Book Review – Surviving Evil: CIA Mind Control Experiments in Vermont
While the CIA’s MK-ULTRA mind control research, and associated experimental programs concerned with interrogation, torture, and use of incapacitating agents and lethal weapons, involved many dozens, if not hundreds of top U.S. researchers, and cost many millions of dollars, actual testimony from its victims is extremely difficult to find.
Publishers, news agencies, and mainstream bloggers have shunned such stories, while most victims have been either too psychologically and physically damaged, or too frightened, to come forward. Others have been written off as “crazy.” Indeed, CIA stories about “mind control” have sometimes brought out persecutory delusions in the purely mentally ill.
An Involuntary Experimental Subject
But this is not one of those stories. This victim of CIA mind control research will not be dismissed, and her book, Surviving Evil – CIA Mind Control Experiments in Vermont, is largely the tale of how she documents what happened to her.
While former MK-ULTRA subject Karen Wetmore was made an involuntary subject of CIA experiments from the age of 13, and suffered from ongoing psychiatric breakdowns over the years, involving major depression, PTSD, serious dissociation (including dissociative identity disorder), autoimmune disorders and psychotic episodes, her journey from powerless victim to intrepid researcher, whistleblower, and champion of historical truth is admirable.
Wetmore used FOIA, wide-ranging research, and a dogged determination, to gather materials that would document what happened to her. In the course of her journey — meant to reconstruct her both her life and her sense of unified self — she discovered that the story was bigger than just her own life and experience. By luck or circumstance, she was trapped inside a tremendously large, bureaucratic, inhumane, covert program in mind control and interrogation research, run by the CIA and the Department of Defense, with tentacles spread throughout the government, academia, and medical and pharmaceutical companies and associations.
Surviving Evil is published by Manitou Comunications, a small firm owned by Colin A. Ross, M.D, who himself published an important book on the doctors who worked for the CIA in MK-ULTRA, and to whom Wetmore turned for advice and counsel during her journey. In the end, Ross helped her publish her memoir.
The book has all the strengths and a few of the weaknesses of a personal document and testimony. It is first of all an amazing story of Wetmore’s recovery from psychiatric illness and trauma, made all the more impressive when you realize that she was not only combatting her own psychic demons but also government agents who did not want her to tell her story, or even know what had happened to her. Just as frustrating is the lack of help or interest in those to who she repeatedly reached out for assistance, documentation, and just plain human empathy.
Luckily for Karen, at crucial times she found people who were supportive or sympathetic. None of these were probably more important than Kathy Judge, the therapist that guided her out of the hell that is Dissociative Identity Disorder. It worth noting that while the Vermont native was horribly abused by many doctors and other medical personnel — whose crime in many cases was silence in the face of unethical and illegal behavior — she finds some doctors and nurses to praise for their humanity, kindness, and assistance.
Karen Wetmore was psychiatrically hospitalized at Vermont State Hospital (VSH) in the 1960s and early 1970s, and spent years there and in other psychiatric facilities. She was given powerful antipsychotic and tranquilizing drugs (and also likely hallucinogens like LSD), massive electroshock therapy, metrazol chemically-induced shock, was straightjacketed for months, probably hypnotized, and also likely sexually abused.
Recovering a History
Wetmore has searched diligently for records of her treatment, but was told they were destroyed. Yet by persistence and possibly luck — including at one point a hint from an otherwise unhelpful CIA FOIA office — she was able to put together some of the story, finally finding a link between psychological testing she was given at VSH and the CIA’s MK-ULTRA testing psychologist, John Gittinger of Psychological Assessment Associates. (Gittinger’s story was recounted in John Marks’ classic book, Search for the Manchurian Candidate.)
Before she’s done, Wetmore impressively linked her abuse to the operations of top CIA researcher, Dr. Robert Hyde, and others who occupied powerful medical and academic positions in the 1950s-1970s. An earlier version of her story was published in an important newspaper investigation at the Rutland Herald in November 2008. Journalist Louis Porter concentrated on following the links between Hyde and VSH. It’s a rare instance of investigative journalism into the nationwide scandal that was MKULTRA (and associated programs), all-too-unique as for the most part researchers over the past 15 years have ignored the scandal. One major exception is H.P. Albarelli, who wrote an encyclopedic work on the subject, centered around the death of CIA-DoD researcher Frank Olson.
At one point in her book, Karen confronts Dr. Frederick Curlin, who had been Assistant Superintendent at VSH during part of her stay there. Her account of her conversation with the doctor is chilling. After telling Wetmore to look into his eyes, and telling her he will buy a plane or bus ticket so she can leave Vermont, Karen confronts Curlin:
“… Did you know that VSH was conducting CIA experiments?”
“Call me Doc. I love you Karen.”
“Are you CIA, Dr. Curlin?”
“Not every good Indian is a dead Indian. I do love you.”(p. 35)
The book is an exciting read, almost like a detective story, as Wetmore tries to put together the truth of what happened to her. At times the story rambles, and the book could sorely use an index. But in the end, her narrative holds together. When I looked up obscure references that relied on documentary evidence — like the very little known Rockland Project, or the matter involved in MK-ULTRA subproject 8 — the facts always checked out. Karen Wetmore has done her homework, and paid in blood and tears for having had to do it.
The narrative is often heart-breaking, and even the occasional repetitiveness works to help the reader understand how Karen’s story was revealed to her over long periods of time, with sporadic new pieces of information or memories added after many iterations. The intrusive and often partial memories are like the heavy, persistent, if sometimes halting music played by PTSD, that can’t be escaped.
In the end, I can’t review this as I would any book, for it’s not just any book. It is an historical document, and the voice within is authentic. Wetmore can be plaintive, angry, sometimes confused, but more often authoritative. In my mind, she is a hero. She opens new avenues for researchers.
The best example of this is her research into deaths at VSH during the period it was presumably a CIA research facility. Wetmore documents inpatient death rates at the hospital of 11-15% per year from 1953-1972. While I could not find what normal death rates in hospitals were during that period, a CDC document I found states that normal hospital inpatient death rates from 2000-2010 were 2-2.5%. I believe that rates from thirty years earlier could not have been much more. In any case, this is a prime example of work still yet to be done.
Surviving Evil is the testimony of a witness and must be respected. We all owe Karen Wetmore a debt of gratitude. I know the impulse is to turn away from such evil as she reports, but we owe it to her, and to ourselves, not to do that. The people who did terrible things to Karen, and hundreds or thousands of others, were never held to account for it. Now a new generation practices their dark arts at CIA black sites, Guantanamo, and who knows where else. The archives remain mostly closed. Thousands of documents have been destroyed. Some few voices are still trying to speak out. Here’s one. Listen.