Hazel McHaffie

Human experimentation

Sledgehammer drugs, induced comas, repeated electric shocks, brain washing, extreme forms of psychological torture, lobotomies … we’re into the stuff of nightmares, thrillers, and scary films. The Monkey-Puzzle TreeIn The Monkey-Puzzle Tree these are ‘treatments’ meted out by respected psychiatrists to vulnerable patients. But with sinister intent, for these scientists are actually testing techniques capable of turning innocent people into automatons who would do the CIA’s bidding even against their own will or moral scruples. Would even kill to order.

Pure fiction, huh? Not a bit of it. These torturous practices were actually practised … in my lifetime. During the 1950s and 60s the CIA instituted a series of experimental programmes in mind-control involving 144 universities, 15 research facilities/private companies, 12 hospitals and 3 prisons. Almost all of the subjects were unsuspecting American or Canadian citizens, ‘educated, productive, caring members of their community who for a brief time had ceased to function efficiently’; ordinary individuals who sought help for their problem (depression or chronic anxiety or drinking) from one of the top names in the country. None of them had irreversible mental problems or psychosis or schizophrenia when they presented, but after ‘treatment’ their sanity was permanently weakened. They were never the same again.

Author Elizabeth Nickson‘s mother was one of them. Simple postnatal depression brought her into the care of one of the psychiatrists leading these experiments, and he became a constant and malign influence in the Nickson’s family life.

Hard to believe that very few people were aware of these infamous regimes, even those snared at the heart of the web, but that was the case. Elizabeth, however, resolved to bring the reality to public attention in a novel way. She could have exposed the unvarnished truth as it actually happened to her family; instead she tells the bigger story in a way that’s intended to touch people more closely, more roundly – through fiction. In The Monkey-Puzzle Tree she is the narrator, Catherine, unwrapping the horror layer by layer ‘as warily as if it were a timebomb’, and then fighting to expose the injustice and barbarity. She stays close to her mother’s lived experience, retains the principal characters as they really were, but uses the literary device of fictionalisation to make the abuse even more gripping and immediate, if that’s possible.

WARNING: This post contains spoilers

The story begins with the attempted suicide of a young man of 31, Brian, and we’re instantly thrust deep into the psychiatric problems which beset the narrator’s family. Brian is her brother. Then, gradually, revelation by revelation, document by document, we learn of the ‘treatments’ inflicted on Catherine’s mother, ‘sweet innocent beautiful‘ Victoria Ramsey, following the birth of her children; ‘treatments’ which violate not just the Nuremberg Code but every decent code of behaviour. She and her co-victims were accorded no more moral worth than lab rats by the scientists in charge of the programmes. Moreover the things that were done to Victoria affected the whole family at a very profound level. Returning home after months of treatment the once lively vibrant mother is limp and grey, confused, darkly brooding, unreasonably fearful at times, absurdly hysterical at others. Her children ‘catch her moods like the flu’, they become resentful, needy, uncontrollable. The emotional and physical toll on them all is enormous and cumulative.

What’s more, the evil influences are still pervading the lives of Catherine’s family decades later. Phones are bugged. Nuisance calls happen at all hours. Parcels are tampered with. Cars are pranged. Viruses are blown into the face of Catherine herself in a supermarket. A bogus workman calls. Catherine’s father meets with a terrible accident. The threat becomes increasingly sinister.

Any attempt at bringing these cases to court has been thwarted at every turn by unseen forces, dragging them out till the plaintiffs are old and unnaturally infirm. And then Catherine herself gets involved in the fight; her life is again turned upside down.

Sunset Silhouette © kiwinz https://www.flickr.com/people/kiwinz/ Used under Creative Commons Licence 2.0

Monkey-puzzle tree. Sunset Silhouette © kiwinz https://www.flickr.com/people/kiwinz/
Used under Creative Commons Licence 2.0

In the midst of such terrifying horror it seems facetious to talk of writing styles, and yet, as a writer, I couldn’t help but admire the occasional flashes of literary delight.

‘He was pencil-thin, with a face God forgot to punctuate.’

‘… a small stiff, wiry hairdo of a woman ..’. 

‘A coven of black umbrellas hung furled on the railing on the steps down to the plane …’

‘Emotion was an embarrassing luxury, a fur coat worn on a sightseeing trip to the slums.’

This book is a sobering read because we know all along these nightmarish things really happened in the name of medicine.

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