There's no magic bullet to fill you full of happiness
Novelist Dirk Wittenborn writes about his scientist father's efforts in the 1950s to find a chemical treatment for mental illness more humane than lobotomy
Published 22/02/2009 | 00:00
'I was born because a man came to kill my father." The opening line of my novel Pharmakon is true. My father was a research psychologist at Yale -- a pioneer in psychopharmacology. The killer was a former patient.
On Sunday, October 8 1950, my parents and their three young children were in the yard planting tulips when a stranger who seemed lost appeared in the street. My mother was just about to ask if he needed help when my father whispered urgently, "Don't look up and don't say a word." My mother thought he was kidding until he told her that the stranger was a deeply troubled former Yale student he had once treated. My father didn't know his former patient had a loaded revolver in his pocket, but he had good reason to be frightened -- the young man had recently composed a 'death list' of those he blamed for his unhappiness, and Dr JR Wittenborn was at the top.
For reasons that remain a mystery to this day, this mentally unbalanced angel of death passed my family by and walked up the road. Number two on his death list was a Yale psychiatrist who had also treated him, and lived in the neighbourhood. My father tried to warn his colleague, but in the pre-answering machine 50s there was no way to leave a message. A few hours later, gunshots rang out. The psychiatrist was murdered and his wife shot and severely beaten. After eluding the police for several days, the killer was captured and incarcerated in a mental hospital for the criminally insane. I was born a year later.
I didn't begin to get a sense of how intimately my life was intertwined with that of a crazed murderer until I was 13. Having displeased my charming, narcissistic, demanding father for what seemed like the millionth time, I mustered up the courage to demand, "If I'm such a f****** disappointment, why did you even have me?" To which he answered clinically, "I had you because a man I tried to help came to kill me and my wife and children. And I wasn't going to let that bastard deny my life." Not the healthiest thing for a psychologist to tell his teenage son. But informative.
Though neither my father nor my mother, who was his research assistant, was eager to discuss the tragedy, certain mysteries of my youth began to make sense. I thought my father was simply being weird when, one sunny day, without explanation, he would forbid me to ever play outside -- I later discovered that the man who came to kill us had escaped the mental hospital where he was imprisoned on more than one occasion.
Though my father tested psychoactive drugs on thousands of mental patients during his lifetime, I found nothing to indicate he tested drugs on this patient. Yet parts of the story still don't make sense. According to newspaper accounts at the time, the patient had been lobotomised several years before he became a murderer. Yet after his lobotomy, he was accepted at law school. Unusual. My dad told me that one reason he found the killer so frightening was that when he was arrested, he had a large quantity of cash on his person, as well as a passport with visas to several out-of-the-way countries, though none of this was ever mentioned in the newspapers. Who gave him the money? Why did he want to kill my father?
During the Second World War, my father had developed a radical new kind of psychiatric test. Evaluating 72 areas of behaviour, it measured whether you were getting saner or crazier, happier or sadder. The test brought my father to Yale and his wizardry with the then-fledgling art of statistics, his ability to accurately test whether a drug worked, to reduce the human condition to numbers, made him a player in the golden age of psychopharmacology. When I visited a legendary psychiatrist who did research with my father in the 50s, 60s and 70s, he told me that my father's rating scale was ideally suited for testing antidepressants and other psychoactive drugs. When I pointed out that it was strange my father would invent a test for drugs that wouldn't exist for almost a decade, the old psychiatrist smiled slyly. "So it would appear, wouldn't it?'
Did my dad see the future was in psychopharmacology? Or was the psychiatrist implying that he was involved in secret drug testing that is still not in the textbooks? The fact that he was recruited by Yale, the feeder school for the CIA, gave me cause to wonder.
Because no one could, or would, answer my questions, I wrote a novel instead of a memoir. Unable to find the truth about a murderous day in 1950, I chose to write about people like my dad, those psychologists, psychiatrists, psychometricians and neurologists who truly believed there was a cure for mental illness, a magic bullet to take away insanity, a way to prescribe happiness.
Before passing judgment on my father and his colleagues for trying to craft a better world through chemistry, it's important to consider what drove them to try to synthesise joy and engineer normalcy. In the 50s, my father began his lifelong quest to find a cure for schizophrenia and depression. Because there was no alternative. The medical community's treatment of mental illness was at best ineffectual, at worst sadistic and downright insane.
I grew up hearing my father's horrifying stories about the atrocities committed by the great men of psychiatry; Dr Henry Cotton, for example, who believed that bacteria from tooth decay and the small bowel were the causes of dementia praecox. His treatment? Rip out their teeth and cut out several feet of bowel.
Or Walter Freeman, the Nembutal-addicted president of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, who was lauded for curing all manner of mental illness simply by lifting an eyelid and inserting a gold-plated ice pick beneath the tear duct two inches into the brain, and giving it a sharp twist. Performing his now infamous transorbital lobotomies under local anaesthesia, he travelled the country in a surgically equipped van which he called his lobotomobile.
Equally creepy was the once-esteemed Dr Ladislas Meduna, an Austrian psychiatrist who insisted he could cure mental patients by administering the drug Metrazol, the theory being that if he put them into strong enough convulsions, they would literally forget whatever life trauma had unbalanced them. However, there were a few drawbacks to Metrazol, namely that patients would be overcome by the sensation that they were dying and worse, they would contort so violently that their spines would often fracture, their hip bones driven with such force into their sockets that they shattered.
My father and men like him turned to psychopharmacology because the cures that existed not only didn't work, they damaged people. Psychoanalysis took too long and mental hospitals were snake pits, overflowing with veterans of the Korean and Second World wars, driven mad by the horrors of battle. Compared to cutting out part of a patient's brain or injecting him or her with poison, altering the chemistry of the brain with a pill seemed to be cleaner, kinder, and quicker. Psychopharmacology was a product and a reflection of the Jet Age. It was part of the can-do spirit that won the war and filled homes with dishwashers and other newfangled timesavers.
By the time I was five, I knew my father and his shrink friends were different from other people's parents. It was about this age that my father began to bring me along when he visited a large rural mental hospital where he was testing drugs. I remember when I was seven or eight, a psychiatrist protege of my father's delighting me with a tale of a female patient who swallowed things -- "Spoons, bedsprings, anything she can grab." The patient developed a lesion in her side. When it was examined, the point of a Bic pen appeared. I remember the psychiatrist laughing as he told me and my father, "The best part was, it still wrote." A few years later, the Bic pen psychiatrist died as a result of testing drugs on himself.
I liked hanging out with the psychopharmacologists in my father's circle. The majority were foreign, they liked talking about sex and food, and had great stories about mad people. In hindsight, I see that they were incredible narcissists who thought themselves superior beings and longed for the kind of fame that came to Alexander Fleming for the discovery of penicillin or Jonas Salk for polio vaccine, a fame none of them ever achieved. Strangely, every single one of them suffered from depression.
IN the 60s, as my father was testing drugs on mental patients, I, like the rest of my generation, was conducting experiments in synthesised joy on my own head. As a teenager, I loved talking to my father's friends about the drugs my father didn't know I was taking. They were eager to discuss the pharmacopia they had tried out on themselves too. Dr Berger (of Miltown 'Happy Pills' fame) once told me in his cosy Czech accent that in the course of a medical procedure, he was given a drug he described as "perfect". "I felt euphoria, contentment -- everything was great, and it was totally non-addictive." Unfortunately, I can't remember the drug's name.
When my father's mental hygienist pals were on to their third glasses of wine, I'd always inquire discreetly if they thought my father had taken any mind-altering drugs. As one psychiatrist who was fond of sampling his own wares told me, "Your father's the guy who writes down what happens in the notebook."
I wasn't the only one conducting drug research in secret. In the late 50s and early 60s, Dr Ewen Cameron, founding chairman of the department of psychiatry at McGill University Medical School, conducted CIA-funded experiments in which he would put patients, many suffering postpartum depression or the symptoms of menopause, in synthetic comas for 15-30 days and wake them thrice daily with multiple blasts of 150 volts, 'blitz shocks'. The patient would then be taken on a 'psychic drive', in which tape-recorded messages would be played from speakers beneath his or her pillow for 16 hours a day for more than a month at a time. One such message ran "Madeleine ... you let your mother check you up sexually after every date you had with a boy. You hadn't enough determination to tell her to stop ... They used to call you 'Crying Madeleine ... ' you have not been able to keep [your husband] interested sexually."
Often these sessions were accompanied by injections of LSD, sometimes four in a week. Why? The CIA was interested in brainwashing. In 1977, Senator Ted Kennedy went on record before Congress, stating: "The Deputy Director of the CIA revealed that over 30 universities and institutions were involved in an 'extensive testing and experimentation' programme which included covert drug tests on unwitting citizens at all social levels, high and low, native Americans and foreign. Several of these tests involved the administration of LSD to 'unwitting subjects in social situations'."
No question, the drug companies were kindlier and gentler researchers than the CIA. But because drug companies paid for their research, there was an inherent conflict of interest. The history of the use of lithium for bipolar disorder illustrates the problem. According to the director of a major university research centre who also worked with Dr Nathan Klein, a psychiatrist that won the Lasker Award for his research with lithium, "Lithium would still be the drug of choice for bipolar disorders. For every thousand people who took it, a hundred got up and walked out of the hospital. Problem was, it couldn't be patented; it's a mineral." The profit potential was limited.
In 2005, 190 million prescriptions were written for antidepressants in America. But it could be argued that discontent, dissatisfaction, longing and desire are the emotional states of mind that we're most often in. That it is discontent, the acute awareness of what is lacking, that drove human beings to invent the wheel, construct bridges, build cathedrals. Perhaps mild unhappiness serves an evolutionary purpose?
Certainly, in 1980, at the age of 65, my father had given up on anyone finding a cure for mental illness in his lifetime. Often describing the drugs being used to treat conditions such as depression and schizophrenia as 'sledgehammers', he believed we were 25-50 years away from understanding the wondrous subtlety of how the brain conjured feeling. I doubt he would feel we are there now.
'Pharmakon', by Dirk Wittenborn (Bloomsbury, £12.99)