Madness, Part 5: The Unreachable SummitPlay
Dr. Ewen Cameron wanted to win a Nobel Prize for his work in psychiatry. He never got one. He died of a heart attack while climbing a mountain in the Adirondacks in 1967. So we don’t have access to Cameron's thoughts on his own legacy. But we do have his son, Duncan Cameron. In the final installment of “Madness," we sit down with Duncan, and we explore the shocking ways his father's methods are still being used today.
"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. This is Part 5. If you haven't heard Parts 1 through 4 yet, you can find them here, here, here, and here.
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"Madness" Research List:
- The 1963 "Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation" manual, de-classified in 2004
- Dr. Ewen Cameron's 1967 obituary in the British Medical Journal
- 1977 coverage from The New York Times about John Marks' investigative reporting
- 1977 reporting from The New York Times about MK-ULTRA funding channels
- The Search For The Manchurian Candidate: The CIA and Mind Control by John Marks (1979)
- ABC News report, "Mission Mind Control" (1979)
- The Fifth Estate episode, "CIA's Secret Brainwashing Experiment" (1984)
- Jim Turner and Joseph Rauh's lawsuit debrief: "Anatomy Of A Public Interest Case Against The CIA," Part 1 + Part 2
- "The Cooper Report" (1986), still used as justification the Canadian government isn't legally liable for the outcome of Dr. Ewen Cameron’s experiments
- In The Sleep Room: The Story Of CIA Brainwashing in Canada by Anne Collins (1988)
- Psychiatry and the CIA: Victims of Mind Control by Harvey Weinstein (1990)
- The Fifth Estate episode, "Brainwashed: The Secret CIA Experiments in Canada" (2017)
- A trailer for Eminent Monsters: A Manual For Modern Torture, a documentary film from Stephen Bennett (2018)
- 2018 reporting by Ashifa Kassam in The Guardian about the legacy of Cameron's experiments
- 2019 reporting by Max Binks-Collier in Maisonneuve Magazine about Cameron's victims and their families
- Poisoner In Chief: Sydney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control by Stephen Kinzer (2019)
- Current ethical guidelines from the American Psychiatric Association
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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.
Ben Brock Johnson: So what do you have in front of you here?
Duncan Cameron: This is a picture of the whole family. There's my father and my mother. And here I am looking much younger than I am now.
Amory Sivertson: What year is this?
Amory: Ben and I are in an apartment in Washington D.C. that’s bursting with morning light and books, and we’re flipping through some of our host’s old family photos.
Duncan: This is at the Lake Placid Club in Lake Placid, New York.
Ben: Over and over, we’ve heard from victims of Dr. Ewen Cameron’s brutal experiments at the Allan Memorial Institute. Today, we're talking to one of the only people who will stand up for Dr. Cameron. Who hasn’t talked about this in a long time.
Duncan: I'm Duncan Cameron. I'm the oldest son of Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron and Jean Cameron.
Amory: Duncan has a very different picture of his father, a whole bunch of them actually.
Duncan: You see, he doesn't have a scowl. He actually has a smile.
Ben: He looks like he’s having a good time.
Duncan: Oh yes, he enjoyed a good joke even if they were off color. In fact, he might have enjoyed those more.
Ben: In photos, the Cameron family seems happy, a candid shot of Ewen Cameron that looks to be from a garden party shows the psychiatrist in a skinny tie and jacket, horn-rimmed glasses and short cropped white hair. He has an open, amused look on his face.
Amory: Duncan also has an easy, quiet smile. He’s in his mid-80s now. But he has fond childhood memories of summers spent in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, where his dad’s competitive nature led him again and again to the line of the horizon.
Duncan: He loved hiking. And these are pictures of him, these are both in the Adirondack Mountains. And this is a picture up with my brother, Stuart. And here he is with me many years ago.
Amory: There’s a reason that all the photos of Ewen Cameron are from more than 50 years ago. It has to do with another of his Adirondack hikes that changed the Cameron family forever. Ewen Cameron was fulfilling one of the items on his life bucket list: to climb Street Mountain.
