- AUTHOR - MK-ULTRA -
Today, I interview a man with an enchanting past. Brace yourself ...
Welcome, Bill ...
1. Tell us a little about yourself and your writing journey.
I’ve enjoyed writing for many years. Since I retired I’ve embarked on a concentrated effort to publish my first novel, Memories of MK-ULTRA. It is inspired by experiences from my young childhood. I believe my brother, sister, and I were placed in the CIA’s MK-ULTRA mind-control program during the summer of 1958. I was four, my sister was eight, and my brother was two. We repressed these memories for 30 years, but in the 1980s we began to recall our buried past. We had common memories that surfaced of being kept in basement jail cells, as well as being subjected to electroshock, drugs, isolation, deprivation, psychological assault, and other traumas. None-the-less, we struggled to believe such things actually happened.
Then, in the 1990s, President Clinton released the results of a Presidential Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, which also addressed the mind control experiments conducted by the CIA. After that presidential report was released, we realized our recollections aligned with the testimonies of other child survivors of MK-ULTRA who testified before the Presidential Committee.
2. For readers who are not familiar, give us some background on MK-ULTRA.
MK-ULTRA was a secret mind control program operated by the CIA during the 1950’s. The New York Times first exposed the program in 1974, and a Senate Committee along with other government investigations followed.
Among other things, it was discovered that the MK-ULTRA program was used to perfect interrogation techniques, to create split personalities for covert espionage missions, and to experiment with drugs on both willing and unwilling subjects. There were about 140 different programs with over 80 institutions involved.
Although MK-ULTRA experimented predominately on adults, it also experimented on children in a program designed to create super soldiers and spies. After the program was exposed, CIA Director Richard Helms destroyed thousands of pages of documentation. There have been a number of nonfiction books published about MK-ULTRA, including most recently Stephen Kinzer’s Poisoner in Chief, which was featured last month by The New York Times and NPR’s Fresh Air.
3. Why do you think the U.S. government engaged in such activities?
I believe they were paranoid that the Russians and the Chinese were ahead in mind control research.
4. Why were you placed in such a program and why did your parents allow it?
That is the question I most often get. My parents were pretty troubled in those days. My mother grew up in Nazi Germany and experienced a number of traumas, including the bombing of Dresden, Germany, which resulted in the highest civilian casualties in the history of warfare.
My father worked in the war crimes staff of the US Army after World War II where he interviewed the Nazis running the Dachau concentration camps. That is where the Nazis conducted mind control experiments and that is where the CIA recruited some mind control experts for MK-ULTRA. I believe that is the connection that led us into this program.
I also believe my parents may have been promised compensation and told the program would benefit our development. I recall my mother saying, “You will have wonderful futures if you go to this special school.” It’s possible that their minds were manipulated, too.
5. Did you discuss these memories with your parents?
Yes, I did confront my father on this issue. In his natural voice, the one I knew, he denied knowledge. Then, suddenly, in a strange whispery voice that I’d heard on rare occasions before, he displayed knowledge. As I mentioned earlier, one goal of MK-ULTRA was to create split personalities. Perhaps they did so with him.
I also discussed it with my mother. She became extremely defensive and claimed I was never out of her sight for one second as a child. Of course, that wasn’t true, given that I spent time at my friends and attended school and summer scout camps.
6. How did the program impact you?
I grew up terrified of authority figures, suffered from irrational fears, avoided intimate relationships, and had an obsession to one day become President of the United States, which I later concluded was programmed into me.
After my repressed memories surfaced, I embarked on a healing journey. I’ve had years of therapy involving a variety of techniques: psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, EMDR, Reiki, and Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). Other techniques like meditation, music, dancing, journaling, and creative writing helped to supplement my healing journey.
Although I’m not fully healed, I’ve made some real progress. Most significantly, I have had a long-term relationship with my wonderful wife, Inge. Likewise, my sister embarked on a healing journey. Unfortunately, my brother suffered lasting and extensive psychological damage. Like many other individuals who were children in MK-ULTRA, he spent a lifetime since the age of 21 diagnosed with a variety of mental illnesses before he died in his fifties.
