The Sleep Room's Missing Memories by Ray Conlogue
Quebec Arts Correspondent, Montreal
A new CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] miniseries tells how mental patients in Montreal were once subjected to CIA-sponsored brainwashing. It's a story worth telling, but some fear that making it into a TV drama may simplify the complex issues behind this shameful bit of Canadian history.
MORE than 30 years after its horrors ceased, the notorious "sleep room" of Montreal's Allan Memorial Institute will once again be opened — this time through a four-hour CBC miniseries that starts tomorrow night. But does the series highlight the important issues in a medical scandal that is as complex as it is horrific?
The Sleep Room, directed by Anne Wheeler, recalls a series of barbaric experiments conducted on mental patients over a nine-year period beginning in 1955. Although these began as a well-meaning if desperate attempt to cure schizophrenia, the "psychic driving" technique invented by psychiatrist Ewen Cameron took on a science-fiction quality when it was revealed in 1977 that the Central Intelligence Agency had helped finance the work. The CIA thought it had potential as a brainwashing technique to be used on "enemies" of the United States during the Cold War.
The story is fascinating on many levels. There is the gut-level drama of seeing unknowing mental patients subjected to "modern" torture involving massive electroshock therapy, drug injections, and chemically-induced, month-long comas meant to destroy their memories of themselves and their families — a human catastrophe that stripped more than 300 people of their identities.
There's the tragedy of Ewen Cameron, a gifted and compassionate psychiatrist who somehow crossed a line and convinced himself that he had the right to destroy ill people's personalities because he, with the godlike powers he attributed to himself, would then endow them with "new" and healthy personalities. It is a story which touches the same primeval fears as the Frankenstein and Jekyll/Hyde myths.
Then there is the tawdry political drama in which both the CIA and the Canadian government — which financed Cameron's experiments after the CIA abandoned him — have refused to the present day to admit wrongdoing (although they have paid out some money). The approximately 150 surviving victims, most still in mental hospitals, have waited in vain for an apology. Series producer Bernie Zukerman has said that he hopes the miniseries will finally force Ottawa to do the right thing.
"There's a whole nest of relationships and assumptions around science and doctors that is embedded in this story," says Anne Collins, whose 1988 book In The Sleep Room inspired the miniseries.
Although she collaborated on the TV series, she is concerned that turning a documentary into a drama distracts viewers from the real-world issues of power and responsibility that let the mess happen in the first place. "A lot of the questions the story raises about psychiatry are still valid," she said. "I hope people won't just think that Cameron was a monster and the CIA is depraved."
In her view, Cameron's problems started with his belief in what Collins calls "the 'great man' myth" of human progress. Once he decided that he was destined for greatness he was obliged to accomplish something great. This led him into a slippery terrain of "grand statement" where he was less and less able to listen to those around him. He avoided the company of his intellectual and professional equals in Montreal, particularly neurological researcher Wilder Penfield, while surrounding himself with young and impressionable scientists.
Cameron created within the Allan Institute an environment of spurious "free speech" where researchers were encouraged to follow their hunches and insights. Whenever these led to a challenge to his own views, however, the party in question was quickly fired or forced into marginal work. He "didn't have a self-critical capacity and was easily self-deluded," said Fred Lowy, a young researcher who lasted only a few months in Cameron's employ.
An aggressive anglophone who refused to learn French, Cameron missed out on the discovery of the first antidepressant drug, chlorpromazine, which occurred in France. It was first used in Montreal's French language hospitals, which quickly leaped ahead of the grotesque methods used at the Allan and helped bring about their downfall.
In Collins's view, these "subtler" issues tend to get lost in any television treatment. "The thing is that what happened to the people is bloody horrifying, and you can't help getting hijacked by that when you watch it [on TV]. It turns into people having football helmets shoved on their heads [to force them to listen to brainwashing tape loops]."
Zukerman, a veteran producer of reality-based dramas like Million Dollar Babies (which told the story of the Dionne quintuplets), said that "I always respect the facts of the basic story. In The Sleep Room, all the little dramatic incidents, like the girl who screamed at Cameron when he played back a bit of tape where she said she was attracted to her father, are based on things that happened." But in a larger sense, "we had to go to big brush strokes. I've learned that creative people like Anne [Wheeler, the director] have to have leeway to make the drama compelling."
In The Sleep Room, the Cameron character is identified as Ewen Cameron, but the patients are fictionalized. Says Zukerman: "We had to do that because the patient records were destroyed. That meant we had to invent fictional scenes for them, and it didn't seem right to use real people's names under those circumstances."
Zukerman was especially concerned to portray the "arc" of Cameron's transformation from an enlightened doctor to therapeutic tyrant. Collins allows that he succeeded. "The show doesn't make [Cameron] into a monster. They caught the ambivalence, which is very important."
She even approves of an entirely invented scene where Cameron sees the errors of his ways when he is dragged into the bowels of another hospital and shown a ward filled with the so-called "cured" patients he had released from the Allan. The reality is less dramatic: Cameron simply came to understand bit by bit that his methods didn't work, and he quietly resigned from the Allan in 1964. "But I appreciate that you can't dramatize that, and I think that what they did is within the acceptable bounds of invention," says Collins.
The second half of the show jumps 25 years to 1988, when a group of patients tried to take the CIA to court in Washington. When the Mulroney government in Ottawa refused to release records showing CIA complicity with the Allan Institute, the trial "fizzled out" (in Collins' words) and the patients had to accept an out-of-court settlement of money but no apology.
The Canadian government gets off lightly in The Sleep Room, as it has in real life. That frustrates Linda Macdonald, an Allan survivor who was treated at a time when the CIA had backed out and the institute got most of its money from Ottawa. Since she couldn't sue the CIA, she sued Ottawa instead, and forced the government to pay $100,000 to each surviving Allan patient. "It's gratifying when other Allan people, who are still institutionalized, call me to thank me," said Macdonald, who lives in Ottawa and has made a career as an employment counsellor. But she is frustrated that the public — and the TV series — focus on the CIA. "They don't want to believe the Canadian government could have anything to do with such a horrible business."
Macdonald was, a young mother suffering postpartum depression when she was admitted to the Allan in 1963. Quickly and wrongly diagnosed as a schizophrenic ("Cameron's funding depended on how many schizophrenics he was treating," she recalled bitterly), she underwent brutal electroshock which permanently erased all memory of her life before treatnent — 26 years. "I had six children, and I still can't remember giving birth to any of them." She is now estranged from four of them, and divorced.
She was interviewed for last week's fifth estate special on The Sleep Room, but has "mixed feelings" about the series itself. Her life story has been twice optioned for a feature film, but the most recent offer — from Hollywood — was dropped when the news emerged that CBC was doing The Sleep Room. She is also troubled by the fictionalizing of the patient characters in the CBC miniseries.
"But on balance it's still a good thing that this film has been made. It will raise public consciousness for a while. But I admit to being cynical as to how long people can hang onto an interest in a story like this."
The Globe and Mail (Toronto), 1998-01-10, page C2
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