Ben: Street Mountain is a strange choice for a bucket list. It’s not a very popular mountain to climb, it’s steep. There’s no clear approach to the summit — only overgrown pathways. And when you get up to the top, it’s completely wooded, so there’s no panoramic view after all the hard climbing. Ewen Cameron made the hike with Duncan’s younger brother, James.
Duncan: They got close to the top and James looked around and my father had passed away. It was a heart attack and was very sudden. And it was a great shock to everybody because he was 65 and in many ways, you know, going full throttle and at the top of his career.
Amory: In the Lake Placid community where Dr. Cameron’s family spent the bulk of their summers, his sudden death from a heart attack while hiking was big news.
Duncan: It's really a very moving editorial.
Amory: You're welcome to pull it out now.
Duncan: Okay, I’ll do that.
Amory: This is from The Adirondack Daily Enterprise, is the name of the paper. The title is “The Understanding Man.” “Lake Placid in particular, and the northern Adirondacks in general, have lost suddenly, tragically, but in a sense, beautifully, probably their most distinguished citizen. It is a rare thing that a psychiatrist of his worldwide reputation and capacity should be a resource available to a small mountain community. Those who are privileged to know him, even briefly, will not soon forget the warmth and kindliness of this understanding man.”
Duncan: I mean, it's very different than the caricature that you sometimes read in the press. Very different.
Ben: Today we grapple with Dr. Ewen Cameron’s legacy. And how his work lives on.
Amory: Just not in the way he might have hoped.
Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson
Ben: I’m Ben Brock Johnson, and you’re listening to Endless Thread, the show featuring stories found in the vast ecosystem of online communities called Reddit.
Amory: We’re bringing you the last installment of our special series: Madness — The secret mission for mind control and the people who paid the price.
(theme music out)
Amory: What was your father like as a dad?
Duncan: Well, that's a big subject. First I have to say that my father was exceedingly committed to his field. On the weekends, you'd think he would go out and mow the lawn or bask in the sun or go play golf or tennis, but none of it. He had patients. And I think you have, as much as love that you had for him you also had respect for him.
Ben: Did he have any favorite sayings or idiosyncrasies or things like that that you remember or that made an impression on you when you were younger?
Duncan: No, he had some peculiar hobb-- he loved science fiction. And he was always very fascinated by what the future held for us all. And he always had a little book of science fiction by the bedside.
Ben: Why do you think he liked it?
Duncan: Well, I think he was always fascinated in the future. I mean, he was fascinated with the future in his own field of psychiatry, medicine and government. He was always interested in the future. If he had a choice he would have kept living forever.
Ben: Duncan Cameron was 10 years old when his dad became the Director of the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal.
Amory: He remembers his dad working a lot during this time, which, definitely tracks. Not only was Ewen Cameron running the Allan Memorial, but he was leading psychiatric organizations, he was teaching at McGill University, and he was still seeing private patients.
Duncan: I don't know how he did it all.
Ben: Not just productive, but prolific.
Ben: Duncan says his father was so busy that he didn’t see much of him during their time in Montreal. Though he did visit the Allan Memorial on occasion.
Duncan: I think the furthest I got was to his office. Typically, I would show up there and, if it was a Friday, ask if I could have a lift down to Lake Placid.
Amory: “Hey, Dad, let's get out of here!”
Duncan: I can remember doing that several times. And we would take off. And he was a fast driver. He had a Mercedes. You know, my job was to look out for the cops. (laughter)
Amory: But even on their long drives from Montreal to upstate New York, Duncan says his dad never really talked about work.
Ben: Did you ever get a sense of at least some of the things that he was trying to accomplish while he was at the Allan?
Duncan: Not really, I certainly don't know anything about the treatments he was using, I didn’t know anything about that.
Ben: Sure, but I mean, in terms of trying to help cure people of mental illness or anything like that, not necessarily his process, but his end goal. Did he ever talk about that?
Duncan: He probably did, but I don’t think I could remember the specifics of it. He was a person who was always looking for a way of advancing the field. And in that he took some risks, obviously. And one of these risks was the treatment that he was using. He was always attracted to these subjects for which there was no easy answer. And he was searching for ways of doing something about them. And there some of them were high risk ones.
Ben: Sure. You talked a little bit about this but what was the impact on the family when some of this news started to come out about the CIA and some of the treatment and stuff like that?
