Fighting half-truths with semi-fiction

David Harper on his involvement with a new book, The American way: Stories of invasion (Comma Press).

At a meeting about a fellowship she has applied for at a psychiatric hospital, a neurologist is told by the Professor of Psychiatry that she is mentally ill and needs to be admitted as an in-patient to receive a new treatment he has developed. She is immediately put into a drug-induced sleep and receives 11 high voltage electroshocks a day for 11 days. She suffers from brain anoxia – the brain being starved of oxygen – and neurological problems as a result. What she doesn’t know is that the treatment is one of a number of CIA-funded projects into 'brainwashing' called MK-Ultra. Many other patients have been given this combined drug-induced sleep and electroshock procedure for two weeks or more, followed by attempts to erase memories and personalities by playing repeated taped messages to people in a sensory deprivation 'box' whilst they were given psychedelic drugs.  

Is this a plotline for a Gothic horror TV series like Ratched or a conspiracy thriller? No, this really happened to Mary Morrow, who was admitted to the Allan Memorial in 1960. The case forms the real-life basis for 'Conditions', Canadian author Paige Cooper’s fictional exploration of the experiments conducted by British psychiatrist Dr Ewen Cameron at McGill University’s treatment facility, the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal. Paige Cooper is the editor of Best Canadian Stories 2020 and the author of the short story collection Zolitude which was nominated for several prizes and was a finalist for the Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.

Her short story appears in The American way: Stories of invasion, edited by Orsola Casagrande and Ra Page and published by Comma Press. It is one of 20 stories depicting post-war US interventions abroad ranging from the 1953 Iranian coup to drone warfare in Pakistan. As with the two previous Comma press anthologies, Protest: Stories of Resistance and Resist: Stories of Uprising, each short story author was paired with a consultant who advised on the historical context and wrote an accompanying afterword.

Based on some previous work I was approached to be Paige's consultant. I sent Paige some suggestions for background reading and we subsequently had a Zoom call where we discussed the historical context of the experiments in relation to psychiatric treatment, Cameron’s career, CIA interest in psychological and psychiatric research and so on. We also discussed some angles for the story. I gave feedback on drafts of the story, focusing on the historical aspects. Paige also sent further questions by email, for example about the many drugs Cameron gave his patients (barbiturates, muscle relaxants, hallucinogens, anti-psychotics and dissociative anaesthetics). MK-Ultra has become so heavily referenced in popular culture (e.g. the X-Files, Stranger Things etc) that it is almost as if people forget that real people had their lives damaged by the work of Cameron. Paige’s story brought the personal impact of Cameron’s experiments home to me by telling the story from the vantage point of the daughter of a patient.

Psychologists are often not interested in history, and the discipline has often glossed over uncomfortable aspects of its past. Some take for granted the values and norms of the present and the way in which contemporary debates are framed. But I would argue there are at least three lessons we can learn from the past. Firstly, lots of things that we currently accept will, in the future, be seen as unethical and so we should have some intellectual humility. For example, in his time, Cameron was part of the mainstream of psychiatry and he was President, of the American Psychiatric Association, the Canadian Psychiatric Association, and the World Psychiatric Association. There was even an article in a Canadian magazine about his work at the Allan Memorial, entitled 'Canadian psychiatrists develop beneficial brainwashing'.

Secondly, norms and values can change rapidly, and not always for the better (as we have seen with the election of populist politicians across the world pursuing socially divisive policies). For example, following the 9/11 attacks the Bush administration’s lawyers redefined the meaning of 'torture' and some psychologists appeared willing to help develop 'enhanced interrogation techniques' which laid the conditions for the abusive treatment of Iraqi detainees by US military personnel at Abu Ghraib prison – the subject of Hassan Blasim’s short story in the book. When the CIA’s MK-Ultra programme was exposed and criticised in the 1970s few would have thought that psychologists would, within 30 years, be engaging in torture and that the American Psychological Association (APA) would be, in the words of the Hoffman report “colluding with DoD [US Department of Defense] officials to create and maintain loose APA ethics policies” so as to “align APA and curry favor with DoD” (2015, p.9). In Santayana’s memorable phrase “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Thirdly, since dominant accounts of history are often filled with half-truths, we need to hear from those on the receiving end of problematic policies and many of the short stories in this collection help to do this.  As a comment on the fly-leaf puts it this book “fights half truths with semi fiction.”

- The American Way: Stories of Invasion was published by Comma Press on the 4th November. Available to order here.

Paige Cooper and David Harper will be talking about the short story 'Conditions' in a forthcoming podcast from Comma Press.

Cameron’s experiments were investigated in a 2020 podcast series. 

Read an interview with Professor Stephen Reicher about his involvement with a similar book from Comma Press

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