As a young adult, Susan Lapp always wondered why she had virtually no childhood memories of her mother.
Katherine Lapp had died in a car accident in 1972 when Susan was 15, and her father and other family members refused to discuss the subject. Mysteriously, Susan Lapp could hardly remember anything about her childhood and didn’t know why.
In 2018, a box of medical files revealed why she had blocked out those memories.
Katherine Lapp had gone to seek medical help in 1960 after feeling depressed, and instead of receiving care, she spent eight years in and out of Montreal’s Allan Memorial Institute, where she was subjected to psychiatric experimentation that included mind-altering drugs and hundreds of electroshock treatments that erased her memories and reduced her to a “toddler-like state,” according to her daughter.
“At the end, she just wasn’t there mentally — the (medical files) say she didn’t even know who she was anymore; she wasn’t even a person anymore and she didn’t want to live,” Lapp said in a recent phone interview.
Her mother did not get a single counselling session for the problem she entered for, she said.
Katherine Lapp was one of the hundreds of Montrealers who were allegedly subjected to experimental treatments at the Allan in the 1950s and 1960s by Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron and his colleagues. The psychological experimentation project, known as MK Ultra, was allegedly funded by the Canadian government and the United States Central Intelligence Agency.
Now, a recent court decision has given Susan Lapp and other family members of Cameron’s alleged victims hope that they might find justice, decades after the events in question.
Intended to treat schizophrenia, the treatments at the Allan hospital instead focused on “taking control of the patient’s psyche in order to recondition it,” the lawsuit alleges, using such means as powerful drugs, repeated audio messages, induced comas and shock treatment.
Lawyer Alan Stein is representing some 50 families of former patients in a lawsuit against the Canadian government, the McGill University Health Centre and the Royal Victoria Hospital, which founded the Allan and which is now part of the McGill teaching network. Late last month, the Quebec Superior Court set the stage for a trial when it rejected an application by the government and the hospitals to partially dismiss the lawsuit.
Because another group of Cameron’s alleged victims and a different lawyer have already filed a class-action request, Stein chose instead to file a direct action, which allows plaintiffs to be mandated by others in similar circumstances to sue on their behalf. The government and the two hospitals argued that the family members did not have enough in common to sue together, but a judge rejected their claims.
If successful, Stein said the case could set a precedent for other groups who don’t want to be restrained by the more complicated class-action process, which he says can take a decade or more.
“My clients are elderly people, and they don’t want to be tied up in litigation for 10, 12 years,” he said.
He said he’s hoping the case can be heard as early as next year — if the government and hospitals don’t appeal.
In a statement earlier this week, the Department of Justice noted that a 1986 investigation conducted on behalf of the federal government concluded it did not hold “legal liability or moral responsibility,” but the government nevertheless compensated some victims for “humanitarian reasons.” The department declined to confirm whether it would appeal last month’s court ruling.
The McGill University Health Centre acknowledged in a statement earlier this week that Cameron carried out research at the Allan Memorial Institute during the 1950s and 1960s that was “controversial,” and it had “unfortunate” consequences. But the hospital 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.”
While some alleged victims received about $100,000 in compensation by the federal government in 1992, many have received nothing. Even those who did said the money doesn’t come close to covering the damage done to their loved ones and their families.
Sue Dery says her mother, Pauline Teel, compared the electric shock treatments she received to “being in a snake pit and being gagged.” Dery says Teel was subjected to countless rounds of shocks, injected with barbiturates and insulin and put to sleep for long periods during her years at the Allan.
When she came out, Teel was worse, her daughter said. Teel showed little emotion and later turned to alcohol in an attempt to cope. Dery, the oldest of six, had to step in to help raise her younger siblings.
Dery said she only learned what happened to her mother decades later. At the time, “nobody really talked about it,” she said.
“It was seen as shameful.”
While Dery’s mother eventually managed to stop drinking and found peace late in life, others never recovered.
Marilyn Rappaport says her sister Evelyn has experienced what she describes as a “living death” in the decades since she went to the hospital for treatment.
Rappaport, who is one of the lead plaintiffs in Stein’s lawsuit, says her beautiful, artistic sister became someone who no longer recognized her own family and had to relearn to talk and go to the bathroom after treatments that included being put to sleep for “months at a time” and subjected to audio messages on repeat.
Today, at age 80, her sister is institutionalized. She won’t let anyone touch her and doesn’t recognize family, Rappaport said.
All the family members who spoke to The Canadian Press said that what happened at the Allan Memorial has had impacts far beyond the victims themselves.
Dery left home young and turned to drugs for a time as a way to cope. She said she spent years being angry with her mother for drinking and being unable to remember anything.
Lapp has almost no memories of her mother — a consequence, she says, of the trauma she went through. Through her mother’s medical files, she’s read horrible things, including that her mother didn’t recognize her children’s photos.
Rappaport, for her part, is in charge of managing her sister’s care and struggles daily to find help for her complex needs.
For the family members, the lawsuit represents not only a chance at compensation but also a chance to shed light on a chapter of history that was often obscured by stigma and shame surrounding mental illness.
While Stein’s lawsuit is asking for about $1 million in compensation for each family, the victims say that what they want most is an apology and recognition of what the families endured.
“I am doing this because my mother deserves it,” Lapp said. “She deserves to not be forgotten and put in a box of secret files. She deserves it, (even if) she has been dead 50 years. Every one of those people deserves it.”