Monday, February 22, 2010

Trailblazing Film on Psychiatric Hospital Horrors, "Titicut Follies" Now Online

Long forbidden for public viewing -- the only U.S. film ever banned for reasons other than obscenity or national security -- a copy of Frederick Wiseman's award-winning 1967 film Titicut Follies has been made available online, thanks to The film is distributed for public sale on DVD by Zipporah Films.

According to the film website IMDb:
The only American film banned from release for reasons other than obscenity or national security, Titicut Follies was filmed inside the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Bridgewater, a prison hospital for the criminally insane. After the Commonwealth of Massachusetts sued the filmmakers, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the film constituted was an invasion of inmate privacy and ordered the withdrawal of the film from circulation.
Zipporah Films describes the film thus:
The film is a stark and graphic portrayal of the conditions that existed at the State Prison for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, Massachusetts. TITICUT FOLLIES documents the various ways the inmates are treated by the guards, social workers and psychiatrists.
Robert Coles at The New Republic wrote of the film:
After a showing of TITICUT FOLLIES the mind does not dwell on the hospital’s ancient and even laughable physical plant, or its pitiable social atmosphere. What sticks, what really hurts is the sight of human life made cheap and betrayed. We see men needlessly stripped bare, insulted, herded about callously, mocked, taunted. We see them ignored or locked interminably in cells. We hear the craziness in the air, the sudden outbursts, the quieter but stronger undertow of irrational noise that any doctor who has worked under such circumstances can only take for so long. But much more significantly, we see the ‘professionals’, the doctors and workers who hold the fort in the Bridgewaters of this nation, and they are all over…TITICUT FOLLIES is a brilliant work of art...
The film carries stark associations for those of us who have lived through the years of Abu Ghraib, Bagram, CIA "black site" EIT torture, and Guantanamo, and in particular have witnessed the collaboration of medical and psychological personnel in the implementation and operation of the torture practices at these sites. It has long been rumored that Bridgewater State Hospital was a site for MKULTRA mind control and drug experiments in the 1950s and 1960s.

While I could not verify the latter in a fashion that was compelling, in the well-regarded book by Alan Scheflin and Edward Opton, Jr., The Mind Manipulators, the authors describe experimental studies in cytogenetics and the brain conducted at Bridgewater in the early 1970s, at least four years after the release of this film. The researchers were looking for ways to identify subjects for psychosurgery to "control violent behavior in some destructive individuals." The Law Enforcement Assistance Administration gave a $79,900 grant (almost $425,000 in current dollars) to Dr. Lawrence Razavi, who would use prisoners at Bridgewater to see if "individuals suitable for psycosurgery could... be identified at reasonable cost by using the filter of routine fingerprints" (pp. 292-294).

The connection with prisoner abuse at Bridgewater -- including widespread use of isolation and nudity, and force feeding of hunger strikers -- is tantalizing since Dr. Robert A. Fein worked there from 1976 to 1985. Dr. Fein is today one of the "three members of the [CIA's] Intelligence Science Board, a panel that reports to the director of national intelligence", and a central consultant for President Obama's plans to reform U.S. policy on interrogations. The other two members of the panel are former Deputy Attorney General and current Harvard law professor Philip Heymann and former CIA official John MacGaffin.

Heymann was "the number-two official in Janet Reno's Justice Department," and publicly has spoken about reconciling the need for democratic liberties with counter-terrorism policy. MacGaffin was formerly "number two spymaster for clandestine operations", and later a liaison between the FBI and CIA. According to PBS's Frontline, MacGaffin is
... critical of taking a law enforcement approach to terrorism when there is the possibility that a suspect can be used to gather intelligence about an organization. He argues that during the Cold War, the FBI was very effective at infiltrating the Communist Party inside the U.S. and that it can and should try this approach with terrorist organizations. MacGaffin, along with five other former U.S. national security officials, is the author of a July 2003 article published in The Economist titled "America Needs More Spies.
As for psychologist Robert Fein, there is no reason to believe he was associated with any abuses at Bridgewater. But it would be interesting to know what conditions existed at the prison hospital during Fein's stay there, and how he was affected by it.

One thing is certain: it is difficult to watch the film and not be powerfully affected by it. It is almost a cliche to call it "graphic." It is disturbing and enlightening. Warning: contains scenes of nudity, obscenity, and strong emotional intensity.


Anonymous said...

ah, finally someone with an interest in the works of dr. fein, also of harvard and the united states secret service. it was dr. fein who headed a furlough/release program at bridgewater's treatment center for the sexually dangerous, three of whose patient/inmates were running amok in new bedford in 1988 while dukakis was shredding his 17-point lead against cia capo george bush...running amok on fein-mastered furloughs while 11 women were abducted, killed and dumped around new bedford in a three-month stretch of summer, the unexplored prequel to willie horton...

Anonymous said...

anyone with an interest in the so-called Highway Killings, New Bedford 1988, 'New England's deadliest unsolved serial killing,' can reach me at

i am just so pleased that dr. fein might finally get the attention he so justly deserves.

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