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‘But still I was ordered to believe, even where the ideas did not correspond with, even when they contradicted, the rational theories established by mathematics and my own eyes’
– Augustine, Confessions 5:3 [6]

‘For secret assassination the contrived accident is the most effective technique. When successfully executed, it causes little excitement and is only casually investigated’
A Study of Assassination, a CIA Manual

According to Augustine, his break with Manichaeism came when he was ordered to see truth in descriptions of the stars and sky that defied all rational inquiry. In one of the most influential personal decisions ever made, he turned from a world of imagined ideas—gnostic metaphors for the eternal conflict of light and darkness that had through corruption become stand-ins for natural law—toward the calculable, the skeptical, and the rational. The image of Augustine refusing the religious rhetoric of the day, which he could not accept, and entering upon a difficult and uncertain truth, but ultimately the possibility of secular miracle, is but one way to watch Errol Morris’s 2017 miniseries Wormwood. For the turn from imagined ideas, even at the risk of a bitter, delirious end, is also the story of Eric Olson, whose life Errol Morris follows in this film, through its multiwoven structure of past and present day—the bottomless well of conspiracy and the price of pursuing the truth about the mysterious death of his father, Dr. Frank Olson, a senior bacteriologist with the US Army Chemical Corps. The name of the series is double-layered, for Wormwood is the star of poisoned waters (Revelation 8:10-11), and also the bitter consequence of the pursuit of forbidden knowledge (Proverbs 5:3-5).

Wormwood opens with the voice of Eric Olson reading from Revelation 8, a passage that never sounded truer as when we look down from the 10th floor of the Hotel Statler onto the street where Dr. Frank Olson had plunged to his death on November 28, 1953, and entered the realm of the mostly forgotten. Why this passage? What does it mean to him? The first official version of the tragedy stated that Frank Olson had ‘fallen’ from the window. But one cannot exactly fall from a hotel window. The word ‘jumped’ was also included in the literature on Olson’s death, as was the word ‘accident’. While non-comportment of terms didn’t alarm the rest of the Olson family, Eric couldn’t be left alone. How can you arrange this triangle of terms (fall, jump, accident) to be sorted out in any possible way? The world, for Eric, who was a teenager at the time of his father’s death, stopped making sense. The mind blazes conspiratorial trails to break through the cul-de-sac of logic. The reliability of knowledge and that impossible Freudian problem that memory and the imagination are the same faculty. You lose the baseline of assumptions, Eric said, because you are questioning everything. He had the choice to lose himself in a nonsense fable, as his mother had done. (‘You are never going to know what happened in that room,’ his mother, Alice, had told him routinely before her death in 1993), or to risk pursuing clarity about a crime that involved the US Government.

It would be more than twenty years before the next faint signal appeared in the darkness. The 1975 Rockefeller Commission Report — that watershed moment in the history of American intelligence agencies—revealed, among other things, the involvement of CIA chemist Sidney Gottlieb in an LSD experimentation program which had led to the death of a researcher which the New York Times named as Frank Olson. The family was not notified by way of confirmation of this fact by the government, but Olson’s former boss at Camp Detrick, Vincent ‘Vin’ Ruwet, did confirm it. Soon after, the Olsons found themselves in an audience with President Ford in the White House, thus becoming the only family ever inthe history of the USA to receive an apology in the Oval Office for the misdeeds of an American agency. But according to Olson family attorney David Kairys, this meeting served to seal in the situation by not saying anything direct about the incident, instead congenially trying to convince them not to go to the courts, but rather to go through Congress. The law, so Ford explained, would obligate the CIA to reveal information. But the transparency was actually a smoke screen. The ploy (which Rumsfeld and Cheney were involved in) worked and the family decided not to pursue the situation through the Justice Department. A week later the family went to CIA headquarters for a lunch with then-director William Colby. Colby gave the family a ream of documents that weren’t, in total, coherent. For one thing, they didn’t even indicate Frank was something other than a civilian employee of the Army, that is an employee of the CIA. Colby’s selection of documents was designed to give the family a little more than they had in 1953, but not enough to reveal anything more than they already knew: that Frank’s death was not suicide. They contained undefined terms such as ‘Artichoke’ and ‘Bluebird’ (references to a prototype version of MK-ULTRA, which were real-life CIA pharmacology-bacteriology projects). The Olsons were promised $1.5m (whittled down to $750,000) and they had to sign a covenant not to sue. And yet there was still no motive.

