"Madness: The Secret Mission for Mind Control and the People Who Paid the Price" — an investigative series in 5 parts — unravels the shocking history of CIA-funded mind-control experiments. In our first episode, we share powerful accounts of abuse at a psychiatric hospital in Montreal, and we introduce the renowned doctor who conducted these disturbing experiments on his unwitting patients.
- The comment from Redditor u/Dwintahdt that tipped us off on this story
- Article about this story from Max Binks-Collier for Maisonneuve Magazine
- Audio of Dr. Ewen Cameron's 1955 speech, courtesy of the WNYC archives
- The Fifth Estate episode, "Brainwashed: The Secret CIA Experiments in Canada"
- Survivors Allied Against Government Abuse (SAAGA)
- Video from the SAAGA's October 2019 rally in Ottawa
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This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Amory Sivertson: Check check check check check.
Ben Brock Johnson: Once again, Amory Sivertson and I are setting up our recording kit.
Amory: I was gonna make you just hold the umbrella over my head and the kit.
Ben: It is a stormy day in Montreal and we are in an eerie place, known as the Allan Memorial Institute.
Amory: I did reach out to the Allan Memorial for an interview and they did not want to talk.
Ben: So we’re not here to talk, just to look. The Allan is really where the story we’re going to tell you today all started.
Amory: I mean the weather certainly isn’t helping right now but it does look like a prison.
Ben: Amory and I are making our way down a mountainside toward this group of buildings perched on the eastern slope of Mount Royal Park, an ancient volcanic mountain that gave the city of Montreal its name. You can see why. Mount Royal is this big bump of green that rises up out of the middle of the city. It’s pretty.
Amory: On a less gloomy day, so is the Allan...sort of. Originally, this was a mansion. It consists of two old stone buildings that make up 53,000 square feet, including the mansion itself and a horse stable. The stable, at one time, had its own special name: the sleep room.
Ben: Oh yeah, there’s the sleep room.
Ben: It’s right there.
Amory: Oh you’re right, OK.
Ben: So let’s just keep it chill and...
Amory: Let’s just hang here.
Ben: Over the mansion’s main entrance hangs the stone bust of a snarling dog. And a large stone face staring blankly out over the city below, its lips just slightly parted. The shipping magnate who had this compound built in the 1860s, Hugh Allan, called this place Ravenscrag.
Ben: It’s very separate from Montreal, it’s very removed.
Amory: Yeah like if you were making a horror film about a psychiatric facility...
Ben: A psychiatric ward…
Amory: This is central casting, building-wise, I would say.
Ben: This place is a psychiatric hospital. The mansion was eventually given to McGill University and that’s how it became the Allan Memorial Institute. And while it might seem like a good movie location, what happened at the Allan decades ago is real and really disturbing.
Amory: This is where people were kept for weeks, months, years sometimes, induced and experimented on.
Ben: There’s so much history here and it’s history that at least the victims really would like people to know the story of this place and what happened here.
Janice Shaw: Light deprivation, shock treatment, hallucinogenic drugs. And she lost her soul.
Stephen Kinzer: Cameron didn't seem to have the slightest hesitation about destroying the lives of his subjects. He was willing to try the most extreme techniques.
Shantel Jacob Siddiqui: People have a hard time listening and grasping the reality of this. It shatters their belief system.
Ben: During the 1950s and 1960s, the Allan was run by one powerful doctor, a man who was considered an innovator, maybe even a visionary. He was a man who spent his days trying to cure mentally ill patients with cutting edge techniques, and his nights reading science fiction. His name was Dr. Ewen Cameron. And his work at the Allan Memorial Institute was actually part of a huge, secret, government-funded program that stretched its tentacles around the world.
Amory: We’ll get to all of that. But for now here’s what you should know. In the U.S., this secret government program was run by the CIA. It had a name and a mission. Its name was MK-ULTRA...
Stephen Kinzer: MK-ULTRA is almost too unbelievable to believe!
Amory: ...and its mission was mind control.
