Intelligence may be the pride – the towering distinction of man; emotion gives colour and force to his actions; but memory is the bastion of his being. Without memory there is no persistent identity, there is no continuity to the days of his life. Memory provides the raw material for designs both great and small.
Dr. D. Ewen Cameron, 1963.
We are accustomed to thinking of our memories as the ground of our being; the foundation and floor upon which we stand in the present. This is why people are very reluctant to acknowledge it when they have misremembered even a little detail of the past, and why the sensation of occasionally discovering the fallibility of our own memories is so palpably disorientating. If we cannot remember things accurately, who are we? What if there were things in our past that we’d hidden away from ourselves? What if other forces had manipulated or altered our memories? What if our past contained a whole other narrative buried beneath the threshold of our conscious recall, a story which is visible to us only at its outer edges? The Place where Three Roads Meet is an exploration of contemporary cultural fantasies of malleable and manipulated memories, and the shadowy realities that underpin them. In the previous instalment, we looked at the story of Candy Jones, a former World War II pin-up sensation who came to believe (via hypnotic regression) that she had been the victim of CIA mind-control and torture. It is highly probable that Candy Jones’s story of mind control and sexual exploitation was merely a fantasy which had stemmed from a history of dissociative/schizophrenic tendencies going back to her childhood, and which flourished under the often treacherous conditions of amateur hypnosis. However, we cannot say this any certainty because the legitimate history of CIA research into mind control which emerged after The Control of Candy Jones opened up a truly dark vista, after which anything seemed possible. The greatest horrors inflicted on us by those in power engender a blurring of the lines between fantasy and reality, out of which our grim modern folklore of conspiracy theory emerges.
The Military/Industrial Counterculture.
In the first chapter of The Shock Doctrine, Noami Klein describes meeting and interviewing a Canadian woman called Gail Kastner. Kastner had suffered from an extremely scattered, foggy memory all her life. While she could recall most of her adult life with a degree of accuracy, her history before turning twenty was virtually a blank. Other things puzzled her, too; the tendency, for example, of even a mild electric shock to provoke a severe panic attack. Kastner tended to associate these puzzling symptoms with her earlier personal history of mental illness. There was, however, something far darker at the edges of her memory: her twin sister once reprimanded her for a period in which she had been much sicker, and had exhibited alarmingly infantile tendencies. She had no recollection of that period. Her partner Jacob, a holocaust survivor, felt that there must have been some explanation, some meaning, lying behind the vast gaps in her memory. Then in 1992, Gail Kastner finally chanced upon the key to her missing time when she saw a newspaper headline at a newsstand: “Brainwashing Experiments: Victims to Be Compensated.” Tragically, in the 1950s, Kastner had been a patient of a then highly esteemed Scottish psychiatrist named Ewen Cameron, whose experiments in “psychic driving” at McGill University’s Allan Memorial Institute constitutes one of the most disturbing chapters in the history of psychiatry, and in what we know of the CIA’s two decade search for effective mind control techniques.
To study in any detail the history of the MK Ultra is to be left with a deep sense of unease regarding what large intelligence agencies without effective oversight are prepared to do to their own citizenry under a dubious guise of protecting them. It is an extremely dark and puzzling subject, one of those grey areas that tend to unsettle our ordinary conviction that conspiracy theories are solely the work of cranks and escapist-orientated hobbyists. Sydney Gottlieb, the Bronx chemist and life-long folk dance enthusiast who oversaw the project was known by the nickname the “Black Sorcerer”, and indeed it doesn’t take a particularly great leap of figurate language to describe MK Ultra’s goals and activities as straight-up malefic sorcery. The project would essentially boil down to a throw everything at the wall attempt to isolate the best methodologies to attack, destabilize, shatter, de-pattern, mould, manipulate, reconfigure, and ultimately control the human mind against all the most ingrained of its own natural proclivities. A declassified 1952 memo sent as part of the MK Ultra precursor Project ARTICHOKE asks: “Can we get control of an individual to the point where he will do our bidding against his will and even against fundamental laws of nature, such as self-preservation?”
To the best of our knowledge, the long and tangled history of MK-Ultra emerged out of a panic during the Korean War regarding the effectiveness of Maoist Chinese brain-washing techniques. Several American prisoners of war, most notably the pilot Frank Schwable, had been quoted making anti-American statements while in captivity on the other side, and the first mention of the term “brain-washing” occurred in in the West in an article by Edward Hunter published by the New Leader in 1950. Interestingly, Hunter was also an intelligence agent, leading one to wonder if the panic about Chinese mind control techniques might have been to some degree trumped up in order to initiate aggressive American pursuit of similar techniques. (At any rate, what happened to the prisoners was more akin to an extreme form of coercion, and had only a transitory effect on the men in question.) Whatever the case, following in the footsteps of Projects CHATTER, BLUEBIRD, and ARTICHOKE, MK Ultra was instigated by the CIA chief Allen Dulles on April 13, 1953. (Seekers after pregnant, probably meaningless connections take note: Dulles encountered and befriended Cark Jung in Switzerland during World War II, commissioning the psychiatrist and theorist of the collective unconscious to draw up psychological profiles of the Nazi leadership.)
