Bleak House: A Case of Nazi-Style Experimental Psychiatry in Canada
“These people are like the movie Brazil if you have seen it – they don’t want anything to land on their desk that looks like it might stick to them.” – Steve Smith
After 20 years of frustrated efforts to do much of anything about the nightmarish “treatment” Steve Smith received in a Canadian mental institution, the paperwork began to trickle in.
In 1991, Smith requested his clinical records from the archive of the Oak Ridge Mental Hospital and received a grand total of 15 pages. Predicated on these, Smith filed a complaint with the College of Physicians and Surgeons about an illicit, sadistic experimental regimen of psychiatric “treatment” euphemized by his handlers as “Defense Disrupting Therapy.” The College investigated and denied that Oak Ridge had ever conducted experimental studies on Smith or anyone else.
Smith appealed to Canada’s Health Professions Board and submitted the hospital records to support his complaint. The Board ordered the College of Physicians and Surgeons to reopen the investigation. In a 19-page letter, the Health Board demanded a thorough investigation. “I have copies of the correspondence between the Board and the College,” Smith says, “and they have become quite critical, applying to the former such terms as ‘not serving the public interest.'”
It can only serve the public interest to relay Smith’s freefall into a horrifying world of brutal psychiatric experimentation and the men who presided over it, particularly Dr. Elliot T. Barker, the psychiatrist who supervised Smith’s “treatment” at Oak Ridge. The selection of experimental psychiatric subjects is often arbitrary when sanctions are handed around by secret bureaucracies, and Smith suspects the involvement of CIA mind control personnel. Illicit experimentation on human subjects is ongoing. Like Smith, many subjects may struggle for decades to assemble a case documenting their exploitation. His account is not unique. Anyone is a prospective subject to a scientific underground based on absolute disregard for human rights.
– Alex Constantine
In the winter of 1968 I left high school, and no one seemed bothered by that.
An adolescent urge to wander set me on the road to California. At that time I was learning to drive and getting a drivers license was the most important thing in my life. I’d sometimes swipe my mothers keys and drive around the back streets of my neighborhood. My parents were divorced when I was ten. My brother and I lived with my father in Sudbury, Ontario. My mother ran off with a tough good-looking bartender, and my father’s life was rapidly overcome by alcohol and self-destruction. My brother and I were left to fend for ourselves in a house that was neglected and often without food. The decimation of my father took about a year, and we were sent to live with my mother and Bill. These were years of physical and emotional abuse. We were all victims of Bill’s drunken rages. He committed suicide in 1987. My mother lives out the declining years of her life alone with her dogs and cats. I do not blame her for any of this. Once ruled by her great beauty, my mother’s vanity slowly eroded and was a lonely desert when that beauty faded.
After a few brushes with the Sault Ste. Marie police, and a system of justice that dealt heavy-handedly with the local counter-culture, I headed for the west coast.
My friend Ben and I hit the road in the dead of winter, no funds, no plans. The first hitch took us to WaWa, Ontario. We spent the night in the basement of a church. The next morning was freezing cold and hitching a ride was punishment. We hitched on to White River, the “coldest spot in Canada.”
Our choices were to walk or die. We reached Marathon sometime in the night, desperately cold. Everything in town was closed. There was no point in looking for an open restaurant. We didn’t have enough money between us for a cup of coffee. Ben and I found a small used car lot on the outskirts of town and stole a car. We drove to the next town and arrived just before dawn, abandoned the car at a service station. As we were climbing out, the police pulled in behind us. Five minutes earlier or later, and the course of my life would have been entirely different.
A child of the times, I had in my shirt pocket two tablets of LSD I’d planned on taking when we reached Vancouver. The tabs were about the size of a match head. The trip to Vancouver was ended by our arrest, so I swallowed the tablets and thus began my trip into hell that was to last eight months and haunt me the rest of my life.
My recollection of the next 24 hours is fuzzy, but much is unforgettable:
I am in a black steel cell covered with lurid graffiti, handcuffed, standing in front of a doctor. The floor is rolling like a wave.
