CBC’s “The Secrets of Oak Ridge” and the Difficulties of Journalistic History

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has just aired a piece on the controversial history of Oak Ridge, the forensic mental health division of the Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care in Penetanguishene, Ontario. (The Oak Ridge building officially closed in 2014, but Waypoint continues to house Ontario’s only maximum security forensic hospital.) “The Secrets of Oak Ridge” aired March 1st, 2016 as part of the CBC’s national news program The National and is described simply as: “Allegations of treatment with LSD, sleep deprivation, torture. The painful legacy of an Ontario psychiatric facility. Reg Sherren reports.”

The 15-minute piece, driven by the narrative of one man’s experiences in the institution in the 1970s, describes some of the treatment practices at the institution at this time and questions the ethics of those involved. A provocative indictment of the institution and its doctors, the segment unfortunately lacks any counterpoint regarding the ethics of the therapeutic practices employed at the hospital. Absent any discussion of the greater context of psychiatry at this time, the treatment of patients at Oak Ridge is presented as unequivocally cruel, unusual, and unethical. This is certainly the experience of the former patient featured in “The Secrets of Oak Ridge.”

And from our present-day vantage point we may well feel similarly. Taking the context of 1960s and 70s psychiatry into account, however, the ethics, or lack thereof, of the program are less clearcut. At the time, Oak Ridge’s use of LSD and other psychopharmaceuticals – alongside other therapies – was seen as a positive form of treatment and a promising advance in the field. Where the CBC segment is most successful is in presenting the patient’s voice, as he recounts his experiences at the hospital. Respecting this patient’s experience, while putting that experience into historical context is a fine balancing act, one, unfortunately, “The Secrets of Oak Ridge” does not attempt. Contextualizing these treatment practices does not mean invalidating the experiences of this or any other patient, but it is necessary for a more complete understanding of what transpired at this hospital in this moment in time.

As we’ve reported previously on AHP, the recently launched Remembering Oak Ridge Digital Archive and Exhibit produced by former AHP contributor Jennifer Bazar, is an excellent and under-utilized source for this much needed information. Details and fuller context for the social therapy program discussed in the CBC segment can be found on this page of the site. (It should also be noted that a class action lawsuit against the hospital and the program’s doctors, on behalf several patients, is as yet undecided.)

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About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Surrey in the UK. She completed her doctorate in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University in 2014.

7 thoughts on “CBC’s “The Secrets of Oak Ridge” and the Difficulties of Journalistic History

  1. Locating events within a historical context does not impact institutional responsibility for human rights violations. Righteousness is not exculpatory. The Nuremberg trials did not excuse Nazi experimentation. We do not excuse Colonialists for the residential school system because they thought it was good and right at the time. To situate this in history is fine, but to critique the story for a lack of balance is unfair. The other side refused to comment. Lastly, if we are to fully contextualize this situation you would acknowledge that the doctors, from inception of these experiments, have already had many more minutes, and privileged opportunity, to present their side. This 15 minutes did need a counterpoint. It was the counterpoint to the much more dominant story.

    1. Hi Jane. You make some good points and I completely agree with you regarding the necessity of not excusing horrible happenings simply because they occurred within a different historical context. My aim was in no way to excuse what happened at Oak Ridge and I hope it did not come off that way. But I would argue that the aim of doing history is not simply to position horrible events as “bad” but rather to go beyond simple categorizations of events as good/bad so as to understand how and why they occurred. This kind of understanding doesn’t mean we have to take the position that what happened was, by any criteria, “good” or acceptable, but it does necessitate taking into account a host of other factors. Understanding how something happened does not mean excusing what happened. My problem with simply presenting what happened at Oak Ridge at wrong/unethical/evil is that too often this means the conversation stops there.

      Giving patients like the one featured on this video the opportunity to voice their experiences is SO important especially, as you mention, when there has been little opportunity for them to be heard previously. And the segment does this really well. But it doesn’t do much more than that. At some level this may simply be a difference between the aims of journalism and those of history. What is the aim of this segment? To give this patient the opportunity to tell his story? Or, to tell the – highly problematic – history of Oak Ridge? I think it was doing the first, while what I really want, as a historian, is the second. (And, I would also argue, that in order to do the latter you have to include the former, but the former need not involve the latter.)

      I guess what my comment really is, is a call for a more complete history of the what transpired at Oak Ridge. One that pays attention to both the experiences of the patients at the hospital AND puts those experiences and the events around them into a larger historical context. Only by doing so can we come to a more complete understanding not just of what happened, but of how something we all now recognize as awful and traumatic came to happen at all. Because, ultimately, if we don’t understand how and why this happened in the first place we are doing ourselves, and society, a disservice.

      1. Thank you for clarifying your perspective. It is helpful to have your added language. If your point was to communicate a frustration that the format of the story did not capture a more complete history, or that which you may have preferred, I would suggest you may be seeking content that simply does not fit, at all, into the constraints of this particular format.