Ben: What is less well-known is the key role that the Allan Memorial Institute and its director played in this weird, dark, chapter in western history. Today we are going to tell you about what happened at the Allan, and who it happened to.
Ben: I’m Ben Brock Johnson.
Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson, and you’re listening to Endless Thread.
Ben: The show featuring stories found in the vast ecosystem of online communities called Reddit.
Amory: We’re coming to you from WBUR, Boston’s NPR Station.
Ben: And we’re bringing you part one of a special series, "Madness: The Secret Mission for Mind Control and the People who Paid the Price."
(theme music out)
Ben: Back in October of 2019, the day before Amory and I were walking the grounds of Montreal’s Allan Memorial Institute, we sat down to talk with someone who had been “treated” there almost 60 years ago.
Nancy Layton: My name is Nancy Layton and I was a victim of treatments up at the Allan Memorial for five to six months.
Ben: Nancy was sent to the Allan in September of 1961. She went in at just 18 years old. And by all accounts at the time, Nancy was bright and beautiful and talented.
Amory: Now there are deep dark circles under Nancy’s eyes. Her long hair is completely white. Her skin is like tracing paper. Her speech is slurred. And throughout her conversation with us, she repeats things.
Nancy (montage): I’m healthy, well. And I’m healthy and well. And I wanna say that...I feel fine...I’m healthy well. And I’m free of it. And I’m healthy and well.
Ben: Nancy says she's healthy and well now. But when she was a teenager, she went through a program designed by the director of the Allan Memorial Institute, Dr. Ewen Cameron. At the time, Dr. Cameron was supposedly doing something exciting — he was wiping out mental illness in people and rebuilding them.
Amory: Nancy spent just six months at the Allan. She was pulled out in March of 1962. And even though members of her family put Nancy into the Allan, they now say that because of what happened there, she’s never been the same.
Angela Bardosh: So my name is Angela Bardosh. I'm Nancy Layton's daughter. I'm here to talk about things that happened to my mom a long time ago when she was only 18 at the Allan Memorial.
Ben: In 1961, Nancy had just recently started her first big job out of school.
Nancy: And I worked in National Defense and worked for them for a year or two. And then I became a bit sick.
Amory: It was a little more complicated than that. Nancy was working for Canada’s defense department where there were a lot of men, some of whom started giving her unwanted attention, what would probably qualify today as sexual harassment.
Ben: Nancy, her family, and her doctors all seem to agree on this part of the story. But as Angela reads from her mother’s medical documents, you get the sense that Nancy’s doctors thought she might have been seeing some things that weren’t really there.
Angela (reading from documents): “She soon found herself in difficulty because she felt that men were looking at her and making passes at her. This was quite possibly true as she's quite attractive. She began, however, to build up aggressive beliefs that she was being spied upon and began to see significance in minor actions, the way people move their arms…”
Ben: Nancy’s sister also said that she had started to act strange. That’s when Nancy’s parents got involved.
Nancy: My mother said, "We’ll talk with Dr. Cameron and see what he can do." And he admitted me and that’s when the whole thing started.
Amory: The whole thing that started was that Nancy’s mother, a medical nurse herself, had an idea of how to tackle Nancy’s problems. She knew of a guy named Dr. Cameron. He had been running the Allan since the ‘40s, but by the early ‘60s he had become a giant in the field. He brought prestige to McGill University’s new psychiatry department.
Ben: And these were heady days for the field of psychiatry. Dr. Cameron was doing some of the most boundary-pushing, exciting work in he western world. People describe Dr. Cameron’s reputation as godlike. He was in magazines. He was an innovator, a disruptor. He was always giving inspiring speeches about the nature of humanity and how to fix some of our greatest mental health challenges.
Dr. Ewen Cameron (from the recording of a speech): Many of us repress so much that it is almost as though we had a second person within us, someone who constantly endangers the first by attempting to take over. There arises an aversion to mental illness, an aversion spreading out and covering the whole field of mental health.