In a hospital emergency room large men hold me down, dodging and maneuvering to insert a plastic tube in my nose. I am struggling…. A glass of what looks like red wine. I drink and within seconds I’m violently throwing-up. I am overdosing, very sick, more frightened than I have ever been in my life.
The next several hours are a blank. I remember standing in a court Room full of skeletons in black robes. The judge took one glance at me and I was bundled off to 30 days of observation at the local psychiatric hospital.
The first day I was confined to bed with little or no contact with anyone. The next week was uneventful. I was interviewed a few times but I don’t remember if I told anyone about the LSD. I had the impression they either believed me to be faking or drugged. Within a short time I was given my clothes and permitted to wander about the hospital. I was not locked in, and I suppose I could have walked out. I met a girl from another ward and she invited me to a dance that evening. I was leaving my ward for this rendévouz when I was stopped by an attendant who objected to the way I was dressed, very 1960s counter-culture, beads, the usual accouterments. The attendant was hostile. He pushed me against the wall and pawed at my jeans, blustering something about proper dress.
I made another big mistake. I fought back. He dragged me to the floor in short order. Reinforcements came running, and in an instant my pants were around my ankles and I was injected with something painful. I was dragged down the hall, tossed into an empty room and locked inside. I was furious. The girl was waiting for me and here I was, naked, locked in this little room. I pounded on the door and screamed until my lungs were aching.
There is an entry in my clinical record, dated April 26, 1968, a few days after this incident: Steve Smith “… tends to become resentful, hostile and uncooperative when he is not able to have his own way….” Of course, I didn’t realize how dangerous an outburst of defiance could be. Never get mad in a mad house. The next day I was informed that I was to be sent to Penetang Hospital for the criminally insane. I have no words to express the fear that swept over me at that moment. Penetang was notorious. It’s the end of the line, you never get out. I was in big trouble, but not INSANE! I think it was the next day that I was dragged onto a train in handcuffs by two burly guards who made it clear that they would take no nonsense from me. They showed me a billy club and a large syringe. We traveled in a private berth. Neither of my traveling companions shifted their gaze from me.
We reached Midland, Ontario. There was a car waiting for us. A short drive later, I was at the front gate of Oak Ridge Hospital, which resembled a prison. The iron gate rang behind me and I was not to see the outside world again for eight months. I was struck by the size of the guards. I have never in my life seen such a collection of oversized homo-simians. As far as I knew, no one knew that I was there. I had disappeared off the face of the earth. I’d never felt more alone and helpless. No one said a word to me. I was treated like a slab of meat. Stripped naked. My hair, mouth and armpits were probed for concealed weapons or contraband. My head was shaved. I was sprayed with a disinfectant that burned, given a heavy canvas gown and locked in a cement cell with nothing but a blanket. Not a word from anyone. The door slammed shut.
I don’t know how many days passed. It occurred to me that I could be incarcerated for the remainder of my life. If there was anything in that cell I could have used to kill myself, I believe I would have done so. The light was on 24 hours a day. I ate from paper plates. No utensils, not even a plastic spoon. The only escape was sleep, and I forced myself to do as much it as possible. Men strolled past my cell dressed in street cloths. I thought they were doctors or hospital staff. I tried to talk to them, find out what the hell is going to happen to me. No one even looked my way. I was completely ignored. I don’t know how many days this went on.
One day the door slid open and a Dr. Elliot T. Barker entered. He was charming, soothing, smiling, his arm around my shoulder. He addressed me by my first name. It seemed I’d never known contact with another human being. I fell for it, not knowing what this man had in store for me, the torture and degradation I was to suffer.
“Do you think you are mentally ill?”
“No I do not.”
He grinned, his arm around my shoulder.
“Why do you think you are here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I’ll tell you. You are a very sick boy,” Barker told me. “I think you are a very slick psychopath, and I want you to know that there are people just like you in here who have been locked up more than 20 years. But we have a program here that can help you get over your illness. If you volunteer for this treatment, it will improve your chances of release – but you must cooperate with the program.”
