Over the course of the day we spend talking, Gail often leans over to write something on a scrap of paper or a cigarette boxa 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, Gails mind has failed her; facts evaporate instantly, memories, if they are there (and many arent), are like snapshots scattered on the ground. Sometimes she will remember an incident perfectlywhat she calls a memory shardbut 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, shed say, I know who you are but I cant 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. Thats what I had to put up with! Gail had no idea what to make of her twins recriminations. Urinating on the floor? Demanding her nephews 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, Gails 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 experimentswhich reduced patients to preverbal, infantile stateshad been performed at McGill Universitys Allan Memorial Institute under the supervision of its director, Dr. Ewen Cameron. The CIAs 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 Camerons former patients got together and sued the CIA as well as the Canadian government, which had also funded Camerons 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 ailmentspostpartum depression, anxiety, even for help to deal with marital difficultiesand had been used, without their knowledge or permission, as human guinea pigs to satisfy the CIAs 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 plaintiffsat 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.
Copyright © 2007 by Naomi Klein All rights reserved.
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The Angel of Losses
"Family saga, mystery, and myth intersect in Feldman's debut novel." - Booklist
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