A series revisits Canada's 1950s brainwashing scandal
Dr. Cameron's casualties
A series revisits Canada's 1950s brainwashing scandal
One of the actors in The Sleep Room confesses that she has had more than a few disquieting moments while filming the CBC TV mini-series in Montreal. The woman, who prefers to remain unidentified, has a husband who is taking experimental drugs for his recently diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease. It is part of a study that is being conducted at a local psychiatric hospital. Meanwhile, the actor spends her days shooting a docudrama that chronicles how, in the 1950s and ’60s, Dr. Ewen Cameron, a world-renowned psychiatrist at a respected Montreal hospital, used experimental treatments—including massive doses of electroshock, and injections of LSD and the muscle relaxant curare—on unsuspecting psychiatric patients. In most cases, the patients were permanently braindamaged or psychologically shattered. “It’s not a direct parallel— this is voluntary, and my husband is not suffering what those poor people did,” the actor, who is playing one of Cameron’s patients, tells Maclean’s while waiting inside a cramped trailer on Hutchison Street, the site of the day’s shooting. “But still, it does bring everything home quite strongly.”
She is referring, of course, to how much trust patients and their families place in the medical profession and its institutions. The Sleep Room, directed by Vancouver-based Anne Wheeler and produced by Bernie Zukerman, explores that issue in a four-hour production blending real and composite characters in the bizarre story. Based on Anne Collins’s 1988 book, In The Sleep Room, it also dramatizes the protracted legal battle that nine Canadian victims waged against the CIA, which partly funded Cameron’s treatments in its own efforts to develop brainwashing techniques. The $10-million production, to be aired this fall, is being shot in and around Montreal, with a cast including stage and
television veteran Eric Peterson, who plays a patient composite, and Quebec superstar Marina Orsini, as fictional lawyer Jane Conroy.
The mini-series, an independent project co-produced by Toronto-based Zukerman and Montreal’s CINAR Films Inc., resurrects a shameful event in Canada’s past. But Zukerman, 50, has carved out a niche in TV land by recreating unsavory events for the small screen in all their moral and human complexity. His previous award-winning movies have dramatized the case of Colin Thatcher, the prominent Saskatchewan politician convicted of murdering his wife
(Love and Hate, 1990), the rape and murder of native Helen Betty Osborne in The Pas, Man. (Conspiracy of Silence, 1991), and another case of a charismatic doctor using questionable techniques, the Dionne quintuplets saga (Million Dollar Babies, 1994). “People keep asking me when I’m going to make a comedy,” says Zukerman, who began developing The Sleep Room six years ago, working with a series of script writers until finding what he wanted with Montrealer Bruce M. Smith’s version. “But I’m really drawn to these kinds of stories—I think most Canadians have a tremendous thirst for their own stories. They want to know the full details behind events that happened right here.” He also believes that people have short memories. “It’s astonishing how little people remember about this whole thing,” says Zukerman. “Usually, it comes down to four words: LSD, experiments, CIA and brainwashing.
They forget that once the story became public, it took another 10 years for the victims to get any sort of justice.”
In one sense, the victory was Pyrrhic. One of the nine plaintiffs died before an out-of court settlement—roughly $100,000 each— was reached with the CIA in 1988, eight years after the launch of the lawsuit. Seventy-six others who had been treated with Cameron’s methods later received $100,000 each from the Canadian government, which had also funded Cameron’s work (and which had done almost nothing to help the nine citizens in their suit until a 1984 episode of CBC’s the fifth estate stirred up public outrage) . Neither the CIA nor the Canadian government ever admitted any culpability in the matter. But the settlement confirmed that something terrible indeed had been inflicted on patients behind the grey limestone walls of Ravenscrag, the mansion that had once belonged to shipping magnate Sir Hugh Allan and had become the Allan Memorial Institute.
And what happened was mindboggling, in every sense of the word. Cameron believed he had found an overall cure for mental instability in the technique he described as “psychic driving.” Patients’ troubled minds could be wiped clean of their neuroses and psychoses, or “depatterned,” he claimed, and new, healthier attitudes instilled with the use of endlessly repeated messages on tape recorders. It was an idea that caught the attention of the CIA, which had been scrambling to catch up in the global race to develop mind-control methods for use in the Cold War. Through a front called the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology, the spy agency channelled funds to Cameron from 1957 to 1960.
