October 21, 2020
The following story is based on material from the CBC podcast Brainwashed, a six-part series co-produced with The Fifth Estate that investigates the CIA's covert mind-control experiments — from the Cold War and MK-ULTRA to the so-called U.S. war on terror. The series is available on CBC Listen, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.
When Lloyd Schrier tells his story, it sounds more like a conspiracy than his family's tragic past.
But many of the details are laid out in a thick file of documents, correspondences and reports. He has news articles and pictures spanning decades, all describing what his family went through. And he has his mother's heartwrenching medical report that is still hard for him to comprehend.
"She had her 30th and last day of sleep on March 24th," Schrier said as he read from the 1960 hospital record.
"They gave her all the drugs … about four or five barbiturates and amphetamines at a time."
Esther Schrier received electroshock therapy, massive amounts of drugs and so-called psychiatric treatments that sound as if they were lifted from the pages of George Orwell's dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
She was a patient at Montreal’s Allan Memorial Institute in the 1960s. She had gone to "the Allan," as the hospital is known, to seek treatment for what today would be considered anxiety or postpartum depression.
But once she walked through those hospital doors and into the care of a psychiatrist named Dr. Ewen Cameron, she became an unwitting experiment subject for a massive CIA brainwashing operation codenamed MK-ULTRA.
And Schrier was part of this clandestine program, too, because his mother was pregnant with him at the time.
"It's crazy," said Schrier. "I don't think it was fair to do that to a developing fetus."
Schrier is now 60 years old, semi-retired, living in Toronto and still fighting to be recognized as an experiment victim.
Hundreds of relatives whose loved ones were experimented upon by Cameron are now demanding compensation for family members and an apology from the Canadian government.
Canada has never provided a list of the victims of the experiments that took place during Cameron's tenure from 1943 to 1964. In the decades since, no government has ever admitted liability, let alone apologized — despite the fact that part of the experiments in Montreal were funded not only by the CIA, but also by the Canadian government.
"I think eventually they should come out with the truth. I think after all this time I don't know what they're trying to prove, who they're trying to protect. I don't think it's right," said Schrier. "I think they should come out and just, you know, deal with it."
To "deal with it" means acknowledging the legacy of a dark period that still reverberates today.
The idea of mind control has been constantly revisited by governments in periods of fear and uncertainty.
For Schrier and other relatives who have launched two separate lawsuits against the Canadian government and others, their mission is personal. They say their lives were irrevocably damaged by what happened. Families split up. Children were placed in foster homes. The trauma has been generational.
But the story of MK-ULTRA isn't just relegated to Cold War history.
The idea of mind control — the theory that breaking a person down will make them do something against their will — has been constantly revisited by governments during other periods of fear and uncertainty, when the military and medicine collide.
What happened at Montreal's Allan Memorial Institute laid the groundwork for torture spanning decades to follow.
- Listen to Episode 1 | Psychiatric patients treated as human guinea pigs:
Lloyd Schrier's mother, Esther, had a difficult childhood, losing both her parents at an early age. In 1936, when she was four years old, her father died. Slightly more than a year later, her mother was diagnosed with a brain tumour and given a lobotomy. Unable to look after her children, she was committed to a psychiatric institution.
Esther and her older brother were moved around from the care of relatives and to foster homes, and suffered wherever they went.
But she was resilient and smart. In her late teens, she trained as a nurse and got a job at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. She met her future husband, Haskell Schrier, on a blind date. After they married in 1955, the couple became a fixture in Montreal's Jewish social scene.
Three years later, after an uneventful pregnancy, she gave birth to their first child, a baby girl they named Lynn Carole. But the baby died of a staph infection when she was just three weeks old, and Esther struggled with her grief. Medical records show she felt she was responsible for her daughter's death.
When she was pregnant again, two years later, she was still struggling with this guilt. Part of her "condition" identified in her medical records when she was admitted to the Allan was her anxiety over possibly losing another baby.
Haskell Schrier had read an article about Cameron and was impressed by the Allan's reputation for offering cutting edge psychiatric care.
"Oh, 'He was God-like,' they would say," said Lloyd Schrier. "I think he was head of the Canadian and the American psychiatric associations. And even the World Psychiatric Association."
Cameron, a Scottish-born American psychiatrist, did hold all those titles at various points in his career, and he was the first director of the Allan.
What wasn't known, until many years later, was that Cameron's reputation also came to the attention of the CIA. They were interested in his psychiatric research that involved extreme sensory deprivation, drugs, and an intense repetition of recorded messages.
Three years after the CIA launched MK-ULTRA, they approached Cameron through the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology, a research foundation and one of their front organizations through which they funnelled money. They encouraged him to apply for a grant, which he did, and quickly received. From January 1957 to September 1960, the CIA gave Cameron $60,000 US, equivalent to slightly more than $500,000 today.
Esther Schrier entered the hospital in February 1960 to receive what her family thought was the best care money could buy.
But her medical notes show disregard for her well-being and that of her unborn child right from the start.
She spent 30 days in what was called the "sleep room," a place where patients were put in a drug-induced coma and roused only for three feedings and bathroom breaks per day. She lost 13 pounds that month. Her records show she couldn't stand up because she was too weak.