Amory: Dr. Cameron had a guiding theory — that you could eliminate someone’s mental illness by wiping their mind clean. He developed a rigorous regimen of inducing prolonged periods of sleep, giving his patients electroshocks multiple times a day, and giving them intense cocktails of barbiturates, hallucinogens, and so-called "truth serums." He would put patients in chemically-induced comas for days or months at a time, use sensory deprivation techniques, and even play aggressive and insulting messages at them. It was designed to reduce mentally ill patients to a childlike state and remove them entirely from time and space, all so that he could rebuild them. He called this technique "de-patterning."
Ben: Cameron and his colleagues were reportedly eager to have Nancy and other people like her come to the Allan. She was a perfect fit for the kinds of experiments they were doing. Cameron admitted Nancy and got her started on his cutting-edge regimen.
Nancy: The doctor suggested shock treatment. And he started giving me these treatments and of course my heart stopped in the beginning.
Ben: Your heart stopped?
Nancy: Yeah, heart stopped. I went into cardiac arrest. And they had to bring me out of it.
Ben: Electroshock therapy, or what is now called electroconvulsive therapy, wasn’t all that unusual in the early 1960s. But what was happening at the Allan under Dr. Cameron’s direction was very unusual. The form of electroshock he was using was 20 to 40 times more intense than the standard dose. And his patients could receive them two or three times a day. This produced violent, uncontrollable convulsions in patients. This was just the beginning of what Nancy went through, that we know. There’s just one big problem.
Amory: Nancy, what do you remember about being at the Allan?
Nancy: Hardly anything in the beginning because I was in a room... I remember waking up in February, waking up near the end. And they said we'll take you back to your room now after I came out of the sleep.
Amory: Remember the horse stables at the Allan, how that building had another name — the sleep room? Nancy went into the Allan in September of 1961. And yet all that she remembers is waking up in February of 1962.
Ben: Angela spent a long time trying to get more information about her mother’s treatment at The Allan.
Angela: It was a very painful process of just getting the records, reading the records.
Amory: What she got eventually, it’s shocking to read.
Angela (montage of reading the documents): She had five days of sleep and five ECTs… She was taken out of the sleep room on October 30th. However, she immediately showed signs of relapse... By the first week of December, the patient had had 87 ECTs… She was then changed from Largactil 150 milligrams to Trilafon… By March 23rd she had had 129 ECTs.
Amory: Nancy had been administered 129 intensive electroconvulsive therapy treatments in six months. And she’d been heavily sedated with a mix of antipsychotics and barbiturates, things like Pentothal, a sedative. When Angela looked that one up, she found out it was a drug that was used for many years, in higher doses, for lethal injection.
Amory: Do you remember Dr. Cameron himself?
Nancy: Oh, yeah.
Amory: What do you remember about him?
Nancy: I remember being on the stretcher and him giving me my injection before I went in to have the shock treatment. He was the one that gave me the shot in my arm to get me to sleep.
Ben: The injection Dr. Cameron gave Nancy was some kind of barbiturate, a sedative to put her into that deep sleep. If he was going to wipe her mind, he needed to shut it down first.
Amory: Do you remember anything else about…
Angela: Maybe what he said to you?
Amory: Anything he said to you?
Angela: How he said it?
Nancy: He called me Nancy Pantsy… (laughter)
Ben: You can hear Nancy’s daughter Angela there, trying to jog her memory. Angela says that Nancy’s grip on her own memory is tenuous at best.
Amory: Sometimes Nancy remembers things in the wrong order. Sometimes she doesn’t remember anything. Sometimes things come back in bits and pieces.
Nancy: I was in the room and I was awake in the morning and I was coming back to life. And then, my mother came a few days later and they took me out.
Ben: And do you remember anything about how your mother reacted to the treatment you were getting?
Nancy: She said that Cameron was an old fool.
Ben: Was he though? Dr. Cameron was treating people all the time. Maybe those treatments just didn't work for everyone.
Amory: But in the time that Nancy was at the Allan, her parents had done a 180 on the treatments she was receiving under the direction of Dr. Cameron. They wanted her out.
