MKULTRA’s Terminal Experiments

  • This is an updated passage deleted from Trip (2018) because it was somewhat of a non sequitur. This topic is in my next book, Leave Society.
  • I recommend reading Surviving Evil (2014) by Karen Wetmore. This essay serves as a summary of the book, with some analysis.

Karen Wetmore was born in 1952, two years after MKULTRA began as Project Bluebird. She grew up in a small town in Vermont called Brandon. In the mid-or-late 1950s, she was molested by a local man; she had no conscious memory of the abuse and did not find out about it until 1997, when she was 45. She had other childhood traumas, which she also suppressed, and when she was 11 she began to have suicidal thoughts.

In 1965, when she was 13, she was found wandering the hallway at school confused and disoriented. When the family doctor arrived, Karen told him if he sent her home she would kill her mom or herself. Her dad and brother took her to Mary Fletcher Hospital, where she was prescribed the phenothiazines Thorazine and Stelazine and given Sodium Amytal. She was allergic to phenothiazines. She slashed her wrist with a glass urine specimen bottle. A doctor told her the only reason she wasn’t being sent to Vermont State Hospital was because no one had told her suicide attempts were “not tolerated.” In a psychological test, she was asked, “What does two heads are better than one mean?” Her response — “If you are crazy in one head, you still have one more head to save” — elicited “a dramatic reaction from the doctors,” she wrote in Surviving Evil (2014). On October 21, the “adverse drug reactions had become so serious” that a consulting doctor was brought in. The consult diagnosed Karen with an allergic reaction to phenothiazines and advised they be stopped, but the drugs were not stopped and soon she began to scream uncontrollably. She was told that if she didn’t stop, she would be sent to VSH. “No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop screaming and was terrified,” she wrote. She was transferred by ambulance to VSH despite the pleas of her mom on the phone with a doctor; it was the only time Karen saw her dad, who was in the ambulance with her, cry.

Karen’s VSH admission record said she’d “attempted suicide severing the palmaris longus tendon in left wrist” and that her face and body were covered in rashes and bruises. She was put in a straightjacket and injected with Trilafon and Compazine, resulting in “spasms in the corner of her mouth and the side of her face” and in her “extremities and apparently in her diaphragm causing a loud moan,” according to hospital records. She was placed in Weeks 3, the locked adult women’s ward. In December, VSH doctors disallowed Karen to return to school and kept her on the adult ward even though VSH had a children’s ward. She was prescribed Mellaril, a phenothiazine. She was given a test called Personality Assessment System. “PAS objectives are to control, exploit, or neutralize,” said a 1963 CIA document quoted in Surviving Evil. “These objectives are innately anti-ethical rather than therapeutic in their intent.” The results were sent to CIA headquarters. Karen’s parents told VSH doctors about her love for horses, close relationship with her grandfather, “unusually intense reaction” to JFK’s assassination, and that she ran away when she was five — information they thought would help the doctors help Karen, who was labeled “schizophrenic.” In March 1966, she was released (“Now I was the crazy girl”); in early 1967 she returned to VSH for six weeks; and in 1968 she met Phil Cram and they became close and decided to marry, but he died in a car accident. Karen’s parents urged her to begin taking Mellaril again. She developed “severe vomiting” and “a strange black fur” on her tongue. At Rutland Hospital, her reaction to Mellaril was diagnosed as hepatitis and she was prescribed Paraldehyde and other drugs, leading to panic attacks and uncontrollable screaming. Against the protests of the nursing staff and her parents, a doctor sent her back to VSH, which was called Vermont State Asylum for the Insane until 1898, when it was renamed Vermont State Hospital for the Insane.

It was October 12, 1970. Karen was 18. At VSH, according to the record, she threw chairs at other patients and was transferred, on October 19, to 1A — “the most dreaded ward in the hospital,” where many women “considered to be hopeless” had been for years and were, theorized Karen, “the target VSH population for the use of experimental drugs” — where she was put in seclusion. “I woke up on the floor, naked, with my arms secured behind my back in leather wristlets. The gnawing, searing pain in my arms, neck and shoulders was impossible to relieve.” She “heard frightening screams and strange shrieks coming from outside the seclusion room.” She was kept in these conditions, according to hospital records, until October 23, when Dr. Otto Havas moved her to Weeks 3. At Weeks 3, Havas told her she would be transferred to 10B. In response, she “ran wildly down the hall” and smashed her head through a door’s glass window. After three days of seclusion on 1A, she was moved to 10B for eight days, then back to seclusion on 1A. She went back and forth between 1A and 10B, a ward with no records except “scattered notations by Havas later in the record,” until December, when the seclusion intensified. On December 12, Havas began writing orders for “vaginal suppositories,” of which Karen would, over five months, receive twelve — with “no medical reason noted anywhere in the records” — while “tied to a bed in a straightjacket.” Decades later, Karen’s research would lead her to suspect she’d been sexually assaulted by one or more doctors.

