Wormwood, Burroughs, and The Game With No End

In December, Errol Morris released his latest documentary. The title is Wormwood, and it relates the case of Frank Olson’s death on 28 November 1953. Archival and interview footage constitute the majority of the six-episode series, but threaded throughout are speculative re-enactments of the events in question: depressing scenes of Olson – at home, in the bar, in a hotel room – at the end of his life. He’s at the end either because he can’t continue or because some people just don’t want him to.

Olson was a researcher at Camp Detrick, in Frederick, Maryland. His work was part of the U. S. government’s numerous and frightening forays into biological warfare, but he got caught up in the now-notorious MKULTRA program. This program, which ran from the early-50s to the early-70s, was sponsored by the CIA and tested LSD and other drugs on thousands of people, often without their knowledge. MKULTRA was a symptom of the pervasive paranoia in U.S. intelligence about Russian and Chinese experiments in brainwashing à la The Manchurian Candidate. The initial story of Olson’s death was that as a result of being dosed with LSD several days prior, he had fallen out of a 10th-story window of the Statler-Hilton Hotel in New York.

The story never held. Olson’s son, Eric, the closest that the series gets to a protagonist, obsessively pursued this case for decades, prying open inconsistencies and lies that he’d been told by several of the men involved in the case. He and his family met with CIA director William Colby (who also later died in mysterious circumstances) as well as President Ford to receive apologies, but never the entire truth of the matter. He even had Frank Olson’s body exhumed in 1994 to investigate the cause of death. By the end of the series, the most likely possibility presented is that Frank Olson was murdered by the CIA for expressing serious concerns about the United States’ possible use of biological weapons in the Korean War. Effectively confirming the broad outlines of the story, Seymour Hersh, who wrote about the case in the 1970s, reveals in an interview with Morris that one of his sources revealed to him that Olson was definitely murdered, that the CIA probably had a protocol for killing people within the intelligence community whom it saw as threats, and that there are many more strange deaths that might have occurred in similar circumstances. Hersh says, however, that he can’t publish what he knows without compromising his source – at least not yet.

Ever alert, and sometimes even sympathetic to, the malevolent paranoia that guides the U.S. intelligence community’s moral compass, William Burroughs wrote about the Olson case in a brief essay, ‘In the Interests of National Security’ (a surprisingly Chomskyan title for someone who mostly did not share Noam Chomsky’s politics). I found the article in The Adding Machine: Collected Essays, by Calder Publishers, from 1985, and unfortunately this edition doesn’t list the original publication of the essay. But there are a couple of hints that indicate the early-80s for the essay’s composition. [1]

Naturally, Burroughs assumes as a matter of course that Olson (although his misspells his name as ‘Olsen’) was murdered. “Perhaps someone should have a look at the window in question. Throwing oneself through a window set in metal frames is quite a feat.” This is the same conclusion that Eric Olson arrived at after visiting the room in question many years later. Frank Olson certainly could not have fallen out of the window (one of the first explanations given to his family) because the gap would have been much too small. But more significantly, Burroughs feels, quite presciently, that the role of LSD was a “smokescreen,” and that Olson’s murder was meant to keep secret much darker and wider-reaching experiments in behaviour modification.

Burroughs’s abiding concern throughout most of his literature is the problem of Control. I’m capitalising that word here because for Burroughs, it’s not just an idea, but a central myth of modernity, like the Individual, the Nation, or Reason. It is one of the problems that must be confronted and worked through if anybody wants to say anything relevant about contemporary life. Control takes the reins of a person, or people, from the outside, and directs how they behave, what they desire, and who they are – it makes you not you.

Burroughs describes this nightmare scenario in the essay: “The ultimate form of behaviour modification is Electric Brain Stimulation. EBS was developed by Dr Delgado and is described in his book Physical Control of the Mind. Electrodes implanted in the brain are activated by radio control. […] He has forced human subjects to pick up articles against their will… ‘Your electricity is stronger than my will, Doctor,’ one subject admitted as he tried to keep his hands from carrying out the electronic order. Delgado has also induced in human subjects fear, rage, sexual excitement, and euphoria, all at push-button control. A thing like that could solve a lot of problems.” Burroughs doesn’t share exactly who Dr Delgado is, but a quick Amazon search for Physical Control of the Mind suggests that one José M. R. Delgado, M. D. did indeed publish this book in 1970, with the chilling subtitle of ‘Toward a Psychocivilized Society’. If Burroughs is suggesting that some form of external control caused Frank Olson to kill himself (which is also speculated on in Morris’s documentary), he doesn’t elaborate. But the image of Dr Delgado remotely controlling the motions of some hapless test subject recalls the infamous Dr Benway – Burroughs’ recurring figure of cold, clinical indifference. Benway doesn’t see his patients beyond their experimental possibilities, and is contemptuous of their humanity beyond their mere flesh (“Now, boys, you won’t see this operation performed very often and there’s a reason for that…. You see it has absolutely no medical value. No one knows what the purpose of it originally was or if it had a purpose at all. Personally I think it was a pure artistic creation from the beginning.”)