In a 1983 edition of Penthouse, L. Ron Hubbard’s scion Ronald De Wolf gave an interview in which he described his father and his notorious global operation in luridly unflattering terms. (The interview reads a little fanciful and exaggerated in places, but probably truthful in many others.) De Wolf claimed that Scientology had at its core a very dangerous species of black magic which he described thus:
It's a very secret thing. Very powerful and very workable and very dangerous. Brainwashing is nothing compared to it. The proper term would be "soul cracking". It may sound like incredible gibberish, but it made my father a fortune.
Whether such a variety of magic existed or not is not germane to our current subject; the point is that to all intents and purposes, “soul cracking” is about as apt a description as you could get for what the MK Ultra Project sought to refine into a precise science over the course of the ensuing decade. While its primary concern was with interrogation, torture, and the ability to potentially “turn” an opposing agent over to the US side, the Project gradually seemed to escalate into an indiscriminate study of how the human subject might be assaulted at the fundamental core of its being and identity. To this end, the CIA experimented with drugs (often surreptitiously administered to unwitting test subjects), hypnosis, sensory deprivation, repetitious conditioning, and various forms of torture and abuse; anything, essentially, that might crack the shell of human autonomy, and make the personality as malleable and pliable as possible.
The primary drug that MK Ultra dabbled in was LSD. This is an interesting, often unnoticed fact regarding twentieth century culture: CIA spooks in their MIB suits were tripping on acid long before any unkempt hippie ever got near the substance. In fact, the whole emergence of psychedelic culture in the post-war period must be seen as a narrative which had two concurrent aspects. On the one hand, a confluence of writers, artists, and bohemians began to explore the efficacy of various methods of altering consciousness. It was a kind of Grail quest that sought to liberate and beatify human consciousness. However, at the very same time, an element of the CIA which might be labelled the Military Industrial Counterculture was concerned with many of the same consciousness-altering technologies, albeit for the exact opposite objective: to shatter and subjugate human consciousness. (The incongruity of these two opposing cultural forces converging in this way – like a kind of Star Wars of inner space – is fascinating, and the two counter-cultures occasionally overlapped. In 1959, an aspiring young writer named Ken Kesey was a willing guinea pig in CIA-sponsored experiments into the effects of psychoactive drugs in Menlo Park Veterans Hospital – Kesey who would of course later migrate out of all consensus American reality in a souped-up school-bus nick-named “Furthur”, playing the role of a lysergic Johnny Appleseed.) The title of Aldous Huxley’s second book on the psychedelic experience, Heaven and Hell, couldn’t have been more apt. Just as the CIA sought to understand how best to clinically control the mind, they seemed to open up the darkest recesses of their own psyches. It was Forbidden Planet and the Monsters from the Id all over again.
The story of Dr Donald Ewen Cameron is perhaps the bleakest in all the extant records of MK Ultra related research, all the bleaker because one never gets the sense that Cameron wasn’t a well-intentioned man after his own fashion. It is rather one of those cautionary stories of how an oddly neutral, unconscious kind of evil and cruelty can creep into the lives of seemingly well-intentioned men. Cameron had a life-long preoccupation with memory, with its crucial nature both as the crucible of stable identity, and as the source of all destabilizing neuroses and mental illnesses. Sometime around 1948 he saw an advertisement for a novelty learning device: the Linguaphone Company’s Cerebrophone. “Tomorrow’s university will be at the bedside,” the advertisement declared, promising “a revolutionary way to learn a foreign language while you sleep”. Essentially just a phonograph with a timer and an under-pillow speaker, the Cerebrophone never really took off, but it inspired Cameron to conceptualize a radical new therapeutic methodology which he called “psychic driving”.
In Welcome to Mars: Fantasies of Science in the American Century 1947 to 1959, Ken Hollings observes that both Hubbard’s Dianetics and Ewen Cameron’s “psychic driving” were predicated on the reductive analogy of the human mind as being akin to analogue tape recording technology. Both sought to wind back the memory tape, and erase the material that blocked up or hindered the individual in the present. According to Hubbard’s system, the Freudian unconscious became the “reactive mind”, which he contrasted with the rational, calculating aspect of the psyche, labelled the “analytic mind.” The reactive mind created precise “mental image picture” recordings of traumatic and painful events in the individual’s life. These were called “engrams”, and the purpose of the dianetic process was to erase the traumatic content of these memories, until the subject was clear of “engrams” and free to exist rationally and analytically in the present. Psychic driving was a far more radical departure from conventional psychoanalytic therapy. Cameron believed that the whole of the memory-tape could be erased, so that the patient’s mind would be effectively wiped clean and restored to the condition of a blank slate or tabula rasa. In this “de-patterned” condition, it was ready to receive a new imprint, which Cameron believed could be affected by means of the constant repetition of looped tape messages.