Duncan: We all very much wished, as we always had, that my father was alive because he would have had to deal with that issue and would have dealt with it quite effectively. But none of us trained in psychiatry.
Amory: Duncan struggles dealing with his dad’s legacy because he can’t speak to why his dad did what he did.
Ben: But Duncan is still, in some ways, trying to defend his dad’s honor. Because his dad isn’t around to do it himself. Ewen Cameron experimented on people right up until he left the Allan in 1964. He moved to Upstate New York where he studied aging and memory at two hospitals in Albany. He died three years later.
Amory: But Cameron was publishing articles and giving speeches about his work throughout his life. The psychiatric community could have questioned his methods, but they remained silent. At least, until after Cameron left the Allan.
Ben: Robert Cleghorn, a former member of Cameron’s staff, took over after Cameron stepped down. And he put Cameron’s treatment program under the microscope. Here’s journalist John Marks.
John Marks: The Allan Memorial Institute under Cleghorn commissioned a study of his work, which is absolutely or almost absolutely unprecedented in the psychiatric field. In other words, they really must have seen that there was something wrong and crazy. So I think the complaints of the doctors and nurses had reached their ears. And they found his work next to worthless.
Amory: The study, which was published a few months before Cameron died, found that Cameron’s methods exposed his patients to unnecessary risk, and that there was no clinical proof his methods were any more effective than standard forms of treatment.
Ben: The study also said that these treatments, the de-patterning and psychic driving programs including LSD injections, induced comas, sensory deprivation and electroshock had a detrimental impact on patients’ memories, which, in retrospect, might have been part of the point. Cleghorn immediately ended Cameron’s program.
Amory: Eventually though, it wasn’t just Cameron’s successor who was calling him out. There was also Donald Hebb, who ran McGill’s psychology department at the time Cameron was running its psychiatry department.
Ben: Hebb did an interview with a film producer in the 1980s, saying, quote, “Cameron was irresponsible — criminally stupid. Anyone with any appreciation of the complexity of the human mind would not expect that you could erase an adult mind and then add things back with this stupid psychic driving.”
Amory: The CIA also turned its back on Cameron. When asked about the decision to involve Cameron in MK-ULTRA, John Gittinger, the CIA officer in charge of monitoring his work said, quote, “Now that was a foolish mistake. We shouldn't have done it, I'm sorry we did it.”
Ben: As for the CIA’s MK-ULTRA program itself, it never had an official end date. It petered out in the early ‘60s as the program’s director, Sidney Gottlieb, came to a realization.
Stephen Kinzer: In the end, Gottlieb was forced to conclude that there's no such thing as mind control and that everything he had done had been for naught.
Amory: That’s author Stephen Kinzer.
Kinzer: If Cameron had failed to find an effective means of mind control despite carrying out the most reckless experiments, in which he was willing to take any kind of a grotesque step in an effort to find that key, this must have helped feed Gottlieb's conclusion that the whole thing didn't exist. So what led the CIA to get onto this fantasy? Think of all the books and the movies that are about mind control. There's Edgar Allan Poe stories and Sherlock Holmes stories. There are movies like Gaslight and Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Kinzer: This idea of some evil scientists taking control of someone else's mind is a wonderfully appealing trope, and it's been used repeatedly in very popular movies and books and stories. That would have been the cultural environment in which people like Sidney Gottlieb grew up. So I think in a certain way they believed that what fiction writers could come up with, somebody could actually make real. The line between fantasy and reality blurred.
Ben: So it’s fitting that, today, most of what people hear about the CIA’s search for mind control also seems to come from fantasy and popular fiction. It’s in the Netflix show, Stranger Things:
Amory: Or the hit video game Call of Duty:
Ben: They're talking about it on The West Wing:
C.J. Cregg: What do you know about mind-control experiments?
Toby Ziegler: MK-ULTRA.
C.J. Cregg: Excuse me?
Toby Ziegler: In the '50s, it was the CIA mind control research program begun in response to the Chinese attempt on U.S. prisoners.
Amory: Immortal Technique is rapping about it:
Ben: But for those who have had to deal with the fallout of MK-ULTRA on a personal level, the fact that the program rarely gets discussed outside the realm of pop culture can feel discouraging.
