Columns > Published on April 18th, 2013

LURID: Losing My Mind Control - The Facts and Fictions of MKULTRA

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

Sometimes, history is more lurid than fiction. We may never know the full extent of MKULTRA, the CIA-sponsored, decades-long, multi-disciplinary investigation into mind control (mainly because large numbers of test subjects had no idea they were being experimented upon), but it has more tentacles than Cthulu. The program came into existence officially on April 13, 1953. It fed on political chimeras and pop culture paranoia, then spewed toxicity back into the zeitgeist. Sixty years later, it is still cited as a driving force behind news headlines, and continues to inspire fictional narratives in movies, novels, TV shows and comics.  When assessing MKULTRA’s legacy, it’s almost impossible to draw the line between conspiracy theories, dystopic sci-fi visions of “psych wars” and the scientific thinking about the malleability of the human mind. Happy birthday, then, MKULTRA, meta-narrative extraordinaire.  Such a shame outgoing CIA director Richard Helms ordered all your files destroyed back in ’73.

1953 is the date usually given as the official start of the project, but its murky origins can be traced back almost a decade prior to that.  MKULTRA evolved from Operation Paperclip, the widespread appropriation of Nazi scientists and their work by the Allies at the end of World War Two.  Long before Hitler put a bullet in his brain in a Berlin bunker, the Allies had been eyeing various Third Reich research and development projects with envy – especially their U-boats and V-series rockets.  The Nazi master plan revolved around technological as well as military dominance, and scientific programs were enthusiastically resourced. It wasn’t just engineers who enjoyed state support.  Nazi-sanctioned biological scientists, unfettered by the usual ethical considerations attached to human experimentation, had the freedom – and camps full of subjects – to explore the limits of the human mind and body.  Rather than let the Soviets benefit from this fount of knowledge, the U.S. government hired all the top Nazi guys, sanitized their war records, and smuggled them onto American soil in direct contravention of stated immigration policy (President Truman wanted anyone found “to have been a member of the Nazi party and more than a nominal participant in its activities, or an active supporter of Naziism or militarism" expressly excluded from obtaining a U.S. visa).

In the wake of The Manchurian Candidate’s impact on the zeitgeist, other writers were picking up on the scientific theory of mind control and weaving it into their lurid fiction.

Then, these newly-minted citizens, men who had honed their skills pumping mescaline and morphine into terrified prisoners in Dachau and Auschwitz-Birkenau, were put to work for their new masters for a new ideological conflict, the all-encompassing deadlock of the Cold War.  The broad scientific goals were inspired by the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s; the U.S.A. was interested in extracting information through torture, eradicating dissent, controlling behavior, triggering amnesia and reprogramming identity – via methods that could be applied to a general populace or individual agents.  But, where Mao, Stalin and Hitler had used brute physical force to ensure that citizens complied with their thought police, the Americans wanted to take a less obvious approach.

The big question they asked was “Can we get control of an individual to the point where he will do our bidding against his will and even against fundamental laws of nature, such as self-preservation?” This has grim echoes of Winston Smith’s re-education in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Hypnosis and drugs were the keys to this brave new world.  They left no black eyes or burn marks as evidence that an individual’s resistance had been forcibly broken, and no cages full of ravenous rats were required.  The German expatriate scientists shared research (and their cavalier research methods) with American university departments as well as individual doctors, psychiatrists, and even hypnotists, and MKULTRA was born.

In retrospect, MKULTRA sounds like science fiction — the testing of mind-altering substances on unwitting citizens in a systematic effort to examine their reactions under operationally realistic conditions.  The initial stages of the project involved feeding LSD to unsuspecting individuals. CIA personnel would spike each other’s beverages, and sit back and watch their colleagues run amok.  Casualties included Dr. Frank Olson, an Army bacteriologist, who defenestrated nine days after drinking LSD-laced Cointreau.  His family is still fighting a legal battle over compensation for his state-sanctioned murder.

Assisted by Col. George H. White, (a colorful federal narcotics agent and CIA consultant, described as an old-fashioned “rock-em, sock-em cop”), the CIA set up ‘safe houses’, complete with two-way mirrors, and populated them with hookers, junkies, dealers, petty criminals and other lowlifes.  They’d dose this group with acid, and watch what happened, smug in the knowledge that, even if any of these subjects figured out they were being used for an experiment, their stories would never be believed.  In a letter to Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, chief of the Chemical Division of the Technical Services Division of the CIA (and the man with overall responsibility for the program), White described his memories of MKULTRA as "fun, fun, fun.  Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill and cheat, steal, deceive, rape and pillage, with the sanction and blessing of the all-highest?”

