having been created full grown out of somebody’s rib without any past history. I feel as empty as Eve.”*
For Rice and others, that emptiness represented an irreplaceable loss. Cameron, on the other hand, looked into that same void and saw something else: the blank slate, cleared of bad habits, on which new patterns could be written. For him, “massive loss of all recollections” brought on by intensive ECT wasn’t an unfortunate side effect; it was the essential point of the treatment, the key to bringing the patient back to an earlier stage of development “long before schizophrenic thinking and behavior made their appearance.” Like pro-war hawks who call for the bombing of countries “back to the stone age,” Cameron saw shock therapy as a means to blast his patients back into their infancy, to regress them completely. In a 1962 paper, he described the state to which he wanted to reduce patients like Gail Kastner: “There is not only a loss of the space-time image but loss of all feeling that it should be present. During this stage the patient may show a variety of other phenomena, such as loss of a second language or all knowledge of his marital status. In more advanced forms, he may be unable to walk without support, to feed himself, and he may show double incontinence. . . . All aspects of his memorial function are severely disturbed.”
To “depattern” his patients, Cameron used a relatively new device called the Page-Russell, which administered up to six consecutive jolts instead of a single one. Frustrated that his patients still seemed to be clinging to remnants of their personalities, he further disoriented them with uppers, downers and hallucinogens: chlorpromazine, barbiturates, sodium amytal, nitrous oxide, desoxyn, Seconal, Nembutal, Veronal, Melicone, Thorazine, largactil and insulin. Cameron wrote in a 1956 paper that these drugs served to “disinhibit him [the patient] so that his defenses might be reduced.”
Once “complete depatterning” had been achieved, and the earlier personality had been satisfactorily wiped out, the psychic driving could begin. It consisted of Cameron playing his patients tape-recorded messages such as “You are a good mother and wife and people enjoy your company.” As a behaviorist, he believed that if he could get his patients to absorb the messages on the tape, they would start behaving differently.
With patients shocked and drugged into an almost vegetative state, they could do nothing but listen to the messages—for sixteen to twenty hours a day for weeks; in one case, Cameron played a message continuously for 101 days.
In the mid-fifties, several researchers at the CIA became interested in Cameron’s methods. It was the start of Cold War hysteria, and the agency had just launched a covert program devoted to researching “special interrogation techniques.” A declassified CIA memorandum explained that the program “examined and investigated numerous unusual techniques of interrogation including psychological harassment and such matters as ‘total isolation’” as well as “the use of drugs and chemicals.” First code-named Project Bluebird, then Project Artichoke, it was finally renamed MKUltra in 1953. Over the next decade, MKUltra would spend $25 million on research in a quest to find new ways to break prisoners suspected of being Communists and double agents. Eighty institutions were involved in the program, including forty-four universities and twelve hospitals.
The agents involved had no shortage of creative ideas for how to extract information from people who would rather not share it—the problem was finding ways to test those ideas. Activities in the first few years of Project Bluebird and Artichoke resembled those in a tragicomic spy film in which CIA agents hypnotized each other and slipped LSD into their colleagues’ drinks to see what would happen (in at least one case, suicide)—not to mention torturing suspected Russian spies.
The tests were more like deadly fraternity pranks than serious research, and the results didn’t provide the kind of scientific certainty the agency was looking for. For this they needed large numbers of human test subjects. Several such trials were attempted, but they were risky: if word got out that the CIA was testing dangerous drugs on American soil, the entire program could be shut down. Which is where the CIA’s interest in Canadian researchers came in. The relationship dates back to June 1, 1951, and a trinational meeting of intelligence agencies and academics at Montreal’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The subject of the meeting was growing concern in the Western intelligence community that the Communists had somehow discovered how to “brainwash” prisoners of war. The evidence was the fact that American GIs taken captive in Korea were going before cameras, seemingly willingly, and denouncing capitalism and imperialism. According to the declassified minutes from the Ritz meeting, those in attendance—Omond Solandt, chairman of Canada’s Defense Research Board; Sir Henry Tizard, chairman of the British Defense Research Policy Committee; as well as two representatives from the CIA—were convinced that Western powers urgently needed to discover how the Communists were extracting these remarkable confessions. With that in mind, the first step was to conduct “a clinical study of actual cases” to see how brainwashing might work. The stated goal of this research was not for Western powers to start using mind control on prisoners; it was to prepare Western soldiers for whatever coercive techniques they might encounter if they were taken hostage.