7. Why did you decide to write a novel rather than a memoir?
Partly because of my young age in the program and the nature of repressed memories coming to the surface 30 years later. Our memories often came to us in different fashion—mine, while consciously awake, my sister, while dreaming, and my brother, while in what his therapist called altered states of consciousness. However, our recollections were typically the same.
Repressed memories can be fuzzy though, and I couldn’t write in confidence that my recollections were fully accurate. I feared I’d be second-guessing myself if I wrote a memoir and chose to write a novel instead. I like to say the novel is inspired by my experiences.
8. Tell us about your novel.
Memories of MK-ULTRA traces the development of three siblings from their early childhood—marred by mind control experiences in the MK-ULTRA program—to their adulthood. It unfolds through two intertwined storylines. One, set at a CIA installation outside of Washington D.C., follows a Nazi-trained psychiatrist who is charged with engineering super soldiers and spies. But he also has an agenda of his own: acting as a puppet master to control world events by indoctrinating future political leaders.
The other storyline focuses on the coming of age of the three siblings during the turbulent 60 and into their early adulthood. As the story develops, an incredible chain of events uncover the dark forces shaping their lives . . . until an unexpected source of light appears.
9. What is that source of light?
Another child subject in the program. The CIA didn’t just place American kids into this program but Canadian, Mexican, and South American children as well. The three siblings in my novel are fortunate to be exposed to a teenage Indian boy from a shamanic tribe in Mexico with remarkable gifts who protects and comforts them as best he can. They repress the memory of this boy along with the rest of their MK-ULTRA experiences, but when they remember him, it has a transformative impact on their lives.
10. Is this boy based on an experience you had?
Yes, I believe we were comforted and protected by a Mexican boy with shamanic gifts who was in the program with us. I suspect the psychological damage inflicted upon my sister and I was significantly mitigated by his influence. Although I believe he helped my brother, too, my brother was younger and more vulnerable, so he experienced more psychological damage.
11. How are you approaching the publication of your novel?
Currently, I’m trying to get a literary agent. In the United States you need a literary agent if you want to be published by one of the big New York publishers. It is a daunting effort. I’ve been told that only I of every 6,000 query letters eventual leads to publication.
Actually, I was planning to self-publish, but I had my book reviewed by professional focus group which had 11 beta readers critique and rate my novel. They didn’t know me and were not told up front that my book was based on actual experiences. The representative of the focus group company told me my novel had one of the highest scores they’ve seen. Nine of the eleven readers liked it a lot or extremely much. She strongly urged to give the literary agent route a shot.
Outside of that focus group, I’ve had close to another 100 people read my manuscript, with a similar positive response. So I’m trying to obtain an agent. If I don’t obtain one, then I’ll query smaller publishers. If that doesn’t work, I’ll self-publish. In any event, I plan to aggressively market my novel.
12. How so?
Well, for starters doing interviews like this one. The media has historically had a strong interest in MK-ULTRA. I’ve noticed when MK-ULTRA books are published by traditional publishers, there is often good media coverage—like the Poisoner in Chief, the book I mentioned earlier. I will also open a website soon (billyarborough.com) in which I will ultimately market my novel and share the lessons of my healing journey. Memories of MK-ULTA is the first in a series, and the healing journey is definitely a facet of the novel series.
I’m also an experienced speaker and have just done my first speech on my experiences. I have a defined list of marketing steps I’m taking, including the use of social networks, like LinkedIn, which is how you and I connected for this interview. Of course, I’m new at this, and I have a lot to learn. But in the end, I believe word of mouth is the most powerful element in promoting book sales. I’m encouraged that a number of my beta readers have wanted their friends, family, and their book clubs to read Memories of MK-ULTRA.
13. How has the agent hunt gone so far?
So far no offers of representation, but a number of them have urged me to keep on querying, expressing confidence that I’ll find an agent. My biggest challenge with agents is how to classify my novel. My novel does not fit into one neat genre box. It’s a psych thriller and a coming of age story but also a cross-gen novel that includes elements of a political and conspiracy thriller, dysfunctional family saga, historical fiction, healing journey, as well as aspects of the paranormal, magic realism, and sci-fi. I believe that is why it appeals to a wide spectrum of readers. I’ve had some very enthusiastic readers—but they’re often enthusiastic for different reasons.
