Not only did Cameron play a central role in developing contemporary U.S. torture techniques, but his experiments also offer a unique insight into the underlying logic of disaster capitalism. Like the free-market economists who are convinced that only a large-scale disastera great unmakingcan prepare the ground for their reforms, Cameron 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 hadnt paid attentionshe 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 livesthe 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 Gails medical file tell a heartbreaking 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. Camerons 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 behaviour, 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 featuresfar 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 Kastners 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 Kastners 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 Camerons 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 archaeologist 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.
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