The CIA, of course, had other interests. Yet even in closed-door meetings like the one at the Ritz, it would have been impossible, so soon after revelations of Nazi torture had provoked worldwide revulsion, for the agency to openly admit it was interested in developing alternative interrogation methods of its own.
One of those at the Ritz meeting was Dr. Donald Hebb, director of psychology at McGill University. According to the declassified minutes, Hebb, trying to unlock the mystery of the GI confessions, speculated that the Communists might be manipulating prisoners by placing them in intensive isolation and blocking input to their senses. The intelligence chiefs were impressed, and three months later Hebb had a research grant from Canada’s Department of National Defense to conduct a series of classified sensory-deprivation experiments. Hebb paid a group of sixty-three McGill students $20 a day to be isolated in a room wearing dark goggles, headphones playing white noise and cardboard tubes covering their arms and hands so as to interfere with their sense of touch. For days, the students floated in a sea of nothingness, their eyes, ears and hands unable to orient them, living inside their increasingly vivid imaginations. To see whether this deprivation made them more susceptible to “brainwashing,” Hebb then began playing recordings of voices talking about the existence of ghosts or the dishonesty of science—ideas the students had said they found objectionable before the experiment began.
In a confidential report on Hebb’s findings, the Defense Research Board concluded that sensory deprivation clearly caused extreme confusion as well as hallucinations among the student test subjects and that “a significant temporary lowering of intellectual efficiency occurred during and immediately after the period of perceptual deprivation.” Furthermore, the students’ hunger for stimulation made them surprisingly receptive to the ideas expressed on the tapes, and indeed several developed an interest in the occult that lasted weeks after the experiment had come to an end. It was as if the confusion from sensory deprivation partially erased their minds, and then the sensory stimuli rewrote their patterns.
A copy of Hebb’s major study was sent to the CIA, as well as forty-one copies to the U.S. Navy and forty-two copies to the U.S. Army. The CIA also directly monitored the findings via one of Hebb’s student researchers, Maitland Baldwin, who, unbeknownst to Hebb, was reporting to the agency. This keen interest was hardly surprising: at the very least, Hebb was proving that intensive isolation interfered with the ability to think clearly and made people more open to suggestion—priceless ideas for any interrogator. Hebb eventually realized that there was enormous potential for his research to be used not just to protect captured soldiers from getting “brainwashed” but also as a kind of how-to manual for psychological torture. In the last interview he gave before his death in 1985, Hebb said, “It was clear when we made our report to the Defense Research Board that we were describing formidable interrogation techniques.”
Hebb’s report noted that four of the subjects “remarked spontaneously that being in the apparatus was a form of torture,” which meant that forcing them to stay past their threshold—two or three days—would clearly violate medical ethics. Aware of the limitations this placed on the experiment, Hebb wrote that more “clearcut results” were not available because “it is not possible to force subjects to spend 30 to 60 days in conditions of perceptual isolation.”
Not possible for Hebb, but it was perfectly possible for his McGill colleague and academic archrival, Dr. Ewen Cameron. (In a suspension of academic niceties, Hebb would later describe Cameron as “criminally stupid.”) Cameron had already convinced himself that violent destruction of the minds of his patients was the necessary first step on their journey to mental health and therefore not a violation of the Hippocratic oath. As for consent, his patients were at his mercy; the standard consent form endowed Cameron with absolute power to treat, up to and including performing full frontal lobotomies.
