Damaged Minds

Dr. Ewen Cameron and the CIA-Brainwashing Experiments
By Don Gillmor
Eden Press; 188 pp.

By all accounts, Ewen Cameron was an unusually imposing and charismatic man. He arrived in Montreal in 1943 to be chairman of McGill University’s department of psychiatry, and for the next 21 years presided over the Allan Memorial Institute, building it into an internationally pre-eminent facility and establishing his own reputation as the world’s leading psychiatrist.

He did so, however, while drugging his patients into a psychedelic stupor, incarcerating them in sensory deprivation chambers for weeks at a time, and bombarding them with taped messages about themselves over and over again: “You are weak and insecure. You are weak and insecure . . .” These were the infamous “psychic driving” experiments.

Those diagnosed as more suitable for a therapy Cameron called “depatterning” would be subjected to a regimen of massive electro-convulsions – which had the intriguing effect of erasing the subject’s memory piece by piece, so that after a number of days a middle-aged man might be reduced to infancy, blank-eyed and incontinent.

The idea was that the memories of patients could then be rebuilt through psychic driving, avoiding whatever incident had triggered the original psychosis.

Despite Cameron’s hopes and his published claims to the contrary, none of these procedures was of any therapeutic value. They contributed nothing to the understanding of the mind or its maladies, and they may well have done irreparable damage to a number of the Allan’s patients.

By now, most Montrealers are at least vaguely aware that there were some very strange goings-on behind the walls of that Gothic old building tucked up behind McGill and the Royal Victoria Hospital. The story has faded from the headlines, but shards of detail remain . . .

Patients who voluntarily checked themselves into Cameron’s care became unwitting lab rats in a sloppy and unconscionable CIA brainwashing experiment. A number have banded together to sue the CIA, including Val Orlikow, wife of David Orlikow, the Winnipeg MP. The Canadian government – possibly as culpable as the Langley spooks – has offered only nervous and half-hearted support. After seven frustrating years, the plaintiffs are getting nowhere fast.

Don Gillmor’s I Swear By Apollo (the title is taken from the first line of the Hippocratic oath) neither pillories nor defends Cameron, opting instead for the infinitely more difficult task of setting the record straight – or as straight as the murky circumstances will allow. This is not an investigative potboiler, brimming with new revelations. It is, rather, a crackerjack journalistic history with an eye for the method to Cameron’s madness.

At one and the same time, the book is an introduction to the history of psychiatry, a case study in medical ethics, an analysis of power in the academic hierarchy, a reminder of what the CIA is capable of, and a character study of a profoundly enigmatic man.

Prior to the opening of the Allan, the mentally ill were cared for in Quebec by the church. Unable to do much for their charges, the nuns merely managed the bedlam.

The Allan, by comparison, would become a model of progressive mental health care: there were volleyball courts on the grounds and piano sing-alongs in the lounge; in a bold initiative, it was decreed that no door should be locked. A 1957 Montreal Star photo essay gives the impression of a Diefenbaker-era Club Med.

As well, there was enormous optimism that psychiatry was on the verge of a fundamental breakthrough. Just as penicillin had recently erased the dangers of bacterial infection, so some imminent discovery was going to crack the problems of the mind wide open.

Into this environment strode Ewen Cameron – an empire-builder and autocrat, but also a humane clinician who could care deeply about his patients; a slipshod researcher, an opportunist and a martinet, but in many ways an admirable man who did as much to improve the treatment of the mentally ill as anyone of his generation.

The son of a Scots Presbyterian minister, he resented his father and scorned religion as a series of pathetic delusions; yet he became the most rigid of patriarchs and pursued his vision of a society liberated by psychiatry with a missionary’s zeal.

Lured to McGill from the U.S. and dismissive of francophone culture, he refused to learn French or to surrender his American citizenship, and would commute to the Allan daily in a huge black Cadillac from his home in Lake Placid, N.Y.

But his major failing in Gillmor’s view was his impatience. With one eye on the welfare of his patients and the other on the Nobel prize, he hunted for the quick psychiatric fix, borrowing the shiniest bits and pieces of others’ techniques like a magpie.

Hence “psychic driving.” Cameron was aware that psychoanalysis produced some clinical successes, but only after perhaps years of treatment. He hit upon the notion of accelerating the process by isolating key and revealing statements made by patients during therapy sessions, then playing these back to them on an endless loop.

Early attempts were encouraging – after a single “driving” session, one woman came to the type of cathartic realization that would normally have taken months – but patients were reluctant to endure the interminable incantation of their inadequacies. Even if they remained in the room where the recording was playing, they tended to screen out the contents of the message. In the interests of their recovery, Cameron resolved to break their resistance.

Once he learned of McGill psychologist Donald Hebb’s work with sensory deprivation, Cameron incorporated the technique. Patients would be exposed to the driving messages isolated from all other stimuli. After Heinz Lehmann’s breakthrough with psychotherapeutic drugs in 1954, Cameron began administering a variety of substances to make his subjects more susceptible. Now they heard the repetitions not only alone and in the dark, but tanked up on Largactil, sodium amytal, LSD. Enter the CIA’s MKULTRA project, a rogue operation with few accountabilities, very deep pockets and a truly sinister bent of mind. These were the days of Joseph McCarthy, Korea and a growing paranoia that the Commies had developed some chemical means of mind control. If so, the Company wanted one too. MKULTRA took one look at what Cameron was up to and began financing his research through a front.

It took almost 10 years before the Americans realized the work was of minimal worth and revoked their support. Cameron, too, eventually conceded it was a dead end, but not before it was too late for Val Orlikow and God knows how many others.

In fact, the whole episode might never have come to light except for the criminal behavior of the thugs who ran MKULTRA. Mesmerized by the possibility that LSD might be the elusive “truth drug,” they had a nasty habit of slipping it to folks unawares, just to see what might happen. In 1953 one such victim, an army officer served Cointreau laced with LSD at a business dinner, dove through the windowpane of his New York hotel room and fell to his death 10 floors below.

The incident came to light 10 years after Cameron’s death, during the 1975 investigations of the Rockefeller Commission into CIA wrongdoing. Along with it were mentioned the names of McGill, the Allan Memorial and Ewen Cameron. The rest is recrimination, litigation and denial.

Needless to say, the episode was not a shining moment in the history of either psychiatry or McGill, but nor should it be allowed to slip forgotten into the past. I Swear By Apollo is an uneasy reminder of what can happen to the best of intentions when driven men are given free rein over the trusting and the weak.eg

Montreal Gazette

    July 4, 1987