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Distant Relatives

Distant Relatives

Montrealers came home shattered from state-sponsored brainwashing experiments. Decades later, their families are finally finding each other.

In 1973, twenty-one-year-old Julie Tanny was watching television in the living room of her Montreal home when her father, Charles, suddenly sprang up from the sofa where he was sitting. Gritting his teeth, he charged toward her. Julie shot to her feet and sprinted upstairs, but she wasn’t surprised, nor even afraid—she was overcome by weariness. Here we go again, she thought. 

She was shocked, however, by what happened next. As she fled into her bedroom, her mother, brother, and sister rushed to the bedroom doorway and crossed their arms, barring her father from entering. “I think that they thought he was going to kill me,” Julie says. Her father stopped, turned, and walked away. No one said anything—the norm in Julie’s house, a place always pervaded by an unspoken sadness. Still, Julie remembers, relief washed over her. “It was the first time I felt a connection to my family,” she says, “because it was the first time they ever acknowledged that this was happening.” 

That reticence was especially strange, considering that Charles had once been different. When Julie was a young girl, her father had been affectionate and playful. She recalls being about four years old and yelping in pain at a skating rink when her feet froze. Charles, a man with a broad, receding hairline, patiently rubbed them until they were warm. Once, he told Julie and her brother, Allan, that he was taking them fishing, then drove to an amusement park as a surprise. He would toss a football with his son in the park across the street from their duplex in the neighbourhood of Côte-des-Neiges and take him to Alouettes football games. 

Charles had had a sense of humour, too. One time, when Julie and Allan were about three and eight, the family took a vacation to the countryside just north of Montreal. Julie’s mother was an elegant woman whose nineteen-inch waist belied her voracious appetite for junk food. One day, she ran out of potato chips. “We all had to get in the car, and we had to schlep into Sainte-Agathe,” Allan says, “and start hunting from little grocery store to little grocery store looking for these fucking potato chips.” Charles finally found some, and with a characteristically absurd flourish, stacked five or six large boxes of potato chips on top of each other, bought them all, and “came running across the street laughing with these goddamned boxes.” 

“We were a real family,” Julie says.

Things changed when Julie was about four and Allan nine. Charles began suffering from bouts of excruciating facial pain that left him lying on a living room sofa, shovelling ice cubes from a nearby bowl into his mouth to numb his pain. Doctors struggled to diagnose his condition: some thought it was physical, others psychological. Finally, Charles went to the Allan Memorial Institute, a psychiatric hospital, in August 1957. Julie’s family would one day learn that Charles suffered from trigeminal neuralgia, a disorder affecting the nerve that transmits sensations from the face to the brain. But by the time they figured that out, trigeminal neuralgia was the most minor of Charles’s afflictions. 

The Allan Memorial Institute is located in an old, foreboding mansion on Mount Royal, where it overlooks a large sports field on the McGill campus. At the time Charles sought treatment there, it was considered Canada’s best psychiatric hospital. Adding to its prestige was the reputation of its creator and director, Dr. Ewen Cameron, one of the world’s foremost psychiatrists: he was the president of both the Canadian and American Psychiatric Associations, and in 1963 became the founding president of the World Psychiatric Association. 

Cameron was a tall Scotsman as imposing in body as in personality. As the journalist Anne Collins recounts in her 1988 book In the Sleep Room, he developed a reputation for being restless, domineering and visionary, and was often seen jotting ideas down onto index cards he kept crammed in his pockets, or rushing through the halls of the Allan on some urgent business. Ever since Cameron’s first job in Manitoba, he had experimented, almost hyperactively, with new treatments. He dehydrated epileptics, put patients on a ketogenic diet, and even rigged up a machine that shone blood-red light on schizophrenics. Many of his colleagues attributed Cameron’s drive to the influence of his aloof, authoritarian father, a Protestant minister. Eventually, that ambition led him to set his sights on something almost unimaginable: making a scientific breakthrough revolutionary enough to win him the Nobel Prize. He started planning how to produce such groundbreaking research. 