        No matter how much one may want ‘more’ we can’t fairly critique the story for failing to be something fifteen minutes could never allow for. On one hand it was extremely short. On the other, it was very long relative to other segments of news. It really must be examined for what it was trying to do within the time it had. So you are right. It didn’t ‘do history.’

        The aim of this segment was to bring into greater public awareness a mere glimpse into practices that most people are simply unaware of, and most significantly to provide an opportunity to hear part of Jim’s story. In a short time, it was able to suggest that social construction may be an important vantage point through which to view deviance, as opposed to the far more frequent individualization of personal pathology. It suggests that many of these patients were victims far before they were offenders, and subsequently re-victimized through these tactics. These are important things for society to consider.

        Since 2001, Joel Rochon has worked hard to collect tens of thousands of pieces of evidence. There is enough evidence for a full length documentary and then some. The information on oakridgeclassaction.ca is there for all to read if people want more, as well as the links you added; this is all valuable. However, Reg Sherren didn’t have didn’t have over a decade to work on this story. I’m sure he would have loved more time. Time is the Achilles heel of most journalists who don’t have the privilege to concentrate solely on a single project. In any event, as a historian you know even with ample time there is never a ‘complete’ story; narratives will always include and exclude and be subject to constraints. I do feel the included aspects allowed the public to bear witness to some undisputed acts. There is no question these things occurred.

        In his work, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, Michel Foucault said, “People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.”

        While people, such as yourself, may have wanted a more thorough examination of ‘why’ these things happened (and I personally may be interested myself in this also) it is crucial to know more about how these practices impacted the subjects of these experiments; the consequential effects require first-hand narrative accounts (and I would suggest these should be privileged more.)

        I agree with you that we need to better understand, socially, how these things happen (how they still happen in various iterations) and what forces are at play, structurally, to create the conditions where people are victimized, supposedly ‘for their own good.’ The history of psychiatry, as you know, is not at all a facile story of pure benevolence.

        Thank you for the opportunity to dialogue about this. It is critically important stories like these allow people to dialogue, clarify, and deepen their understandings and interpretations.

  2. I understand the importance of wanting to understand more history about Oakridge can go a long way to preventing it from happening again. So can my experiences there. I did not freely give consent to the doctors for the torture they put me through and neither did any other man there. Dr. Boyd, Dr. Barker and Dr. Maier new what they were doing was not treatment. Human behavior was changed by the use of drugs, the capsule and every other indignity imposed on us … the problem is it changed for the worse. Dr. Marnie Rice who was charged with studying the program found that psychopaths (a term loosely used there) turned out significantly worse after going through the programs at Oakridge than those who went to prison. Professor Dickens Emeritus refuted the Oakridge defense that they had our consent by pointing out that consent was not possible when you have a literally captive group with indeterminate sentences. Dr. Boyd admitted that techniques used in brainwashing were employed in the program but later when pushed said “we don’t use that term.” Oakridge was shut down because of safety concerns on the part of guards and Dr. Maier was locked out of the institution for the indiscriminate use of LSD.

    I hope a lot of studies are done regarding Oakridge and I pray no one ever has to go through what me and hundreds of others have gone through ever again, anywhere. I do not want those men or myself to have to fight the Ontario government for another 16 years before they do the right thing. The Oakridge programming destroyed the futures of many men and created a situation where innocent members of the community were victimized. Do all the research you feel you need to but please do not minimize my voice in that documentary. I don’t need to do research … I lived it and so did hundreds of others.

  3. My name is Steve Smith
    In 1996 CBC aired a story about my experience in Oak Ridge.
    “Bad Trip” with Hana Gartner, Reported by Wayne Willams.
    I went through the same program as Mr. Motherall . I would like to add my voice to his comments above.
    Mr. Motherall is clearly an intellegent and articulate man who suffered greatly at the hands of Barker Boyd and others.
    He and I have recovered from this nightmare and are here to give witness to this awful part of Canadian history.
    I have recently published a book about my experience and recovery. “The Psychopath Machine”.
    Of course there remains many unanswered questions.
    I will never let go of this story until there is full accountability for those whose lives were destroyed and for the victims of crimes committed by the victims of this brainwashing experiment.
    I have a video filmed inside the program. “F” Ward with Norm Perry.
    It will soon be available on my website. http://www.thepsychopathmachine.com.

    1. Mr. Motherall, and Mr. Smith,
      The experiences you underwent were horrendous, as you probably know already, the experiments you described as being administered to you go hand in hand with one of the most covered up, now declassified CIA Experimental Brain washing/ thought control programs in history known as MK Ultra. I wanted to just let you know that you two gentlemen are a massive part of history, and you should continue to tell your story as much as you can. The experiments were also conducted through out the united states in prisons, as well as psychiatric facilities. Not only were you wronged by the Ontario Government but, also by both federal governments presiding over North America. I want you to know that telling your story could help shed more light on this country’s dark past. (I’m very sorry if my writing is horrible, trust me when I say I’m a far better speaker.)

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