The Sleep Room, directed by Anne Wheeler, recalls a series of barbaric experiments conducted on mental patients over a nine-year period beginning in 1955. Although these began as a well-meaning if desperate attempt to cure schizophrenia, the "psychic driving" technique invented by psychiatrist Ewen Cameron took on a science-fiction quality when it was revealed in 1977 that the Central Intelligence Agency had helped finance the work. The CIA thought it had potential as a brainwashing technique to be used on "enemies" of the United States during the Cold War.
The story is fascinating on many levels. There is the gut-level drama of seeing unknowing mental patients subjected to "modern" torture involving massive electroshock therapy, drug injections, and chemically-induced, month-long comas meant to destroy their memories of themselves and their families — a human catastrophe that stripped more than 300 people of their identities.
There's the tragedy of Ewen Cameron, a gifted and compassionate psychiatrist who somehow crossed a line and convinced himself that he had the right to destroy ill people's personalities because he, with the godlike powers he attributed to himself, would then endow them with "new" and healthy personalities. It is a story which touches the same primeval fears as the Frankenstein and Jekyll/Hyde myths.
Then there is the tawdry political drama in which both the CIA and the Canadian government — which financed Cameron's experiments after the CIA abandoned him — have refused to the present day to admit wrongdoing (although they have paid out some money). The approximately 150 surviving victims, most still in mental hospitals, have waited in vain for an apology. Series producer Bernie Zukerman has said that he hopes the miniseries will finally force Ottawa to do the right thing.
"There's a whole nest of relationships and assumptions around science and doctors that is embedded in this story," says Anne Collins, whose 1988 book In The Sleep Room inspired the miniseries.