Born and raised in New Orleans, he'd been out of the flooded city for a week. He looked about seventeen but told me he was twenty-three. He and his family had waited forever for the evacuation buses; when they didn't arrive, they had walked out in the baking sun. Finally they ended up here, a sprawling convention center, normally home to the pharmaceutical trade shows and "Capital City Carnage: The Ultimate in Steel Cage Fighting," now jammed with two thousand cots and a mess of angry, exhausted people being patrolled by edgy National Guard soldiers just back from Iraq.
The news racing around the shelter that day was that Richard Baker, a prominent Republican congressman from this city, had told a group of lobbyists, "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did." Joseph Canizaro, one of New Orleans' wealthiest developers, had just expressed a similar sentiment: "I think we have a clean sheet to start again. And with that clean sheet we have some very big opportunities." All that week the Louisiana State Legislature in Baton Rouge had been crawling with corporate lobbyists helping to lock in those big opportunities: lower taxes, fewer regulations, cheaper workers, and a "smaller, safer city" - which in practice meant plans to level the public housing projects and replace them with condos. Hearing all the talk of "fresh starts" and "clean sheets," you could almost forget the toxic stew of rubble, chemical outflows and human remains just a few miles down the highway.
Over at the shelter, Jamar could think of nothing else. "I really don't see it as cleaning up the city. WHat I see is that a lot of people got killed uptown. People who shouldn't have died."
He was speaking quietly, but an older man in line in front of us overheard and whipped around. "What is wrong with these people in Baton Rouge? This isn't an opportunity. It's a goddamned tragedy. Are they blind?"
A mother with two kids chimed in. "No, they're not blind, they're evil. They see just fine."
One of those who saw opportunity in the floodwaters of New Orleans was Milton Friedman, grand guru of the movement for unfettered capitalism and the man credited with writing the rulebook for the contemporary, hypermobile global economy. Ninety-three years old and in failing health, "Uncle Miltie," as he was known to his followers, nonetheless found the strength to write an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal three months after the levees broke. "Most New Orleans schools are in ruins," Friedman observed, "as are the homes of the children who have attended them. The children are now scattered all over the country. This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity to radically reform the educational system."
Friedman's radical ideal was that instead of spending a portion of the billions of dollars in reconstruction money on rebuilding and improving New Orleans' existing public school system, the government should provide families with vouchers, which they could spend at private institutions, many run at a profit, that would be subsidized by the state. It was crucial, Friedman wrote, that this fundamental change not be a stopgap but rather "a permanent reform."
A network of right-wing think tanks seized on Friedman's proposal and descended on the city after the storm. The administration of George W. Bush backed up their plans with tens of millions of dollars to convert New Orleans schools into "charter schools," publicly funded institutions run by private entities according to their own rules. Charter schools are deeply polarizing in the United States, and nowhere more than in New Orleans, where they are seen by many African-American parents as a way of reversing the gains of the civil rights movement, which guaranteed all children the same standard of education. For Milton Friedman, however, the entire concept of a state-run school system reeked of socialism. In his view, the state's sole functions were "to protect our freedom both from the enemies outside our gates and from our fellow-citizens: to preserve law and order, to enforce private contracts, to foster competitive markets." In other words, to supply the police and the soldiers - anything else, including providing free education, was an unfair interference in the market.
In sharp contrast with the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans' school system took place with military speed and precision. Within nineteen months, with most of the city's poor residents still in exile, New Orleans' public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools. Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just 4. Before that storm, there had been 7 charter schools in the city; now there were 31. New Orleans teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union's contract had been shredded, and its 4700 members had all been fired. Some of the younger teachers were rehired by the charters, at reduced salaries; most were not.
New Orleans was now, according to The New York Times, "the nation's preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools," while the American Enterprise Institute, a Friedmanite think tank, enthused that "Katrina accomplished in a day... what Louisiana school reformers couldn't do after years of trying." Public school teachers, meanwhile, watching money allocated for the victims of the flood being diverted to erase a public system and replace it with a private one, were calling Friedman's plan "an educational land grab."