He told me that being a psychopath was essentially an inability to communicate with others, and that beneath the reinforced surface was a deeply rooted psychosis. What he proposed to do, through the use of LSD, methedrine and other drugs, was to bring out this “hidden psychosis” and treat it. In other words, to cure you I must first drive you mad.
I was locked in a cold, brightly-lit cell, numb with cold, clutching a blanket. Anything would be better than this. I agreed to cooperate.
I was released from my cell, given a shower, khaki pants and shirt, escorted to the “Sun Room,” an unfurnished vestibule occupied by six or seven men (boys) about the same age as myself. They had all been in this room for a week or more. Dr. Barker informed me that he was locking me in with them without prior “conditioning” to “shake things up a bit.” I watched them for a few days without saying much. Nothing they did was rational. They seemed to be playing some kind of psychotic game, talking like doctors. When their attention shifted to me, I was forced by ringleaders to concede that I was mentally ill. The pressure was intense, unrelenting. Here I was imprisoned in this snake pit of a hospital, encircled by rapists and killers determined to convince me that I was insane.
I was the only one in this equation who wasn’t deluded.
My sole possession in the world at this stage was my sanity, and I wasn’t about to give it up. I was soon to discover that these mental patients had more resources at their command than group pressure. After a few days of primarily silent resistance, the other patients decided that I needed some drugs to “loosen” me up – the patients prescribed them. They recommended I be given methamphetamines. Dr. Barker signed his approval. Two attendants and a nurse entered and chased me around the room until I was cornered and dragged to the floor. I put up a good fight but they finally managed to slip the needle into my arm. The drug hit me within seconds. I lived for that drug for the next five years. I would do anything to get it.
Dr. Barker’s program was run by the inmates. The staff observed and approved their decisions. What followed was a systematic bombardment of drugs intended to break my resistance and to bring out the so-called “hidden psychosis.” I suggest that these potent drugs did not reveal something that was already there, but in fact created a drug-induced psychotic state. In his published papers, Dr. Barker describes the drugs he used and the results that he hoped to obtain, but he says nothing about the horrors suffered by the victims of these experiments.
I will try to relate some of the effects of the drugs forced on me over a sustained period. During the drug treatments, it was standard practice to handcuff patients together with seatbelts and padlocks. It was also common for any patient resisting the injections to be choked into unconsciousness by twisting a towel around his neck. This was done to me a few times before I realized that I was more likely to stay alive if I submitted to the drugs. I remember a direction that I was to be an “observer,” that I must stay awake all night to watch the other patients sleep. To aid me in this task I was given as much Benzedrine as I wanted. I was equipped with a log book and a pencil stub and told to record everything that happened. Everyone slept. I wrote all night.
The hallucinations began after a few days of sleep deprivation, smoke at the edge of my peripheral vision and eventually thousands of bugs crawling on my skin. I tried to show these bugs to other patients and the attendant who arrived with our meals. Everyone would take a close look and start laughing. Two attendants came in and without a word put me in handcuffs and leg restraints.
Then paranoia, not the generalized anxiety that is so common in current language, but the real thing, full-blown psychotic paranoia. I thought everyone just out of my range of hearing was conspiring to kill me. I remember laying on a mattress on the floor with a blanket pulled over my head. I assumed the two patients next to me were prying a staple out of the log book to impale my eye.
I lifted a corner of my mattress. The floor was seething with bugs and worms. That was it! I jumped up in a panic, attacked the two patients next to me. I tried to wrench my arm around one of them, and with the seatbelt straps locked around my wrists strangle him before anyone could stop me. This outburst was the result of chemical torture and sleep deprivation, otherwise known as “Defense Disrupting Therapy.”
A series of drugs was forced on me. I remember something called scopolamine, a so-called truth serum. I was told that it was used by the Nazis as an effective means of chemical interrogation. The effects of this drug are so overwhelmingly horrifying that I am at a loss to describe them. It was administered in three injections, about an hour apart. After the first, my mouth dried up completely. The throat constricts to the size of a pinhole. When you try to swallow you hear a dry, clicking sound. One side-effect is a very high pulse-rate (160 sitting down) and a sense of suffocation and anxiety. After the second injection you begin to slip in and out of delirium. Time sense and continuity are disrupted. The third injection is followed by an 8-to-12 hour period of complete delirium, incoherence, restlessness, hyperventilating.
