Although he had been in contact with the agency for years, in 1957 Cameron got his first grant from the CIA, laundered through a front organization called the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology. And, as the CIA dollars poured in, the Allan Memorial Institute seemed less like a hospital and more like a macabre prison.
The first changes were the dramatically increased dosages of electroshock. The two psychiatrists who invented the controversial Page-Russell electroshock machine had recommended four treatments per patient, totaling twenty-four individual shocks. Cameron started using the machine on his patients twice a day for thirty days, a terrifying 360 individual shocks to each patientfar more than his earlier patients, like Gail, had received. To the already dizzying array of drugs he was giving his patients, he added more experimental, mind-altering ones that were of particular interest to the CIA: LSD and PCP.
He also added other weapons to his mind-blanking arsenal: sensory deprivation and extended sleep, a twin process he claimed would further reduce the defensiveness of the individual, making the patient more receptive to his taped messages. When the CIA dollars arrived, Cameron used the grant money to convert the old horse stables behind the hospital into isolation boxes. He also elaborately renovated the basement so that it contained a room he called the Isolation Chamber. He soundproofed the room, piped in white noise, turned off the lights and put dark goggles and rubber eardrums on each patient, as well as cardboard tubing on the hands and arms, preventing him from touching his bodythus interfering with his self image, as Cameron put it in a 1956 paper. But, where Hebbs students fled less intense sensory deprivation after only a couple of days, Cameron kept his patients in for weeks, with one of them trapped in the isolation box for thirty-five days.
Cameron further starved his patients senses in the so-called Sleep Room, where they were kept in drug-induced reverie for twenty to twenty-two hours a day, turned by nurses every two hours to prevent bed sores and wakened only for meals and to go to the toilet. Patients were kept in this state for fifteen to thirty days, though Cameron reported that some patients have been treated up to 65 days of continuous sleep. Hospital staffers were instructed not to allow patients to talk and not to give out any information about how long they would have to spend in the room. To make sure no one successfully escaped from this nightmare, Cameron gave one group of patients small doses of the drug Curare, which induces paralysis, making them literal prisoners in their own bodies.
In a 1960 paper, Cameron said there are two major factors that allow us to maintain a time and space imagethat allow us, in other words, to know where we are and who we are. Those two forces are (a) our continued sensory input, and (b) our memory. With electroshock, Cameron annihilated memory; with his isolation boxes, he annihilated sensory input. He was determined to force his patients to completely lose their sense of where they were in time and space. Realizing that some patients were keeping track of time of day based on their meals, Cameron ordered the kitchen to mix it all up, changing meal times and serving soup for breakfast and porridge for dinner. By varying these intervals and by changing the menu from the expected time we were able to break up this structuring, Cameron reported with satisfaction. Even so, he discovered that despite his best efforts, one patient had maintained a connection with the outside world by noting the very faint rumble of a plane that flew over the hospital every morning at nine.
To anyone familiar with the testimonies of torture survivors, this detail is a harrowing one. When prisoners are asked how they survived months or years of isolation and brutality, they often speak about hearing the ring of distant church bells, or the Muslim call to prayer, or children playing in a park nearby. When life is shrunk to the four walls of the prison cell, the rhythm of these outside sounds becomes a kind of lifeline, proof that the prisoner is still human, that there is a world beyond torture. Four times I heard the birds outside chirping with the rising sunthats how I know it was four days, said one survivor of Uruguays last dictatorship, recalling a particularly brutal stretch of torture. The unidentified woman in the basement of the Allan Memorial Institute, straining to hear the engine of an airplane through a haze of darkness, drugs and electroshock, was not a patient in the care of a doctor; she was, for all intents and purposes, a prisoner undergoing torture.
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