BOOK REVIEW: How To Make a Zombie by Frank Swain

How to Make a Zombie: The Real Life (and Death) Science of Reanimation and Mind ControlHow to Make a Zombie: The Real Life (and Death) Science of Reanimation and Mind Control by Frank Swain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page


The title of this book might lead you to believe that it’s either frivolous or that it’s an examination of a successful sci-fi subgenre. In fact, the book presents some serious (if disturbing, and often unsuccessful) science on two concepts that are disparate except by way of analogy of the Zombie – the brain-obsessed walking undead popularized in film and fiction. Those two ideas are: 1.) how definitive of a state is death, can people be brought back from it, and – if so – under what conditions and at what costs? 2.) is it possible to completely usurp an individual’s will, and – if so – by what means?

The book consists of seven chapters that are topically organized. The first chapter introduces the idea of Zombies, discussing early reporting on them from interested parties visiting the cane fields of the Caribbean. But it also delves into the idea of how drugs and freezing might create temporary death (or the appearance of death) from which individuals can be [partially or fully] successfully roused.

Chapter two explores the history of research about how to bring a deceased person back from the dead. Squeamish readers should be forewarned there is discussion of such things as partial dogs (i.e. the head end) being temporarily revived. The book touches on various ideas related to resuscitation. There is a discussion of one researcher’s study of katsu, techniques used in judo and jujutsu to revive an individual who has lost consciousness [or worse.] Near Death Experiences [NDE] and Out-of-Body [OoB] are also covered. These strange phenomena reported by revived individuals are too common to ignore, but — while they are often presented as evidence of an afterlife and /or the divine, there’s little reason to believe that they aren’t perfectly natural phenomena. [e.g. Neuroscientists are able to induce an OoB with a carefully placed electrode.]

Chapter three shifts gears from the question of death and resuscitation to the one of mind control. While the bulk of the chapter is devoted to pharmaceutical approaches to mind control, it also examines mind control by other means – e.g. authority as an agent of mind control as seen in the famous Milgram experiments, as well as hypnosis. Most of the drug related sections deal with psychedelics (and their naturally occurring precursors.) Swain describes the CIA’s varied shenanigans with LSD in MK-Ultra, Operation Midnight Climax, and the Frank Olsen death. [Long story short, you can’t control someone’s mind with psychedelics, but you can still achieve some despicable ends.]

Chapter four continues the exploration of mind control, but focuses on more invasive approaches — from lobotomies to electro-stimulation. Of course, even as these procedures got more sophisticated, they could still only reliably make vegetables.

If you think the history of lobotomies from chapter four was as scary as it can get, I’ve got news for you. Chapters five and [particularly] six are the ones that I found both the most fascinating and by far the most terrifying. These chapters, together, uncover how mind control is achieved in the natural world by parasitic creatures. Clearly, if there is any risk of successfully taking over a human will, it will not be with doses of Acid or icepicks stuck in the brain, it will be from figuring out how some of nature’s parasitic masters of mind control do it and copying from their playbooks.

Chapter five discusses wasps and fungi that successful take over their [fortunately non-human] hosts. I wasn’t familiar with how many mind-controlling wasps there are, but I had heard of the fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. Said fungus infects an ant, steers it up into a tree, forces it to secure itself by locking in its mandibles onto a branch, and then the fruiting body blooms out of the ant’s frickin’ scull. It’s chapter six, however, where things really get creepy. There’s an extended discussion of rabies, but the wildest part was a discussion of Toxoplasma gondi. T. gondi likes to infect cats, but if it can’t find a cat, it’ll infect a rodent and selectively (not only turn off the rat’s fear of cats but also) make the rat attracted to cats. What’s fascinating is that all of the rat’s other usual fears remain intact (bright lights, sharp noises, etc.)

The last chapter is on the various intriguing things that happen after a person dies — from cannibalism to organ harvesting. I think the most interesting discussion to me, however, was one about keeping a brain-dead accident victim alive long enough that her baby could live to term within her. (There was also an intriguing – if unnerving – case of a mother who wanted her deceased son’s sperm harvested.)

The book’s only graphics are black and white photos at the head of each chapter, but it is footnoted and has a chapter-by-chapter bibliography.

I found this book riveting. I learned a lot from it. The cases are presented in amusing and enthralling ways. If you are interested in the questions of what it means to be dead and how safe your free will is, this is an engrossing look at those subjects. I highly recommend it.

