Jim Wares: This crazy, crazy world
I learned that in 1953, Allen Dulles, Director of the CIA began a project code named MK Ultra. Mk Ultra was about developing truth serums, studying mind control, creating Manchurian candidates and exploring interrogation techniques…all the stuff spy novels were made of. Over the course of 20 years, the CIA funded over 150 separate research projects at major universities, hospitals, military bases and prisons. The CIA was intently interested in LSD. It was hoped that LSD could either be used as a truth serum or as a tool in psychic deconstruction…suspected to be a first step in controlling another’s mind.
The participants in these studies were not always willing or even aware they were being experimented on. Mental patients were giving daily electric shock treatments, not for any therapeutic reasons but as an attempt to erase their minds so they could be filled again with the thoughts of the CIA. A mental patient in Kentucky was dosed with LSD every day for 174 days. Thousands of soldiers, prisoners, doctors, CIA personal and the general public were surreptitiously dosed with LSD, observed and studied. In San Francisco, prostitutes were hired to bring their customers to safe houses where they were dosed with LSD, observed and filmed through one-way mirrors.
At the same time the CIA was conducting these experiments on unwitting Americans, there was a child prodigy with an IQ of 167 living in Evergreen Park, Ill. This kid, at 16 years old was accepted into Harvard’s math program. One can imagine the social difficulties associated with being a 16 year old living and studying beside twenty year olds. Because of the age difference, friendships, peer relations and social acceptance would be hindered. For such a person, normalcy would be an elusive thing.
While attending Harvard, this kid met the Director of the Harvard Psychological Clinic in the School of Arts and Sciences, Henry Murray. During WWII, Murray left Harvard and served as a lieutenant colonel for the Office of Strategic Services. His research was used in the selection of officers and spies for both the United States and British militaries and intelligence agencies. He participated in the report called the Analysis of the Personality of Adolph Hitler in which he predicted Hitler would commit suicide. After the war in 1947, Murray returned to Harvard as a chief researcher. Some of his research was funded by the CIA.
During the period between 1959-62, Murray conducted experiments on 22 Harvard students including the 16-year-old child prodigy. The students were led to believe the experiments were about something other than the deconstructing of the personality. The hope was to find a painless way to remove a person’s personality and replace it with something different…something of the researchers choosing.
By this time, electro-shock was the preferred method of erasing a person’s mind but it was soon found that once a person’s mind was erased using this method, the space where it once lived tended to become sort of unlivable. Murray’s job was to find a less intrusive, less abusive method to erase a person’s mind. For three years Murray subjected the 16 year old and 21 other students to psychological dismantling through use of bright lights, humiliation, isolation, sarcasm and belittlement…all of which was considered more humane than electro-shock.
Before the 16-year-old prodigy left home for Harvard, his high school counselor, Lois Skillen, wrote a letter of recommendation to Harvard. It said, “Of all the youngsters I have worked with at the college level, I believe (he) has one of the greatest contributions to make to society. He is reflective, sensitive, and deeply conscious of his responsibilities to society. … His only drawback is a tendency to be rather quiet in his original meetings with people, but most adults on our staff, and many people in the community who are mature find him easy to talk to, and very challenging intellectually. He has a number of friends among high school students, and seems to influence them to think more seriously.”
These are the contributions the 16-year-old prodigy, after he left Harvard, went on to make to society…he killed three people…severely wounded 23…was sentenced to life imprisoned without the possibility of parole. The kid’s name is Theodore John Kaczynski…the Unabomber.
There is something perversely satisfying about the story of Ted Kaczynski. Regardless of the actual influence the Harvard experiments had on his actions, it somehow lends a precarious sense to the senseless. In these past few years I, we, have often found ourselves trying to make sense of the senseless. With every child that dies in a school shooting, every time a man fires down on a crowd from a hotel balcony in Las Vegas or a Tower on a college campus, every church or mosque attacked, every trip wire discovered, every backpack full of explosives left on busy a sidewalk or package bomb mailed…we are left trying to make sense of the senseless.
There is an old, mostly outdated sociological theory once proposed by Émile Durkheim. Roughly described, it goes something like this…the more crazy a society becomes…the more crazies there will be. Now, the questionable veracity of such a statement notwithstanding, I sort of like it. I admit my reasons for liking this idea are flimsy. I like it because it not about what my government is going to do or not do about gun control. It’s not about my government spending or not spending vast amounts of money on mental health. It’s about me…about what I will or will not do…as a fragment of society…it’s about what I will do make my little fragment of society a little less crazy. I will not belittle, humiliate, bully or demean. I will not torture the tortured. I know. Doesn’t sound like much of an action plan to stop the craziness. But it’s something…something I can do. This is all I have learned today.
James Wares lives in Marshalltown and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org