But it didn’t really matter. The mystery had finally been solved: on November 18th, 1953, Olson and other members of the Army Chemical Corps’ Special Operations Division of the Fort Detrick, Maryland were invited to a lodge retreat at Deep Creek Lake, not far from the West Virginia state line. There they met members of the CIA, including Sid Gottlieb, whose name was mentioned in the Rockefeller Report. On the second evening of the retreat, Gottlieb spiked the after-dinner drinks with LSD as part of an experiment. Olson did not react well to the trip, suffering a paranoid breakdown, and a week later, at Fort Detrick, appeared in Ruwet’s office asking to be fired, or be allowed to resign from the Corps. Apparently someone, perhaps Olson himself, considered himself a security risk. Instead, he was assigned to a psychiatrist. Olson was driven by Ruwet and Richard Lashbrook, a CIA doctor, to meet Harold Abramson, who was an allergist, not a psychiatrist. He was also a CIA employee whom Olson knew years before in the context of chemical warfare development. Abramson was a proponent of administered LSD and gave Olson a bottle of whiskey, possibly dosed. They also visited a New York magician named John Mulholland, who seems to have attempted hypnosis on Olson. Ruwet, Lashbrook, and Olson settled in at the Hotel Statler and saw ‘Me and Juliet’ on Broadway. Then they returned to Washington, where apparently Olson’s behavior took a turn for the erratic. He did handstands in Lashbrook’s apartment and said he wanted to return to New York. Lashbrook drove him back, without Ruwet, and took him again to Dr. Abramson. Then, on the night of November 28th, Lashbrook awoke in the Hotel Statler to the sound of glass shattering, and a moment later Olson was found dead on the sidewalk below. He had jumped, apparently suffering from some kind of psychotic relapse from the LSD.

Everyone bought the story. It was just strange enough and just believable enough to pass muster for both conspiracy hounds and government agency apologists who felt comfortable that a few misguided individuals had been responsible for the tragedy. Even the venerable Seymour Hersh, who helped break the story, bought it. But Eric didn’t. The event had the convenience of taking place during the most fecund decade of American conspiracy, in the context of Cold War paranoia and Joe McCarthy; the Cuban Project and Korea—a war nobody really understood; germ and ideological warfare and sodium pentothal, brainwashing, mind control, and the Manchurian Candidate. And it was a time when the United States was actually concerned with its credibility abroad. It was gleefully easy for the conspiracy theorists to buy a story as far out as secret LSD experiments conducted by the CIA, but immensely difficult to fathom that simple rational inquiry would go far beyond that. First, and what had haunted Eric most, was the hotel room window. It is tremendously more difficult to jump through a window in reality than Hollywood would make it seem. Room 1018a of the Hotel Statler (now Hotel Pennsylvania) was equipped with a radiator under the window, and Venetian blinds. For Frank Olson to have successfully dove over the radiator and through the closed blinds and the safety glass he would have needed a velocity upward of 20 mph. Not even an Olympic athlete can gain that kind of momentum in a hotel room. And then there was the letter the Eric Olson received in 1975, soon after the Rockefeller Report, from Armand Pastore, the night manager at the Hotel Statler the night Frank had died. Pastore described how he had gone outside and found Frank on the street. He claimed that even after hitting the street, however improbably, Frank was still alive for a moment, mumbling. Pastore ran inside and checked the calls from the room. The switchboard said there had been one and it had been so short she had listened to the whole thing: ‘Well, he’s gone.’ / ‘Well, that’s too bad.’ Which sounds like notification.