Marian Read: So for me, the importance of all of this is to get it out of the shadows of pulp fiction, you know...
Amory: This is Marian Read. She’s a member of SAAGA, or Survivors Allied Against Government Abuse. She’s also signed on to the class-action lawsuit against McGill University, the Canadian government, and the CIA.
Marian: It's become so embedded in our narrative, in our pop culture, without people really understanding that it happened It was real. It affected a lot of people. And I think it affected a lot more people than anybody even realizes today.
Amory: Marian was 5 years old when her mom was admitted to the Allan for what she thinks was postpartum depression.
Ben: Her dad couldn’t afford childcare, so soon after Marian’s mother went into the Allan, social services took Marian and her two younger brothers away because there was no parent to take care of them.
Amory: They bounced around between foster homes and orphanages for years, experienced emotional and physical abuse. Both of her brothers were heavily into drugs by the age of 10 and dealt with serious mental illness throughout their lives. Marian believes all of this was a result of her mother going into the Allan.
Ben: After Marian’s mom left the Allan, she struggled for the rest of her life to regain her sense of self and mental clarity. What started as short-term depression before the Allan, morphed into chronic depression, as well as diagnosed schizophrenia and bipolar disorder afterwards. She went from apartment to apartment, mental hospital to mental hospital. She never did get her children back.
Amory: Marian’s mom died three ago. And the funeral was yet another opportunity for Marian and her siblings to learn more about the mother who had been absent for so much of their childhoods.
Marian: There was a picture of my mom there and somebody commented, “Ugh that's the Johanna ” — that's her name — “I remember.” And my sister looked at him and said, “But what was she like? Like, did she always have problems?” And he said, “Oh, gosh.” She goes, “No.” She was the one that was gonna go and conquer the world. She was not staying in this little town. She was gonna go out there and do something. And then she came back from Montreal and she was never the same. Yeah so it was sad. Her life was sad.
Amory: What we know of Cameron’s work comes from family accounts like Marian's, a few hard-won medical documents, and detailed descriptions of his techniques from his own journal articles and speeches.
Ben: But some key documentation of Cameron’s time at the Allan is straight up missing. Here’s John Marks again.
John Marks: There must have been clinical documents. There must have been records of experiments. I mean, he was that much of a scientist. There must have been names of patients.
Amory: This is information that may have proven invaluable in holding Cameron, as well as McGill, the CIA, and the Canadian Government accountable for what happened at the Allan.
Ben: But there is reason to believe that these documents aren’t just missing. They were destroyed.
Amory: More in a minute.
Ben: When Amory and I spoke to Duncan Cameron about his dad, he also told us about his own work, as a lawyer.
Duncan: I started work at the State Department just a day or so before Kennedy was assassinated.
Amory: Duncan knows how to be very careful about what he says. For instance, he was careful to say he didn’t know anything about his dad’s treatment regimen at the Allan, which may very well be true.
Ben: But we also asked about something else, that he was a little uncomfortable talking about: Orlikow vs. United States, the 1980s lawsuit that ended up giving $750,000 total to 8 of Cameron’s victims.
Amory: And I think you may have given a deposition for that. Do you remember that? Or do you remember any of --
Duncan: Yes. My recollection was that I wasn't able to provide him with much information that he didn't already have.
Amory: Jim Turner was one of two prosecutors on the case. He was there when his legal partner, Joseph Rauh, took Cameron’s deposition. And he has a much different memory of how it all went down.
Jim Turner: The most salient point that I recall is that Cameron’s son told us that he'd taken his father's private records and had destroyed them. And that seemed to us to be a highly questionable action for someone to take. I mean his father was a very prominent psychiatrist, so destroying rather than preserving personal papers of someone of that prominence is a very unusual thing, especially for a family member to have done. Which suggests it was for purposes of, not closure, but of not wanting information to come to light that was in the papers.
Duncan Cameron: No. I wasn’t destroying documents.
Ben: OK. Fair. That was just something we wanted to get clarification on.
Duncan: Well, I didn’t destroy the documents.
Jim: But again, you know, the deposition transcript, you're going to have to rely on that, like we did.
Amory: We definitely will. Particularly because we put that question to him today…
Jim: What’d he say?