Cameron, like many of his contemporaries, laid some of the blame for mental illness on poor mothering and the dysfunctional thinking patterns it supposedly caused. British psychoanalysts Joyce Martin and Pauline McCririck hypothesized during the thirties and forties that bad mothers left their kids emotionally stunted, and that one solution was a treatment based on Freudian psychoanalysis. After using psychoactive drugs to make patients regress into a childlike state, therapists would adopt a parental role and help their patients overcome childhood traumas by doing things like holding their hands and feeding them from a bottle. 

Cameron went a step further: he theorized that harmful thought patterns could be removed by making a patient’s mind regress into a childlike state. With a blank slate, a psychiatrist could then create thought patterns that gave the patient a “healthier” outlook, ingraining them into the patient’s mind in a process that amounted, in Cameron’s view, to re-mothering the patient from scratch. 

To “de-pattern” patients like Julie’s father, psychiatrists at the Allan first needed to induce a heavy sleep. They accomplished this with a chemical cocktail that often contained insulin, barbiturates and antipsychotics. The drug-induced sleep lasted about three days before the patients, still asleep, were given a devastatingly powerful type of electroshock twice daily for a month. When the patients were brought out of their month-long chemical sleep, they were not supposed to know where they were, how long they had been there, or how they got there. Patients, in fact, were not supposed to realize that they should know that information. Ideally, Cameron wrote, the patient “is completely free from all emotional disturbance save for a customary mild euphoria. He lives, as it were, in a very narrow segment of time and space.” Patients might forget a second language, their own marital status and even how to feed themselves, walk or use the bathroom. 

Their thought patterns—and huge spans of memory—destroyed, the patients would now undergo what Cameron called “psychic driving,” a process of installing new thought patterns into their minds. To facilitate this process, psychiatrists subjected some patients to hypnosis and to sensory deprivation, which entailed confining them in a dark chamber, putting goggles over their eyes and preventing them from touching their own bodies. Psychiatrists played personally tailored, recorded messages into the patients’ ears hundreds of thousands of times. At first, the messages would be negative, forcing patients to face what psychiatrists considered to be their flaws (for example, “you have never been able to face your difficulties”). Then the messages would become positive, encouraging (“how do you mean to start becoming the kind of woman, wife and mother that you want to be?”). To make the patients more receptive to these recordings, the doctors sometimes gave them LSD and amphetamines. 

Charles’ medical records show that Cameron considered him a disappointment, because even after a month of de-patterning, he “still had a connection to his former life,” the doctor wrote. Charles had been asking for his wife. Cameron ordered another month of de-patterning. But even after that, Charles still remembered his wife, leading a psychiatrist to write, “It looks like this is as far as we can take him.” 

Charles may have remembered his wife, but he didn’t recognize his kids when he returned home. Nor did he recall that he made a living buying and selling surplus goods from the government. “My father had a warehouse full of stock,” Allan Tanny says. “My father did not remember any of the stuff that was in there, what it was, where to sell it, where he bought it. ”

Charles gradually learned who his children were and how his business worked, with a friend helping him manage it after his return. Cameron would have interpreted this as a normal part of the recovery process, the phase of building a “scaffolding of subsequent memories consisting in what [the patient] has been told of events which happened during the amnestic period.” But Charles never regained his affectionate disposition; he was distant, strict, volatile and violent, with behaviour sometimes even more bizarre than his violent outbursts. Later in life, after a stroke left him disabled, he once rolled his wheelchair onto the Metropolitan Autoroute, a highway in Montreal, determined to go to work. He died in 1992. In all that time, his family members never spoke to each other about the personality change. “In those days, just like Holocaust survivors, nobody talked about what happened at the Allan,” Julie says. 