Not content with the data gained from watching hallucinogen-driven sex between hookers and their johns, MKULTRA launched a campus recruitment drive, looking for more self-aware subjects who would be told they were taking part in an experiment, without knowing the true purpose of the drug tests. Their policy of using university students backfired somewhat when the kids began to enjoy their mind-altered experiences and decided to tune in and turn on without government help – the counter-culture of the 1960s is one of MKULTRA’s more impressive side effects.

Yet, in the corridors of power, messing with a generation’s minds was deemed entirely acceptable policy – because that’s what the enemy was doing.  The forces of Communism were annexing the minds of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. These were the glory years of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, the Hollywood Blacklist was in full effect, and high-ranking journalists and government officials were being unmasked as Soviet agents.  Newspaper headlines, pulp thrillers and B-movies stoked fear of ‘the Red Menace’ and ‘the Enemy Within’ and the U.S. conducted its very own show trial, leading to the conviction and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.  Desperate times require desperate measures: brainwashing.

This term, like all the best neologisms, was coined by a journalist, Edward Hunter.  In 1950, he took it from the Chinese phrase (xǐ năo, "wash brain") used by Maoists to describe the favored techniques for overcoming ideological dissent (sleep and sensory deprivation, filthy living conditions, auditory and psychological harassment, group pressure) and applied it to the dazed and confused prisoners of war being shipped back from Korea.  There was no concrete evidence to suggest the POWs had been subjected to anything but regular-issue torture, using methods that have been around since at least the days when the Spanish Inquisition were hunting witches.  Nonetheless, Hunter – who had served as a spy during his foreign correspondent years in Japan and China – assumed that an iniquitous new scientific method had to be at work, sinister enough to be worthy of the Atomic Age.

Richard Condon’s 1959 novel, The Manchurian Candidate distills the essence of the era.  Although a synopsis suggests the book is a terrifying thriller (an American marine, Raymond Shaw, taken prisoner in Korea returns to his native country reprogrammed as a political assassin, ready to respond to a trigger word from his handlers), it functions as sharp social satire.  Condon says his aim was comedy, rather than feeding paranoia.

As a writer, I just clean house and point out stains on the carpet… Brainwashing existed in 1959; the very word had people terrified.  It was like science fiction.  McCarthy existed.  Antagonism with Russia existed.  At the time I was writing The Manchurian Candidate, all that was business as usual.  What I did was point things out with melodramatic humor.

Much of the humor stems from the acidic portrayal of ‘Raymond’s mother’ (she’s never given a proper name), a self-serving Senator’s wife with Daddy issues that would make Electra blush.  Depicted as a political animal in every cell of her ice-blonde being, she would do anything to

claw out recognition for herself within her chosen community.  Her ambition was an extremely distressing condition.  She sought power the way a superstitious man might look for a four-leaf clover.  She didn’t care where she found it. It would make no difference if it were growing out of a manure pile.

Once he falls into the hands of the Koreans (and their Soviet and Chinese allies), her son is presented as an ideal candidate for brainwashing – he’s been manipulated for his mother’s political ends since before he was born, after all – and his mother’s position and influence put him above suspicion.  Raymond’s been programmed via hypnosis to respond to the appearance of a Red Queen in a game of solitaire.  This puts him into a trance, ready to absorb and obey orders, without his conscious mind having any memory of the assignment.  He becomes what the MKULTRA scientists were hoping to create – a perfect assassin.

MKULTRA supplies a compelling and still-resonant meta-narrative, arcing from World War Two to the present day, giving us a jumping-off point for all kinds of current stories

The book attracted a lot of attention, but wasn’t a major bestseller.  The movie, released in 1962 and starring Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh, was picketed by both anti-Communist and Communist groups, but wasn’t a huge box office success.  However, the events of November 22, 1963 bathed Condon’s “melodramatic humor” in a whole new light. Had political satire become historical fact? Was Lee Harvey Oswald pre-programmed by the CIA/the Mafia/anti-Castro Cubans/the Soviets (insert conspiracy theory of choice) to fire shots across Dealey Plaza?  The term “Manchurian Candidate” embedded itself in the socio-political lexicon, and became even more resonant as the 1960s wore on, and more lone, confused gunmen failed to offer a satisfactory explanation for their acts. 