Beginning on December 30, 1970, Karen was kept, records showed, in seclusion for up to 14 days at a time, with no food or water for two and three days at a time. “When in seclusion, I was often kept naked. My arms were secured behind my back day and night.” There was no mattress, blanket, or toilet. When not in a straightjacket (“Each time the wristlets were removed, I was placed in a straightjacket”), she began smashing her head into the door and walls, a behavior she later learned was “common among people who are kept in extended periods of isolation.” She was prescribed up to eight different drugs at a time and subjected to “two complete drug washouts” and “regular enemas.” She received placebos that were probably “active experimental drugs” disguised as placebos. The hospital repeatedly told her mom that Karen refused to see her. In April, Karen received eight electric shock treatments of 30–35 shocks in 40 seconds, though the “standard number of shocks given by medical professionals was one shock maintained for a fraction of a second.” Twice, the ECT didn’t produce a seizure and the process was repeated. That same month, Judge Henry Black signed the visitor log in VSH North office and tried to see Karen. VSH refused to allow him to see Karen. The same day, Karen’s mom also was trying to see Karen and Judge Black introduced himself and was “visibly angry” but left without seeing Karen or following up — an example of one of the many individuals who suspected something was amiss, investigated to some degree, then stopped. On June 18, in one day, Karen underwent four ECTs by Havas and that night was treated by a different doctor for eye and facial injuries. In Surviving Evil, she wrote:

ECT is known to cause amnesia and I believe that Havas conducted the treatments not only as part of the experiment, but also to insure that my memories of 1A were gone. For the most part, he was successful.

On June 21, 1971, after eight months of almost uninterrupted seclusion in 1A, Karen left VSH. In the car, on Interstate 89, looking out the window at a clear blue sky, she cried. “I was overwhelmed by the knowledge that I had made it out of that terrible place alive.” She was brought to a Degoesbriand hospital, where she had “few memories of the almost three weeks on the neurology unit.” She was prescribed Thorazine and Stelazine despite being allergic. She complained about her treatment at VSH, but when asked for details “couldn’t provide any.” She received electroencephalograms. “During one, I was placed in a strange room with walls on all four sides that looked like plastic. Suddenly as I lay hooked up to EEG leads, a man rushed into the room and broke a glass bottle on the floor. I reacted by crying.” The record stated, “The patient was purposefully upset by the breaking of the bottle.” In a test on June 28, she was given phenobarbital, an EEG, and 1800 milligrams of Metrazol, a drug described in CIA documents as used on POWs in Soviet gulags, causing, wrote Karen, “excruciating physical and psychological pain, so severe that a POW is said to, ‘Say or do anything to avoid another dose of the drug.’” She told nurses she heard men in her head. She complained she was in severe physical pain. “Apparently I recognized that I was, in fact, hallucinating and I accused the doctors of giving me drugs that caused me to hallucinate.” She wrote, “Metrazol was used in MKULTRA to produce amnesia and as a way to negate the effects of LSD,” and shared a quote of a CIA document that she found in The C.I.A. Doctors (2006) by Colin Ross:

Metrazol, which has been very useful in shock therapy, is no longer popular because, for one thing it produces feelings of overwhelming terror and doom prior to the convulsion. But terror, anxiety, worry would be valuable for many purposes from our point of view.

The night of the Metrazol test, Karen tried to set herself on fire in the bathroom. “I can only imagine that when I was transferred from the brutal conditions in VSH to the Burlington hospitals, that I must have believed that I was finally safe. I suspect that after the administration of the Metrazol, I understood that I was not safe in the new hospital.” She was moved to a psychiatric unit called Baird 6. “On each page of my Baird 6 medical records my name is noted as ‘Skippy.’ The staff called me by this name, as did the doctors. Beginning with my admission to the neurology unit on June 21, 1971 and throughout the four months I spent on Baird 6, it appears that I was no longer Karen.” On Baird 6, though no cause for pain was recorded, she was given painkillers — probably, she discovered decades later, because she’d been surgically implanted behind her ear. She had “unexplained episodes” where she “ran head first into walls, doors or people.” Records showed there was “a concerted effort by the psychiatrists” to have her accept she was “schizophrenic” and that she fought the diagnosis. She attempted suicide repeatedly. In July and August she seemed to have been secretly given LSD. In October, after a suicide attempt, she was sent back to VSH. “My records note that I said numerous times over the four months I was on Baird 6 that I would rather be dead than ever go back to VSH,” she wrote in Surviving Evil.