She also underwent a treatment called "depatterning."
Cameron believed that breaking down a patient's minds to a childlike state — through drugs and electroshock therapy — would allow him to work from a clean slate, whereby he could then reprogram the patients. Part of his reprogramming regime would involve what he dubbed "psychic driving," which meant playing recorded messages to the patients for up to 20 hours a day, whether they were asleep or awake.
These voices were played through headphones, helmets or speakers, sometimes installed right inside a patient's pillow. Records show some patients would hear these messages up to half a million times.
By March 12, 1960, Esther Schrier's medical records state that she was "considered completely depatterned." She was incontinent, mute and had trouble swallowing.
"That's crazy, to do that to a pregnant woman," said her son. "When she woke from the sleep room, she didn't know who my father was. She didn't know it was her husband. I guess she didn't know anything. You know, she used to tell me she had to relearn everything."
Lloyd Schrier remembers his mother telling him that among the many things she forgot was how to boil water.
Several times during her treatments, she developed gynecological symptoms. Her records indicate she started to bleed and they brought in an obstetrician to treat her.
They would let her rest for four or five days and then resume treatments. Cameron's notes say that on Aug. 17, 1960, six months after she entered the Allan, she had 29 electroshock treatments, with most of them of the extreme variety he was using. But because she was "now in her eighth month of pregnancy," the treatments stopped.
On Sept. 27, 1960, Lloyd was born, and Esther Schrier said she felt helpless. She couldn't remember basic life functions, let alone how to take care of a newborn.
Years later, in a 2004 BBC Scotland interview, Esther Schrier recalled how lost she had been.
"I had a new baby, and I didn't know what to do with the baby. I had help, a baby nurse, but she had to have a day off and she left me a book, and I'll just give you a little example [from the book]: 'When you hear the baby cry, go to the room. Pick up baby and step by step how to feed the baby,' and that was very frightening."
Esther and Haskell Schrier are now deceased. She died of cancer in 2017 at the age of 84 and despite all she went through and what she lost, her son said she managed to live a full life and they remained close.
And he feels he was fortunate despite having lived under the dark shadow of what happened to his mother and uncertainty of how it impacted his health.
Many patients of Cameron emerged from the Allan completely broken, unable to find their way back to the lives they once lived. Relatives from across Canada have reached out to the CBC, describing the ongoing trauma the experiments have caused. Families were ripped apart by divorce or children were taken to foster homes. The grief rippled outward and spanned generations.
"I think I was lucky. I think the only side-effects that I know of, I guess in school, I was a bit slow in the beginning," said Lloyd Schrier.
"But I ended up going through high school, and I went, we have in Montreal CEGEP, I did the two years, and then I went on to McGill, and I did a bachelor of commerce. So … I was able to get my degrees and everything." But, he said, "I will never know what I could have been."
- Listen to Episode 2 | Dr. Ewen Cameron's experiments.
While MK-ULTRA officially ended in 1963, the mind-control experiments continued to echo into the early years of the 21s century, reaching from one amorphously named war to another: the Cold War to the U.S. war on terror.
Hundreds of captives who were rounded up after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks ended up the U.S. offshore prison on the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
But the CIA was also holding those they considered "high-value detainees" in a network of secret prisons around the world that were collectively known as black sites.
These men were considered prized captives and their interrogators believed they might have information about impending attacks. They wanted answers, and they wanted them fast.
In 2002, in a secret CIA prison in Thailand, the FBI interrogated a prisoner named Abu Zubaydah. He had been shot and captured during a raid in Pakistan. The FBI had used traditional interrogation techniques, including what they termed "rapport-building," to try to earn his trust.
But the CIA didn’t think they were getting the answers they needed from him, so the agency turned to two psychologist contractors they had paid more than $80 million US to develop a new interrogation regime. It had been euphemistically named "enhanced interrogation techniques" and Abu Zubaydah was the first test case.
- Listen to Episode 3|The shocking truth behind MK-ULTRA.
The "techniques" that psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen devised included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, confinement boxes, shackling and exposing detainees to extreme temperatures, sounds and pain.
The details of what happened to Abu Zubaydah are contained in the 6,700-page U.S. Senate intelligence committee report on torture, which was released in 2014, although only a 549-page executive summary has been declassified.
An excerpt: "After Abu Zubaydah had been in complete isolation for 47 days, the most aggressive interrogation phase began.… Security personnel entered the cell, shackled and hooded Abu Zubaydah.… The interrogators then removed the hood, performed an attention grab, and had Abu Zubaydah watch while a large confinement box was brought into the cell and laid on the floor."
- Listen to Episode 4 | How do you sue one of the most powerful agencies in the world?
The Senate report goes on to describe in detail how over 19 days of torture, on a "near 24-hour-per-day basis," he was waterboarded 83 times, placed in the coffin-like wooden box, held naked and his body contorted into stress positions.
The report states: "After the use of the enhanced interrogation techniques ended, CIA personnel at the detention site concluded that Abu Zubaydah had been truthful and that he did not possess any new terrorist threat information."
