The Living Dead (Episode 2: You have used Me as a Fish long enough): informative enough for a general audience

Adam Curtis “The Living Dead (Episode 2: You have used Me as a Fish long enough)” (1995)

Curtis sure doesn’t do things by halves and his “The Living Dead” trilogy which explores the manipulation of memory and history for political and social ends is no different. Episode 2 of the series revolves around the history of mind control and brainwashing and the eagerness of psychiatrists to co-operate with governments and intelligence agencies on moulding human beings to create the perfect spy or assassin. Curtis builds up a persuasive argument with an entertaining and often whimsical mixture of interviews, newsreels, previous documentaries, science education films and excerpts from movies like John Frankenheimer’s 1962 film “The Manchurian Candidate” which starred Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury, embellished with a music soundtrack that often comments ironically on the incidents it accompanies.

The film traces the history of a particular strand of neuroscience that starts with Canadian surgeon Wilder Penfield who found that he could stimulate parts of the brain with electrical probes and thus map areas of the brain corresponding to the functions of limbs and body organs. His work raised the possibility of changing people’s memories and the creation of rational human beings. Scottish-American psychiatrist Ewen Cameron was introduced to and inspired by Penfield’s work and he became convinced that by changing people’s memories and thinking through psychiatry, he could get rid of nationalism, prejudice and other undesirable mental traits that had encouraged the rise of authoritarian rule in Germany during the 1930s and led to the outbreak of World War 2.

Cameron was recruited by the CIA in the late 1950s to work on experiments that involved erasing the minds and memories of patients and then rebuilding the subjects’ personalities according to his whims. The wider political and military context of these experiments is shown in the film: the US government was alarmed by reports of apparent brainwashing of American POWs by the Soviet Union and China during the Korean War and the CIA wanted to keep abreast of psychology experiments the NKVD (later the KGB) was supposedly conducting. Curtis later wanders away from Cameron’s experiments to focus on the CIA’s obsession with assassinating Fidel Castro and the possibility that US President John F Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had been brainwashed during his time in the Soviet Union. Eventually the CIA stopped funding mind control experiments and along with the US military began to fund research into developing technology with computer software that mimicked characteristics of the human mind such as memory and visual recognition.

Overall, “You have used me …” is a cleverly made and informative film for audiences not familiar with the history of mind control experiments and other unethical experiments sponsored by the US government and its agencies. Each topic touched on in the film is worthy of a 60-minute documentary in its own right so if you’re looking for some fairly in-depth information into the nuts and bolts of how Cameron was approached by the CIA and agreed to work for that agency and what exactly he achieved for the CIA, you may be disappointed. Curiously, nowhere in “You have used me …” does Curtis actually utter the magic term “MKULTRA” as that was exactly what Cameron was working under: his experiments formed part of the MKULTRA project. The omission of the entire MKULTRA project and the related Project BLUEBIRD (later Project ARTICHOKE) seems strange; at the very least, Curtis could have acknowledged that Cameron’s work was one part, albeit a very important one, of the umbrella project that involved the use of chemical, biological and (gulp!) “radiological” methods of achieving mind control.

The film’s conclusion that memory can hold individuals and societies back is chilling. Surely Curtis’s intention here is tongue-in-cheek, perhaps even satirical. The historical context he refers to is the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 which among other things led to various ethnic rivalries, long suppressed by the Communist government, in that country breaking out. A better argument for what happened is that various ethnic groups, denied the political tools to negotiate and hammer out an agreement and a compensation process to settle overlapping territorial and property claims, and all residing in a country with a weakly developed (and probably corrupt) legal system, ended up resorting to violence once the old authoritarian fetters fell away. I also can’t imagine Curtis fronting up to groups like, say, Armenians and Jews, and telling them that focussing on past historical traumas of repeated genocide is holding them back and they should let go of these memories! The loss of memory was not sufficient enough to hold back hundreds of Cameron’s former patients from suing the CIA for compensation: in 1984 the CIA settled out of court with eight plaintiffs who brought a class action lawsuit against it and in 2004 (admittedly beyond the film’s scope) a Montreal court decision allowed over 250 people to claim cash compensation.

The upshot of the failed mind control experiments – Project MKULTRA was terminated in 1973 – was that the US government, the CIA and others concluded that it’s easier to manipulate history than to manipulate minds. History not only can be rewritten to suit the victors and make losers like Nazi Germany the supreme evil bogeymen, it can also be scripted in advance: many countries around the world with leaders not to the taste of NATO, the US, Israel or the EU and suffering invasions in the name of “freedom” and “democracy” will surely agree.

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