Children of the mentally ‘de-patterned’ say Montreal doctor’s treatment irrevocably changed their lives
|National Post 31 Jan 2019 at 14:04|
For the first four years of Julie Tanny’s childhood, her father, Charles, was a loving and attentive man. He’d take Julie and her older brother and sister on surprise trips to the amusement park. When winter arrived he tended to the rink, the one he built himself in their backyard in Montreal.
In the spring of 1956, the right side of Charles’ face started to hurt. Doctors diagnosed a lesion in a cranial nerve, but they thought the root of the injury was psychological. The pain nagged at Charles for months. In January 1957 he was admitted to Montreal’s Allan Memorial Institute, in the charge of the famed psychiatrist Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron — who placed him in daily insulin-induced comas for the next seven weeks.
When Charles left AMI he was different. He didn’t recognize his family. He started to hit Julie and called her brother, Allan, an idiot. Theirs was a sad, empty home for many years, Julie said, dating from the point Charles’ care for his loved ones “just vanished.”
“My life was hell as a result of this,” she said. “It still is. They have to recognize that families really suffered.”
Last week, Julie Tanny, now 65, filed a class-action lawsuit application in Quebec’s Superior Court on behalf of anyone Cameron treated at AMI from 1948-64. It alleges, in effect, that the doctor’s practice of “de-patterning” his patients — using drug cocktails, electroconvulsive shocks and broadcasts of the same message hundreds of thousands of times in a row to wash their brain of illness — ruined hundreds of lives: the patients’ and those of their family members and children.
The lawsuit, which the court still has to certify, characterizes Cameron’s tactics as “nothing more than an electronic lobotomy.” It claims he damaged many of his patients’ brains and shattered their psyches, leaving them unable “to function in society and within their families.”
My life was hell as a result of this. It still is. They have to recognize that families really suffered
Two of the four defendants named in the application are the McGill University Health Centre and the Royal Victoria Hospital, institutions, the lawsuit alleges, that “participated in, knew about” or otherwise enabled Cameron’s experiments.
The others are the Canadian government and the U.S. Department of Justice, which helped fund Cameron’s regimen through grants. In the American case, the CIA backed Cameron with money from Project MKUltra — a program to study human mind control created in 1953 out of fear the Soviet Union and China were doing the same.
In 1992, 25 years after Cameron died of a heart attack, Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government paid 77 of Cameron’s victims an ex gratia settlement of $100,000 — while rejecting the claims of more than 250 others. Alison Steel, the daughter of a woman whose mind was destroyed at AMI, received a $100,000 payout from the government in 2017.
Galvanized by Steel’s story and aware, decades later, of just how many families say Cameron broke them, Tanny and a group of allies began to organize last spring in anticipation of taking class action. They’re now seeking mass compensation and apologies that have never been forthcoming.
“For victims and families, there will never be a closure,” said Marlene Levenson, whose aunt, Phyllis Goldberg, was rendered infantile by de-patterning in the 1940s.
“But at least get an apology,” Levenson continued. “Get accountability.”
In a statement, the Trudeau government said it was reviewing the lawsuit application.
“The Government of Canada believes in taking a fair and compassionate approach to victims and their families,” Department of Justice spokesman Ian McLeod said. “In this case, the government acknowledges the damages and painful scars of the victims who underwent the ‘depatterning’ treatment technique, as well as the impact on their families, and has taken action to provide assistance to those affected.
For victims and families, there will never be a closure. But at least get an apology. Get accountability
“The Government of Canada asked a third party, George T.H. Cooper, to conduct an inquiry into Dr. Cameron’s ‘depatterning’ work between 1950 and 1965. The Cooper Report concluded (in 1986) that Canada did not hold any legal liability or moral responsibility in respect of these treatments.”
The McGill University Health Centre acknowledged that Cameron “carried out experiments at the Allan Memorial Institute during the ’50s and ’60s,” but said it wasn’t responsible for his actions.
“The research attributed to him continues to be controversial, and its consequences, unfortunate,” MUHC spokesman Gary Francoeur said. “The courts have already established that the Royal Victoria Hospital was not considered, by law, the employer of Dr. Cameron; at the time, he exercised his profession in an autonomous and independent manner.
“It’s important to note that Dr. Cameron’s research could not be carried out today at our institution,” Francoeur said. “Since the ’60s, the ethical and regulatory frameworks have evolved considerably.”
The U.S. Department of Justice did not reply before deadline to a request for comment.
Like Alison Steel’s mother, Jeanie, who was admitted to AMI in 1957 and died in 2002, Marlene Levenson’s aunt and Julie Tanny’s father each lived for a long time after they were discharged from Cameron’s oversight, though in vastly different states than before.
Goldberg, who was taken in at age 19 to be treated for depression, stopped speaking and began to cringe when relatives tried to caress her. Brilliant and musical through adolescence, she went on to need lifelong care until she died aged 86.
When Charles Tanny went home from AMI in March 1957, two-and-a-half months after his admission, he was frail, confused and distant. There were no more surprise visits to the amusement park. Charles physically abused Julie into her 20s, when, in 1977, he suffered a stroke and lost the ability to write or talk. He died in 1992 — minutes, Julie said, after receiving a payout from the Canadian government.
Charles’ transformation left Julie numb and instilled in her a sense of shame and distrust. She started experiencing panic attacks. She met with therapists for decades — and could never bring herself to speak about her father.
She is speaking now, for half a dozen living former patients with whom she’s in touch and a class of eligible plaintiffs that totals several hundred.
“There is an option to finally, hopefully get some kind of restitution,” she said. “I really want people to come forward and get the justice they’re entitled to.”
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