Ben: Nancy came out of the Allan almost 20 pounds heavier, her memory impaired, and her independence gone. She’s relied on antipsychotic drugs basically ever since she left almost 6 decades ago. And yes, Nancy was having psychological problems when she went into the Allan. But Angela says her mom was never the same after she was treated there. That’s echoed in the official diagnosis when she was taken out, and in the observations of her family.
Angela: Six months later, to come out with a lot of memory loss, experiencing further delusions and being diagnosed officially as acute schizophrenic from this, I really believe that she was turned into a schizophrenic. And then after six months of going through hell, how do you regain your life? How do you even go about it?
Ben: Originally, doctors at the Allan had suggested they could help Nancy. By the time she was released, Dr. Cameron was saying that she couldn’t be made whole again. And in a letter Dr. Cameron wrote to the new doctor who would take care of Nancy after she left the Allan, he describes Nancy’s family in terms that don’t feel very empathetic.
Angela (reading from the letter): “...her father was a drug salesman, but is now retired. He's 68 and has always been dominated by his wife. Notice the mother is a driving, assertive, over-talkative woman who tends to misinterpret things...
Ben: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, wait. Let’s pause on that graph.
Amory: “The father has always been dominated by his wife. An over-talkative woman who tends to misinterpret things.” This sounds a lot like a doctor trying to undermine the ability of Nancy’s mother, a medical nurse, to be her advocate in care going forward.
Ben: After she left the Allan, Nancy went into another psychiatric facility, where she fell in love with another patient — Angela’s father. They had Angela, but Nancy continued to be in and out of treatment. She couldn’t work. She couldn’t take care of her daughter, let alone herself. Angela’s father and Nancy got divorced when Angela was four years old. She was raised by her grandparents. She didn’t see much of her mom growing up, but eventually she had to step in and take care of her.
Amory: When you first made a choice to become more involved in your mom's life, how was she living? What did things look like?
Angela: It was tough to see. It was despicable. There was cockroaches. Things hadn't been washed in many weeks, you know, garbage was everywhere.
Amory: This was when Angela was just beginning her own life as an adult. Angela says she had to become a mother to her own mother. She had to put parts of her life on pause. She had to teach her mom how to buy groceries, how to do her finances.
Ben: And, as she’s flipping through the documents that it took months for her to get, she’s angry. Especially when she reads how doctors at the Allan wrote about their communication with Nancy’s dad during her treatment:
Angela (reading from a document): “...He has been reassured that the present planned treatment is the most appropriate for his daughter's case and that it will not induce any permanent injury to her brain or personality and that she is receiving the best possible nursing care.”
Amory: Angela says this line is crucial, that this is how her mother’s family was lied to. According to them, the Allan’s treatment did cause permanent damage. It was not the best possible treatment plan... at all.
Angela: For me just to read that, it's so disturbing, having the knowledge of everything that she has gone through. It's just incomprehensible how this was done at the time.
Amory: This is just one thing that happened to one person sixty years ago. One long and lonely story, especially for Angela.
Angela: It's been a wish of mine for many, many years just to not be alone anymore in this process.
Ben: But here’s the thing: Angela and Nancy are not alone.
(An echoing chant plays saying “We want justice, we want justice, etc...")
Ben: Not even close. That’s coming up... in a minute.
(chant fades out)
Ben: Our story about what happened at the Allan is an old one, 60 years old. A lot of the people involved in the story are dead. And a lot of their family members didn’t even know they were part of the story.
Amory: A few years ago, the CBC show The Fifth Estate did an episode about Dr. Cameron’s experiments.
Alison Steel (from The Fifth Estate): It’s erasing your memory! I mean how dare they do that to a human being?
Amory: It included the story of a woman named Alison Steel, who received compensation from the Canadian government for the so-called de-patterning “treatment” that her mother had received at the Allan in the ‘50s for postpartum depression.
Ben: A lot of people saw this episode, and for some, the details felt familiar. Word started to spread.
Ron Belair: Like The Fifth Estate, if it wasn’t for those programs, a lot of the people wouldn’t know what’s going on.
Ben: It turns out, what happened at the Allan was much bigger than what happened to Alison Steel’s mother, and to Nancy. There are lots of other stories just like theirs, stories of people who went into the Allan for treatment and came out forever damaged.
