Toying with minds

Maclean’s, November 7, 1994 

The Monkey Puzzle Tree

By Elizabeth Nickson

Knopf Canada, 277 pages, $27

Fiction, it is said, can express a kind of truth beyond the reach of facts, no matter how carefully they are marshaled. The conventions of reporting mean that even when writers thoroughly catalog and calibrate their subjects’ emotional responses, they still cannot offer interior monologue or vividly evoke an emotional state. Which leads some nonfiction authors to use novelistic techniques to convey the emotional truth of real-life stories, and to bill their essentially factual books as novels. That is how Truman Capote came to produce In Cold Blood, and what prompted Elizabeth Nickson to write her first novel, The Monkey Puzzle Tree.


Nickson’s work deals with a staggering atrocity: the American CIA’s mind-control experiments at Montreal’s Allan Memorial Institute during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1957, a gang of Cold Warriors began trying to duplicate behavior-modification techniques developed in the Soviet Union and North Korea, using psychiatric patients at the Allan as unwitting subjects. In 1979. nine of the patients involved in those experiments filed a public-interest suit seeking damages for having had their brains toyed with. Anne Collins’s 1988 nonfiction work, In The Sleep Room, tells the story meticulously and effectively. But Nickson, whose own mother was a victim of the program, opted for fiction in her desire to explore the human wreckage that it left.


Canadian-born Nickson, formerly a writer for Time and Life, and now a freelance writer based in Bermuda, brings a keen eye for telling detail and a grace with the language to her story of Victoria Ramsey, a fictional patient of the real-life Dr. Ewen Cameron. Funded by the CIA, Cameron headed the mind-control study, scorching patients’ brains with cortex-immolating doses of LSD and then brain-washing them. After several  short stays at the Allan Memorial, where she has sought help for depression, Victoria struggles to continue being a mother to three children and to hold a fractious clan together, while rebuilding her shattered psyche.


Nickson tells Victoria’s story from the point of view of her daughter, Catherine. And because the author has opted for the freedom of fiction, she is able to intricately explore the emotional and moral repercussions of Victoria’s ordeal—the complex dynamics within the family, the bonds between mother and daughter, the banality of the evil embodied by the Allan program.


Initially, Catherine’s narration has a sawed-off, wire-service-dispatch efficiency. But her voice becomes increasingly tender and poetic as the story moves deeper into the characters’ emotional lives. The novel ends with the plaintiffs’ overdue legal victory after 11 years of official denial and costly courtroom maneuvering. That they have won at all is a ringing victory; that they had to fight is an ineradicable tragedy.