Tuesday 2 May 2023

Benign Professions, Malign Practitioners: Book Reviews


Benign Professions, Malign Practitioners

This month I read two books about severe medical mal-practice, both lent to me by Peter Rosenbaum, a specialist in pediatric cerebral palsy here in Hamilton, where I live.

Peter grew up in Montreal and attend McGill University. The first book is by a friend of his from that time, Harvey Weinstein (no, not the movie mogul, another one).  Weinstein published a book in 1988 (Toronto, James Lorimer and Company) called A Father, A Son, and the CIA.   Canadian readers of a certain age will already guess what this is about; it’s about how the CIA provided funds to one Dr Ewan Cameron, a psychiatrist at McGill, to conduct “patterning” experiments (a.k.a. brainwashing) on patients. This occurred in the 1950s and 60s, and became a national scandal when an NDP Member of Parliament revealed that his wife had been one of the patients. 

Weinstein’s description of his early childhood years is straight out of a Mordechai Richler novel. His father had a dress factory that was doing well, and the family lived in a wealthy part of English Montreal.  Then his father developed severe anxiety and was referred to Cameron.  Cameron’s “treatments” included frequent electric shocks, playing recordings over and over again for hours or days to comatose patients, and trying to reduce patient to the status of infants, even without control of their bowels and bladders.  When Weinstein’s mother questioned the treatments, she was told to go home and trust the doctors. 

Needless to say, when Weinstein’s father was released, he was ruined.  He could no longer work and lost his business; the family had to sell their house and move into a small apartment.  In 1988, legal cases against McGill were still on-going.

The other book Peter lent me was Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna, by Edith Sheffer, a historian. (W.W, Norton, 2018). If you or a family member have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, be aware that your diagnosis is named after a genocidal Viennese doctor.  Asperger was one of the doctors in Vienna who “selected” disabled children for murder by the Nazis, in a regime that Sheffer calls “psychiatric genocide,” facilitated by a “diagnosis regime” that decided who was worthy to live.  

These were children confined or referred to a specific children’s “home” called Spiegelgrund, on the outskirts of Vienna, often for reasons such as unruliness or low cognitive function (so Down’s Syndrome children could be exterminated, as could runaways from abusive parents). Others had physical disabilities.  The ostensible criterion was whether a child could be integrated into the community or not.  The reigning principle was “GemΓΌt”, or community, which was seen as equivalent to membership in the Nazi Volk: no individualism was permitted.  Incidentally, Asperger was also a sexist: he protected some high-functioning boys with his “syndrome,” claiming they could be useful to the community, while consigning high-functioning girls to death.  


789 children were sent to their death from Spiegelgrund. Survivors spoke of the horrible sadistic was they were treated by the doctors and nurses. Preserved brains and body-parts of the murdered children were used for research in Austria through the 1980s.  Asperger himself continued his career after WWII: he had protected himself by never officially joining the Nazi party.

While reading these two books I happened to also come across an article about the pioneering educator, Maria Montessori, in the New York Review of Books, (Kathryn Hughes, “A Complicated Reformer”, NYRB March 9, 2023). At least I won’t have to worry about her being a fascist, I thought. Nope. Montessori was a big fan of Benito Mussolini. In fact she wrote, “my method [of education] can collaborate with fascism so that it will… create a real mental hygiene that, when applied to our race, can enhance its enormous powers’(p. 30). 

Another warning that members of the seemingly most benign professions can have sinister motives.