The Reader XIV II - The Monkey Puzzle Tree

The Monkey Puzzle Tree

By Elizabeth Nickson
Alfred A. Knopf Canada, Toronto, 1994, pp. 277, $27.00
Reviewed by Andrea Schluter

The non-fiction writings of Anne Collins, In the Sleep Room, and Gordon Thomas, Journey into Madness, both published in 1988, are revealing and horrifying accounts of the CIA-funded brain-washing experiments performed at the Allen Memorial Institute in Montreal during the 50s and 60s. But The Monkey Puzzle Tree relates, in a fictional account, the effects of these abuses on one woman, and the resulting deterioration of her family. These events in Canadian history come home to roost, become personalized---events almost too horrible to imagine.

The author's interest in the subject arises from her own past. Her mother served as a guinea pig for Dr. Ewen Cameron, the eminent psychiatrist who headed the experiments. Like many of his patients, she was admitted to hospital suffering from a minor complaint of postpartum depression. But while family characters in the book are fictional, the public figures are not. The juggling of characters and events, some fictional, others real, of past and present time, weaves a rich and highly-textured narrative.

The story opens with the narrator, Catherine, an awkward and wooden character, getting by in an uninteresting job, having quickly burned out as a young journalist. She has fled to New York and is still psychically running, trying to keep ahead of personal history, following in the established family tradition of cover up and carry on, choking down her past and its offspring: the question of sanity.

She is forced to return to her alienated family, now living in Vancouver, after her brother's attempted suicide. From this younger sibling she learns the secrets of their mother's psychiatric past and the investigations and suits now underway. Though her mother refuses to cooperate, Catherine reluctantly takes up work with the legal team in Washington representing other victims of Cameron's research. Now the book begins to read like a thriller as details unfold and more pieces are wedged into the puzzle of the huge CIA operation, its mandate and centres of experimentation. So unorthodox were the attempts to break down the personality, that the CIA ordained some procedures could never be performed on American citizens. Cameron's Canadian operation was this terminal step.

Catherine begins her research. It results in a recall of childhood memories: the stigma surrounding her mother's mental illness, and her desperate attempts to claim her mother for herself. After 200 shock treatments in a single month her mother could not recognize her children. The revelations her mother eventually brings forward to the case allow Catherine to forgive her parents and begin the delayed grieving for herself and her family that will eventually permit her to collect her wits and move forward. Her mother begins to emerge as a woman of unusual strength, having survived an outrageously fabricated diagnosis and treatment under the "care" of Ewen Cameron. Many victims did not.

A recurring question to the reader and to the author is how these abuses were allowed to continue within the Canadian psychiatric system. The book offers a glimpse of the personal magnetism of Cameron, founder of the Canadian, American and World Psychiatric Associations, and the power he held over staff and patients. Even spookier, is the pervasive, unseen presence of the CIA. We get a feel for the setting of the events, the communist paranoia that haunted the American government and public at the time, and which manifested itself in this dehumanizing research to develop a weapon in the area of mind control. The Monkey Puzzle Tree speaks to anyone who has ever been in a position of vulnerability. It's about human limitations, a fight for sanity, the recovery and reinterpretation of a past.

Andrea Schluter is a Vancouver writer and environmental educator.

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