Charles was one of many patients whose lives were ruined by Cameron’s experiments. That much is clear, because 332 people later sought compensation for undergoing Cameron’s experiments from the federal government, which helped fund them. But no one knows how many patients the experiments harmed in total, and there have been no studies of their long-term effects. Judging by the memories of their family members, many victims suffered from amnesia, permanently impaired cognitive function and mood swings, consequently behaving erratically. 

But another group suffered too. Julie, now a sixty-five-year-old administrative assistant at a wholesale retailer, says “I spent most of my childhood being numb, and probably ever since. I kept everybody at an arm’s length.” In family photos, the beaming four-year-old gave way, in later pictures, to a guarded girl with a deadpan stare. Her father often humiliated her, so she avoided inviting friends over. Her outlook became tragic, fatalistic. “I think our past dictates the choices we made,” she says. Some of her choices, like deciding to marry a lover, ­worsened her life. “Everyone in my family was sort of at loose ends, and along comes someone who says, ‘I’m going to take care of you,’ you know? But he didn’t.” 

As Julie became an adult, she began to have increasingly frequent panic attacks that began to develop into agoraphobia. One sunny, summer day, when she was in her thirties, she was walking along Crescent Street, in downtown Montreal, when she suddenly became paralyzed. “Somehow I got to the phone and called my husband, who was pissed as hell that he had to drive downtown to Crescent Street,” she recalls. Another low point in Julie’s marriage, and her mental health, came shortly after she delivered her first child. “I remember lying in bed one night,” alongside her ex-husband, “and saying out loud to him, ‘I’ve never felt so alone.’ And he never said anything.” (Julie’s ex-husband says he doesn’t remember those two moments, and declined further comment.) Exacerbating her loneliness was her later estrangement from her children. “I just kind of feel sometimes that my whole life has been about loss,” she says. 

Julie spoke to therapists for decades to get help coping with the “really bad depression” she suffered. Her siblings, too, have sought counselling. But for Julie, therapists didn’t help. She never told them the story of what happened to her father, Charles—after all, she didn’t really know, at least not until much more recently.

In a way, there’s little in common between the various family members of Cameron’s victims, the people who spent time with them—or were kept away from them—after they came home. Some of those relatives have managed to lead happy, fulfilling lives. Others died by suicide. But one experience does unite them: their stories about the after-effects of Cameron’s experiments were so unusual that, even when listeners didn’t dismiss the tales outright as some crackpot conspiracy, no one could quite understand. But then something unexpected happened. They started to meet each other.

In November 2017, Julie picked up her ringing phone to the sound of her sister’s voice. A woman named Alison Steel had been on the news, Julie’s sister told her. Alison’s mother had gone to the Allan Memorial Institute, just like Charles, though in her case, it was for another ailment—likely postpartum depression. Although Alison’s mother, Jean, had died in 2002, Alison had just obtained a settlement from the federal government on her behalf, the CBC was reporting. And, during the course of pursuing that payment, she had obtained medical records that explained exactly what had happened to her mother at the Allan.

Julie read everything she could find about Alison’s case. Alison had told the National Post that her mother’s medical records showed that during her stay at the Allan, she threatened suicide and screamed that she felt like she was being crucified. She started confusing the loudspeaker that blared messages at her with her own psyche. Doctors quoted her saying, “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?” Even more important, at least to Julie, was what Alison said about her mother’s behaviour afterwards. She had been stripped of her emotions, Alison said. She spray-painted her living room ceiling with red swirls and placed tinfoil-wrapped sticks onto chairs, then declared that the furniture arrangement was Sherbrooke Street. She spent many hours sitting alone in dark rooms in the house. “They stole my mother from me,” Alison told the National Post.

Julie emailed Alison, who had already heard from two other women, Marlene Levenson and Marilyn Rappaport, whose relatives had also been experimented on. Alison put the three women in touch. Julie didn’t meet Alison in person until several months later, but she met up with Marlene and Marilyn shortly after contacting them, discovering they felt the same way she did, “very keen on finding new people,” she says. So Julie created a website, calling it Survivors Allied Against Government Abuse, as well as two Facebook groups—one open to the public and one secret. And then the referrals started coming in, as Alison forwarded people who contacted her to Julie and the other organizers, who added them to their burgeoning groups. 