14. So, tell us about the paranormal, magic realism, and sci-fi aspects. Are they based on things you experienced?
Yes. There are reports that MK-ULTRA was into psychic experiments. There is no question the CIA engaged in such activities as remote viewing—using psychics to spy on enemy installations. MK-ULTRA was also deeply involved in experimenting with such drugs as LSD, including on children. I recall that the Indian boy I mentioned earlier possessed formidable shamanic abilities. Also, my brother and sister have displayed psychic talents on occasion. My sister suspects she was given drugs in the program, and I’ve read that severe trauma can produce out-of-body experiences.
So, I’ve had some memories crop up involving what could be described as the paranormal, mystical, or what they refer to in fiction as magic realism. Of course, when dealing with memories of non-ordinary reality that were repressed for 30 years or more, it’s hard to know for sure. But in a novel format you can certainly speculate.
15. What type of preparation do you do for a manuscript? Do you plan everything first or just shoot from the hip?
I’ve done both. I recently had a short story “Night Mother” accepted for publication by Jitter Press. I planned it out completely—although the most intriguing aspect of the story came to me after I’d finished the planning.
With Memories of MK-ULTRA I did very little advance planning—although, given it was based on my experiences, you could argue it was already mapped out. However, there are storylines that are different from my own experience, such as the main character embarking on a political career. That is something I desperately wanted to do before my memory blocks collapsed—but I never did.
16. What do you enjoy most about being a writer?
I love most all aspects about it. First and foremost the creativity. And the editing and endless re-editing. As well as getting feedback and the marketing aspects. I particularly like to meet other creative people. My sister and I just collaborated on a short story and that was a lot of fun. I should add that since my novel was based on experiences I endured, writing it had a cathartic effect.
17. When did you first start writing?
In the early 1980s just after my brother had his psychotic break. It was quite traumatic—he and I were very close—and I had to escape into something, so I started writing horror short stories as a hobby. It was an auspicious pick, given I had no interest in writing up until that point.
18. What have you done to develop your writing skills?
I first started writing on my own without seeking help. It allowed me to develop some confidence before seeking critical feedback. But after a while, I took steps to seek feedback and educate myself about writing. I joined various critique groups, attended writing conferences and workshops, read and reread a lot novels, studied books on writing, hired professional editors to review my manuscript, and used a lot of beta readers, including the professional focus group I mentioned earlier.
19. What advice would you give to new writers?
Reread your favourite books and authors. Once you start seeking critical feedback, don’t dismiss too many suggestions outright. Often when someone made a suggestion to me, I thought, that won’t work. But I tried them out anyhow and was surprised how often those suggestions helped.
20. Who is your favourite author and why?
Stephen King. When I read his books I feel like he brings the reader into the story as if they are experiencing the events themselves. I’ve strived to do that as best I can. The down side of that approach, is that a few readers have been triggered by my manuscript. It stirs up their traumas. One women ended up in the emergency room because her blood pressure soared. To the vast majority of readers though, it is another thriller—but one they tend not to forget. At least, that’s what they tell me. I know a number of them like to reread it.
21. What is your greatest compliment you ever received from a reader?
Someone said, “I’ve never read a novel at work, but I read Memories of MK-ULTRA at work.”
22. What was the worst comment from a reader?
That I should have killed off the protagonist. Since the protagonist was sort of based on myself, that was a bit rough.
23. What did you do before you retired?
My day job consisted of working for a large public accounting firm, then in the financial industry for 35 years. During that time, I also served as president for two non-profits.
24. Other than writing, what else do you love to do?
My wife and I love to travel, spend time with family and friends, take walks, and read. We’re big movie and theatre fans, too. Given my political programing in MK-ULTRA, I’ve been something of a political junkie since I was a kid—but I don’t want to go into politics anymore.
25. Besides writing your novel series, is there anything else you would like to do?
Sharing the healing techniques I’ve practiced during my healing journey. One of my favourites is Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) sometimes referred to as tapping, which is based on Chinese acupressure and involves tapping on a set of energy meridians to relieve emotional and physical issues. It is something you can do on your own as the need arises. My wife and I have conducted several seminars on EFT, and I plan to share some of my healing experiences on my upcoming website.
26. Anything you’d like to add?
I really appreciate your hosting me, Clancy!