Doctor Strangelove

How Ewen Cameron experimented with minds

MORTON RITTS November 14 1988

Doctor Strangelove

How Ewen Cameron experimented with minds

MORTON RITTS November 14 1988

Doctor Strangelove


How Ewen Cameron experimented with minds

An old joke describes two souls talking in heaven: the veteran turns to the recent arrival and says: “See the guy over there with the long white beard and stethoscope? That’s God—He’s playing doctor.” This fall, three books offer a more sober view of the doctor-as-deity syndrome by analysing the controversial career of one of the giants of Canadian psychiatry, Scottish-born Ewen Cameron. As director of Montreal’s Allan Memorial Institute—an affiliate of McGill University—from 1943 to 1964, the enigmatic and imposing Cameron ran one of the most respected centres of psychiatric research in North America. At various stages in his career, Cameron served as president of the Canadian, American and world psychiatric associations. But, according to most former patients and many critics, almost all of Cameron’s pioneering treatments did more harm than good. Much of Anne Collins’s In the Sleep Room: The Story of the CIA Brainwashing Experiments in Canada (Lester & Orpen Dennys, $16.95) and Harvey Weinstein’s A Father, a Son and the CIA (James Lorimer, $24.95) offer chilling portraits of Cameron’s victims. Gordon Thomas’s Journey Into Madness: Medical Torture and the Mind Controllers (Bantam, $24.95), meanwhile, looks at the work of doctors who he claims are Cameron’s professional heirs—doctors involved in political torture and mind control.

Cameron’s own methods included brainwashing experiments for which he received almost $73,000 in secret funding from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency between 1957 and 1960, through a project code-named MKULTRA. In 1967, Cameron died of a heart attack while mountain climbing in the Adirondacks, and, within a decade, his once-unassailable reputation had become increasingly tarnished. After the CIA connection emerged in the late 1970s, nine Canadian ex-patients launched a highly publicized lawsuit against the U.S. government. Recently, eight of them and the widower of another reached a tentative $907,500 collective settlement for damages.

Collins and Weinstein paint a similar picture of Cameron as a man driven by a sincere but self-deluding doctor-knows-best obsession to find a cure for schizophrenia, depression and other mental disorders. He imposed on dozens of Allan patients treatments that in extreme cases wiped out years of memory and left them broken-down versions of their former selves. All three authors make it clear that Cameron did so in the name of behavioral psychiatry. Psychiatry was then divided into two major

camps: the physical—or behavioral—and the psychoanalytic. Derived from the theories of Sigmund Freud, the pyschoanalytic method was time-consuming, costly and—in the opinion of its critics—lacking in scientific rigor.

Cameron had little use for it. -

He viewed the human mind as little more than a blank slate on which a person’s experience could be written—or erased. As a result, thoughts could easily be changed by controlling someone’s environment.

That theorizing lay behind the brainwashing experiments designed by scientists from various countries during and after the Second World War. It was part of the era’s naïvely optimistic belief in social engineering and its Cold War fascination with mind

control. And it was also an ideology in whose service Ewen Cameron and his Allan colleagues employed a technologically aggressive therapeutic arsenal in their war against mental illness. Those weapons included the hallucinogen LSD, massive doses of electroconvulsive shock treatment (ECT), drug-induced sleep therapy and insulin comas lasting sometimes for weeks. One of Cameron’s most controversial innovations was “psychic driving.”

That method involved subjecting patients to a seemingly endless, mind-numbing bombardment of taped messages played under their pillows while they slept, or sometimes through bizarre-looking football helmets that they wore both asleep and awake. By using such a variety of techniques, Cameron hoped to break down or “depattern” personalities and remold them in order to help patients lead more productive lives.

In the vast majority of cases, that did not happen. Worse, Cameron’s methods caused many patients lasting harm—from neurological damage to debilitating memory loss and the degradation of having been used against their will as human guinea pigs. Some still have recurring nightmares of their experiences at the Allan. One of the first to launch the CIA lawsuit was Winnipeg native Val Orlikow, now 71, who was treated intermittently at the Allan between 1956 and 0 1966. According to her husg band, David, a longtime NDP 8 MP from Winnipeg, Orlikow emerged from the hospital interlude as “only 20 per cent of her old self.” In her book, author Collins writes, “In her great mooned face, fringed by its grandmotherly halo of short white hair . . . you can see the wreck of a fine and creative intelligence.”

Weinstein’s A Father, a Son and the CIA

_ presents another casualty.

