"Their lives were ruined": Families of MK Ultra survivors planning class-action suit
By the time Phyllis Goldberg died in 2011, she’d spent the last 20 years of her life institutionalized – a “complete vegetable,” her niece recounts – an “infant.”
In the cracked sepia photograph Marlene Levenson holds, her aunt is a young, optimistic woman – only 19 years old, pursuing a career as a nurse.
But after an admission to the Allan Memorial Institute in 1945 to treat a bout of mild depression, Levenson says that something in her aunt snapped.
“When she would be with us, on weekends and so on, she didn’t communicate. She laughed for no reason. Her gait was very different,” Levenson explained. “She couldn’t dress herself – she couldn’t do anything for herself.”
Small moments of affection – a pat on the head between aunt and niece, for example – elicited painful reactions from Goldberg.
“When you went to pat her, just as a gesture, she would cringe,” Levenson said. “That bewildered me – not realizing, or understanding, she had electric shock equipment put on her head so many times that it [remained] in her subconscious.”
The extent of Goldberg’s treatment – or mistreatment – while in the care of Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron at the Allan Memorial Institute, would remain an encumbering family secret for years.
“There was a question mark all these years, but my parents didn’t want to talk about it,” Levenson said. “Quite frankly, I don’t think they knew the extent of what was done to her.”
Dr. Cameron – the first chairman of the World Psychiatric Association, and president of both American and Canadian psychiatric associations – was recruited by the CIA in the 1940’s after they caught wind of his “psychic driving” concept.
He had been hoping to correct schizophrenia by “erasing” existing memories and reprogramming the psyche. The CIA, however, sanctioned Cameron’s research in hopes it would one day be used to “crack” spies.
He was reportedly paid $69,000 between 1957 and 1964 to conduct experiments for MK Ultra – a mostly illegal venture that combined the use of paralytic drugs, shock therapy, LSD, medically-induced comas, and alleged sexual abuse. Some patients were exposed to repetitive messages for days.
As a result, Cameron’s “subjects” – Levenson’s aunt included – would suffer extreme personality changes, incontinence, amnesia, and in many cases, revert them to a state of child-like dependency.
On Sunday in Montreal, families of these survivors gathered to share their recollections and traumatic history through medical records, as they plan to file a class-action lawsuit against the provincial and federal governments, and possibly McGill University.
Though the statute of limitations has elapsed in many of the MK Ultra cases, families are seeking compensation and a public apology.
“I could not believe this was allowed,” Levenson said. “These were innocent people who went in for mild depression – even if it was severe depression, post-partum, neurological things that happened – they came out completely ravaged, and their life was ruined.”
Nancy Layton was also a teen when she was hospitalized at the Allan for mild depression. Her daughter, Angela Bardosh, said the treatment there ruined her mother’s life.
“It’s horrific to go back – for me, it took years to go back and read my mom’s medical records,” Bardosh explained.
“Within six months with the treatments that Dr. Cameron did, it turned her into an acute schizophrenic,” Bardosh added. “She suffered greatly through the mental health system.”
And Bardosh, in turn, suffered the side effects of growing up without a mother.
In 1992, then-justice minister Kim Campbell decided to compensate 77 former MK Ultra patients and offer a de-patterning program to assist with daily functioning.
However, many were denied financial compensation because they couldn't prove the psychological damage was directly linked to Cameron's experiments.
In some cases, the inpatient therapy took place outside the government’s window of consideration.
For example, two of Levenson’s surviving aunts applied for compensation during 1990’s, but because Goldberg was treated in 1948 – two years before the period of eligibility, according to Federal officials – the family could not proceed with their claim.
Even veteran lawyer Alan Stein, who demanded a judicial review and took several cases to the Federal court in the 1990's, wasn’t aware that Cameron was conducting experiments as early as the 1940’s.
Unlike prior "ex-gratia" restitution payments, or payments made of moral, rather than legal, obligation – a class-action suit requires extensive testimony and proof of damages.
“Certainly I believe we can claim moral damages and damages resulting from the detrimental effect that the treatments had on their behavior,” Stein said.
Stein will be overseeing the legal process as it moves forward, representing the families.
A class-action suit, Levenson said Sunday, would also be a direct acknowledgement of this dark period in Canadian history.
Just above the old photo of 19-year-old Phyllis Goldberg, Levenson typed an inscription summarizing her personal mission moving forward: “Like our loved ones making history for the wrong reasons, we are making history for the right reasons,” it reads. “We are their voices now.”