The scientist standing over the test subject is one of Burroughs’ archetypal images of Control, but others include the agent quietly manipulating events from the shadows, the junkie obeying the demands of his or her addiction, and, most importantly, the virus rewriting the very DNA of its host.

Morris, as indicated by the title, frames the series around a comparison between Eric Olson and Hamlet, referring not exactly to the falling star from the Book of Revelation, but to Hamlet’s invocation of bitterness (“Wormwood, wormwood.” In Revelation, the falling star called Wormwood turns water bitter, and Wormwood is the common name for the plant artemisia absinthium, which has a bitter taste.). The parallels there are clear: a young man is haunted by the ghost of his father, and is completely consumed with uncovering the treachery that killed the old man. So fixated is the poor kid, that he’s willing to raze every relationship and opportunity around him. The tragedy of Frank Olson’s death is compounded by Eric’s obvious talent as an artist and insight into psychology (he received a PhD in psychology from Harvard, but doesn’t seem to have been able to pursue a career in it). At least nobody can say that Eric Olson isn’t a person of conviction.

But, coincidentally, 1953 is the same year that Samuel Beckett first performed Waiting for Godot, and there’s a useful parallel there too. It seems that Eric Olson is waiting for somebody (Seymour Hersh? The director of the CIA?) to finally walk on stage and declaim what it’s all about. Why did his father die? Who made the decision to kill Frank Olson if, indeed, he was killed? What did any of it have to do with LSD or the Korean War? Fair questions but ones that will almost certainly never be adequately answered. As Morris says, the answer, in Eric Olson’s mind, lies in “a vault, within a vault, within a vault.” But in pursuing those answers, something has been foregone. Likewise, in Godot, there are moments when Vladimir and Estragon drift off into memories suggestive of another life that they might have lived rather than waiting here, on the side of a road, for some old bastard to validate them.

There are plenty of interpretations of Godot, and one is as a basic allegory of control. As Vladimir and Estragon are stuck waiting for this person that they seem to have never met and know almost nothing about, their lives are basically his. They’re just by-standers to life itself, now. Even more galling is that they don’t really seem to know how that situation came about. Burroughs certainly felt that confusion. Eric Olson definitely feels it. Most people feel, pretty acutely, from time to time, the hand of some unseen agent or occluded force that compels them to talk, behave, and believe in a way that they otherwise wouldn’t. And it’s difficult to meet somebody who professes a solipsistic, absolute independence of thought and action and not see them as profoundly deluded.

But it’s possible to look at the metaphor of Godot from Godot’s perspective, if only satirically. The ruling class needs to coerce and control the public, who’s inevitably shiftless and stupid, while still flattering itself that it’s liberal and democratic. The public is both in need of rescue, but unworthy of it. From this point of view, what Eric Olson doesn’t understand, can never understand, is that his father was murdered for him, so how dare he question their motives and means? Calling Dr Delgado. As Hersh tells Morris, “The fact that you can’t get closure in this thing will be of great satisfaction to the CIA. The old-timers, they’ll love it. They’ll love it. The tradecraft won. […] It’s a victory for them.”

Morris’s interview with Hersh is withheld until the final episode, but it’s built up throughout the series. Hersh is an anti-climax, though, because he can’t reveal what he knows. He knows that Eric Olson is pissed off at him, and he doesn’t blame Olson for his feelings. But Hersh is also reflective about Morris’s and Olson’s inability to get closure in this case: for him, that’s a better representation of what it means to have to think and contend with the most hidden aspects of power. “But don’t you know how wonderful it is to not have an ending? I think you’re really wrong to want this thing bowed-up and tied. It’s wonderful not to have an ending. It is! It says a lot about the world of intelligence. There sometimes isn’t an ending, you can’t wrap it up in a bow.” That’s bleak, but what do you expect from the guy who exposed the My Lai massacre and Abu Ghraib and keeps going back for more?

Burroughs ends his essay on a similar point about the inconclusiveness of this world of national security. “This is a game planet. All games are hostile and basically there is only one game, and that game is war. Research into altered states of consciousness — which might result in a viewpoint from which the game itself could be called into question — is inexorably drawn into the game. One of the rules of this game is that there cannot be final victory since that would mean the end of the war game.” What’s really driving Wormwood is the anxiety of being a by-stander. Most of us feel like we’re watching power from the nosebleed section. But then we get a glimpse of the real game that’s being played, and the realisation that in a remote, uncertain way, that we’re in it too. And that game will never end, and nobody is going to spell out the rules, but we just can’t go back to being the by-stander.

[1] What caught my eye is that Burroughs is aware that part of the MKULTRA project was research into BZ (quinuclidinyl benzilate), some sort of gaseous form of LSD. The Wikipedia page for MKULTRA states that research into BZ was revealed in a congressional report from 1984. If this report was the first time that research was made public, then it’s not likely that this essay was written prior to later that year. Although it’s certainly possible that Burroughs, with his many associations with the drug counterculture, had heard about the research as rumour and simply assumed, correctly as it turned out, that it was true.

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