The people who joined the group were often middle-aged or elderly anglophones, but their similarities ended there. Some were experts on the experiments at the Allan, with decades-old personal archives of their research. Others had not yet even received their relatives’ medical records. So at first, they posted links about Cameron’s experiments and similar ones. Then, one day, Marlene posted a couple of personal essays that her cousins had written about what it was like growing up with their de-patterned aunt. Hesitantly, others followed suit, writing about their relatives, while others sent encouragement through likes and comments.

Marian Read, the owner of an art gallery who lives in the neighbourhood of Parc Extension, posted a cracked, black-and-white photo of her family: her mother, father, and their three young children, all wearing conical party hats and smiling into a camera. The portrait had been taken shortly before the family was split apart—Marian’s mother went to the Allan for half a year in 1964, for reasons Marian doesn’t know. When she returned home, she was unable to raise her children. Social services judged her father, a salesman, too poor to care for the children, and Marian and her brothers became wards of the state. The rest of their childhoods unfolded in an orphanage and foster homes, including one, Marian recalls, where the foster parents locked her brothers in a shed whenever they had to leave. As a child, she told friends that the reason her mother was absent was because she was dead—anything but mentally ill. Now fifty-nine, she says that she has had a good life. But her brothers weren’t so lucky: abuse at their foster homes drove them to drugs, and eventually they became alcoholics. One developed schizophrenia and died an early death. 

As a child, Marian never spent time with her mother after she was released from the Allan. But an avenue had also opened for others to try to describe their experiences living with Cameron’s victims. Lana and Linda Mills, sisters from Chambly, Quebec, liked posts and commented on them, and began talking on the phone with Julie and other group members about growing up with their father. He had gone to the Allan for asthma treatment and returned home acting “like a kid,” Linda Mills says. Once, he accidentally started a fire in the basement, and he often lit his whole lawn on fire, seeing it as a good way to mow the grass. When Linda and Lana had children, he put his grandkids on top of his car and sped around, and once, he got his seven-year-old grandson so drunk the little boy was taken to the emergency room. When not manic, he suffered from nearly catatonic depressions. His mood swings were assumed at the time to be symptomatic of a mental illness, but his daughters later learned that they likely resulted from the experiments—it turned out that he had never suffered mood swings before going to the Allan.

In their youth, the sisters avoided bringing friends home. Their father was often dishevelled, sweaty, and had bad breath; he sometimes tracked dirt through the house because he’d walked through the garden barefoot. He might crack inappropriate jokes with his daughters’ friends, making them uncomfortable. “When he was depressive,” says Linda, “he was in the bedroom on the bed, so we would just go in and close the door, and we could sort of fake it that everything was good.” But the shame of having a “mental case” for a father hung over them, and sometimes, the sisters lashed out. “We would be upset,” Linda says, “and I’d be saying nasty things to him, and he’d just hang his head and say things like, ‘Oh, I’m no good,’ or ‘I’m not a good father.’” A code of silence at the time stifled conversation about any type of mental illness, but they were at a particular loss to describe what was happening to their dad, because they themselves did not understand it. “You’re so isolated growing up, because nobody else, none of your friends, have any idea,” says Lana Mills. “I really never spoke seriously to my friends about my Dad… back then, he was an embarrassment.”

Angela Bardosh told members of the Facebook group of how her mother, Nancy, went to the Allan when she was eighteen, in the early 1960s, years before Angela’s birth. She was suffering from depression, anxiety, and what psychiatrists deemed was delusional paranoia after a spate of sexual harassment incidents at her workplace. She was subjected to de-patterning and psychic driving three times, during one long stay, and returned from the Allan diagnosed, according to Cameron’s notes, as an acute ­schizophrenic. She was more aggressive, frequently defying her mother. But her problems lasted much longer. 