I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, "disaster capitalism."
* * *
Friedman's New Orleans op-ed ended up being his last public policy recommendation; he died less than a year later, on November 16, 2006, at age ninety-four. Privatizing the school system of a midsize American city may seem like a modest preoccupation for the man hailed as the most influential economist of the past half century, one who counted among his disciples several U.S. presidents, British prime ministers, Russian oligarchs, Polich finance ministers, Third World dictators, Chinese Communist Party secretaries, International Monetary Fund directors and the past three chiefs of the U.S. Federal Reserve. Yet his determination to exploit the crisis in New Orleans to advance a fundamentalist version of capitalism was also an oddly fitting farewell from the boundlessly energetic five-foot-two-inch professor who, in his prime, described himself as "an old-fashioned preacher delivering a Sunday sermon."
For more than three decades, Friedman and his powerful followers had been perfecting this very strategy: waiting for a major crisis, then selling off pieces of the state to private players while citizens were still reeling from the shock, then quickly making the "reforms" permanent.
In one of his most influential essays, Friedman articulated contemporary capitalism's core tactical nostrum, what I have come to understand as the shock doctrine. He observed that "only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable." Some people stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters; Friedmanites stockpile free-market ideas. And once a crisis has struck, the University of Chicago professor was convinced that it was crucial to act swiftly, to impose rapid and irreversible change before the crisis-racked society slipped back into the "tyranny of the status quo." He estimated that "a new administration has some six to nine months in which to achieve major changes; if it does not seize the opportunity to act decisively during that period, it will not have another such opportunity." A variation on Machiavelli's advice that injuries should be inflicted "all at once," this proved to be one of Friedman's most lasting strategic legacies.
Friedman first learned how to exploit a large-scale shock or crisis in the mid-seventies, when he acted as adviser to the Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet. Not only were Chileans in a state of shock following Pinochet's violent coup, but the country was also traumatized by severe hyperinflation. Friedman advised Pinochet to impose a rapid-fire transformation of the economy - tax cuts, free trade, privatized servics, cuts to social spending and deregulation. Eventually, Chileans even saw their public schools replaced with voucher-funded private ones. It was the most extreme capitalist makeover ever attempted anywhere, and it became known as a "Chicago School" revolution, since so many of Pinochet's economists had studied under Friedman at the University of Chicago. Friedman predicted that the speed, suddenness and scope of the economic shifts would provoke psychological reactions in the public that "facilitate the adjustment." He coined a phrase for this painful tactic: economic "shock treatment." In the decades since, whenever governments have imposed sweeping free-market programs, the all-at-once shock treatment, or "shock therapy," has been the moethod of choice.
Pinochet also facilittated the adjustment with his own shock treatments; these were performed in the regime's many torture cells, inflicted on the writhing bodies of those deemed most likely to stand in the way of the capitalist transformation. Many in Latin America saw a direct connection between the economic shocks that impoverished millions and the epidemic of torture that punished hundreds of thousands of people who believed in a different kind of society. As the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano asked, "How can this inequality be maintained if not through jolts of electric shock?"
Exactly thirty years after these three distinct forms of shock descended on Chile, the formula reemerged, with far greater violence, in Iraq. First came the war, designed according to the authors of the Shock and Awe military doctrine, to "control the adversary's will, perceptions, and understanding and literally make an adversary impotent to act or react." Next came the radical economic shock therapy, imposed, while the country was still in flames, by the U.S. chief envoy L. Paul Bremer - mass privatization, complete free trade, a 15 percent flat tax, a dramatically downsized government. Iraq's interim trade minister, Ali Abdul-Amir Allawi, said at the time that his countrymen were "sick and tired of being the subjects of experiments. There have been enough shocks to the system, so we don't need this shock therapy in the economy." When Iraqis resisted, they were rounded up and taken to jails where bodies and minds were met with more shocks, these ones distinctly less metaphorical.