Amory: A new wave of victims and their family members have started coming forward and getting organized. They call themselves SAAGA, Survivors Allied Against Government Abuse. And last year, they filed a class-action lawsuit.
Ben: Because what happened at the Allan didn’t just involve Dr. Ewen Cameron. The Allan Memorial Institute was part of McGill University and Canada’s Royal Victoria Hospital. And the extreme treatments being done there were being funded in part by the government — and not just the Canadian government, either, but also, the CIA.
Amory: And now, the plaintiffs in that class-action lawsuit want all of these institutions to take responsibility.
Protestors (chanting): CIA, you must pay! CIA, you must pay! CIA, you must pay!
Ben: Last October, right around the same time Amory and I were roaming the grounds of the Allan in Montreal…
Amory: ...members of SAAGA were standing in the rain, just a couple hours away in Ottawa, Ontario, on Parliament Hill, Canada’s capitol.
Protestor: They took away mothers, they took away fathers, they tortured, they abused. This is your Canadian government, people. This is not a joke. They took our family relatives, our loved ones. They abused against their will without consent. Things that only happen in a horror movie happened to our loved ones!
Julie Tanny: Coffee’s ready!
Amory: There are maybe 60 or 70 people here, crouched under umbrellas and holding up signs that say things like “Lives Destroyed,” “Justice for Victims,” “Memories Erased.” And the megaphone gets passed around.
Marian Read (into the megaphone): ...wiping out their memories, the very essence of who they were, in the process destroying their lives, robbing their children of a parent, a spouse of a partner, a parent of a child, and altering the lives of countless family members...
Ben: Some people hold up photos of a family member, wrapped in plastic to protect them from the rain.
Judy Henry: This is my mother before she went in, with the children. We all went into foster homes because my mother was so sick from it that she had to keep going back for psychiatric care and she couldn't care for us.
Francesco DeGiorgio: We're here to protest the atrocities that were taking place on our family members and, specifically, our great uncle, Rio DeGeorgiou, who was tested on between 1945 and 1947. His life was ruined, his life was taken from him at 32. And I just feel like he deserves some kind of justice and we have to do this to make sure that it never happens again. The story has to be told.
Protestors (chanting): Please don’t close your eyes, we want you to apologize! Please don’t close your eyes, we want you to apologize! Please don’t close your eyes, we want you to apologize!
Ben: Some of the people here had family members who didn’t even go to the Allan for serious mental illness. And those patients reportedly got the same extreme treatments.
Ewen Graham MacDonald: My father was in there for hypertension. They just kept treating him, but it never worked. It put him in the schizophrenia big time. And at the end he just sat in his rocking chair and quit. It was like... braindead! And nobody's been accountable for it. Accountability is... like a ghost.
Marlene Levenson (into megaphone): Why am I here? Because I want justice! Why are you here? Because you want justice!
Protesters (chanting): We want justice! We want justice! We want justice! We want justice!
Amory: The Ottawa rally may have only drawn about 70 people, but the estimated number of people who could qualify as victims of human experiments at the Allan Memorial Institute is in the hundreds and counting. People are still coming out of the woodwork.
Ben: All of these people have a connection to one man: Dr. D. Ewen Cameron. But for 20 years, Dr. Cameron was a highly respected member of the medical community. He led the World Psychiatric Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the Canadian Psychiatric Association. People traveled far and wide to be treated by him. He was a titan in the field of psychiatry whose methods are now considered a black mark on the institution he once ran.
Anne Collins: How could anybody be so simple-minded as to think you could wipe a brain and then reprogram the brain and then everything would be peachy again?
Amory: He was a man whose work had mysterious funding sources...
Ben: ... a man whose methods may also echo an even more disturbing chapter in history.
Stephen Bennet: Ewen Cameron actually is at the seat of what we now realize is state-endorsed psychological torture.
Amory: Was Cameron a visionary or a mad scientist? Could it be that he was... both?
Ben: In our next episode, we look further into the mind and the methods of Dr. Ewen Cameron.