Chapter One: The Torture Lab
Ewan Cameron, the CIA and the maniacal quest to erase and remake the human mind
“Economic growth may one day turn out to be a curse rather than a good, and under no conditions can it either lead into freedom or constitute a proof for its existence.”
– Hannah Arendt
The first chapter of The Shock Doctrine is, without a doubt, one of the most disturbing things I’ve read in some time. Naomi Klein renders her shock therapy metaphor viscerally literal, outlining a horrific series of Cold War-era CIA- sponsored experiments conducted on unwitting Canadian mental patients by renowned Canadian psychiatrist Dr. Ewen Campbell of McGill University–techniques that Klein contends are now (or, at least at the time the book was published, were) “being applied to prisoners in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.”
Rebecca Lemov explains what Cameron did on behalf of his generous patrons in the U.S. intelligence community:
Cameron’s goal was to wipe out the stable “self,” eliminating deep-seated psychological problems in order to rebuild it. The CIA wanted to know what his experiments suggested about interrogating people with the help of sensory deprivation and psychic disorientation.
Cameron’s technique was to expose a patient to tape-recorded messages or sounds that were played back for long periods. The goal was a condition Cameron dubbed “penetration”: The patient experienced an escalating state of distress that often caused him or her to reveal long-buried past experiences. At that point, the doctor would offer “healing” suggestions. Frequently, his patients didn’t want to listen and would attack their analyst or try to leave the room.
In a 1956 American Journal of Psychiatry article, Cameron explained that he broke down their resistance by continually repeating his message using “pillow and ceiling microphones” and different voices; by imposing periods of prolonged sleep and by giving patients drugs like Sodium Amytal, Desoxyn and LSD-25, which “disorganized” thought patterns.
To further disorganize his patients, Cameron isolated them in a sensory deprivation chamber. In a dark room, a patient would sit in silence with his eyes covered with goggles, prevented “from touching his body — thus interfering with his self image.” Finally, “attempts were made to cut down on his expressive output” — he was restrained or bandaged so he could not scream. Cameron combined these tactics with extended periods of forced listening to taped messages for up to 20 hours per day, for 10 or 15 days at a stretch.
In 1958 and 1959, Cameron went further. With new CIA money behind him, he tried to completely “depattern” 53 patients by combining psychic driving with electroshock therapy and a long-term, drug-induced coma. At the most intensive stage of the treatment, many subjects were no longer able to perform even basic functions. They needed training to eat, use the toilet, or speak. Once the doctor allowed the drugs to wear off, patients slowly relearned how to take care of themselves — and their pretreatment symptoms were said to have disappeared.
So had much of their personalities. Patients emerged from Cameron’s ward walking differently, talking differently, acting differently. Wives were more docile, daughters less inclined to histrionics, sons better-behaved. Most had no memory of their treatment or of their previous lives. Sometimes, they forgot they had children.
Klein drives home the destructive impact of Cameron’s experiments by profiling Gail Kastner, one of the victims of his attempts to “penetrate” the human mind. Kastner resides in a cluttered apartment within what Klein describes as “a grim old age home”, beset by chronic pain due to severe injuries suffered during her time spent as one of Cameron’s subjects. The legacy of trauma is not just physical; Kastner suffers from lingering psycological damage, severe nightmares involving Cameron, long dead, and the shocks that he administered 63 times during the course of her ‘treatment’, sending “150 to 200 volts of electricity” coursing through “the frontal lobes of her brain, while her body convulsed violently on the table, causing fractures, sprains, bloody lips, broken teeth.”
Kastner does her best to compensate for the damage, scrawling out seemingly inconsequential details on scraps of paper and old cigarette boxes, “extremely dense handwriting: names, numbers, thousands of words”. Klein explains that, for Kastner, these constitute “something more than an unconventional filing system. They are her memory.”
As Klein notes, “Gail’s mind has failed her; facts evaporate instantly, memories…are like snapshots scattered on the ground”. Cameron’s desire to “unmake and erase faulty minds , then rebuild new personalities on that ever-elusive clean slate” was all-too effective, leaving Kastner and others who were victimized in this quest to dissect the human consciousness “as empty as Eve,” as fellow shock therapy survivor Marilyn Rice described her remade and remodeled self. Klein gets to the root of where Cameron and, as further detailed later on in the book, economic shock therapists like Milton Friedman and Jeffrey Sachs are misguided in the chosen method of treatment:
The problem, obvious in retrospect, was the premise on which [Cameron’s] entire theory rested: the idea that before healing can happen, everything that existed before needs to be wiped out.
(Creative) destruction in order to cleanse the world of corruption.
Sarah notes that the evils perpetuated by Cameron and, later, by “pro-war hawks who call for the bombing of countries ‘back to the stone age'”, (an analogy made by Klein that is, in my mind, all-too-apt) are not borne of comic-book villain malevolence; rather, “these people quite often do think in a strange way that they’re helping.” Still, regardless of intent, the goal remains the same, as do the means of achievement: “wipe out the stable “self,” eliminating deep-seated…problems in order to rebuild it.” As we’ll discover in later chapters, this clinical quest to return entire societies by way of severe trauma –and, consequently, the individuals like Kastner who collectively make up these societies–to what the disaster capitalists believe to be an Edenic state of uncorrupted economic purity has been embarked upon numerous times throughout the latter half of the 20th century.
And the consequences have been no less devestating than what Kastner now has to live with for the rest of her life.
Next week: The Other Doctor Shock: Milton Friedman and the Search for a Laissez-Faire Laboratory