I started researching the free market's dependence on the power of shock four years ago, during the early days of the occupation of Iraq. After reporting from Baghdad on Washington's failed attempts to follow Shock and Awe with shock therapy, I traveled to Sri Lanka, several months after the devastating 2004 tsunami, and witnessed another version of the same maneuver: foreign investors and international lenders had teamed up to use the atmosphere of panic to hand the entire beautiful coastline over to entrepreneurs who quickly built large resorts, blocking hundreds of thousands of fishing people from rebuilding their villages near the water. "In a cruel twist of fate, nature has presented Sri Lanka with a unique opportunity, and out of this great tragedy will come a world class tourism destination," the Sri Lankan government announced. By the time Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and the nexus of Republican politicians, thiunk tanks, and land developers started talking about "clean sheets" and exciting opportunities, it was clear that this was now the preferred method of advancing corporate goals: using moments of collective trauma to engage in radical social and economic engineering.
Most people who survive a devastating disaster want the opposite of a clean slate: they want to salvage whatever they can and begin repairing what was not destroyed; they want to reaffirm their related-ness to the places that formed them. "When I rebuild the city I feel like I'm rebuilding myself," said Cassandra Andrews, a resident of New Orleans' heavily damaged Lower Ninth Ward, as she cleared away debris after the storm. But disaster capitalists have no interest in repairing what was. In Iraq, Sri Lanka, and New Orleans, the process deceptively called "reconstruction" began with finishing the job of the original disaster by erasing what was left of the public sphere and rooted communities, then quickly moving to replace them with a kind of corporate New Jerusalem - all before the victims of war or natural disaster were able to regroup and stake their claims to what was theirs.
Mike Battles puts it best: "For us, the fear and disorder offered real promise." The 34-year-old ex-CIA operative was talking about how the chaos in postinvasion Iraq had helped his unknown and inexperienced private security firm, Custer Battles, to shake roughly $100 million in contracts out of the federal government. His words could serve just as well as the slogan for contemporary capitalism - fear and disorder are the catalysts for each new leap forward.
When I began this research into the intersection between super profits and mega disasters, I thought I was witnessing a fundamental change in the way the drive to "liberate" markets was advancing around the world. Having been part of the movement against ballooning corporate power that made its global debut in Seattle in 1999, I was accustomed to seeing similar business-friendly policies imposed through arm-twisting at World Trade Organization summits, or as the conditions attached to loans from the International Monetary Fund. The three trademark demands - privatization, government deregulation, and deep cuts to social spending - tended to be extremely unpopular with citizens, but when the agreement were signed there was still at least the pretext of mutual consent between the governments doing the negotiating, as well as a consensus among the supposed experts. Now the same ideological program was being imposed via the most baldly coercive means possible: under foreign military occupation after an invasion, or immediately following a cataclysmic natural disaster. September 11 appeared to have provided Washington with the green light to stop asking countries if they wanted the U.S. version of "free trade and democracy" and to start imposing it with Shock and Awe military force.
As I dug deeper into the history of how this market model had swept the globe, however, I discovered that the idea of exploiting crisis and disaster has been the modus operandi of Milton Friedman's movement from the very beginning - this fundamentalist form of capitalism has always needed disasters to advance. It was certainly the case that the facilitating disasters were getting bigger and more shocking, but what was happening in Iraq and New Orleans was not a new, post-September 11 invention. Rather, these bold experiments in crisis exploitation were the culmination of three decades of strict adherence to the shock doctrine.