Amory: He said he did not destroy documents, that he didn't know about that.
Jim: Well, memories fail people.
Ben: Jim’s right. Memories are not the most reliable form of evidence. So we reached out to one of the most comprehensive archives in the world: The Library of Congress.
Amory: And, they delivered, with a full transcript of Duncan’s deposition from November, 1983.
Ben: About halfway through, Prosecutor Joseph Rauh starts quoting statements that Cameron’s wife — Duncan’s mom — made on the record. She said she received 12 boxes of her husband’s papers after he died, but that, quote, “If I had these papers, I wouldn’t necessarily let you see them. Two of my sons are lawyers and they say it isn’t a good idea.”
Amory: Duncan, one of the two lawyer sons, admits he’s familiar with those 12 boxes of papers, and then explains what happened to them. Here’s part of Duncan’s transcript:
Duncan (from the transcript): I recall contacting the American Psychiatric Association and asking them if they would have an interest in holding his papers in their archives, and they expressed an interest in doing it. I then *went through* the papers, because I felt that it would be improper to leave in the papers any paper that identified patients. Because it would seem to me, or I was concerned as a lawyer, that it might be a breach of the patient-doctor privilege. And I recall going through them and *taking out* several papers that appeared to me to be identified or could be identified as dealing with a particular patient. Then we brought them down — I think it was probably during one of my infrequent jaunts up there — I brought them down in my car, and I then took them over and deposited them at the American Psychiatric Association.
Joseph Rauh (from the transcript): But as far as you know now, neither you nor your brother or sister or mother have *any* papers left that are not sort of public documents?
Duncan: That is correct.
Rauh: A question that Mr. Turner wanted me to ask was what happened to the papers identifying the patients? Were they *destroyed* or did you just take the patient’s name out?
Duncan: No, they were destroyed.
Rauh: So any documents that would show the treatment of the plaintiffs in this case were destroyed?
Duncan: I have no recollection whether there were any papers relating to any of the--
Rauh: --Well, I will put it another way. Any documents that related to patient treatment were destroyed?
Duncan: That’s my recollection, that any documents that related to patients were destroyed.
Ben: The main takeaway here is Duncan admitting that he did remove documents pertaining to specific patients, before giving his dad’s papers to the archives. And he admits that the papers he removed are now destroyed.
Amory: He doesn’t explicitly say that he was the one who did the destroying. Though he does seem to imply that it was done by him or someone in the family.
Amory: With the information we do have about Cameron, we know this: his so-called treatment didn’t cure mental illness, and it didn’t control people’s minds. But the government agency backing his experiments at the Allan did find a way to make use of his methods.
Ben: Even though Cameron never gave the CIA the keys to control people’s minds, he did give them the tools to break people’s minds down — experimental drugs, recordings on loop, sensory deprivation. Here’s documentarian Stephen Bennett, whose film Eminent Monsters looks at the real echoes of Cameron’s work in government interrogation programs today.
Stephen Bennett: If I put one of you, either Ben or Amory, into prison for two, three years, you should be okay because you can have time and space. You can see out a window. You can see other fellow humans. And you can get a real sense of your own, where you are in the world. If I put you through this program, within 24 hours to 48 hours you'll be in a diagnosable psychotic state. That's how quick it is because it removes your time and space.
Amory: In the early ‘60s, MK-ULTRA director Sidney Gottlieb took the so-called treatments Cameron used on his patients at the Allan and brought them back to the CIA.
Stephen: So they created a manual, which basically was for intelligence personnel. And you can see this manual that's been found all around the world, from hellholes to modern democracies. And you see this actual physical manual on how to break down the human mind. And Cameron’s part of that.
Ben: The manual was all about how to obtain information from quote “resistant sources.” It went on to become the basis for the Phoenix Program during the Vietnam War. Under that program, more than 80,000 suspected North Vietnamese sympathizers were interrogated by US forces and their allies.
Amory: Author Stephen Kinzer, who wrote the book about the CIA and Mind Control, says, after Vietnam, this same literature got used elsewhere. Like in Nicaragua, where he was The New York Times Bureau Chief.