Angela recalls being twenty years old and “struggling to go to her apartment,” she says. “There were cockroaches everywhere. The cleanliness was horrible. She’d be living with her boxes… and it was just very cluttered. There was no sense of focus within her.” Nancy’s impaired ability to plan meant that she had trouble managing money, so as a young adult, Angela took it upon herself to teach her how to do “basic grocery shopping,” so that she’d have a bit of money left for other expenses. She tried “to assist her in developing some form of existence beyond just sleeping in bed and smoking two packs a day and trying to commit suicide via drinking Javex,” she says. “I am a mother to my own mother.”

For years, Angela longed to meet others who were in a similar situation. Shouldering so much responsibility for such an unusual burden made her feel isolated. “There’s so much frustration that you’re carrying with you,” she says. “I always said, ‘I wish, I wish, I wish I could meet with more people.’” She had tried talking to friends about the strain—not just of looking after a schizophrenic mother, but caring for a person who had been experimented on. But “they don’t understand it,” she says.

Julie noticed that while some people opened up about their experiences, others “really kept it to themselves.” Susan Boland was one. When she was seven years old, in 1958, her mother, Louise, had a baby boy. She had suffered postpartum depression after Susan, her first child, was born, and she was hospitalized so quickly after giving birth to her son that Susan recalls him arriving home in the arms of a nurse who began to raise him while Louise stayed at the Allan. When Louise came home on a visit, it was as if she was the newborn. “She was incontinent,” Susan says. When she came home for good, she had re-mastered toilet training, but   much else had been erased more permanently. “She no longer knew my name,” Susan says, and at one point forgot her own. 

The damage wreaked on Louise is impossible to imagine. “If you don’t have memories, you don’t have a personality,” Susan says. “We are a personality, the sum total of our experiences.” Susan’s father, a gifted storyteller and amateur filmmaker, thought of one solution. He would gather his wife and kids in the den and project old home movies. One showed the family unwrapping presents on Christmas morning in 1957, the year before Louise went to the Allan. “In the movie,” Susan said, “she’s full of life and blossoming with her pregnancy.” At one point, there’s a “little flirtatious moment” between Louise and her husband, who’s behind the camera. “She grabbed her pregnant belly and smiled at him,” Susan says. “What it underlines for me was how well she was at that point.” Louise was mesmerized by those home movies, and herself in them, watching them many times over. “All that it did was it gave her memories that she memorized,” Susan says. “She had hand-me-down facsimiles of memories.”

Louise learned who she was, but she was forever “completely non-functional,” Susan says, and “in terrible, terrible distress all the time.” She was constantly frightened, confused, or agitated, and a task as simple as washing dishes had become too complicated. Like many of the victims, she had no control over her anger, the triggers for which were unpredictable. So her family “learned to pussyfoot around her,” Susan says. “It becomes a very unrealistic, unsatisfying family relationship. Everything is just ‘pretty pretty.’ Everything is just ‘nice nice.’” 

The contrived calm that pervaded Susan’s home was stifling; her family members eventually interacted with that same artificial happiness even when Louise wasn’t around. “The rule that we lived by is a very British little saying that goes like this, ‘Least said, soonest mended.’” Or, in other words, “Keep your mouth shut.” 

Susan, now sixty-seven, says she keeps her distance from those around her, feeling “not comfortable” asking friends or family for support when she needs it. She also felt “not comfortable” telling any of this story within the Facebook groups, she says—she read what was written, never writing anything herself.

As Julie read people’s posts, she had an epiphany. She says that she had long believed that her father simply hated her for some unknowable reason. What had confused Julie even more was that he picked on her and largely ignored her two siblings. But then why, she wondered, after getting her father’s medical record, did the files record Charles as saying that his four-year-old daughter, Julie, was “the apple of his eye”? Reading others’ stories showed that most of Cameron’s victims “came home quite aggressive,” she says; learning that was a common after-effect of the experiments was “a huge relief.” At the same time, it created a new kind of pain—anger at her mother. She “never offered [the experiments] as an explanation for my father’s behaviour,” Julie says. “I think that maybe had I known when I was younger about what my father had been through, it would’ve made me a different person.”