Seen through the lens of this doctrine, the past thirty-five years look very different. Some of the most infamous human rights violations of this era, which have tended to be viewed as sadistic acts carried out by anti-democratic regimes, were in fact either committed with the deliberate intent of terrorizing the public or actively harnessed to prepare the ground for the introduction of radical free-market "reforms." In Argentina in the seventies, the junta's "disappearance" of thirty thousand people, most of them leftist activists, was integral to the imposition of the country's Chicago School policies, just as terror had been a partner for the same kind of economic metamorphosis in Chile. In China in 1989, it was the shock of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the subsequent arrests of tens of thousands that freed the hand of the Communist Party to convert much of the country into a sprawling export zone, staffed with workers too terrified to demand their rights. In Russia in 1993, it was Boris Yeltsin's decision to send in tanks to set fire to the parliament building and lock up the opposition leaders that cleared the way for the fire-sale privatization that createad the country's notorious oligarchs.
The Falklands War in 1982 served a similar purpose for Margaret Thatcher in the U.K.: the disorder and nationalist excitement resulting from the war allowed her to use tremendous force to crush the striking coal miners and to launch the first privatization frenzy in a Western democracy. The NATO attack on Belgrade in 1999 created the conditions for rapid privatizations in the former Yugoslavia - a goal that predated the war. Economics was by no means the sole motivator for these wars, but in each case a major collective shock was exploited to prepare the ground for economic shock therapy.
The traumatic episodes that have served this "softening-up" purpose have not always been overtly violent. In Latin America and Africa in the eighties, it was a debt crisis that forced countries to be "privatized or die," as one former IMF official put it. Coming unraveled by hyperinflation and too indebted to say no to demands that came bundled with foreign loans, governments accepted "shock treatment" on the promise that it would save them from deeper disaster. In Asia, it was the financial crisis of 1997-98 - almost as devastating as the Great Depression - that humbled the so-called Asian Tigers, cracking open their markets to what The New York Times described as "the world's biggest going-out-of-business sale." Many of these countries were democracies, but the radical free-market transformations were not imposed democratically. Quite the opposite: as Friedman understood, the atmosphere of large-scale crisis provided the necessary pretext to overrule the expressed wishes of voters and to hand the country over to economic "technocrats."
There have, of course, been cases in which the adoption of free-market policies has taken place democratically - politicians have run on hard-line platforms and won elections, the U.S. under Ronald Reagan being the best example, France's election of Nicolas Sarkozy a more recent one. In these cases, however, free-market crusaders came up against public pressure and were invariably forced to temper and modify their radical plans, accepting piecemeal changes rather than a total conversion. The bottom line is that while Friedman's economic model is capable of being partially imposed under democracy, authoritarian conditions are required for the implementation of its true vision. For economic shock therapy to be applied without restraint - as it was in Chile in the seventies, China in the late eighties, Russia in the nineties and the U.S. after September 11, 2001 - some sort of additional major collective trauma has always been required, one that either temporarily suspended democratic practices or blocked them entirely. This ideological crusade was born in the authoritarian regimes of South America, and in its largest newly conquered territories - Russia and China - it coexists most comfortably, and most profitably, with an iron-fisted leadership to this day.
Friedman's Chicago School movement has been conquering territory around the world since the seventies, but until recently its vision had never been fully applied in its country of origin. Certainly Reagan had made headway, but the U.S. retained a welfare system, social security and public schools, where parents clung, in Friedman's words, to their "irrational attachment to a socialist system."
When the Republicans gained control of Congress in 1995, David Frum, a transplanted Canadian and future speechwriter for George W. Bush, was among the so-called neoconservatives calling for a shock therapy-style economic revolution in the U.S. "Here's how I think we should do it. Instead of cutting incrementally - a little here, a little there - I would say that on a single day this summer we eliminate three hundred programs, each one costing a billion dollars or less. Maybe these cuts won't make a big deal of difference, but, boy, do they make a point. And you can do them right away."
Frum didn't get his homegrown shock therapy at the time, largely, because there was no domestic crisis to prepare the ground. But in 2001 that changed. When the September 11 attacks hit, the WHite House was packed with Friedman's disciples, including his close friend Donald Rumsfeld. The Bush team seized the moment of collective vertigo with chilling speed - not, as some have claimed, because the administration deviously plotted the crisis but because the key figures of the administration, veterans of earlier disaster capitalism experiments in Latin AMerica and Eastern Europe, were part of a movement that prays for crisis the way drought-struck farmers pray for rain, and the way Christian-Zionist end-timers pray for the Rapture. When the long-awaited disaster strikes, they know instantly that their moment has come at last.
For three decades, Friedman and his followers had methodically exploited moments of shock in other countries - foreign equivalents of 9/11, starting with Pinochet's coup on September 11, 1973. What happened on September 11, 2001, is that an ideology hatched in American universities and fortified in Washington institutions finally had its chance to come home.
"I don't talk to journalists anymore," says the strained voice at the other end of the phone. And then a tiny window: "What do you want?"
I figure I have about twenty seconds to make my case, and it won't be easy. How do I explain what I want from Gail Kastner, the journey that brought me to her?
The truth seems so bizarre: "I am writing a book about shock. About how countries are shocked - by wars, terror attacks, coups d'etat and natural disasters. And then how they are shocked again - by corporations and politicians who exploit the fear and disorientation of this first shock to push through economic shock therapy. And then how people who dare to resist these shock politics are, if necessary, shocked for a third time - by police, soldiers, and prison interrogators. I want to talk to you because you are by my estimation among the most shocked people alive, being one of the few living survivors of the CIA's covert experiments in electroshock and other 'special interrogation techniques.' Arid by the way, I have reason to believe that the research that was done on you in the 1950s at McGill University is now being applied to prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib."
No, I definitely can't say that. So I say this instead: "I recently traveled to Iraq, and I am trying to understand the role torture is playing there. We are told it's about getting information, but I think it's more than that - I think it may also have had to do with trying to build a model country, about erasing people and then trying to remake them from scratch."
There is a long pause, and then a different tone of voice to the reply, still strained but... is it relief? "You have just spelled out exactly what the CIA and Ewen Cameron did to me. They tried to erase and remake me. But it didn't work."
In less than twenty-four hours, I am knocking on the door of Gail Kastner's apartment in a grim Montreal old-age home. "It's open," comes a barely audible voice. Gail had told me she would leave the door unlocked because standing up is difficult for her. It's the tiny fractures down her spine that grow more painful as arthritis sets in. Her back pain is just one reminder of the sixty-three times that 150 to 200 volts of electricity penetrated the frontal lobes of her brain, while her body convulsed on the table, causing fractures, sprains, bloody lips, broken teeth.
Gail greets me from a plush blue recliner. It has twenty positions, I later learn, and she adjusts them continuously, like a photographer trying to find focus. It is in this chair that she spends her days and nights, searching for comfort, trying to avoid sleep and what she calls "my electric dreams." That's when she sees "him": Dr. Ewen Cameron, the long-dead psychiatrist who administered those shocks, as well as other torments, so many years ago. "I had two visits from the Eminent Monster last night," she announces as soon as I walk in. "I don't want to make you feel bad, but it's because of your call coming out of the blue like that, asking all those questions."
I become aware that my presence here is very possibly unfair. This feeling deepens when I scan the apartment and realize that there is no place for me. Every single surface is crowded with towers of papers and books, precariously stacked but clearly in some kind of order, the books all marked with yellowing flags. Gail motions me to the one clear surface in the room, a wooden chair that I had overlooked, but she goes into minor panic when I ask for a four-inch space for the recorder. The end table beside her chair is out of the question: it is home to about twenty empty boxes of cigarettes, Matinee Regular, stacked in a perfect pyramid. (Gail had warned me on the phone about the chain-smoking: "Sorry, but I smoke. And I'm a poor eater. I'm fat and I smoke. I hope that's okay.") It looks as if Gail has colored the insides of the boxes black, but looking closer, I realize it is actually extremely dense, minuscule handwriting: names, numbers, thousands of words.
