Monday, July 30, 2012

The Place Where Three Roads Meet: Paranoid Mythologies of Repressed and Manipulated Memories.

“Memory is essential to the individual consciousness; otherwise the mind were but a blank sheet on which shadows are cast.”

Aleister Crowley.

Monsters from the Id.

The story of Oedipus casts a long shadow over the history of Western culture. Oedipus answered the riddle of the Sphinx, and then was driven to unravel the riddle of his own identity, discovering in the process that he had unknowingly killed his father at ‘a place where three roads meet’, and copulated with and married his mother. The dramatic brilliance of the story as treated by Sophocles is multifaceted, but much of its impetuous is derived from the relentless compulsion of Oedipus to solve the mystery of his identity, to attain self-knowledge:

I must pursue this trail to the end,

Till I have unravelled the mystery of my birth.

Born thus, I ask to be no other man

Than that I am, and will know who I am.

Contained in this is an intuition that is by no means self-evident, and may have been a comparatively youthful belief in the times that Sophocles was writing: the idea that the human identity is knowable, and should be known. Yet it is perhaps more the method by which Oedipus discovers the true nature of his identity, rather than the quest itself, which has vouchsafed the extraordinary longevity of the story. For Oedipus, the answer is found in a thorough excavation of his past. He is not who he thinks he is, and nothing about his reality is as he imagines it to be; however, by revisiting his past, and isolating and elucidating a couple of crucial incidents therein, the false sense of self can be shattered, and the true identity unveiled. This was a very specific idea of how the self is constructed that would wait until the twentieth century in order to find its full flowering.

It found that flowering, needless to say, in the figure of Sigmund Freud. It difficult to imagine today what it must have been like to be a pioneer in a field like psychoanalysis – to enter for the first time the private world of others, into the half-lit rooms of their dreams and the hushed, nervous corridors of their memories, shining a torch-light into hitherto hidden places. All those private worlds must have seemed to coalesce into a single undiscovered country, a new world which had always been present, but never as yet woven together and scrutinised in any systematic way. Freud, operating under an illusionary sense that he was exploring the private lives of others in the guise of an objective scientist, must have felt that somewhere, buried in all the minutiae all those disparate lives, was a recurrent pattern, a universal key to solve the riddle of his own identity, and that of everybody else’s. Needless to say, he believed he had found that universal key in the old myth of Oedipus and his fraught parental relations. In a conceit that has baffled, mesmerized, infuriated, and amused generations since, Freud posited that we all experience the Oedipus myth as a personal psychodrama during early infancy. We are baptised, so to speak, in a narrative of incest and fratricide. As an original sin, it was vastly worse than eating an apple at the behest of a persuasive reptile.

Freudian psychoanalysis witnessed an extraordinary explosion in post-war America; according to Jay Stevens in his excellent cultural history of LSD Storming Heaven, “"there was no one explanation for psychology's post-war emergence as a serious discipline. Part of it was just the normal drift of science, the accumulation of theory and experiment, the attraction of capable minds to a new endeavour. But part of it was also the way war and revolution had shattered the serene rationalities of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The fact that a hundred thousand men had died quibbling over a few yards of mud one day in 1916 had gone a long way towards popularising the theory that our mental equilibrium was constantly being tested by what the ancients would have called inner demons, but which this new science was calling the unconscious." This was a crucial point; the horror of the wars had convinced many people in America and elsewhere that advanced modern civilisation was constantly threatened by a stowaway from the distant past. The stowaway was the unconscious (later the id in Freudian theory), a primitive, amoral, dangerous part of the psyche that slumbered under the surface of civilized and law-abiding communities.

In order to appreciate the prevalence of Freud in the post-war American mindscape, and specifically this notion of the primitive unconscious as a constant threat to man as an advancing cultural being, we need look no further than the wonderful 1956 sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet. In the 23rd century, a United Planets starship, which looks curiously like of the mysterious flying saucers that were being witnessed in American skies at the time, arrives on a distant planet called Altair IV, in order to provide aid to an expedition which had been sent there 20 years previously. The crew of the ship, led by a pre- (or at any rate less) camp Leslie Nielson, discover that all members of the expedition, with the exception of the eccentric Doctor Edward Morbius and his nubile daughter, have been killed by a mysterious and malignant force apparently native to the planet. It gradually emerges that Doctor Morbius has discovered the technological left-overs of a highly advanced civilisation called the Krell that lived and perished on Altair centuries ago. Meanwhile, the mysterious force that killed Professor Morbius’ expedition – a kind of amorphous energy being – returns with a vengeance.

