Context: Research for Brainwash: The Secret History of Mind Control
Interviewee: Nightingale Nurse #1
Of all the stories in Cocaine and Brainwash, William Sargant and ‘Deep Narcosis’ therapy – as practised in Ward 5 of the Royal Waterloo Hospital in London during the late 1960s and early 1970s – is the one that has generated the most feedback. To date there have been two Radio 4 documentaries and a BBC TV spin-off – all following up allegations about Sargant’s theories and treatments. I still get calls asking for contacts and more information. So here are some of the source interviews.
Many of the interviewees wish to remain anonymous: the psychiatrists, Nightingales (nurses who worked on Ward 5) etc.
I should stress – as I do in the book – that I have little time for many of the more salacious allegations surrounding Sargant. Certainly there seems to be evidence that he did some sort of work for British Intelligence. But to allege that he was brainwashing people for either the Security Service (MI5) or the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) is, in my mind, wrong. I also think it’s incorrect to assume that Sargant was some sort of evil Svengali-type who was breaking his patients the way that, for example, Ewen Cameron did in Canada. To that end, I’ll be uploading interviews from a number of nurses and psychiatrists who argue that Sargant was, if misguided, certainly following up treatments that he believed to be in the best interests of his patients.
Download: Download Interview (PDF)
I thought [Ward 5 of the Royal Waterloo Hospital] was quite frightening but it didn’t surprise me because the work I did on Ward 5 was horrendous. To this day, and I’m going back, it was the last ward I did as a student nurse. I’m going back 35 years. This was 1970, probably May or July or August 1970 and it was absolutely terrifying.
I was just 19 and I think then we led protected lives. So mental illness was not discussed. I had no option, I was told that I was going to do my psychiatric experience. Ward 5 was on the top floor and we had to get into it through locked steel doors, which was a bit off-putting. And then I was told – looking back I guess the trained staff didn’t know what to do with us. I was told I was going to be in this narcosis room for 3 months. Taken into this dark room with four sleeping ladies. And there I stayed for 3 months. I went into there every shift, I put them to sleep, I woke them up, I fed them, I washed them, drugged them, put them back to sleep again and monitored their sleep patters. It was 4 women in one room and then we had a smaller ward with 2 men, also asleep. On the whole they came in for about 3 months of narcosis, were periodically taken out to have ECT treatment, and then back to sleep again, and they were allowed a visitor for one afternoon a week.
These poor ladies, they were literally like zombies. Really. They hardly knew their names. They didn’t know who they were, they forgot their families. That is very impressionable for a 19 year old nurse. I still don’t approve of it at all. It’s made me very wary of dealing with mental illness at all. I still back off.
I very nearly gave up nursing because of it. The **** [an authority figure] was completely loopy, as was her ****. One of them committed suicide later on, and one attempted suicide.
The **** and the *****?
Yes! And Dr Sargant used to come along periodically. And that was it. We were in utter darkness. We had black blinds at the windows so I guess they were disorientated and I guess really it was designed for that reason. To try and break their depression patterns, or I don’t know what. They were all in there for various reasons. Some of them were bipolar, manic, there was some attempted suicide patients. An assortment, a couple of schizophrenics. But they were lumped together…
Did some of them experience memory loss?
That is dreadful! As far as I can remember the minimum ECT treatments were 10. Once or twice a week. That was horrible to watch because they had a general anaesthetic and then they were electrocuted. They took them out of the dormitory into a smaller ward, and did it there and then they would come round from the anaesthetic and then go back into the dorm. Usually twice a week. But this is a dormitory that they were in, they never came out, they had bathrooms in there. And they had meals on trays either on their beds or at the sides. And that was it.
We had to assist them, they had a shower or a bathroom, all in this little – like a separate unit within Ward 5. Because there were other patients on Ward 5 who weren’t undergoing this narcosis therapy. The only respite I ever got was on night duty when as far as I can remember we just used to have junior nurses on charge and we would rotate into the narcosis room so we would do a couple of hours each on the night shift to break it up a bit.
Presumably it was easy work, though – sleeping patients…?
Yes, it was easy. We were allowed to read a book. But it was horrible. Can you imagine what it was like, just going into this darkened room for a 3 months stint? That’s all I ever did! I didn’t learn an awful lot because I wasn’t allowed out much, either. I monitored their sleep patterns, whether it was peaceful sleep, whether they had nightmares, whether they were moving around a lot – all of this had to be documented every 15 minutes for all the ladies that were under my case. But it really doesn’t surprise me that this lady [the interviewee cited in the book] has no recollection. Is she bitter about it?
If she says it’s an outrage…I would agree with her absolutely. I can remember a couple of patients who were desperate to leave and begged their families to take them home but they weren’t allowed to.
I would go along with the idea that they were treated like naughty children. And that’s the way they were spoken to, as well, like: ‘You’re a naughty girl. You mustn’t do this and you mustn’t do that. Come along now! Take your pills, swallow this, swallow that.’ And any of us that tried to defend them or question what was happening were just shouted down by the senior staff. Now I would have a lot more guts and as a nurse I would question and challenge the treatment. Then we didn’t. Even people a set or two above us, we wouldn’t dare. Let alone a senior sister or a charge nurse!
Usually they were reasonably mobile in bed. But they would always need assistance walking. They were so disorientated, they were weak, they had no physiotherapy – so three months in bed and they’ve lost the use of their legs. But once they had finished the narcosis they would come out and go onto the general ward where they would presumably be weaned off their drugs. But I was only there for 3 months so I didn’t have – if I’d been there (longer), I would have had a better idea of their progress.