At VSH, on October 29, 1971, she was placed on Weeks 3. Since Baird 6, she’d begun sometimes finding herself having escaped the hospital, and this continued at VSH. Strangely, she was, despite being under close observation, always successful, making it usually to the interstate before being returned to the hospital by police officers. “I would have been very aware of the fact that escaping VSH brought consequences, yet I escaped time after time for reasons I cannot explain. The records note the escapes but show nothing that might explain the reasons why I might have run.” She seemed to be monitored during these experiments, which seemed to exploit information her parents told doctors when she was 13. “I believe that my escapes were not only part of the experiment but that they involved the use of a triggered response mechanism set up in me by hypnosis and implants,” wrote Karen, who, besides the ear-implant, would also later discover a mouth implant. (In 2009, a mysterious object would fall out of her mouth. Her doctor would find a surgical slit on the inside of her right cheek, another doctor would confirm the slit, and a third doctor would say the object couldn’t have been from a dental procedure. Karen would give the object to Colin Ross, who would examine it under a microscope and conclude it seemed to be rock and seemed to contain “no electronic or computerized components.”)

On June 19, 1972 — the day Richard Helms ordered the destruction of MKULTRA files — Karen was discharged from VSH. At her parents’ house, she “tried to begin a normal life” but hitchhiked back to VSH. “I don’t remember what happened, if anything, to cause me to escape again only days after,” she wrote. Vermont State police bought her cigarettes and sodas and listened to her “hatred of VSH” — she wasn’t able to provide details — then drove her back to VSH, where she was placed on the locked ward, now called 2A. This time she wasn’t restrained or secluded. During her four months on Baird 6 and nine months on Weeks 3, she’d been called Skippy, but now she was Karen again. Two months later, she left VSH for the final time.

For the next 25 years, from ages 20 to 45, Karen lived unaware of most of what happened to her at VSH and some of what happened to her at other Vermont hospitals, like the Metrazol experiment. From when she left VSH at the end of 1972 until 1997, when she began to learn about her history, odd and frightening things continued to happen to her.

In 1976 or 1977 — the year of the Senate’s MKULTRA hearing, whose appendix A said, “The CIA’s project involving the surreptitious administration of LSD to unwitting human subjects in the United States was finally halted in 1963,” and whose appendix C, however, said “MKSEARCH was the name given to the continuation of the MKULTRA program. Funding commenced in FY 1966, and ended in FY 1972.” — a woman led Karen, at the Phipps Clinic, into a room where to her surprise around a dozen men were in chairs. She sat in a chair. “I recall looking around the circle of men in suits and ties and my memory ends there,” she wrote. “I have no memory of any question I was asked or my responses or how long I was in the room.”

In 1981, Karen was diagnosed with multiple personality disorder. That year, in Copley Hospital, nurses brought in a man in a suit-and-tie to talk to her. “He described how a person living in a one-dimensional world would never be able to comprehend what it was like to live in a three-dimensional world. He asked me if I understood the point he was trying to make and I said that yes, I understood. I don’t remember if we talked about anything else and I don’t remember him leaving.”

In 1987, she had an allergic reaction to Haldol and what a doctor called a “psychotic break” in which she seemed to flashback, or abreact, to the Metrazol test. Later study of the incident suggested to Wetmore and her therapist that she’d been dosed LSD and hypnotized and that CIA had used information, supplied by her parents when she was thirteen, regarding her love of horses in order to be able to command her to “pick up and fire a gun and have no memory of the event” and to “move from one place to the other or to flee the scene and also to kill myself after the special occasion.”

In 1988, she began therapy with Kathy Judge, whom she trusted. Kathy said Karen had been “floridly multiple” for a long time. “During the first few months of therapy I began to dissociate more often and my personalities became more separate,” wrote Karen. For reasons she “cannot recall,” she took out a loan and rented a car and began driving for hours. One day she bought a gun and “began driving aimlessly searching for the place I was supposed to go.” She ended up in a motel, looking at herself in the mirror with the loaded gun against her temple. She called Kathy and unloaded the gun.

In 1994, as part of her productive and often “excruciating” therapy with Kathy, Karen called Janet, a childhood next-door neighbor she’d “spent a good deal of time with.” Janet was in her early 20s when Karen was around 4. “I felt ridiculous asking Janet if anything out of the ordinary or traumatic had ever happened on the land when she was with me,” wrote Karen. “Yes, traumatic things did happen here,” said Janet. Karen learned Janet’s husband Willy had “sexual relationships with his own daughters.” On another call, Karen directly asked Janet if her husband had sexually molested her. Janet said yes.