Over the course of the day we spend talking, Gail often leans over to write something on a scrap of paper or a cigarette box - "a note to myself," she explains, "or I will never remember." The thickets of paper and cigarette boxes are, for Gail, something more than an unconventional filing system. They are her memory.
For her entire adult life, Gail's mind has failed her; facts evaporate instantly, memories, if they are there (and many aren't), are like snapshots scattered on the ground. Sometimes she will remember an incident perfectly - what she calls "a memory shard" - but when asked for a date, she will be as much as two decades off. "In 1968," she will say, "No, 1983." And so she makes lists and keeps everything, proof that her life actually happened. At first she apologizes for the clutter. But later she says, "He did this to me! This apartment is part of the torture!"
For many years, Gail was quite mystified by her lack of memory, as well as other idiosyncrasies. She did not know, for instance, why a small electrical shock from a garage door opener set off an uncontrollable panic attack. Or why her hands shook when she plugged in her hair dryer. Most of all, she could not understand why she could remember most events from her adult life but almost nothing from before she turned twenty. When she ran into someone who claimed to know her from childhood, she'd say, "'I know who you are but I can't quite place you.' I faked it."
Gail figured it was all part of her shaky mental health. In her twenties and thirties, she had struggled with depression and addiction to pills and would sometimes have such severe breakdowns that she would end up hospitalized and comatose. These episodes provoked her family to disown her, leaving her so alone and desperate that she survived by scavenging from the bins outside grocery stores.
There had also been hints that something even more traumatic had happened early on. Before her family cut ties, Gail and her identical twin sister used to have arguments about a time when Gail had been much sicker and Zella had had to take care of her. "You have no idea what I went through," Zella would say, "You would urinate on the living-room floor and suck your thumb and talk baby talk and you would demand the bottle of my baby. That's what I had to put up with!" Gail had no idea what to make of her twin's recriminations. Urinating on the floor? Demanding her nephew's bottle? She had no memory of ever doing such strange things.
In her late forties, Gail began a relationship with a man named Jacob, whom she describes as her soul mate. Jacob was a Holocaust survivor, and he was also preoccupied with questions of memory and loss. For Jacob, who died more than a decade ago, Gail's unaccountably missing years were intensely troubling. "There has to be a reason," he would say about the gaps in her life. "There has to be a reason."
In 1992, Gail and Jacob happened to pass by a newsstand with a large, sensational headline: "Brainwashing Experiments: Victims to Be Compensated." Kastner started skimming the article, and several phrases immediately leaped out: "baby talk," "memory loss," "incontinence." "I said, 'Jacob, buy this paper.'" Sitting in a nearby coffee shop, the couple read an incredible story about how, in the 1950s, the United States Central Intelligence Agency had funded a Montreal doctor to perform bizarre experiments on his psychiatric patients, keeping them asleep and in isolation for weeks, then administering huge doses of electroshock as well as experimental drug cocktails including the psychedelic LSD and the hallucinogen PCP, commonly known as angel dust. The experiments - which reduced patients to preverbal, infantile states - had been performed at McGill University's Allan Memorial Institute under the supervision of its director, Dr. Ewen Cameron. The CIA's funding of Cameron had been revealed in the late seventies through a Freedom of Information Act request, sparking hearings in the U.S. Senate. Nine of Cameron's former patients got together and sued the CIA as well as the Canadian government, which had also funded Cameron's research. Over protracted trials, the patients' lawyers argued that the experiments had violated all standards of medical ethics. They had gone to Cameron seeking relief from minor psychiatric ailments - postpartum depression, anxiety, even for help to deal with marital difficulties - and had been used, without their knowledge or permission,k as human guinea pigs to satisfy the CIA's thirst for information about how to control the human mind. In 1988, the CIA settled, awarding a total of $750,000 in damages to the nine plaintiffs - at the time the largest settlement ever against the agency. Four years later, the Canadian government would agree to pay $100,000 in compensation to each patient who was part of the experiments.
