National Post (National Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - JOE O’CON­NOR Na­tional Post jo­con­nor@na­tion­al­ Twit­­nor­writes

On Oct. 9, 1957, Dr. Ewen Cameron, a Scot­tish-born psy­chi­a­trist and di­rec­tor of the Al­lan Me­mo­rial In­sti­tute at McGill Univer­sity in Mon­treal, noted that his 33-year-old pa­tient, Jean Steel, was on her 23rd day of drug-in­duced sleep.

Steel had un­der­gone four elec­tro­con­vul­sive shock­ther­apy treat­ments. Sev­eral more were planned. In pre­vi­ous days, while awake, she had shown some ag­gres­sive­ness to­ward staff, be­hav­iour Cameron felt needed to be “bro­ken up.”

He won­dered whether it might be use­ful for her to watch a “movie where hos­til­ity was well ex­pressed,” as a way of work­ing out her own “hos­til­i­ties.” A li­brar­ian was tasked with find­ing some­thing suit­able. She had not been weighed in sev­eral weeks. Tem­per­a­ture record­ings were taken of her “ear­lobes and feet.”

“Once the pa­tient is de­pat­terned we will start psy­chic driv­ing,” Cameron wrote. “She is rather restive and an­tag­o­nis­tic when awake, but not nearly as dif­fi­cult as she was when she started.”

Gar­net Steel met Jean Watts in Mon­treal in the 1940s. He was in the army. She liked to dance. He called her “Jeanie.” They fell in love, mar­ried, hon­ey­mooned in New York City and set­tled in the East­ern Town­ships south of Mon­treal. They played bridge, curled and had loads of friends.

The cou­ple had a child who died a few months af­ter birth, but in 1952 they had an­other, a daugh­ter named Ali­son. She was healthy and gor­geous, but Jeanie found she couldn’t cope. She sank into a sad­ness that wouldn’t lift.

Her par­ents back in Mon­treal be­gan ask­ing around. They heard about this Dr. Cameron at the Al­lan, a past-pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Psy­chi­atric As­so­ci­a­tion. They heard he was the best. Jeanie Steel was ad­mit­ted to the AMI for treat­ment on May 1, 1957.

“What they did to my mother was tor­ture,” Ali­son Steel, now 65, says from Knowl­ton, Que. “It is hor­rific. It is un­be­liev­able.”

What wasn’t pub­licly known in 1957, and what would not be re­vealed un­til decades later, was that Cameron’s work at AMI was funded in part by the Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency as part of Project MK-Ul­tra, a covert pro­gram in hu­man mind con­trol — brain­wash­ing.

Panic seized the United States at the con­clu­sion of the Korean War in 1953. Some in Congress feared re­turn­ing Amer­i­can POWs had been brain­washed by their Chi­nese cap­tors, trans­form­ing pa­tri­otic GIs into zom­bie sleeper agents, wait­ing to be ac­ti­vated by their Com­mu­nists mas­ters. News­pa­per sto­ries fanned the hys­te­ria.

“The to­tal­i­tar­i­ans have mis­used the knowl­edge of how the mind works for their own pur­poses,” a Dutch psy­chol­o­gist wrote in the New York Times Mag­a­zine. “They have ap­plied the Pavlo­vian tech­nique — in a far more com­plex and sub­tle way, of course — to pro­duce the re­flex of men­tal and po­lit­i­cal sub­mis­sion of the hu­mans in their power.”

Cameron, the vi­sion­ary, be­lieved schizophre­nia and some other men­tal ill­nesses could be cured. (Jeanie Steel likely suf­fered from post­par­tum de­pres­sion.) He dis­missed the idea of a psy­chi­a­trist’s couch, a doc­tor lis­ten­ing and talk­ing a pa­tient back to health. His am­bi­tion was to re­make the per­son en­tirely, scrub­bing their brain of its ill­ness and re­build­ing their psy­che from scratch.