For the tape technique to be effective, it was first necessary to break down patients’ psyches. Men and women—suffering everything from postpartum depression to schizophrenia to leg pains diagnosed as psychosomatic—were subjected to a barrage of LSD injections and drug cocktails that left them terrified and disoriented. Many received electroshock therapy that grossly exceeded the normal voltage and frequency. They were forced to wear football helmets that were wired to tape recorders which repeated a phrase or sentence for hours on end. Later, Cameron used insulin, barbiturates and other drugs to induce coma-like states for up to 10 days at a time, and played the taped messages while patients slept. Staging such scenes, while gruelling for most of the actors, meant walking a thin line, says director Wheeler (Bye Bye Blues, The Diviners). ‘When you have a bizarre scene with a roomful of people in pajamas and football helmets, it could easily have drifted into
black comedy,” notes the 50-year-old filmmaker. ‘We had to be careful not to make a mockery of it.” At the same time, she says, “it was very important not to present the patients as one-dimensional victims.” Nonetheless, all the actors know that in real life, it was a particularly brutal form of torture: many patients were left mentally scarred and incontinent, and many suffered total amnesia. One, Vancouverite Linda MacDonald, lost all recollection of her first 26 years, including the birth of her five children. Another, successful Montreal businessman Louis Weinstein, who had been admitted for what would now be called panic attacks, emerged a broken man, with devastating economic and emotional after effects for his family.
LSD and massive doses of electroshock therapy
Their experiences, and those of other patients, have been used to create composite characters in The Sleep Room. Eric Peterson, best known for his role as Leon in the CBC series Street Legal, plays Sal, one of the expatients who is haunted by the destruction of a young woman, Nathalie (Quebec star Macha Grenon), whom he met in the hospital 25 years earlier. “Sal is going to use whatever lucidity he has left to atone for Nathalie’s death,” says Peterson. On set in a courtroom scene, Peterson, dressed in grey fedora and overcoat, shuffles slowly, his measured movements and bent posture conveying both defeat and dignity in spite of almost no dialogue.
What is most astonishing in retrospect is not that the events happened, but that they were allowed to happened. The film-makers, and Collins’s book, offer a host of explanations: that there was insufficient regulation of psychiatric practices then, particularly regarding patients’ right to “informed consent” for any treatment; that Cold War paranoia about Russia and China meant a public fascination with mind-control techniques;
that the stigma attached to mental illness, still a factor today, made it easier to accept the use of extreme methods; that postwar optimism about curing disease, brought about by the success of antibiotics and the Salk vaccine for polio, could extend to an easy cure for mental affliction. Not least was the character of the Scottish-born Cameron himself, who was director of the Allan Memorial from 1943 to 1964 (and died in 1967). An esteemed psychiatrist, he was one of the doctors sent to determine whether Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess was mentally competent to stand trial, and had been a noted reformer of asylums at a time when mental illness was still considered in some quarters as the work of the devil. Leon Pownall, 53, who portrays Cameron, says he strived to present the man not as a Mengele-like monster but as a charismatic leader whose ambition and single-minded pursuit of his theory led him on a disastrous path. “Obviously, the audience comes to a point where they’ll ask, Why didn’t somebody stop him?’ ” says Pownall. “So I really had to show him as an engaging person, a professional with a good bedside manner, someone who made others believe in what he was doing. After all, he didn’t have any barbwire around his hospital.” Pownall adds that he also tries to convey the heights and depths that Cameron must have experienced. “This character is like a mini-King Lear. It touches on every human condition. It has all the basics of a good Shakespearean role.”
Vancouver-based actor Nicola Cavendish, 45, who plays fictionalized ex-patient Ruth, is concerned that she represent her character in as full a light as possible. Ruth is perpetually anxious, confused and often mutters to herself, yet is the most lovable of the characters. “You have to convey the idea that there’s more to these people than a sackful of bad memories, that they add up to more than their case histories at the hospital,” Cavendish says.
The drama closes with a courtroom scene in which the patients learn they have won a settlement and are joyfully hugging each other. During the first take, Cavendish, as Ruth, spontaneously hugged the defeated CIA lawyers making an angry exit. It was a gesture that cracked up everyone on the set. But when they reshot the scene, director Wheeler told her to do it again. Cavendish, asked about it later, says she thought it was exactly what a woman like Ruth would have done. “She is someone who will probably never get better. But I think the hope in this story lies in the fact that these people, despite their difficulties, pursued their dignity and won. It’s a black mark in our history, but I’m glad the story is being told.” □
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