Julie noticed another emotional transformation as the months went on, however. She began supporting people offline, speaking for hours with relatives of Cameron’s victims, racking up huge phone bills. She travelled around Montreal to assist people in parsing confusing medical records. In the process, she felt the emotional distance that she had, since childhood, put between herself and the outside world start to shrink. “I’ve always been so detached from people, but this has brought out a different side of me,” she said. “And I like that side of me.” 

As people like Julie broke the culture of silence they’d grown up with, they also began to realize that another kind of silence helped explain why Cameron’s experiments went ahead in the first place.

Cameron’s colleagues never spoke out against him, even though they had plenty of opportunity to; he published professional articles about his experiments, including one in which he likened them to “the breakdown of the individual under continuous interrogation.” In the late fifties, his work was even profiled in the popular magazine Weekend, in an article entitled “Canadian Psychiatrists Develop Beneficial Brain-washing.” Cameron told the reporter that “any technique that can leave a persisting imprint on one’s mind… can certainly cast light on what we presume is done under the heading brain-washing.” But, he continued, “we, of course, are engaged in a therapeutic attempt to help rebuild their personalities.” 

The era’s professional norms help explain how a psychiatrist could publicize such brutal experiments, compare them to brainwashing, and not create an uproar. It was only a decade prior, in 1947, that an American military tribunal at the Nuremberg Trials provided an international ethical framework for research involving human experimentation. Called the Nuremberg Code, it was a response to atrocities committed by Nazi physicians. (Remarkably, Cameron went to Nuremberg himself, to evaluate whether the Nazi Rudolf Hess was sane enough to stand trial, but left before the Nazi doctors were tried.)The Nuremberg Code inspired many medical professional associations to create similar ethical codes in the fifties, but these codes often didn’t translate into effective regulation until the sixties and even the seventies. 

The Code’s paramount principle was the need to obtain informed consent from subjects of experiments, but some psychiatrists found that idea to be infeasible, believing that mentally ill patients were too irrational or disoriented to make informed choices about their treatment. It was standard practice to conduct unsupervised experimentation, constrained only by a single man’s moral code, on patients who had given “general,” not “informed,” consent. At the time, too, the cultural convention was to defer to doctors. “They were gods,” Julie says. “You didn’t really question your doctor.” 

Among psychiatrists, alongside the lax ethical standards, there was a general frustration that so many mental illnesses remained untreatable. And Cameron’s contemporaries were hopeful that his experiments would yield treatments. By Cameron’s own account, his research seemed promising: he portrayed many subjects of his experiments as chronic cases for whom all else had failed. Research has since shown that he manipulated his studies to make his experiments appear more successful than they were.

Far from attracting widespread condemnation, Cameron’s publications attracted, in 1957, the attention of the CIA. Seven years earlier, the CIA had begun researching mind control in a project codenamed MKULTRA. CIA leaders feared that Communist regimes had developed brainwashing techniques, and they were scrambling to catch up. In the paranoid atmosphere of the Cold War, anything seemed possible: American prisoners of war divulging sensitive secrets unless they were trained in resisting brainwashing, and even a large-scale Communist takeover. But when the CIA learned that the Communist bloc possessed no such methods, it continued its research, considering it too potentially game-changing for espionage to abandon. The CIA started funding Cameron’s work, using a cover organization called the Society for Investigation of Human Ecology. 

In fact, there is no evidence that Cameron knew that the $64,242.54 ($578,148 in today’s dollars) he received from January 1957 to September 1960 came from the CIA. (The grant was even stamped with an order to keep Cameron unaware of CIA involvement.) Nor is there proof that the CIA influenced the direction of Cameron’s research. But what Cameron knew about the source of his funding, and whether the CIA directly influenced his research, will be forever shrouded in uncertainty: Cameron died in 1967 and the CIA destroyed many files about MKULTRA. 