... Cameron play[ed] a central role in developing contemporary U.S. torture techniques... [He] believed that by inflicting an array of shocks to the human brain, he could unmake and erase faulty minds, then rebuild new personalities on that ever-elusive clean slate.
Gail had been dimly aware of a story involving the CIA and McGill over the years, but she hadn't paid attention - she had never had anything to do with the Allan Memorial Institute. But now, sitting with Jacob, she focused on what the ex-patients were saying about their lives - the memory loss, the regression. "I realized then that these people must have gone through the same thing I went through. I said, "Jacob, this has got to be the reason.'"
In the Shock Shop
Kastner wrote to the Allan and requested her medical file. After first being told that they had no record of her, she finally got it, all 138 pages. The doctor who had admitted her was Ewen Cameron.
The letters, notes, and charts in Gail's medical file tell a heart-breaking story, one as much about the limited choices available to an eighteen-year-old girl in the fifties as about governments and doctors abusing their power. The file begins with Dr. Cameron's assessment of Gail on her admittance: she is a McGill nursing student, excelling in her studies, whom Cameron describes as "a hitherto reasonably well balanced individual." She is, however, suffering from anxiety, caused, Cameron plainly notes, by her abusive father, an "intensely disturbing" man who made "repeated psychological assaults" on his daughter.
In their early notes, the nurses seem to like Gail; she bonds with them about nursing, and they describe her as "cheerful," "sociable," and "neat." But over the months she spent in and out of their care, Gail underwent a radical personality transformation, one that is meticulously documented in the file: after a few weeks, she "showed childish behavior, expressed bizarre ideas, and apparently was hallucinated [sic] and destructive." The notes report that this intelligent young woman could now manage to count only to six; next she is "manipulative, hostile, and very aggressive"; then, passive and listless, unable to recognize her family members. Her final diagnosis is "schizophrenic... with marked hysterical features" - far more serious than the "anxiety" she displayed when she arrived.
The metamorphosis no doubt had something to do with the treatments that are also all listed in Kastner's chart: huge doses of insulin, inducing multiple comas; strange combinations of uppers and downers; long periods when she was kept in a drug-induced sleep; and eight times as many electroshocks as was standard at the time.
Often the nurses remark on Kastner's attempts to escape from her doctors: "Trying to find way out... claims she is being ill treated ... refused to have her ECT after having her injection." These complaints were invariably treated as cause for another trip to what Cameron's junior colleagues called "the shock shop."
The Quest for Blankness
After reading over her medical file several times, Gail Kastner turned herself into a kind of archeologist of her own life, collecting and studying everything that could potentially explain what happened to her at the hospital. She learned that Ewen Cameron, a Scottish-born American citizen, had reached the very pinnacle of his profession: he had been president of the American Psychiatric Association, president of the Canadian Psychiatric Association, and president of the World Psychiatric Association. In 1945, he was one of only three American psychiatrists asked to testify to the sanity of Rudolf Hess at the war crimes trials in Nuremberg.
By the time Gail began her investigation, Cameron was long dead, but he had left dozens of academic papers and published lectures behind. Several books had also been published about the CIA's funding of mind-control experiments, works that included plenty of detail about Cameron's relationship to the agency. Gail read them all, marking relevant passages, making timelines and cross-referencing the dates with her own medical file. What she came to understand was that, by the early 1950s, Cameron had rejected the standard Freudian approach of using "talk therapy" to try to uncover the "root causes" of his patients' mental illnesses. His ambition was not to mend or repair his patients but to re-create them using a method he invented called "psychic driving."
According to his published papers from the time, he believed that the only way to teach patients healthy new behaviors was to get inside their minds and "break up old pathological patterns." The first step was "depatterning," which had a stunning goal: to return the mind to a state when it was, as Aristotle claimed, "a writing tablet on which as yet nothing actually stands written," a tabula rasa. Cameron believed he could reach that state by attacking the brain with everything known to interfere with its normal functioning - all at once. It was "shock and awe" warfare on the mind.