Patients undergoing this study of medieval degradation were handcuffed to two other patients throughout the ordeal. It was the job of these observers to stop the subject from bashing himself into walls, and stop him from hyperventilating himself to death. No training was provided for this. The life of another patient could be in the hands of people who themselves were on the same drugs a few days before. Both sides of this experiment were extremely stressful. I think I was given scopolamine three times during my stay in the “sun room” and a continuous diet of “speed” and “goofballs”.
I don’t recall much about the months that followed. I slipped further into a drug-soaked existence, punctuated by incidents of extreme brutality. Dr. Barker came into the sun room with a small can of something. He flipped it from one hand to the other, and described a wonderful new invention he called “mace.” With no justification but a test of its effectiveness, he let loose with this spray and blasted us all to the floor. That’s the kind of man he was: very curious and always willing to try a little hands-on experiment. I think I was in the sun room for about two weeks when Barker moved me into the regular program.
At this point I was resisting everything, and fought Dr. Barker’s attempts to morph my mind with drugs so he could reshape it to his own idea of normalcy. I was moved to a cell with a real bed and my own sink and toilet.
Shortly thereafter, a patient-teacher came to my cell with a stack of psychological tests and insisted I do them. He was dressed in street cloths and conducted himself like hospital staff. I’d had enough of this. I told him to take his tests and shove off. He came back with two attendants who strangled me with a towel and injected me. My clothes were peeled off. I was thrust into an empty cell.
The patient-teacher returned with the tests and said with a smile, “are you ready to do this or do you need a little more prompting.” I was so drugged I could not keep my eyes open. I started to do the tests. I fell asleep face down on the paper. I woke up with someone squeezing a nerve point on the back of my heel. I started to write again. It was impossible to concentrate. Math questions, logic questions. What’s wrong with this picture? I fell asleep again and came to under an ice-cold shower, locked in place by attendants at each arm. This was torture and I screamed. Back into the cell, dripping wet and turning blue.
Do the tests or submit to torture. I did the tests.
Hospital records claim that my IQ is roughly equivalent to my shoe size. I don’t remember completing these tests, but eventually I was allowed to sleep.
The next day a formal brainwashing program got underway. Every minute of the day was structured. The basic idea was to force patients to memorize long papers dealing with defense mechanisms and some kind of twisted logic. A rule of silence was strictly enforced. Inmates were not permitted to talk to one another outside the groups. No warnings were given. Any breach of the rules was met with immediate punishment. This could be anything from having your cell stripped, leaving nothing but a blanket on the floor, to strapped incarceration and drugging that went on for days. An infraction of the rules could be something as simple as turning your eyes to the ceiling in a gesture of disbelief. After a week of this discipline, I was a whipped animal, docile and cooperative. I followed Dr. Barker’s dictates like a robot.
We were forced to perform military exercises three times a day. When the whistle blew, we dropped for push-ups. Put your heart into it or take punishment. I never knew what the next phase was going to be, but throughout the ordeal of drugs, handcuffs and humiliation came the authoritarian obligato. I gave the answer expected when asked if I was mentally ill.
I suppose I had truly been driven mad. I saw LSD used in massive doses on selected patients. There were beatings and murders. I remember the names Matt Lamb, Peter Woodcock and others.
All of this under the direct control of inmates. This in itself makes this story all the more difficult to write. It sounds so absurd. That’s how it was. And I couldn’t request a review of my case by hospital administrators – it required the approval of a panel of mental patients.
Dr. Barker’s treatment program was devised to drive young men into a drug-induced psychosis, and through fear and discipline from within the group create a self-sustaining system of docile mental patients. How any doctor could view this as a benefit to the mentally ill is beyond me.
But in light of what I have since learned of CIA-sponsored LSD experiments, and the part that Canada played in the Agency’s MK-ULTRA program, my story is placed in a context that is far from outrageous. Much of what occurred in Oak Ridge was comprehensible only after I began to fit it with pieces of a mind control puzzle.
For example: the cutthroat world of covert operations lurks in the subtext of this report from the Toronto Globe & Mail on the premature release and death of the homicidal Matt Lamb, a “rehabilitated” Oak Ridge patient:
Army clash with guerrillas Killed two in Ontario, Canadian slain in Rhodesia
A Windsor man who spent seven years in an Ontario mental hospital after killing two people has been slain in action with the Rhodesian army. Lance Corporal Matthew Charles Lamb, 28, died in a clash with black nationalist guerrillas seeking to oust Rhodesia’s white minority government. Dr. Elliott Barker, a psychiatrist who treated Lamb for several years in hospital and befriended him, said he was not recruited but traveled to Rhodesia about two years ago with the purpose of joining the army. Lamb was released in 1973 from the maximum security section of the Penetanguishene Mental Health Center, where he had been sent after the shotgun slaying of two young people walking with friends on a Windsor street. Lamb visited relatives and went to see Dr. Barker at his farm near Penetanguishene while on leave last summer. “He knew when he went back he probably would be killed,” Dr. Barker said yesterday.
A communiqué issued by the Rhodesian security forces yesterday said that the Canadian and eight blacks identified as guerrillas were killed in clashes during the past 48 hours. Dr. Barker said he was advised that lamb was killed on Sunday.
Last month another Canadian serving with the Rhodesian forces, Trooper Michael McKeown of Dartmouth, N.S., was sentenced to a year in prison for refusing to fight. He said he was recruited in Canada. Lamb was 19 in January, 1967 when he was found not guilty by reason of insanity on a charge of murdering 20 year old Edith Chaykoski. She was in a group of young people walking toward a bus stop when a man stepped out from behind a tree and began shooting. Three other people were wounded, and one of them a 21 year old man, died later.
During court proceedings in his case, Lamb made two unsuccessful attempts to escape.
In 1965, when he was 16, Lamb served 14 months in penitentiary after he robbed a suburban store and exchanged shots with a policeman. After his 1967 committal to Penetanguishene, Lamb was treated by Barker, who was then head of the therapeutic unit at the hospital’s maximum-security division.
He was released in 1973 by order of the Ontario Cabinet, acting on a recommendation of an advisory review board. “He was given a clean bill of health,” Dr. Barker said in an interview. “The advisory review board felt he was no longer dangerous. He had been sick and he was no longer sick.
During his two to three years in the hospital, he was one of the patient therapists, and they looked up to him.”
After he was freed, Lamb lived with Dr. Barker and the psychiatrist’s family for a year on their 200-acre farm near the hospital, earning his keep as a laborer….
Fortunately for me, the laws governing committal to hospitals were changed during my stay at Oak Ridge. A review board was created to give patients an avenue of appeal.
I remember sitting in a chair before five or six bureaucrats. They were my last chance at reclaiming my life. The interview lasted less than half an hour, and in the end they told me that I would be released as soon as arrangements could be made. It was out of Barker’s hands. Within days I was on a bus to Toronto. It ended as suddenly as it began, but the consequences of my months as Dr. Barker’s guinea pig were to affect the direction of my life for years to come. I had tried LSD twice, and the second time precipitated my downfall. Like most people my age in the 1960s, I experimented with drugs. But after Oak Ridge I was addicted to amphetamines. My slide into self-destruction, revisiting my father’s decline.
Before Oak Ridge, the thought of sticking a needle into my arm was repulsive. But when you want amphetamine, the quickest way is the only way. It came to living in the back of an abandoned car, using a refill from a ball-point pen for a fix. Barker left me shipwrecked upon the shore.
But there came a time when I was able to reclaim control of my life and determine my own direction, because that’s who I am. Today I have my own business. I have a little sailboat and I go skiing when I can.
Many others were left incurably injured. I have found some of them. Dr. Barker completely desiccated our lives. I saw murder in Oak Ridge. I saw torture that one would only expect to see in the most squalid Third World country. I have been over this for years, and it seems that every question inevitably leads to more questions. I want answers from Oak Ridge and Dr. Barker.