Civil rights lawyers expose the role of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in secret brainwashing experiments. Based on a true story. [ The Sleep Room credits: Dir: Anne Wheeler/ Leon Pownall, Donald Moffat, Marina Orsini/ 192 min/ Drama/ Canada/ Psychiatry & Force, Abuse of Power]
Non trailer available.
As told here, during the 1950s the renowned psychiatrist Dr. Ewen Cameron—at various times president of the Canadian, American, and World Psychiatry Associations—began a personal crusade to cure mental illness. He theorized that if he could wipe clean the “ill” parts of a patient’s brain, he could replace sick thoughts with healthy ones. Toward that end, he developed an experimental treatment called “psychic driving”—essentially a form of brainwashing that involved massive electroshocks, hallucinogenic drugs including LSD, and forced listening to tape-recorded “healthy thoughts” for up to sixteen hours a day. It was, of course, a horror for those subjected to it. And the horror was greatly expanded when the CIA heard about the technique.
Interested in brainwashing for its own purposes, the CIA started to fund Cameron. The flood of money encouraged him and enabled him to expand his operations. Unfortunately for Cameron, the CIA, and above all the patients themselves, the treatment didn’t work. Of the hundreds of patients subjected to Cameron’s treatment, none got better, at least two died, and the rest were left shattered.
The telling of this tragic incident makes up the first half of this roughly three-and-a-half-hour miniseries. The second half takes up subsequent events in 1980, when the media finally broke the story. Suddenly aware of what had happened to them, nine of Cameron’s former patients then filed a class action suit against the CIA with the help of civil rights attorney Joseph Rauh and his assistant James Turner.
It was a difficult legal battle. Dr. Cameron had died years earlier, there were few witnesses, and the CIA stifled all investigation. But in the end right prevailed, sort of, as Rauh and Turner were at least able to force the CIA to make a cash payment to the victims.
The Sleep Room is a long film, but the time is not wasted. The events themselves are hair-raising, and there are some good performances. Incidentally, the portrayal of Rauh as a dying lawyer fighting this case with his last breath is not a dramatic device. This really was Rauh’s last case. He died in 1992 and was subsequently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
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“Every country, it seems, has its iconic medical research scandal. In America, it’s Tuskegee. In New Zealand, it’s the ‘Unfortunate Experiment’ at Auckland Women’s Hospital. And in Canada, it’s Dr. Ewen Cameron’s CIA-funded ‘sleep room’ experiments at McGill University.”
–Fear and Loathing in Bioethics