Leslie Nielson’s Commander John J Adams eventually pieces the whole mystery together – the Krell reached an incredible stage of advancement whereby their technologies could literally materialize any forms that they imagined. However, just when they had reached the pinnacle of their social and technological evolution, the stowaway from the past reasserted itself. The Krell had forgotten that their own unconscious had remained as primitive and destructive as ever; under the auspices of their technology, the Krell unconscious gained a material form, producing what the movie memorably labels the Monsters from the Id that would eventually destroy them. The message to a prosperous and technologically advanced American society was clear: no matter how smart, stable, and technologically savvy a culture appears on the surface, it is always threatened by the primitive beast that remains caged in the sublevels of the human mind. Though pitched somewhere between Shakespeare’s Tempest and Space Age America’s fantasies of the distant future, Forbidden Planet was nevertheless firmly rooted in the popular psychoanalytic revolution of the post-war period. To those in the know, the current incarnation of the Monster from the Id was clearly a result of Doctor Morbius’ incestuous lust for his daughter, now threatened by the irresistible presence of Leslie Nielson. Forbidden Planet projected the flying saucer of the fifties into the distant future, and with it the psychiatrist’s couch, as though both were built to last.

There were, of course, many other reasons why psychiatry exploded into the popular consciousness in that period. The post-war years were prosperous, and people were suddenly encouraged to regard their emotional lives as something significant and interesting; the newly burgeoning worlds of advertising and public relations also regarded the emotional lives of individuals as significant and interesting, in order that they might be manipulated with the greatest degree of efficacy. And for a brief period of time, Freud and psychiatry were deemed to have a magical kind of efficacy; the concepts and habits of mind engendered by psychiatry became, like atoms and gravity, part of the play of invisible forces whose presence society came to be take for granted. Though the bloom of many of these specific ideas would quickly recede, Freudian psychoanalysis maintains a strong influence over how we conceive of identity and character to this day. Most significantly, the psychoanalytic revolution gave us a sense, going back to the story of Oedipus, that our identities are constructed by specific events in the past which we are either unable to consciously recall, or whose significance we cannot fully comprehend. Continuing a tradition which had been to some degree initiated by the realist novel of the 18 and 19th centuries, psychoanalysis solidified the idea of the personal creation myth; the idea that a specific event or events in the past makes us who we are, like the bite of a radioactive spider turning Peter Parker into Spiderman. This is not to say that formative events do not to some degree mould our character; but psychoanalysis fundamentally located the construction of identity in the past, in memories. Were our culture inclined to do so, we could equally conceive of our identities as something more fluid and dynamic which is always being engendered in the present moment.

Along with this sense of the self as something located in the past and constructed of memories, there emerged a tremendous degree of anxiety regarding the fallibility of memory. If we are basically made up of memories, then our sense of self may ultimately be built on a very precarious house of cards indeed. Like Oedipus, we may not be who we think we are. This anxiety was expressed in the extremely controversial psychoanalytic concept of the repressed memory, a hypothetical memory which is so painful or traumatic that it is pushed below the level of conscious recall. Again like Oedipus, it may be that our past is an extremely dangerous place to revisit, a Pandora’s Box whose full and accurate recollection could potentially shatter the identity it sought to clarify. Or, alternatively, we may not be revisiting the past at all, but rather inventing a fallacious narrative of the past that alters and overwhelms our identity in the present. This essay is a survey of three paranoid contemporary mythologies which have grown up around the idea of repressed and malleable memories. I use the term mythology loosely, in so far as there arguably remains some kernel of truth to at least some of these psychologically murky tales – but the truth is often difficult or impossible to extricate from the clamour of myth-making and mental illness that constitutes so much of the plot. The common feature that cuts across the three mythologies is the controversial use of hypnosis to extract the repressed memories – as well as subsequent emergence of often sensationalistic literatures whose status as non-fiction and autobiography remains hotly contested.

Mind Control: The Control of Candy Jones.

We have encountered the radio personality Long John Nebel a few times before on the pages of this blog. Nebel was born in Chicago in 1911, and is said to have dropped out of school at the age of 11 to run away with a circus. Much later in life, as the host of a pioneering all-night paranormal chat show on New York’s WOR AM radio station, Nebel became the ringmaster of another kind of circus – the circus of the American unconscious. Nebel’s show – the clear precursor to Art Bell’s similarly successful Coast to Coast FM – provided a no holds barred podium for the airing of strange beliefs and tall tales from the far fringes of American life in the 1950s. Proving Laura Dern’s assertion in Wild at Heart that America was “wild at heart and weird on top”, Nebel’s guests ran a colourful gamut of UFO contactees, psychics, cranks, charlatans, visionaries, and sceptics of every persuasion. Regulars included comedy titan and paranormal fiend Jackie Gleason, Hollow earth theorist and outsider artist extraordinaire Richard Sharpe Shaver, sci-fi author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke, the magician and indefatigable debunker James Randi, as well as a host of forgotten cranks who receded just as quickly back into the marginalia of society, and the waiting arms of their real or imaginary tormentors and heavenly intercessors. Nebel himself seems to have been a fairly sceptical individual, a genial Barnum who understood the commercial potential of weird spectacle. However, in the early 70s, Nebel found himself personally involved in an unsettling tale of high strangeness that bore all the hallmarks of one his erstwhile caller’s paranoid delusions.