At least 118 detainees were subjected to this type of tortured interrogation.
"I think it's important [to note] that Mitchell and Jessen really were not the wizards that designed and imagined the program," said retired U.S. army general and psychiatrist Stephen Xenakis. "I do think that they were used by authorities above them in the agency and probably the White House to come up with something like that."
Xenakis specializes in treating post-traumatic stress disorder and has worked extensively with soldiers and veterans, as well as Guantanamo detainees and former captives from the CIA black sites.
"I think that essentially what they based their understanding on was bad science, completely not validated in any way," he said. "There’s no reason to think that it would have any positive effect to be useful."
And that "bad science" reaches all the way back to Cameron's work at the Allan.
WATCH | In 1980, The Fifth Estate interviewed two Canadians who went through the MK-ULTRA program:
As Kinzer notes in his book, even after MK-ULTRA was shut down, the CIA’s fascination about mind control continued. In the early 1960s, some of the experiments from MK-ULTRA were detailed in the CIA’s Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation Manual.
Over 128 pages, the Kubark manual suggests interrogation methods, including "deprivation of sensory stimuli, threats and fear, pain, hypnosis and narcosis," and long sections devoted to sensory deprivation, which was drawn from "a number of experiments at McGill University."
Kubark relies directly on Cameron's work at McGill University, which the Allen is part of, and his theory that to make a mind malleable, you need to break it down to an infantile state.
By the 1980s, the CIA had devised the Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual (HRE), which was essentially an updated version of Kubark. As a Baltimore Sun investigation revealed in 1997, Honduran military forces accused of kidnapping, torture and murder had been trained by the CIA and were using the HRE.
Then came the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques.
"The idea that people were going to produce truthful information, valid information, in those states of mind had never, ever been established," said Xenakis.
"We knew from lots of records of PoWs – I, in fact in the '70s, interviewed a number of PoWs coming out of Vietnam – that they didn't produce good information when they were under high duress, when they were tortured. They just said what they needed to say to stop it."
- Listen to Episode 5 | The torturous experiments were supposed to end in the 1960s. They didn't.
Only twice in the years since Cameron experimented on psychiatric patients has their suffering been officially acknowledged. For the victims and their families, both times fell short of what they were seeking.
Nine patients of Cameron sued the CIA in the U.S. in the 1980s for their treatment as part of MK-ULTRA. It became a landmark case when it was settled out of court in 1988, and they received compensation, but the CIA did not accept any liability.
Esther Schrier could have been the 10th complainant but was too embarrassed to have people know about her mental health challenges.
WATCH | Bob Logie describes the experimental treatments he was given:
During the trial, it was exposed that the Canadian government had provided even more funding to Cameron, and for a longer period, than the CIA.
Eventually, in 1994, almost 20 years after the experiments were first publicly exposed, the Canadian government offered compensation for people who were experimented upon by Cameron from 1950 to 1965 (even though some believe Cameron started his experiments in the late 1940s). The patients had to prove they had experienced "full or substantial depatterning," to be eligible.
Seventy-seven former patients received $100,000 each. They were known as ex gratia payments, which essentially means giving compensation without the admission of liability.
Esther Schrier received a payment, but her son was rejected. Even after taking the case to the Federal Court of Canada in 1996, Lloyd Schrier was denied, with a judge upholding previous decisions saying that he was not a patient.
He received a letter from Allan Rock, who was the minister of justice and attorney general of Canada at the time.
"Payments under this plan are made on compassionate and humanitarian grounds to former patients," the letter said. "As the Government of Canada does not accept any liability or negligence for the treatment given to patients of Dr. Cameron, we have limited this payment to former patients. The government can only do so much and, therefore, limiting payments was necessary."
WATCH | How experiments at the Allan Memorial Institute affected a family:
Lloyd Schrier can’t see why he wouldn’t be eligible.
"When you look at the order it says they’re giving it on humanitarian grounds and I cannot see why I wouldn’t be included in that," he said.
"No one's taking any responsibility and I think they should."
Schrier is just one of hundreds of relatives who say they bear the emotional scars of those who were unwitting human experiment subjects of Cameron. They’ve recently found each other and came together after a 2017 story by the CBC's The Fifth Estate. Through two lawsuits against multiple defendants, including McGill University Health Centre, Royal Victoria Hospital and the attorney general of Canada, they are hoping to force the Canadian government into apologizing for its support of the experiments at the Allan.
But the Canadian government appears to have not changed its position. A spokesperson from the Department of Justice responded to an email from CBC, saying that Canada has already "taken action to provide assistance to those affected."
And McGill University seems to be trying to erase this history from its past. In the Allan Memorial Institute, a portrait of Cameron, who was the hospital's first director and leader for 21 years, still hangs in the halls alongside other past directors. But his name has been removed.
There is also no mention of this history on the university's official website. CBC asked the university why, and while a spokesperson did not answer the question directly, they wrote that they are "truly empathetic to those who were impacted."
- Listen to Episode 6 | How MK-ULTRA entered mainstream pop culture.
WATCH | The 2017 Fifth Estate documentary about MK-ULTRA: