Sunday, September 5, 2010

Monsters: The Light of Day

[This is a combination of elements of two images. The monkey is from a photograph taken surreptitiously. This monkey was used by Steven Lisberger, a monster at the University of California San Francisco. Lisberger embeds electrical equipment in their brains and eyes, deprives them of water, keeps them in solitary confinement, chained by the neck, even while in a cage, and then repeatedly experiments on them while they are wide awake. In the original photo, it is clear that this monkey is completely psychically crushed. Lisberger had pictures of some of his experimental methods displayed in drawings on his website. When the public’s attention was called to them, he took them down. The picture of the woman is from an image published in a 1946 Life magazine exposé of mental hospitals in the United States that is reminiscent of the story told in the movie The Changling. The image of the woman was from a photograph taken at the Cleveland State Mental Hospital.]


Hidden from view, anything can be done to a prisoner.

It’s a truism that monsters don’t like the light of day. They tend to come out at night and to keep their secret pastimes hidden from public view. They don’t like public exposure, and who can blame them? A corollary to this is that they pretend they don’t have anything to hide. They can come across as plain Joes, as upright and moral. They often go to church and otherwise appear normal.

Consider the 2008 discovery in Austria of Josef Fritzl’s secret prison under his house. He had imprisoned his daughter for 24 years, locking her in the cellar when she was 18. He raped her repeatedly and kept three of the seven children from his forced incest locked underground with her. According to an article published by the BBC in March of 2009, “Neighbors and acquaintances initially expressed shock at the case and said that Fritzl had treated his grandchildren affectionately and appeared to be a good grandfather. Former colleagues described him as hard-working and polite.” And isn’t this always the way it goes?

Neighbors and acquaintances are always shocked to learn that the man or woman next door is a monster. Dennis Rader, the infamous “BTK” killer who bound, tortured, and killed people for almost two decades was a family man, a Cub Scout leader, and pastor in his church. One article noted that he “seemed too normal to be the serial killer next door.”

The 2008 drama Changeling provides us with interesting portraits of monsters. The movie looks at the details surrounding the “Wineville Chicken Coop Murders.” Between 1926 and 1928, Gordon Stewart Northcott kidnapped, molested, and killed as many as 20 young boys. He tricked the boys into getting into his pickup truck, took them to a ranch and locked them in a pen until he chose to pull one out. In the movie, it is clear that the boys know what’s coming, just like an animal in a cage who witnesses what happens to other animals pulled from their cages.(1) Northcott is clearly a monster.

But he isn’t the only monster in the movie. Christine Collins (played by Angelina Jolie) lives in Los Angeles and goes to the police when her son goes missing (he was kidnapped by Northcott.) She keeps pressure on the police who make a big deal about finding him and turn his reunion with his mother into media event. But when he gets off the train, he isn’t Collins’s son, he is a different boy, hence the movie’s title. Collins of course tells them immediately that he isn’t her son, but they will have none of it. The police force and the mayor’s office are deeply corrupt. They have no interest in being embarrassed during an election year.

When Collins won’t stop complaining, and when people start listening, the police have her taken into “protective” custody and placed in a mental institution. The psychiatrist there threatens her with a variety of “treatments” to coerce her into “admitting” that she was wrong, the police were right, and that the boy is indeed her own son. Thankfully, she is rescued in the nick of time to save her from having her brain shocked into confused submission.

It turns out that many women in the institution are “Section 8s” – committed on the authority of the police alone – and are being held because they have angered someone politically connected. Many of them have been drugged and shocked so often that they are little more than zombies. Of course, even though they are a little frightening with their soiled gowns, drooling mouths, wild hair, and deranged expressions, they aren’t monsters. The doctors and the nurses who have tortured them into cowering compliance are the monsters. The police officers who knowingly sent sane women to a mental hospital for “treatment” are the monsters. And, isn’t it likely that when the doctors, nurses, and cops went home at night, and went to parties over the weekend that their friends and neighbors thought them to be nice normal people?

Once Collins and the other women disappeared behind the walls of the asylum, like the children in Fritzl’s dungeon, like the boys in Northcott’s chicken coop, no human was around to see what was going on. Monsters don’t generally like the light of day, or witnesses.

In labs around the United States, monsters commit their atrocities in secret, hidden from the light of day, hidden from the public’s eyes. Very few photographs exist; even fewer video recordings are available. The monsters claim that the public “wouldn’t understand” what it was seeing; but they are really afraid that the public would understand far too much.

In 2002, I read an article that had originally been published in Scientific American in 1993, and was republished in a special edition on the brain and emotions called The Hidden Mind. The article was “The Neurobiology of Fear,” written by University of Wisconsin researcher Ned H. Kalin, M.D., Hedberg Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry, and Director of the HealthEmotions Research Institute that he founded with Richard Davidson whom I wrote about in the essay on lojong. In the Scientific American article, Kalin explained that he had videotaped experiments during which he had frightened young monkeys.

I wrote to the university and requested a copy of these apparently public records—paid for by taxpayers. They ignored my request. Months later a friend of mine began requesting a copy and eventually the university claimed that the videos were not public records. A year or so later, an attorney started requesting a copy; this time, the university was more prompt and more detailed in its denial. Then, about a year later, a reporter who happened also to be the chair of a citizens group that consistently fights for media’s access to public records, requested a copy.

Apparently sensing the likely eventual court order to turn over copies of these videos, the university sent the reporter a letter saying that a year earlier the records had been destroyed, as soon after the last request for the tapes as was legal to do. Further, the university claimed that a year prior to that, there had been a steam leak in the room in which the videotapes had been stored. When asked whether the tapes had been damaged, the university’s legal staff said that they did not know and did not know whether any salvage of the records had been attempted.

Most astounding, was the number and breadth of records that they had chosen to destroy. As it turned out they chose to shred 628 videotapes and an unknown number of other records. The videotapes that were shredded spanned over fifteen years of experiments on monkeys by various researchers from the university and the Harry Harlow lab. The university, probably Kalin particularly, chose to keep this documentation out of the light of day.

It is difficult to miss the parallel with the 2009 revelation that the CIA destroyed 92 videotapes of its use of using water-boarding and other “enhanced techniques” during its years-long interrogations of suspected Islamic militants. The American Civil Liberties Union remarked that the “sheer number” of the tapes destroyed showed that this was “a deliberate and systematic attempt to hide these unlawful activities from the American people.” The monsters at the University of Wisconsin destroyed more than six times as many videotapes.

Monsters hide their activities for one and only one reason. They believe, right or wrong, that if the public learned the gruesome truth, they would be in very deep trouble. It’s a cliché from old movies that when the villagers learn the truth about what’s going on in the castle above the town, they march with torches, pitchforks, and pikes and sometimes set fire to it. This is true whether the monster is a vampire, a mummy, or a scientist like Dr. Frankenstein. This bit of B-horror plot formula wasn’t invented by a writer though. It springs from reality and has seeped into our collective consciousness, which might explain the terror experienced by vivisectors when a crowd of angry people with signs and bullhorns gather in front of their house.

As long ago as the 1840s, this was an already familiar risk. Claude Bernard wrote in the 1867:
Twenty-five years ago when I began my career in experimental physiology, I found myself in those difficulties that are reserved for experimenters…. As soon as an experimental physiologist was discovered, he was denounced; he was given over to the reproaches of his neighbors, and subjected to the annoyances of the police. At the beginning of my experimental studies, I ran into such difficulties many times.(2)
Once you begin looking into the dark recesses of society and recognizing the monsters hiding among us you begin to wonder where they all come from. Who made them? Were they born monsters or did some experience or series of experiences turn them into abominations? There is good evidence that supports the widely held belief that serial killers often have a history of torturing and killing animals. Often, apparently, they have parents who were themselves monsters. This makes sense given Harlow’s “monster mothers” and Maestripieri’s child-abusing monkey mothers who go on to raise more child-abusing mothers.

The backgrounds of most vivisectors remain hidden, unsurprisingly perhaps if they were abused or neglected as children or tortured animals. Those aren’t the kinds of things one tells about. Coincidentally, the two whose childhoods I know a tiny bit about are both ex-directors of the University of Wisconsin Primate Center. One is Harry Harlow, who we can get a glimmer or two about from Deborah Blum’s biography, Love at Goon Park, Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection (2002). The other is John Hearn, who told stories about his boyhood to a graduate student with whom he was having an illicit affair.

Blum writes: “[Harlow’s] own research would lead him to realize, many years later, how much he had felt like an afterthought and how much he had minded.” Because his brother was chronically ill, his mother had little time for him. “His mother was there, near the home, physically—just not quite all there emotionally for a younger brother.” And then, she quotes Harlow, “I have no memory of partial maternal separation, but I may have lost some percentage time of maternal affection, and this deprivation may have resulted in consuming adolescent and adult loneliness.”

She continues a page later with observations from his high school yearbook:
In the 1923 yearbook, the year of his graduation, his senior picture shows an unsmiling boy. He has downcast eyes, a shadow of dark lashes about them, smooth dark hair, lips slightly turned down at the corners. In the same yearbook, students are asked what they wish to be when they grow up. The dreams are mostly small ones, happy ones. One wants to be a teacher, others want to be pretty, lovable, a farmer, a musician, a farmer, a singer, a farmer. [Harry’s] wish? At the age of seventeen, he wanted to be “famous.” He made a prediction, though, for his more probable outcome: He would simply end up insane.
That’s not a lot to go on, but it doesn’t sound like he was a happy child. Knowing what he became, we have to wonder when he first began hurting those weaker than himself. Was he imagining them to be the brother who took all his mother’s attention? Was he trying to get even by locking them away without love? Did he torture animals before going to college?

John Hearn was the director of the primate center from 1989 to about 1997. The official date of his departure is a little iffy because he left in the dark of the night, in a manner of speaking, after his abusive affair and associated misuse of public funds became public knowledge—there’s that light of day again, this time making a monster scurry into hiding.

One of the stories he told his lover was that as a boy he would capture birds, shove firecrackers in their cloaca, or vent, light the fuse, and release them. It was great fun watching them explode in the air. Apparently, in the case of Hearn, he was a monster even when young.

I wish there was data on the background of vivisectors, but there isn’t much. One more bit of trivia has to do with the most recent past-director of the Wisconsin Primate Center. Joe Kemnitz is rumored to have been a very chubby kid. He might have been made fun of because of it. His main area of research is caloric restriction. He makes monkeys go through a lifetime of chronic hunger. Who is he trying to get back at?

Like their work, this information isn’t something that they want talked about. They want to keep it under wraps, in the dark, hidden away. There are a number of examples of alcoholism and domestic problems among the monsters, but without data (and this is data unlikely to ever be available), whether or not this is at a higher rate than such problems occur in the general public must remain speculative.

Just over a century ago, vivisectors weren’t as secretive as they are today, although public concerns could, even then, cause them to hide, as we saw in Claude Bernard’s case. They conducted many demonstrations in public, entertaining crowds with animals’ screams and living entrails. Something similar endures in Spain’s bullfighting spectacles. Even a few years ago, vivisectors were less secretive than they are today. Their increasingly manic aversion to sunlight seems to be a defensive response to intensifying public concern and knowledge of what's going on behind closed laboratory doors.

(1) “an animal in a cage who witnesses what happens to other animals…” This isn’t a figure of speech or just rhetoric. Researchers found that:
Animals housed individually showed small, but statistically significant, increases in heart rate when in the room in which other rats were decapitated. In fact, they showed greater changes in HR [heart rate] to room entry by research staff than to witnessing the decapitation procedure. Sharp J, Zammit T, Azar T, Lawson D. Are "by-stander" female Sprague-Dawley rats affected by experimental procedures? Contemporary Topics in Laboratory Animal Science. 2003.
(2) Claude Bernard. Rapport sur la physiologie générale (1866). Translated in John Vyvyan. In Pity and in Anger: A Study of the Use of Animals in Science. Marblehead: Micah Publications, 1988.

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