On the 31 of August 1972, Nebel must have felt like the cat about to dig into the cream. After a whirlwind courtship of just 28 days, the 61 year old was married to a statuesque model by the name of Candy Jones. Born in Pennsylvania and raised in Atlantic City, Jones had been a hugely successful pin-up during World War II, appearing on the cover of 11 national magazines in just one month in 1943. From the onset, however, things didn’t seem quite right with Candy Jones. Nebel noticed that her personality seemed palpably to change, from her normal charming, effervescent self, to a much harsher, bitchier persona. At first, Nebel took this behaviour simply as a tendency towards mood swings; in time however, he felt as though Candy was exhibiting a completely different personality, with its own separate mannerisms and vocal inflections. He called this sporadic surrogate personality “the Voice.”

Other strange details began to add up. Candy seemed to have a pathological fear of psychiatrists and drugs, and everything Chinese. She told Nebel that she had once worked for the FBI, adding that she may occasionally have to leave town without explanation. The appearances of her surrogate personality became more violent, even going so far as to attempt to strangle him during one “visit”. Nebel, perhaps influenced by the fumes of paranoia his work-life exposed him to, to say nothing of the fog of suspicion that encompassed much of the nation during the Watergate era, began to wonder if Candy’s mental state might have something to do her former employment with the FBI. A keen amateur hypnotist, Nebel took the perhaps reckless course of hypnotising Candy to find out more. Pandora’s Box was opened; the subsequent hours of recorded hypnotic sessions gradually unveiled a story which was fantastic, disturbing, lurid, and unbelievable; a story that proved as startling to Candy herself as it did to Nebel.

According to her recollections while under hypnosis, Candy had become seriously ill while touring military bases in the Philippines in 1945. It was due to this illness that she first encountered a sinister figure who would dominate the rest of this strange story: a doctor by the name of Gilbert Jensen. Candy would not meet Jensen again until 1960, after a failed marriage to a dubious fashion tycoon which had left her with three sons. Candy was then running her own fashion business from an office in New York, when a retired army general friend dropped over, and casually asked if she would like to allow her office to be used as an FBI mail-drop. One of her mail deliveries brings her to Oakland, California, where she encounters Dr Jensen once again. Jensen offers her large sums of money to do further work, this time for the CIA and involving hypnosis. Candy agrees, and here the story begins to become properly strange and unsettling.

Using a mixture of hypnosis and experimental drugs, Jensen isolated a surrogate personality called “Arleen” which Candy developed during her unhappy childhood. Jensen and his associate “Dr Marshal Burger” begin to groom and train the “Arleen” persona in order to work as a CIA operative; seemingly under the rationale that Candy will remain unaware on a conscious level of her activities as “Arleen” and hence will be impervious to torture. (In a Hitchcockian twist, “Arleen” adopts a wig and a distinguishing make-up style of her own.) As in a great many of these stories of repressed memories which have emerged via hypnosis, there is a great deal of distressing sexual content in Candy’s recollections. At one point, in order to display the success of her conditioning to a panel of 24 doctors at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Dr Jansen supposedly inserted a lighted candle into Candy’s vagina, to emphasize the extent to which she felt neither pain nor fear in her narcotized and hypnotised state as “Arleen”.

This then, was the gist of the story which author Donald Bain had assembled from Nebel’s hypnosis tapes, and which was published by the Playboy Press in 1976 as The Control of Candy Jones. But was any of Candy’s strange and disturbing story actually true? Nebel’s promotion as a radio personality of various tall tales and outright hoaxes was an early source of scepticism. However, most indications seem to suggest that Nebel earnestly believed what had emerged through the hypnosis sessions, to the extent that he was apparently contemplating trying to find “Dr Jansen” in order to kill him. A far more likely alternative would be that Candy Jones’ narrative of mind control was merely a confabulation under hypnosis by an extremely psychologically damaged woman. Another recurring pattern in these murky tales of repressed memory is the presence of child sex abuse in the biography of the individual in question. This seems to have been the case with Candy, who suffered an extremely traumatic childhood in which she was certainly physically, and perhaps sexually, abused by her parents. Candy’s father once crushed her fingers in a nutmeg grater, and her mother also beat her severely. It was during the privations and sufferings of her childhood that the “Arleen” persona first began to develop, a kind of reflection of her mother’s harsh and cruel personality. And yet the possibility that some of Candy’s narrative may actually have been true cannot be entirely discounted. In 1977, a year after the publication of The Control of Candy Jones, a Freedom of Information Act request uncovered a cache of some 20,000 documents relating to a covert CIA operation called Project MK Ultra which the Church Committee had been investigating with little success since 1975:

Continued shortly.


the_weirdness said...

hey tristan
nice article (as always mate!)
i dont know if you have watched any Adam Curtis documentaries but if you are interested in how the ideas of Freud influenced the 20th century (especially thru public relations and politics) it is well worth a watch.
thanks again for the article and links

Tristan Eldritch said...

Hey. It's probably no accident that you should bring up Curtis - I'm a really big fan of his stuff, particularly CENTURY OF THE SELF. Another big influence on a lot of stuff I've written about here (and this series in particular) is Ken Hollings' brilliant webcast series/book Welcome to Mars:Fantasies of Science in the American Century 1947 - 1959. I'd recommend checking that out in either format if you haven't come across it already. Thanks for dropping by!