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5 Works of Nonfiction That May Be [at least in part] Fiction

NOTE: There are many famous examples of books presented as nonfiction that turned out to be partially or completely fabricated (e.g. Go Ask Alice, A Million Little Pieces, Three Cups of Tea, The Teachings of Don Juan, and Papillon are examples that spring to mind.) That’s not what I was going for when I started this list. Instead, I was thinking of examples of books that may well be true to the best of the author’s knowledge, but which may also be examples of false memory syndrome. I became interested in this while reading Julia Shaw’s The Memory Illusion, which discusses how faulty memory can be — to the point that people can be led into false memories of something as traumatic as committing crimes that never occurred. Meredith Maran wrote a book entitled My Lie: A True Story of False Memory about what she discovered were false memories of childhood sexual abuse. So, I’m not saying these books are fabrications, and — for all I know — some may be completely true. After all, some of the featured individuals think they were exploited by the MK Ultra mind-control shenanigans, and some of them may have been, but it’s also possible some weren’t.

5.) Secret Weapons by Cheryl and Lynn Hersha: The Hersha sisters say they were in a program that turned them into femme fatales.

4.) Psychic Warrior by David Morehouse: I read about Morehouse in Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats. Sadly, it’s not in question that the military maintained a program of psychics, nor that Morehouse was involved in said program. What is in question is the degree to which the program had successes.

3.) Communion by Whitley Strieber: This is the most famous alien abduction story. I don’t know what really happened, but I seriously doubt it’s what the author proposed.

2.) The Control of Candy Jones by Donald Bain: This is a more well-known case similar to that of the Hersha sisters in which a woman was said to be reprogrammed by a nefarious psychiatrist in a mind control program. Candy Jones was famous as a pin up girl. After she got married, her behavior changed radically, and her husband asked her to participate in sessions of hypnosis which are said to have turned up a buried second personality.

1.) A Terrible Mistake by H.P. Albarelli Jr: This is another example of a case in which there are certain remarkable facts that aren’t in dispute, but the degree to which the fine details are accurate is hard to judge. The fact is that Frank Olson was a biologist in the employ of the government, he was dosed with hallucinogenic substances, and thereafter he took a fatal plunge out of a hotel window. Whether he was murdered as a cover up or just had a bad trip has always been an open question.

BOOK REVIEW: The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson

The Men Who Stare at GoatsThe Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Ronson investigates the US military intelligence community’s forays into extrasensory perception (ESP) and mind control. Those who’ve seen the movie loosely based on this book will be aware of the quirky-humorous tone it takes. (If the title wasn’t enough to convey that the author was aiming for quirky humor.) Ronson’s style, favoring punchy simple sentences, offers a kind of deadpan delivery that supports the tone of the book.

That said, the book also has a sad edge as it can be seen as a commentary on military officers who came back from the war in Vietnam damaged and grasping at straws as to how to prevent history from repeating itself. It’s as if what these men experienced made some eager to believe because they so wanted to believe they could win with the mind and avoid the carnage of war.

While the book’s sixteen chapters are not divided by the author, they can be roughly divided into three parts. The first is the pursuit of ESP starting in the late 1970’s. This includes remote viewing and the titular psychokinesis (i.e. starring goats to death.)

The middle section is the resurgence of these esoteric approaches in the late 90’s and, especially, after 9-11 (also speaking to how dire blows to the psyche lead to wild approaches.) Much of this section is about mind control rather than ESP. One may remember the news story of the “I Love You, You Love Me” song from Barney [i.e. the purple dinosaur] being played over and over again to break terror suspects. The question remaining unanswered is whether there was anything else going on besides torture by Barney song (i.e. subliminal messages or sonic / ultrasonic frequencies [as used in non-lethal weapon technology.])

The latter section deals with the famous case of a scientist who jumped from a hotel room window to his death. It was later admitted that the scientist had been the unwitting victim of hallucinogen experimentation as part of the famed MKUltra project, and his death was written off as a trip gone bad. Ronson presents the story of the scientist’s son, a man who firmly believes that the story copped to was neither the full story nor the true story.

This book is interesting and entertaining, despite the fact that many of the questions that Ronson sets out to answer remain unanswered and probably always will. While the author got several key people to talk to him, the projects discussed are highly classified and the possibility of disinformation is ever-present.

Ronson manages to walk a fine line throughout the book. He presents all this quirky and bizarre activity in a way that neither comes across as mocking nor even particularly skeptical. (His punchy delivery does hint at this intention on occasion.) He lets the reader do the mocking and be the skeptic. At times he comes across as a believer. That is, while many of the happenings of the book reflect bat-shit crazy behavior / decisions, he suggests that all but the most hardened skeptics would believe that some of the people involved had inexplicable gifts.

I’d recommend this book. If you’re interested in government sponsored esoteric activities like psi and mind control and related scandals / conspiracies, you’ll find it fascinating. On the other hand, even if you’re not, it’s still an entertaining read that provides a sort of commentary on the effects of war on the psyche.