In 1963, of course, no one outside the project knew much about the scope of MKULTRA’s activities, but in the wake of The Manchurian Candidate’s impact on the zeitgeist, other writers were picking up on the scientific theory of mind control and weaving it into their lurid fiction.  In a grotesque example of art imitating life, the covert activities of MKULTRA mirrored some of the darkest places of these authors’ imaginations.  Fictional mad scientists have always maintained a close kinship with their real-life counterparts – otherwise we wouldn’t find them frightening.

Dr. Ewen Cameron was an eminent psychiatrist who, unbeknownst to his patients, worked for MKULTRA from 1957 to 1964.  He commuted from New York to Montreal, where he subjected his patients at the McGill Allan Memorial Institute to his theories about “psychic driving” and “depatterning” – all in the name of national security. His techniques included enforced coma (or “sleep therapy”), sensory deprivation, electro-convulsive therapy (at many, many times the usual levels) and incapacitating muscle relaxants. His stated aim was to wipe the psychological slate clean, removing the broken or traumatized personality, so patients could rebuild themselves as mentally healthy beings.  The experiments resulted in prosopagnosia (inability to recognize faces), incontinence, amnesia, and some subjects had to relearn basic language and motor skills.  Given that most of the people in Cameron’s waiting room were suffering from minor depression or anxiety  — as opposed to full-blown schizophrenia – these methods were extreme to say the least.

Although the full horror of Cameron’s experiments wouldn’t be revealed until the Senate Intelligence Committee began its investigation into MKULTRA in 1976, the thinking behind them echoes through speculative fiction of the time.  He brings to mind Dr. Benway in William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1959), “an expert on all phases of interrogation, brainwashing and control.”  In The Quaker Cannon by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth  (collected in The Wonder Effect 1961), the Korean War is re-imagined as a war against the Utilitarians or Utes.  The Chinese use “Blank Tanks” to crack mental resistance in prisoners:

The Blank Tanks are more than deafness.  In them a man is blind, even to the red fog that reaches through closed eyelids.  There is nothing to smell.  There is nothing to taste.  There is nothing except the swaddling-cloths… It is something like being unborn and something like never having been at all.  There is nothing, absolutely nothing, and although you are not dead you are not alive either.

James Kennaway’s The Mind Benders (1963), is set in Oxford in the wake of the suicide of Professor Sharpey, director of a program of mind-control experiments based around the idea of sensory deprivation (described as “the first experiments in the physics of the soul.”)   In an attempt to clear his boss’s name, his assistant, Longman, exposes himself to the same procedures:

When a man is submerged in this tank all sensations can be reduced to a minimum. He is utterly isolated; lonely, bewildered. Studying his behaviour in these conditions we find we have stepped into a new and frightening world.

Unfortunately for Longman, it’s a one-way trip, and he finds himself losing his grip on his mind, and the principles he once thought to be unshakable. “When pain and panic are extended this far there can be no identity.”

Anthony Burgess also explores mind control in A Clockwork Orange (1962).  Violent sexual predator and killer, “wretched hoodlum” Alex is subjected to ‘the Ludovico Technique’.  This involves an extreme form of aversion therapy, whereby Alex is injected with nausea-inducing drugs “while they flashed nasty bits of ultra-violence on the screen”.  Pretty soon, the sight of a kicking boot or a punching fist or a spot of vigorous tolchocking is enough to reduce him to a vomiting, sniveling wreck, with a massive pain in the gulliver.  But, says the presiding physician, Dr. Brodsky, it’s not quite enough.

You’re not cured yet. There’s still a lot to be done. Only when your body reacts promptly and violently to violence, as to a snake, without further help from us, without medication, only then—

Eventually, Alex reaches the required level of reaction to the thought of violence. A delighted audience of VIPs watches as he recoils from making even the barest attempt to defend himself from physical assault.  The only voice of opposition raised belongs to the prison chaplain:

He has no real choice, has he? Self-interest, fear of physical pain, drove him to that grotesque act of self-abasement. Its insincerity was clearly to be seen. He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice.

At least Alex is aware of what’s happening to him, although he’s powerless to resist his reconditioning.  This is a novel.  Even an impotent victim like Alex exists within a logical framework of authorial intent.   The real participants in MKULTRA’s mind control experiments had no such underlying narrative structure to give their story shape, or even any semblance of sanity.

Throughout the 1960s, leading fashion model Candy Jones was completely unaware that she was undertaking covert missions in the U.S. and abroad as “Arlene Grant”, an alter personality controlled by a hypnotist and CIA handler.   It was only when she got married – to talk radio host “Long” John Nebel – at the end of 1972 that anyone noticed anything amiss.  Nebel, disturbed by what he perceived as unpleasant shifts in his new wife’s personality, hypnotized Candy, and was amazed by the torrid tale that came tumbling out.  The Control of Candy Jones (1976) by Donald Bain is pieced together from the recordings made of the hypnosis sessions.