To do so, pa­tients would need to be “de-pat­terned,” Cameron-speak for load­ing them full of drugs — Se­conal, Nem­bu­tal, largac­til, in­sulin, LSD, PCP, up­pers, down­ers, cu­rare and more — and sub­ject­ing them to mas­sive, re­peated jolts of elec­troshock ther­apy. Pa­tients were kept in drug-in­duced co­mas for 22 hours a day in a “sleep room,” primed for Cameron’s “psy­chic driv­ing,” a process where a mes­sage, or even a sin­gle word, was broad­cast on a loop over a loud­speaker in the room for days on end.

Jeanie Steel did 18- and 29-day stints in the sleep room. At dif­fer­ent points, ac­cord­ing to her file — Ali­son ob­tained a copy from the U.S. De­part­ment of Jus­tice in 2015 — she threat­ened to kill her­self; asked the doc­tors to “please” turn down the loud­speaker; com­plained of burn­ing in her ears and feet; and screamed that she felt like she was be­ing nailed to the “cross.”

One of Cameron’s en­tries in the file from Oc­to­ber 1957 notes: “Pa­tient walked about room this morning, out in the hall, ap­pears more rest­less than pre­vi­ously, stared at the speaker and said, ‘That thing up there, up on the wall, my ear is burn­ing, my ear is not burn­ing. But that tries to make up my mind. That’s not my mind. Is that my mind?’ ”

Jeanie was dis­charged from the in­sti­tute in De­cem­ber 1957. She went home to her fam­ily, de­stroyed af­ter six months in Dr. Cameron’s care. She died in 2002.

Dr. Cameron went on to be­come the pres­i­dent of the World Psy­chi­atric As­so­ci­a­tion, dy­ing of a heart at­tack while hik­ing in 1967.

Ali­son Steel keeps a manila folder full of her mother’s pa­pers and old pho­to­graphs. Her favourite im­age of Jeanie is from be­fore Ali­son was born. Her hazel eyes are wide, and her auburn hair cut to the shoul­der.

“She looks like an an­gel,” Steel says. “But I never got to know that per­son. They stole my mother from me. They used her as a hu­man guinea pig. They stripped her of her emo­tions.”

In the years af­ter 1957, Jeanie would spend hours sit­ting in the dark, or in her room. When she drove, she kept the flicker on to keep her “com­pany.” She once ar­ranged all the pa­tio fur­ni­ture out­side, plac­ing sticks wrapped in tin­foil on the chairs, declar­ing it was Sher­brooke Street. She spray­painted a white liv­ing room ceil­ing in red swirls, and spray-painted the toi­let seat sil­ver.

Ali­son couldn’t ask her mother for ad­vice; she had noth­ing to give. She was present — she would make grilled cheese sand­wiches for her daugh­ter and her friends — but never fully there.

“My mom could talk to me about her life be­fore this hap­pened to her,” Steel says. “But she couldn’t talk about what hap­pened to her. I didn’t know where her mind was.”

In 2015, Ali­son Steel ini­ti­ated a le­gal ac­tion against the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment, which also funded the ex­per­i­ments. A few months ago, she re­ceived a $100,000 set­tle­ment.

“It wasn’t about the money,” she says. “I was seek­ing jus­tice for my mother — and my fa­ther. They had been young and happy.”

Gar­net Steel died in 2007. Ali­son now works with kinder­garten chil­dren. She loves zip­ping up their coats, giv­ing them hugs, lis­ten­ing to their sto­ries and show­ing them the kind of warmth her mother was never able to show her.

“It’s what I am meant to do,” she says. “I know that my mother loved me, in my heart of hearts, and I loved her.”


Ali­son Steel says her mother, Jean Steel, was used as “a hu­man guinea pig” by Dr. Ewen Cameron, whose work was funded by the U.S. Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency.

Photo of a young Jean Steel, who loved to dance and curl with friends be­fore be­ing sub­jected to “treat­ment” at the Al­lan Me­mo­rial In­sti­tute at McGill Univer­sity.

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