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BOOK REVIEW: Brainwashing by Kathleen Taylor

Brainwashing: The Science of Thought ControlBrainwashing: The Science of Thought Control by Kathleen Taylor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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There are few terms more loaded with myth and misunderstanding than “brainwashing.” For many it conjures up images from “The Manchurian Candidate.” [For those who’ve never seen either of the two movies of this name (1962 and 2004, starring Frank Sinatra and Denzel Washington, respectively) or read the Richard Condon novel on which they were based, they involve American POW’s who return home brainwashed—one to commit a political assassination and the others to talk the assassin up so that he’ll be able to gain a position to conduct the murder.] Some think brainwashing is complete bunk and others assume it’s reality just like in the movies. Few know the nuanced truth that’s somewhere in between—brainwashing is real but much less reliable than the movies depict. (Projects like America’s MKUltra proved unsuccessful at producing reliable mind control results.)

Taylor’s book is like a number of others that try to get to the truth about brainwashing. Where her book is unique is in its focus on neuroscience rather than psychology. That fact may make it worth reading even if you’ve read other scholarly works on the subject. The middle section does get technical as it attempts to bring a general readership up to speed on topics like neurotransmitters and neurons.

While one might expect a book on this topic to deal overwhelmingly with entities like the CIA and KGB, readers may be surprised to see how much the book focuses on advertising agencies, religions, and the educational system. While the term “brainwashing” has many nefarious connotations, it’s not unrelated to terms like persuasion and indoctrination. The book does provide many less blasé cases–and even discusses the fact in fictitious works like Orwell’s “1984” and Huxley’s “Brave New World.”

The 15 chapters of the book are organized into three parts. The first part lays the groundwork for understanding what the author does—and doesn’t—mean by brainwashing. This section covers many of the same topics as one would expect from a psychologist writing on brainwashing. The middle part of the book (chapters 7 through 11) delves into neuroscience and how it applies to brainwashing. (The book assumes no particular knowledge of brain science, and so this section begins with a crash course on your brain.) The final part explores some of the ramifications of brainwashing as well as asking the question of the degree to which brainwashing can be resisted (and by whom.)

I found this book interesting on many levels. Even if you’re not so interested in the intricacies of the science of the mind, you may learn something about how susceptible you would be to brainwashing (if you can be sufficiently honest with yourself) and how you might become less susceptible (if that’s your goal.)

I’d recommend this book for readers interested in not only brainwashing, but related topics such as free will, persuasion, and emotion.

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BOOK REVIEW: Secret Weapons by Cheryl Hersha, et al.

Secret WeaponsSecret Weapons by Cheryl Hersha

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Secret Weapons is about two sisters who are trained in an MKULTRA-style behavior modification program to become femme fatales. This book was a rare find. I hadn’t heard of it before or seen it in my local bookstores, but I came across a copy at the Strand bookstore in New York (the “miles of books” place) on a trip several years ago.

Like Whitley Strieber’s Communion, this book leaves one engrossed but wondering what exactly one is reading. It is written as non-fiction, and not creative non-fiction that admits to blending elements of fiction into the fact. The writers are eager to convince the reader that this is not a hoax. About a quarter of the book is supporting documents to lend the book credibility. However, while I’m well aware of the “mind control” programs sponsored by the American government, this story doesn’t ring true to me. (In large part this is because we know the programs that operated were not nearly so successful as the one in Secret Weapons would have had to have been.) [I wrote a post about such programs that is available here. If you’d like to read some primary documents on the subject, this page at the National Security Archives has many of them.]

One might think that there are two possibilities: either it’s a true story or it’s a hoax. However, it’s a third possibility that makes this book so thought-provoking. What if the two sisters believe that the story is absolutely true, when–in fact–it wasn’t? How could this be? Their father is presented as an unsavory character. One possibility is that the father abused these girls and they created an elaborate backstory in their minds to cope with the fact that the one man who should have loved them, that they should have been able to trust, neither loved them nor was worthy of their trust.

Of course, another possibility is that it’s all true. While a lot of information did come out about Projects ARTICHOKE, BLUEBIRD, and MKULTRA, a lot was also shredded. The person working the shredder might have gone after the documentation of activities involving pedophilia first. If there is any activity that would have rightfully taken the situation from one of CIA employees being sent to country club federal prisons to them being strung up on the Capitol steps, it’s what’s depicted in this book.

Of course, it could all be a hoax as well. A story like this, if believed, elicits the publicity of the news media. That’s a powerful way to sell books.

I’ll leave the reader to decide which of the three possibilities they believe is most likely.

If you haven’t concluded this already, let me be explicit: This book contains disturbing descriptions (and even sketches.) It isn’t gratuitous to the story they are trying to convey, but if you have a weak stomach for such matters, I’d recommend you steer clear.

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