Wormwood marks a new level of expansive development for Errol Morris, whose previous film works were either feature length or episodal series. This four-and-a-half hour, six-part Netflix series allows the story to develop free of the 90-minute storytelling arc, with great detail, and with intensity. Wormwood is recognizably a Morris production in its format as part-docudrama and part-interview, accompanied by sections of archival and found footage. But here the reliance on two of Morris’s trademarks is reduced—and the metaphoric visuals that built a sense of tension and reflection in The Thin Blue Line and the The Fog of War; and the Interrotron, which is entirely absent. Wormwood is more than a docudrama about a relatively obscure American conspiracy story, it is a sprawling multilayered study of knowledge and epistemology. While perhaps not presenting a development of epistemological theory since Believing Is Seeing, Wormwood is an expanded setting in which the limits of knowledge in film and dialogue. Dialogue, sometimes presented as monologue, drives all of Morris’s films. Interlocutors such as Robert MacNamara (The Fog of War), Donald Rumsfeld (The Unknown Known), Fred Leuchter (Mr. Death) employ confessional and obfuscatory strategies to talk about themselves. But in the crucible of the interview, and without Errol Morris setting uprhetorical pratfalls, their words begin to pick themselves apart, reveal deeper layers of elenchus and doubt. For the same reason Donald Rumsfeld comes off as fatuous and slippery, Robert MacNamara comes off as earnest and open: they remove one mask only to find another mask beneath it. Rumsfeld, for his part, refused to admit they were masks, and in doing so revealed himself all the more.

Wormwood is different, because Errol Morris is not doing any interrogating. Nor, this time, is he encouraging a single subject to perform auto-archaeology. Wormwood is more a film about an obsession, that of the film’s real subject, Eric Olson. It is through him the epistemological work is done. Eric is intelligent, reflective, talking about his own memory and the significance of moments, collages (Ruwet had given Eric a photo enlarger, and a jigsaw, which turned into collage art with psychotheraputic value); and the realization that he has lost himself in order to find the answer, and as a practicing psychologist, knowing that answers don’t restore the self that is lost while you search for them. The dramatic renderings aren’t reenactments. They’re not Rithy Panh, for example, rounding up former Khmer Rouge guards at S21 and making them act out their old routines on camera. If anything, Wormwood’s format reflects how collage art is supposed to work therapeutically, in allowing contradictions to be articulated as real, and memories as more like screengrabs. Like Rashomon, they’re not searching for an identical truth, even if Errol Morris believes a single truth is out there. Eric Olson, for his part, Like Augustine, could not live with faith alone in a story that didn’t add up, complicated however much by the irrationality of memories, and however little by the warnings of all those along the way who said to turn back. Talking about the CIA killing your father is one thing, but taking steps to investigate it, Eric said, amounted to ‘leaving the known universe’.

After the death of Eric’s sister, Lisa and her family died in a plane crash, he began to look into his father’s death once again. He got to know Armand Pastore. He visited Lashbrook and Gottlieb in their respective retirements—they gave him next to nothing. (They found Gottlieb, Eric recalls, raising goats on a farm, preaching the values of world peace and ecological awareness). He went into Room 1018a. He held a kind of consecration with some friends. Eric spent the night in the room. If his father was suicidal, as the CIA reports had suggested, why would you put him ten floors up over 7th Ave? After that he phoned a family friend, Dr. James Starrs, an expert in exhuming bodies, which they did ostensibly to reinter it next to Alice. The forensic team found decisive evidence Frank had been murdered: no evidence of going through glass, despite the window being broken, and the medical report saying there were ‘lacerations’ and an impact on the skull above one of the eyes, that could only have been administered by a blow inside the room, not hitting the street. Later, the CIA assassination manuals were released, and they all say the most effective method is to push someone from 75 feet, after giving them a blow on the head, above one of the eyes, to render them unconscious. Eric goes to see Harry Huge (pron. Huey), a DC lawyer to assess the potential punitive damages, but Huge could not take the case because his firm represented the CIA. Stephen Saracco, assistant district attorney in Manhattan, looked into the matter as a cold case. But the CIA wouldn’t cooperate with subpoena. Then, former CIA director William Colby disappeared in a bizarre canoe accident—Colby’s son believed it was a suicide-disappearance stemming from guilt and remorse—if anyone had been aware of everything that happened to Olson, it would have been Colby. Eric never found out what, if anything, Saracco got from the CIA because it was under Grand Jury secrecy. Lashbrook could not travel to testify, as he was too infirm, so they deposed him at his home in Ojai CA. Whatever he said was kept secret. Shortly after Saracco interviewed Ruwet, the latter died of a heart attack in church. In the end, Saracco closed the case and could not conclude anything. Eric’s obsession deepened and after a few years convinced Harry Huge to open a case under the Federal Torts Act. Problem was, the family had signed a covenant in 1975. In 2014, Eric went back to Seymour Hersh. Hersh advised Eric not to get deeply involved with this, as a warning for what he might overturn. But like the ghost of Hamlet’s father saying, ‘Remember me’, the compulsion to proceed—at the risk of destroying everything around him—was too strong. ‘Once you start looking into your father’s death,’ Eric said, ‘you go to the end.’