Karen talked to more people and learned more forgotten trauma. She learned she saw her dad shoot a cat, accidentally bury it alive, dig it out, and repeatedly fire bullets into it when she was 3. She learned she pulled a table onto herself, cutting her mouth, when she was nine months old and that both she and her mom “became hysterical.” She learned other childhood trauma, including more involving guns. “Kathy said she believed that if the shootings and the molestation had not occurred, the chances of my becoming multiple would have been much less,” she wrote.

In the fall of 1997, when Karen was “feeling increasingly overwhelmed” by “the intrusion of some other terrible world,” Kathy suggested she try to write a narrative of her life. This led to Karen requesting her medical records from the State of Vermont. She was flatly refused. She persisted and made more calls and hired a lawyer, who was also refused access to the records. After weeks of work, the lawyer, Alan, succeeded and the records were dropped off at Karen’s apartment. “What would I read about myself in those records? What awful things would they say about me? Would they confirm that I was the monster that I had believed myself to be?” Her “heart began to pound” as she located “the 1970–1971 seclusion room charts.” She learned about the drugs, electric shock, vaginal suppositories, months of seclusion. She read letters from her mom pleading with VSH’s superintendent and the Mental Health Commissioner to not treat her harshly. She was horrified by the conditions she’d been kept in and by the realization that she “could not remember a substantial portion” of her life. Seven years later, she wrote:

One of the positive emotional effects that came with learning that I had been used in CIA experiments was that, for the first time since I was thirteen years old, I realized that it wasn’t because of something terrible about me. It was because of the terrible things that were done to me. It was a life altering realization.

Kathy and Alan also read the records. It was “quickly determined” she’d been experimented on. She decided to sue the state. “As much as I wanted to name the CIA as a defendant in the suit, I agreed with Alan when he said that to do so would tie me up in the courts for possibly decades.” With the help of Kathy and others, Karen began slowly, over years, to uncover what happened to her and thousands of others in American hospitals. She read Schizophrenia: A Review of the Syndrome (1958), The Use of LSD in Psychotherapy (1960), The Vermont Story: Schizophrenic Rehabilitation (1961), The Search for the Manchurian Candidate (1979), Acid Dreams (1985), Father, Son, and CIA (1990). She crafted strategically worded Freedom of Information Act requests to multiple governmental organizations. She contacted elected officials. “When confronted with original source documents, no State or federal official would respond, with the exception of Senator Bernie Sanders. Even Sanders was not willing to go public with the information.” CNN, ABC, NBC, FOX, CBS, New York Times weren’t interested. Her mail was regularly stolen. Her phone company told her her phone had been tapped. Men she didn’t know followed her and tried to talk to her.

Her lawsuit ended in 2002 after her second heart attack, when her doctor said if she continued the trial she could die. She continued obtaining source documents, deepening her investigation. She read A Mind for Murder (2004), The C.I.A. Doctors (2006), A Terrible Mistake (2009). In Surviving Evil, she observed “the Vermont CIA experiments might very well have remained covered up” if she hadn’t gotten her VSH medical records in 1997, found the name Robert W. Hyde, and learned he was the same Hyde who worked for the CIA, conducting drug and mind control experiments. She wrote:

CIA defenders like to point out that the drug and mind control programs have already been investigated and that nothing new would be learned. I beg to differ. If I have been able to document the massive presence of CIA in Vermont institutions, what might the government with all its resources be able to learn? The lack of interest in an investigation has everything to do with making sure that the CIA activities in Vermont remain covered up.

The experiments remained covered up until November 30, 2008, when the Rutland Herald published an article by Louis Porter titled “Evidence suggests CIA funded experiments at state hospital.” It was the first time the public had heard anything about CIA experiments in Vermont. “Few of the individuals interviewed for this story were willing to speak on the record; many of the most important potential sources are now deceased,” wrote Porter, whose article, which was around the same length as this essay, alluded to a 1994 government report saying that at least 15 of the 80 North American facilities known to have participated in the research remained unidentified and might never be. The front-page article didn’t seem to cause any other newspapers or magazines to take notice, even though it was based on 18 months of research and the Rutland Herald had won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 2001. “When the article came out, no Vermont local news programs on television mentioned the Vermont CIA experiments,” wrote Karen.