By the late 1940s, electroshock was becoming increasingly popular among psychiatrists in Europe and North America. It caused less permanent damage than surgical lobotomy, and it seemed to help: hysterical patients frequently calmed down, and in some cases, the jolt of electricity appeared to make the person more lucid. But these only observations, and even the doctors who developed the technique could not provide a scientific explanation for how it worked.
They were aware of its side effects, though. There was no question that ECT could result in amnesia; it was by far the most common complaint associated with the treatment. Closely related to memory loss, the other side effect widely reported was regression. In dozens of clinical studies, doctors noted that in the immediate aftermath of treatment, patients sucked their thumbs, curled up in the fetal position, needed to be spoon-fed, and cried for their mothers (often mistaking doctors and nurses for parents). These behaviors were usually passed quickly, but in some cases, when large doses of shock were used, doctors reported that their patients had regressed completely, forgetting how to walk and talk. Marilyn Rice, an economist who, in the mid-seventies, spearheaded a patients' rights movement against ECT, vividly described what it was like to have her memories and much of her education erased by shock treatments. "Now I know how Eve must have felt, having been created full grown out of somebody's rib without any past history. I feel as empty as Eve."
For Rice and others, that emptiness represented an irreplaceable loss. Cameron, on the other hand, looked into that same void and saw something else: the blank slate, cleared of bad habits, on which new patterns could be written. For him, "massive loss of all recollections" brought on by intensive ECT wasn't an unfortunate side effect; it was the essential point of the treatment, the key to bringing the patient back to an earlier stage of development "long before schizophrenic thinking and behavior made their appearance." Like pro-war hawks who call for the bombing of countries "back to the stone age," Cameron saw shock therapy as a means to blast his patients back into their infancy, to regress them completely. In a 1962 paper, he described the state to which he wanted to reduce patients like Gail Kastner: "There is not only a loss of the space-time image but loss of all feeling that it should be present. During this stage the patient may show a variety of other phenomena, such as loss of a second language or all knowledge of his marital status. In more advanced forms, he may be unable to walk without support, to feed himself, and he may show double incontinence.... All aspects of his memorial function are severely disturbed."
To "depattern" his patients, Cameron used a relatively new device called the Page-Russell, which administered up to six consecutive jolts instead of a single one. Frustrated that his patients still seemed to be clinging to remnants of their personalities, he further disoriented them with uppers, downers, and hallucinogens: chlorpromazine, barbiturates, sodium amytal, nitrous oxide, desoxyn, Seconal, Nembutal, Veronal, Melicone, Thorazine, largactil and insulin. Cameron wrote in a 1956 paper that these drugs served to "disinhibit him [the patient] so that his defenses might be reduced."
Once "complete depatterning" had been achieved, and the earlier personality had been satisfactorily wiped out, the psychic driving could begin. It consisted of Cameron playing his patients tape-recorded messages such as "You are a good mother and wife and people enjoy your company." As a behaviorist, he believed that if he could get his patients to absorb the messages on the tape, they would start behaving differently.
With patients shocked and drugged into an almost vegetative state, they could do nothing but listen to the messages - for sixteen to twenty hours a day for weeks; in one case, Cameron played a message continuously for 101 days.
In the mid-fifties, several researchers at the CIA became interested in Cameron's methods. It was the start of COld War hysteria, and the agency had just launched a covert program devoted to researching "special interrogation techniques." A declassified CIA memorandum explained that the program "examined and investigated numerous unusual techniques of interrogration including psychological harassment and such matters as 'total isolation'" as well as "the use of drugs and chemicals." First code-named Project Bluebird, then Project Artichoke, it was finally renamed MKUltra in 1953. Over the next decade, MKUltra would spend $25 million on research in a quest to find new ways to break prisoners suspected of being Communists and double agents. Eighty institutions were involved in the program, including forty-four universities and twelve hospitals.