Now a psychiatrist at California’s Stanford University, Weinstein was a Montreal teenager when his 49-yearold father, suffering from acute anxiety, was subjected to Cameron’s CIA-sponsored experiments. Between 1956 and 1961, the elder Weinstein received powerful combinations of sleep-inducing drugs, ECT and LSD. Instead of helping, however, those and various other treatments ] cost him his business, home, l friends and the dynamic role 5 he had once played in his fam-

ily. Indeed, as Weinstein admits, trying to come to terms with what he calls the “loss” of his father was the primary motivation behind his own decision to become a psychiatrist.

That loss also fuelled a strong desire for justice. And in describing his involvement in the lengthy and frustrating CIA lawsuit—which forms a major part of his book—Weinstein condemns what he terms “a secret agency gone awry” and both the U.S. and Canadian governments for hiding “behind secrecy and the legal system.” At the same time, he carefully points out that the book is not an indictment of his profession but “of one psychiatrist.” Yet Weinstein says that many of Cameron’s colleagues endorsed or rationalized his methods. Others, who were skeptical, failed to be vociferous in their concerns.

Although occasionally verging on melodrama, Weinstein writes movingly of the impact his father’s emotional destruction has had on him.

But by refusing to be more critical of his profession’s complicity, he seriously weakens an otherwise convincing case against Cameron, whom he describes as a man whose “missionary zeal rapidly slid into a process of dehumanizing the very patients that he was trying to save.”

In Journey Into Madness,

Gordon Thomas writes that Ewen Cameron is not an isolated example of a doctor who betrayed medical ethics. A veteran British journalist,

Thomas points out in his ^ sprawling investigative study | that the complicity of doctors | in torture extends as far back i as the Roman Empire and, in = recent times, includes the exW periments of German and Japanese physicians during the Second World War. He makes the provocative but well-documented argument that Cameron’s work has found its logical extension in present-day political interrogation and torture. In more than 90 nations around the world—including Iran, the Soviet Union, Lebanon and countries in Latin America—doctors readily assist repressive governments and terrorist organizations in their dealings with political dissidents and hostages. They offer their expertise in various ways: by maintaining victims on a regimen of destabilizing drugs, by supervising their torture and by falsifying official post-mortem reports to disguise the reasons for their deaths.

Thomas’s most disturbing example recounts the pitiable ordeal of CIA agent William Buckley at the hands of one of the most notorious practitioners of medical torture, Dr. Aziz alAbub. Buckley was captured in 1984 by mem-

as’s horror-film view of Cameron soothing a terrified lobotomy victim with a reassuring, “Just trust me, lassie,” is an eerie portrait of an autocrat presiding over an empire made up, in Thomas’s words, of “the living dead.”

Journey Into Madness also offers a useful account of the complex political factionalism of Lebanon and intriguing glimpses into U.S. global intelligence operations. But in the end, those elements fail to connect directly with Thomas’s “doctors of terror” theme and attest more to reportorial showmanship than to coherent argument.

Collins avoids falling into that trap. The focus of her book is narrower than Thomas’s but wider than Weinstein’s. Perceptive and lucid, it strikes a deft balance between the subjective limitations of A Father, a Son and the CIA and some of the omniscient pretensions

bers of Hizbollah, an Iranian-backed Shiite Moslem terrorist organization operating in Lebanon, and held hostage in Beirut for 444 days before he died. But one of the ironies of his ordeal, writes Thomas, was the fact that, like Hizbollah, “the CIA had itself used doctors to commit highly unethical acts, including the torture of patients.”

Although Thomas never calls Cameron a deliberate torturer, he details both his CIAfinanced experiments and other treatments, including lobotomy. Like other psychiatrists in the 1940s and 1950s, Cameron performed lobotomies—a form of psychosurgery that relieved individuals of their anxieties and depressions by destroying part of their brains. Thom-

of Journey Into Madness. Collins is admirably evenhanded in her discussion of the paradoxical Cameron, who, despite all his years in Montreal, neither learned French nor exchanged his American citizenship for Canadian. She reveals him as an aloof but brilliant administrator, full of charismatic energy, who regularly secured a steady stream of funding and attracted bright talent to the Allan. He was also capable of making or breaking careers with a phone call. Indeed, his power was so absolute that most viewed him with a mixture of awe and fear— including those patients who asserted that his treatment had made them better.

And although Cameron was motivated by the desire to save unhappy lives (and a wish to

be awarded a Nobel Prize for doing so), Collins writes that Cameron’s insecurity and excessive ambition blinded him from recognizing that his gifts did not lie in research. Writes Collins: “The trouble was that while Cameron’s thinking on science was impeccable in the abstract, it was dangerous as he put it in practice.” Collins says that Cameron was less a mad scientist than a would-be Prometheus bound by what she calls the “great man” myth of scientific progress and the naive expectations of his age. That his patients were victimized by a man whose humane goals were corrupted by misguided means only heightens their tragedy— and his. In the end, Cameron fell from grace because he sinned against his own medical profession’s golden rule: “Do no harm.”