Although he had been in contact with the agency for years, in 1957 Cameron got his first grant from the CIA, laundered through a front organization called the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology. And, as the CIA dollars poured in, the Allan Memorial Institute seemed less like a hospital and more like a macabre prison.
The first changes were the dramatically increased dosages of electroshock. The two psychiatrists who invented the controversial Page-Russell electroshock machine had recommended four treatments per patient, totaling twenty-four individual shocks. Cameron started using the machine on his patients twice a day for thirty days, a terrifying 360 individual shocks to each patient—far more than his earlier patients, like Gail, had received. To the already dizzying array of drugs he was giving his patients, he added more experimental, mind-altering ones that were of particular interest to the CIA: LSD and PCP.
He also added other weapons to his mind-blanking arsenal: sensory deprivation and extended sleep, a twin process he claimed would further “reduce the defensiveness of the individual,” making the patient more receptive to his taped messages. When the CIA dollars arrived, Cameron used the grant money to convert the old horse stables behind the hospital into isolation boxes. He also elaborately renovated the basement so that it contained a room he called the Isolation Chamber. He soundproofed the room, piped in white noise, turned off the lights and put dark goggles and “rubber eardrums” on each patient, as well as cardboard tubing on the hands and arms, “preventing him from touching his body—thus interfering with his self image,” as Cameron put it in a 1956 paper. But, where Hebb’s students fled less intense sensory deprivation after only a couple of days, Cameron kept his patients in for weeks, with one of them trapped in the isolation box for thirty-five days.
Cameron further starved his patients’ senses in the so-called Sleep Room, where they were kept in drug-induced reverie for twenty to twenty-two hours a day, turned by nurses every two hours to prevent bed sores and wakened only for meals and to go to the toilet. Patients were kept in this state for fifteen to thirty days, though Cameron reported that “some patients have been treated up to 65 days of continuous sleep.” Hospital staffers were instructed not to allow patients to talk and not to give out any information about how long they would have to spend in the room. To make sure no one successfully escaped from this nightmare, Cameron gave one group of patients small doses of the drug Curare, which induces paralysis, making them literal prisoners in their own bodies.
In a 1960 paper, Cameron said there are “two major factors” that allow us to “maintain a time and space image”—that allow us, in other words, to know where we are and who we are. Those two forces are “(a) our continued sensory input, and (b) our memory.” With electroshock, Cameron annihilated memory; with his isolation boxes, he annihilated sensory input. He was determined to force his patients to completely lose their sense of where they were in time and space. Realizing that some patients were keeping track of time of day based on their meals, Cameron ordered the kitchen to mix it all up, changing meal times and serving soup for breakfast and porridge for dinner. “By varying these intervals and by changing the menu from the expected time we were able to break up this structuring,” Cameron reported with satisfaction. Even so, he discovered that despite his best efforts, one patient had maintained a connection with the outside world by noting “the very faint rumble” of a plane that flew over the hospital every morning at nine.
To anyone familiar with the testimonies of torture survivors, this detail is a harrowing one. When prisoners are asked how they survived months or years of isolation and brutality, they often speak about hearing the ring of distant church bells, or the Muslim call to prayer, or children playing in a park nearby. When life is shrunk to the four walls of the prison cell, the rhythm of these outside sounds becomes a kind of lifeline, proof that the prisoner is still human, that there is a world beyond torture. “Four times I heard the birds outside chirping with the rising sun—that’s how I know it was four days,” said one survivor of Uruguay’s last dictatorship, recalling a particularly brutal stretch of torture. The unidentified woman in the basement of the Allan Memorial Institute, straining to hear the engine of an airplane through a haze of darkness, drugs and electroshock, was not a patient in the care of a doctor; she was, for all intents and purposes, a prisoner undergoing torture.
Copyright © 2007 by Naomi Klein
All rights reserved.