In many respects, the “de-patterning process” captured the essence of MK Ultra’s blunt, scattershot, any means necessary approach to destabilizing and restructuring the mind. Cameron utilized an alarming, almost indiscriminate barrage of techniques to de-stabilize his patient’s minds: electroshock treatment, hallucinogenic and other drugs, sensory deprivation, and prolonged periods of enforced sleep were all administered to patients, many of whom had entered the clinic with relatively minor psychiatric ailments. After this de-patterning process, most of Cameron’s patients were reduced to an infantile or catatonic state; then the psychic driving proper would begin. They were forced to listen to Cameron’s looped tape messages for 16 to 20 hours a day, sometimes for weeks on end. Funded by CIA monies which were laundered through a front organisation with the quaint and innocuous sounding name of the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology, Cameron’s Allan Memorial practise became a macabre realization of 20th century literature’s most extreme dystopian nightmares, like William Burroughs’ Doctor Benway loose in the laboratories of Brave New World. The horror of these things happening to ordinary people in the real world is almost unthinkable. As with much of the MK Ultra Project, we find ourselves asking How could it have happened? But we get no easy answers to those questions – only an uneasy sense which we are tempted to articulate in a superstitious register, a feeling that tampering with the mind in this fashion ultimately opened a black box in the minds of those who were doing the tampering.
Of course, one of the most unnerving aspects of MK Ultra remains the fact that the horrors that we are aware of can only be a very partial record of everything that really took place under the project. By the time the Church Committee and the Rockefeller Commission were closing in on their investigation of MK Ultra in 1975, the CIA director Richard Helms had already ordered that all MK Ultra files be destroyed in 1973. We can’t really say how many other Gail Kastner’s might have been out there, with parts of their lives scrambled and stolen, never even fortunate enough to find the key to unlocking the true violence which had been visited upon their lives. With its close proximity to the persecution fantasies of paranoiacs and schizophrenics, coupled with the surreal and often unbelievable details of its actual known historical record, it was inevitable that MK Ultra would thread a murky path between reality and cultural fantasy. In time, we would see some of its grim legacy enacted in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo; but where the full scope and legacy of MK Ultra was left to our conjecture, the cultural imagination would fill the gap with paranoid myths and echo chamber hearsay. In this sense, we can view The Control of Candy Jones as a transitional work, appearing early enough in the cycle to possess at least a potential authenticity. It was the first step in a myth-cycle whereby the mind controlled sex slave would gradually become an archetype that we would project onto the iconography of popular singers and music videos. I will return, however, to the mythologizing of mind control in a later chapter. Here, we will strike off on a different road.
A very specific road. On September the 20th, 1961, the MK Ultra project had been in operation for 8 years, completely unbeknownst to an American public that still believed in the main that they were living more or less on planet earth, and had no inclination that in a few short years many of their children would be seeing visions of heaven and hell under the influence of the same drug which had led to the murky death of CIA agent Frank Olson in 1953. If there were any truth to Candy Jones’ hypnotic recollections, then she had just begun her initiation into the world of CIA mind control in Oakland, California a year previously. On the night of the 19th, an interracial couple from Portsmouth, New Hampshire were driving home from a spontaneous vacation to Niagara Falls and Quebec in a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air. The trip had been so off the cuff that the couple hadn’t enough money to say in motel; hence the all-nighter on the road. Driving lonely mountain roads along the Vermont-New Hampshire border, they began to observe what they interpreted to be an unusual aerial craft which seemed to be following them. The object followed the couple as they passed the granite cliff ledges of Cannon Mountain which used to be known as the Great Stone Face and the Old Man of the Mountain. Eventually, after stopping to observe the craft on a variety of occasions, they couple claim to have heard a series of electronic bleeping noises, after which they appeared to drift out of consciousness. Some indeterminate time later, the electronic beeping sounded again, and the couple regained awareness, still driving, some thirty miles south of Indian Head. They had lost about two hours.
No one quite knows exactly what happened to Barney and Betty Hill on the morning of September 20th. The nearest rational estimate would be that they experienced a kind of hallucinatory episode on the road due to sleep deprivation. (Aptly enough, the mental state whereby somebody continues to drive while not in full consciousness is known as highway hypnosis.) Later, Betty embellished the details of the missing hours in a series of vivid dreams, whose details she transferred to Barney in some kind of folie a deux, so that by the time the pair were hypnotized three years later, a new memory had been constructed, and grafted seamlessly to both of their histories. If this were the case, then it is a testament to the strange vagaries of cultural history: just as Betty transferred her dream to Barney, the pair between them ultimately passed it on to the popular imagination of the world. Their highway reverie became one of the most instantly recognisable mythic icons of the latter half of the twentieth century: the alien and the operating table.