The source of Cameron’s funding was unambiguous, however, when the Canadian government gave him $57,750 ($488,431 in today’s dollars) to work on two research projects involving de-patterning and psychic driving between 1961 and 1964. At that time, the federal government was funding medical research to help the provinces improve their health systems in preparation for introducing national health care. Psychiatry was one of the areas of medicine that required special attention, fortunately for Cameron. His grant proposals were reviewed by federal officials, evaluated by external psychiatric experts, and then assessed by a government sub-committee, which was standard practice. The proposals were approved both times.

The experiments might seem like an anomaly of Canadian history. But “I have to tell you one thing about our country: from the forties to the seventies, we have the ugliest past,” Julie says. “When you start doing research on the Allan, you just automatically get connected to other things, because it is connected to other things.” Julie points to parallels between Cameron’s experiments and the abuse suffered by the “Duplessis orphans.” In the forties and fifties, the autocratic Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis had thousands of orphans falsely diagnosed as mentally handicapped and housed in psychiatric hospitals, all because the hospitals received more federal funding than orphanages—it saved the province money. A 1997 report by the Quebec Ombudsman revealed that many of the orphans were sexually and physically abused. Some were lobotomized. Others suffered experimental electroshock therapies and were kept in straitjackets. 

In the same era, Indigenous children in residential schools across the country were subjected to experiments meant to test nutritional supplements and vaccines for tuberculosis; the malnutrition and high tuberculosis rates they already suffered at the schools made them ideal test subjects, from the researchers’ perspective. Female prisoners at Kingston’s Prison for Women were given electroshocks and LSD in psychiatric experiments during the fifties and sixties. And Julie likens MKULTRA to what happened at Oak Ridge, a division of a maximum-security mental hospital in Penetanguishene, Ontario. In June 2017, a judge ruled that doctors tortured patients from the sixties to the eighties by subjecting them to experimental therapies that included solitary confinement, handcuffing naked patients to one another for days, administering psychoactive drugs—and CIA-developed brainwashing techniques. With a rationale strikingly similar to Cameron’s, the Oak Ridge psychiatrist, Dr. Barker, believed he could break down the defence mechanisms of insane criminals and force them to face their deep-seated personality disorders.

Late last May, in a Montreal condo building, about forty people sat on rows of black folding chairs in the building’s common room. They were ready to make an announcement. 

Over the previous seven months, the victims’ families had formed a tight-knit community. Linda  felt “like somebody that’s adopted” who later finds their biological family, she says. The MKULTRA families, she says, were “able to tell our stories and to relate, and to understand.” She and her sister Lana had always felt guilty about the times they lost her temper at their father, and finally, they started to come to terms with those regrets. “I feel shameful, I feel guilty, I feel all these things,” Lana says, “but other people feel the same, you know?” For Angela, who cared for her mother, it was “like there’s a weight that’s been lifted because there’s others who are in the same situation,” she says. 

Their understanding extended even farther than Angela had first expected. Angela’s mother, now seventy-six, was awaiting surgery early this year. Angela started posting occasional health updates about her to the group, getting encouraging messages in response. Then Angela’s new friends took it a step further: shortly before the surgery, Angela brought her mother, Nancy, to Marlene’s condo in western Montreal to have dinner with Marlene and Julie. Nancy is still impaired in some ways; she slightly slurred and stuttered her words as she read aloud a letter she wrote to Angela years ago. “They destroyed many parts of me,” she read. “But I’m lucky to be alive, alive and happy to tell you the truth.” 