Candy’s story is a twisted take on the American Dream.  Born Jessica Wilcox in Atlantic City in 1925, she survived a lonely childhood dominated by an abusive mother.  She took comfort in a group of imaginary friends, one of whom she named Arlene.  Jessica grew into a statuesque blonde, and, after a name change to ‘Candy Jones’ at the behest of her modeling agency, became one of the most recognizable pin-ups gracing magazine covers and billboards in the 1940s.  Naturally, she did her patriotic duty during World War Two, and entertained GIs in the Pacific as part of a theatrical revue.  A bout of malaria and ‘jungle rot’ put her into a field hospital in the Philippines in 1945, where she met a young medic called Gilbert Jensen.  Fifteen years later they met again in Oakland, in circumstances that were to transform Candy’s life.

During nightly hypnotism sessions, Nebel coaxed the story out of Candy of how Jensen hypnotized her with the intention of using her for secret missions for the CIA.  Short on cash after a failed marriage, Candy agreed to undertake simple messenger duties for one of her CIA contacts.  One of her letter drops was at Gilbert Jensen’s office.  He was tasked with exploiting their previous acquaintance  — and various MKULTRA-developed drugs and hypnotic techniques — and turning her into an independent CIA contractor.  When her ‘alter’ Arlene emerged during one session (it’s not uncommon for abused children to generate alternate personalities to help them deal with the trauma), Jensen latched onto her as a viable covert identity for Candy.  Arlene was the opposite to Candy, tough, strong-willed, sarcastic, and very protective of her alter-ego. Jensen trained Arlene to dominate Candy’s consciousness.  When she heard the trigger (usually a sequence of electronic sounds over the telephone), Arlene would don a brunette wig and await further commands, going wherever Jensen told her.  Often, her mission involved being subjected to sadistic sexual humiliation. Jensen delighted in showing off the total compliance of his subject, and, on one occasion, made her insert a lit candle into her vagina in front of an audience of CIA operatives.  Candy had no conscious memory of this, but became distressed at the sight of flickering candles in a restaurant.

There are many bizarre elements to Candy’s story.  It’s possible that Nebel made the whole thing up, or that he inadvertently implanted false memories during hypnosis (he had no previous experience).  It’s possible that Candy suffered from dissociative identity disorder, and created Arlene as a glamorous, tough-as-nails, fictional alter.  It’s also possible that Nebel, Candy and Bain were involved in some murky CIA disinformation campaign to suggest to the Soviets that MKULTRA had produced a network of Manchurian Candidates, and that even someone as high-profile as Candy Jones could, when triggered, perform as a deadly assassin. It’s difficult to dismiss the story entirely, as there’s supporting evidence in the form of a passport photo of Arlene/Candy, and a letter Candy wrote to her attorney, explaining that she sometimes went by the name of “Arlene Grant” and issuing instructions in case of her death “due to an accident or sudden illness.” The truth, as ever, is elusive, and very probably stranger than any fiction.  Nonetheless, The Control of Candy Jones is a fascinating read, and its influence can be seen most recently in Joss Whedon’s 2009 TV show, Dollhouse.

MKULTRA wound down during the later 1960s and was officially halted in 1973.  Despite the millions of dollars spent, the lives sacrificed, and the human rights violated, the CIA was unable to achieve their goal of total mind control. Their scientists were never able to make Richard Condon’s fictional Manchurian Candidate a reality, or even reprogram the hard-wiring of a reprobate like Alex in A Clockwork Orange. MKULTRA’s legacy lives on however, in the rumors woven into conspiracy theories about Jonestown and Waco.  In The Men Who Stare At Goats (2004) Jon Ronson explores ongoing attempts by the U.S. military to harness the power of the mind for national security purposes.  In Shock Doctrine (2007), Naomi Klein suggests techniques developed under the MKULTRA umbrella became the notorious KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation manual, used by the CIA to train death squads in Latin America in the 1980s, and as the basis for the regime at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay over the past decade.  MKULTRA supplies a compelling and still-resonant meta-narrative, arcing from World War Two to the present day, giving us a jumping-off point for all kinds of current stories, from the latest Danny Boyle movie, Trance, to speculation about Colorado spree-killer James Holmes.  But, for now, the nightmare visions of novelists like George Orwell, William Burroughs, James Kennaway and Anthony Burgess remain mostly in the realm of fiction.  Your mind is still your own.

Or perhaps that’s just what They want you to think?

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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