In 2009, she began to research VSH’s death rates, which she found in Empty Beds: A History of Vermont State Hospital (1988) and Vermont Department of Mental Health biennial reports. She realized “death rates at VSH during the time experiments were being conducted were extremely high and seemed to be way out of proportion.” That year, she was filmed for four hours by a British film crew for the Smithsonian Channel, which in 2010 showed The Real Bourne Identity, a 46 minute 46 second episode of The Real Story. “Psychiatrist Colin Ross has spent more than 15 years researching these unauthorized experiments,” said the narrator, introducing Karen’s part of the episode. “He believes that Karen Wetmore was one of thousands of unwitting victims of the CIA’s MKULTRA mind control program.” For the next five and a half minutes, the narrator, Colin Ross, and Karen told her story. “I just remember thinking ‘What could I possibly have done to be treated like this?’” said Karen about a fragment of memory she had of excruciating pain while straightjacketed in seclusion. “I feel haunted about the possibility that there are people out there that don’t know that they were experimented on, and that they can’t receive the proper care, and that they may hate themselves like I hated myself,” she said. The Smithsonian Channel was the second time the public had heard anything about CIA experiments in Vermont.

By 2010, she’d “stopped sending FOIA request and no longer requested the help of elected officials” — probably another reason why the harassment stopped in 2011. In September 2013, the CIA mailed Karen “Hyde’s more fully declassified MKULTRA Subprojects 8, 10, 63 and 66,” which they’d “refused to make any determination on” when she filed a FOIA request and an appeal in 2003. The documents revealed MKCOTTON, a previously unknown CIA subproject, and placed Hyde —who died in 1976 and who’d been VSH’s Director of Research from 1940–1975 and a CIA employee since 1952, and who seemed to Karen to be the CIA’s “most closely guarded” researcher — in Vermont when MKCOTTON, which began as MKULTRA Subproject 63, was operational. Why had Hyde’s still mostly redacted files been sent now? People whom Karen asked said maybe due to Edward Snowden’s revelations and the increased scrutiny on intelligence agencies. On November 21, 2013, the CIA, whose budget that year was 14.7 billion dollars, sent Karen a FOIA-request response that revealed for the first time that VSH research existed and was classified. Karen wrote it was interesting the response “did not state that no records were located” but that records “had been destroyed.”

On April 3, 2014, Manitou Communications, an independent press owned by Colin Ross, published Surviving Evil: CIA Mind Control Experiments in Vermont. In eight chapters and six appendices of evidence, Karen shared her discovery — over decades of therapy, research, and investigation — that the CIA seemed to have done terminal experiments at VSH in conjunction with Vermont College of Medicine for at least two decades and that she was one of the survivors. She published the death rates she’d found and wondered if the numbers hid terminal experiments. She explained how CIA maintained secrecy: “CIA briefs Governors, Congressmen and Senators on classified programs, insuring that the official can never speak publicly about the information. The penalty for doing so is treason.” She wrote: “Numerous published accounts of the CIA drug and mind control program detail CIA plans to conduct ‘terminal experiments’” and referenced a 1954 CIA cable that “contained a desire for ‘time, places and bodies for terminal experiments.’” She wrote that terminal experiments would be “the one CIA activity that would cause such a massive, coordinated state and federal cover-up,” and that, now in her 60s, it was “not knowing the full story of the CIA experiments” she experienced that was “so disturbing all these years later.”

On October 28, 2016, a Friday, at 9:51PM, I researched the response to Surviving Evil, which I’d found by searching MKULTRA on Amazon.com. Surviving Evil had 15 reviews on Amazon with all but two rating it five stars — a three-star review said, in entirety, “Terrible if true.” Surviving Evil didn’t seem to have been mentioned by any international, national, weekly, local, or college newspaper or magazine.

On May 8, 2014, a month and five days after Surviving Evil was published, Karen was interviewed by Gnostic Media. On June 19, a website called Shadowproof published a review of Surviving Evil. On July 24, Karen was a guest on a radio show called The Power Hour. In 2015, two obscure websites — RenewAmerica and Borne — published 1091 and 209 word reviews of Surviving Evil and a French TV channel aired an 8 minute 39 second segment on Karen which was available on YouTube. Except on March 22, when it got its first written review on Goodreads — “Harrowing but absolutely convincing account of a young woman’s torture and imprisonment at Vermont State Hospital in the 1960s” — Surviving Evil hadn’t been reviewed in 2016. From what I could tell from a Google search (“Karen Wetmore” “Surviving Evil”) which returned results mostly for Amazon-like websites, selling it in various countries — this was all the coverage the book had gotten after 31 months.

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Tao Lin

Tao Lin

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I’m the author of Leave Society (2021), Trip (2018), Taipei (2013), other books. Visit my website at https://taolin.us.