Kinzer: Later on, it became the basis for manuals that the CIA provided in the 1980s to police forces in Latin America that were known to practice torture. And, later on to guidebooks for what we now call “enhanced interrogation” at places like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. In some cases, the same phrases reappear all through these. So you can see that the work of Ewen Cameron, filtered through Gottlieb, definitely informs the interrogation techniques, if we want to call them that, that the United States has been using on its prisoners in Guantanamo and in black sites around the world.
Ben: Perhaps this is Dr. Cameron's most enduring legacy.
Amory: In spite of Cameron’s ambition and prestige, he never helped find a cure for mental illness, he never won a Nobel Prize for psychiatry. Ironically, his lasting impact would be on how to destroy the human mind, not how to repair it.
Ben: Cameron’s research could never happen today — at least not lawfully. A series of other research scandals in the 1960s resulted in stricter regulation of research practices and a more stringent code of ethics. And in a lot of ways, modern psychiatry has completely left behind the man who once dominated its ranks.
Amory: This is a hard reality for the family that Ewen Cameron left behind.
Duncan: Talking about him, it should be easy, but sometimes it's sort of emotional. You know, all of us not only respected him, but loved him, and not just myself, but my brothers. To see some of the things that have happened are very upsetting.
Amory: Sarah Anne Johnson, whose grandmother Val Orlikow was a patient of Ewen Cameron’s, has a response to Duncan that, considering what her family has been through as a result of his father’s experimentation, is surprising.
Ben: Would you have anything that you would want to say to Dr. Cameron or his family?
Sarah Anne Johnson: I imagine this is very difficult for his family. This must be very difficult, very complicated for them. I'm sure that they loved him very much and knew him in a very different way. And I feel for them for that.
Amory: Sarah’s grandmother, Val, sued the CIA forty years ago for supporting Dr. Cameron’s work at the Allan. As for the ongoing lawsuits, some of the plaintiffs have actually contacted Duncan wondering if he’d be willing to support their efforts.
Duncan: And I've said I’m unable to do that.
Ben: But do you — even though you had nothing to do with it — do you have any feelings of sadness about those folks and what they've gone through?
Duncan: Well, I think that I would feel sad about that. And I think my father would have too.
Ben: Which brings us back to a question that no one can answer — why did Dr. Cameron do what he did? We put this to Harvey Weinstein, the psychiatrist we heard from earlier, whose father was a patient at the Allan.
Harvey Weinstein: Complicated question, we all have motivations for the things that we do. I'm sure part of him very much wanted to be the person who cures mental illness. And in that sense, I think his ambition overrode his skills and his ability to do the research. I think he wanted to be famous.
Amory: But, Cameron’s extreme measures didn’t result in a Nobel Prize or any mental health breakthroughs, which is why Harvey finds a certain poetry in his untimely death.
Harvey: Here he is trying to reach the peak, trying to climb the mountain, reach this goal. And in a sense, that's what he wanted to do professionally. And he didn't achieve that either.
Amory: Nearly everyone who experienced Cameron’s treatments first-hand has since died. As time has worn on, it’s become the families of those victims who shoulder the burden.
Harvey: It is frustrating, and if you talk about a story with no end, I think the important thing to remember is that it isn't just the patients who went through this, it was their families. And so even all these years later, it's part of my life. Not all the time, but it's always there. And people talk about the transmission of trauma through generations. It is true. There is no such thing as closure. It's hardwired into the brain.
Amory: Dr. Ewen Cameron will never be able to respond to the intergenerational trauma created by his work. Or answer questions about his motivations, whether or not he knew he was part of the CIA’s mind control efforts.
Ben: But the Canadian and US governments could take accountability for their support of Cameron. And they are still being asked to by victims and their families, 60 years later. So why haven’t they?
Amory: The answer might be in the idea of brainwashing itself. Part of Cameron’s plan for his patients was to wipe their minds clean, to make them forget their past, so they could move forward. Maybe the people responsible are waiting for all of us to forget.
Ben: But, as human experiments at the Allan Memorial Institute, and MK-ULTRA’s mind control efforts, fade into history, reduced to references in tv shows and video game plot points, there are troubling examples of these techniques still in use today. The victims and their lawyers want us to remember that this story isn’t over. And, until there’s true accountability for what happened and what is still happening, it never will be.