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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POEM: Midnight Climax

The walls throb and gargoyles attack

an hour into midnight climax.

Pipe cleaner Kama Sutra twists

chronicled indiscretion lists.


His hand dissolves into puddle.

Giggling; he’s become befuddled.

She’ll take him for a midnight ride

while with acid he is plied.


A night to remember, he will have lost

until the Polaroids do accost

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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