After the surgery, Marilyn Rappaport showed up at the hospital with a potted plant with yellow, red, and orange flowers. Marilyn had spent a lifetime helping look after her sister, who, to this day, refuses to believe that Marilyn is her sibling. That allowed her to establish a connection with Nancy more easily, Angela thought, helping, along with the others, to break down their feeling of isolation. “We all share that commonality,” she says.

Now, at the condo building, many members of the Facebook group were meeting in person for the first time. They were hosting a press conference, about to announce their plan to launch a class-action lawsuit against the federal government, the government of Quebec, and the Allan Memorial Institute on behalf not only of the victims of the experiments, but their families as well. The lawsuit seeks financial compensation, but many people want, even more than payment, for the government or the Allan Memorial Institute to publicly apologize. If that happens, “I told my sister, we’ll get a bottle of champagne and go down to [our father’s] gravesite and toast,” says Linda. 

Even an apology may be difficult to win, let alone a lawsuit. The federal government has never admitted wrongdoing for funding Cameron’s experiments. Nor has the province, which approved Cameron’s grant proposals, nor the Allan. (The federal Department of Justice didn’t respond to multiple requests for an interview. The Allan Memorial Institute and the office of Quebec’s attorney general also declined to comment.) And two previous lawsuits that were launched only on behalf of experiment victims were unsuccessful.

The rulings in those lawsuits were based in part, however, on the findings of a report that has been criticized as biased and incomplete. In the 1980s, nine former patients of Cameron’s sued the CIA, prompting the Canadian justice minister at the time to ask lawyer George Cooper to analyze whether the government was legally or morally responsible for funding Cameron’s experiments. In his report, Cooper concluded it wasn’t, stating that Cameron “acted incautiously, but not irresponsibly” in the context of “the climate and knowledge of the times.” If Cameron had experimented on patients who were not “severely disturbed,” the author wrote, his actions might then have “bordered on the irresponsible.” But Cooper, some victims’ families have pointed out, never interviewed any of the victims and never read even one of their medical records, by his own admission.

In the early 1990s, the federal government nonetheless gave ex gratia payments—money but no acknowledgment of legal liability—of $100,000 each to former patients who “received full or substantial de-patterning” between 1950 and 1965. There was a three-year window to apply for the payment, but it ended long ago. (This is the payment that Alison’s mother belatedly received and which she referenced when Julie’s sister saw her on the news). Of 332 people who applied for the payment, seventy-seven received compensation—some people were rejected on the grounds that they were not de-patterned enough, or because they were unable to obtain key documents proving their experience. 

Some of the victims’ relatives are now working with a lawyer, Alan Stein, to obtain compensation for all the victims’ families. Julie eventually lost faith in the way the preparation for the lawsuit was progressing, but thinking about the possibility that the lawsuit will fail fills her with frustration, she says. “I can’t go to my grave,” she says, “knowing that no one was held accountable.”

In May, on the day of their announcement, Julie walked up to a small lectern and faced the rest of the group. Wearing a blue cardigan, her auburn hair drawn back, she began telling the story of what had happened to her father—for the first time ever. She had never done so to family, nor to therapists. And in those initial conversations with Alison, Marilyn and Marlene, and then in the countless phone calls, emails, and Facebook messages that followed, she had only ever summarized the gist of what had happened to her father. He “was gone for over three months with no explanation,” she told the audience. “We saw a man who came home who didn’t know who we were, who didn’t even know who he was … I will never understand why they took a perfectly healthy man and turned him into a zombie.” It was only in that moment that she finally felt with certainty that she wasn’t alone, she says. “I guess their shocked responses kind of validated my feeling of ‘What nerve they had to do this!’… It was very good to get up and make that speech.” 

She ended by saying she wanted “dignity for our loved ones. And to find some peace and some closure.” The outcome of the lawsuit won’t likely be clear for years. But several months after the speech, Julie said that she’d had a dream where her father appeared, looking “great,” she says. “He was well-dressed, he was only able to communicate a few words, but he was able to say, ‘I love you,’ and he gave me a big hug,” she says. “I woke up like a frickin’ mess.”