Wormwood, as a test of epistemological efficacy, is unavoidably a film about memory. Eric talks about psychologial identification theory, and how sudden disappearance affects this. His memories of his father are fragmentary and vague, and influenced by films and photos. He doesn’t remember the funeral, but does remember being taken to Vin Ruwet’s house instead of the graveside, and feeling utterly lost at the Ruwets’. He remembers Ruwet coming over nearly every night for martinis with his mother, guiding her steadily into safe, easy alcoholism. Ruwet had been charged by the CIA to ‘keep track of the wife’. He rummaged through Frank’s belongings and removed most of them, but left behind, accidentally or purposefully, some information about Deep Creek. Lashbrook, when Eric visited him, was unable to sustain a consistent version of the story: was the window smashed or not, was he asleep or not. Lashbrook also revealed Gottlieb was in NYC the whole time, apparently forgetting that he was supposed to keep that secret—or perhaps allowing his guilt to overcome him just enough. Even if we, like Plato and Augustine, believe the very possibility of knowledge—its origin and continued existence from moment to moment—requires something beyond subject and object, beyond humans and the world, there is still the problem of finding it, extracting it. Errol Morris’s operating procedure is Aristotelian, in that it requires no transcendent reality, and thus the knowledge held in the memories of men is subject not only to distortion, but to extinction. And the CIA, for all their disorganization, was remarkably good at not leaving behind empirical clues to the past.

And if Wormwood is a film about memory, it also a film about possession. The knowledge of what happened to Frank Olson, and why, carries with it, in Tylorian terms, a kind of mana, or, in keeping with the series title, a bitterness—the poisoned waters of the mind. Those who possess it are few and burdened, if not by guilt, then by the immense power one holds over the perception of American history, and over the course of individual lives.

Eric Olson isn’t one of those people.
Seymour Hersh is.

It is difficult to say who suffers the most today. Here is wisdom: the image of Robert Lashbrook, played by Christian Camargo, sitting in the bathroom, his face buried in his hands, after two heavies have thrown Frank Olson out the window. Turned out Frank’s project at Fort Detrick was developing aerosol-deliverable anthrax—this, from a man who couldn’t stand watching lab monkeys perish. Also turns out Frank had witnessed what was known as a ‘terminal experiment’ on ‘expendibles’ (captured Russian agents or Nazis) at an American-British research base near Frankfurt. Something that didn’t sit well in his stomach. He told his wife that he was ‘all mixed up’. That horrible, sinking knowledge that eats you away, alive. A 1949 Army security report stated, ‘Olson is violently opposed to control of scientific research, either military or otherwise, and opposes supervision of his work.’ Norman Cournoyer, an Army intelligence veteran said Frank was beginning to transform his experiences into ethical problems in a night course in philosophy he attended at the Catholic University of America. He was highly concerned that biological warfare had been employed in Korea, and he was known to have been associating with the pacifists who protested outside the gates of Fort Detrick. ‘He was turning, no doubt about it,’ Cournoyer said. If LSD was ever actually administered at Deep Creek, maybe it was to get Frank talking, find out what he knew, and to determine what kind of risk he posed. The night before he tendered his resignation to Ruwet and asked to disappear he had gone to see Irving Pichel’s biopic Martin Luther, which follows Luther to the apogee of spiritual crisis, and his challenge to the Catholic Church, with the famous line, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other.’ Frank Olson was at the center of Detrick, and Detrick was the center of both biological warfare and covert operations. Olson was, you could say, the most dangerous person in the whole Cold War for what he knew, and here he was, turning. The US Government didn’t have Siberia to send people to, to get rid of them, to pay the price for that horrible knowledge enters in through your eyes and becomes your permanent possession. This brings us to the final and most important of Errol Morris’s layered uses of ‘wormwood’. When Hamlet murmured, ‘Wormwood, Wormwood’ (III:2) during The Mousetrap he was referring to the disease that was eating Denmark, and which he wished to expose; but also, maybe, to something else: in Shakespearean England, wormwood was a bitter used to make vermifuge, a syrup made to kill dangerous internal worms.


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