Ken was a genius, with a 180 IQ. Perhaps his best days were behind him. A child prodigy, at the age of 8, he had his first poem published in the New Yorker, back in 1953, the year the MKULTRA program began.
Oedipus may think it strange
Or even rather sillical
That my relations with Ma Mere
Have merely been umbilical
- Ken Hertz, age 8
Now he lived in a $75 slum apartment, where he "designed chemistry sets" for a living. Ken was always coming and going via the back entrance he shared my friend Charlotte. Both their apartments overlooked I. M. Liben Monuments, which manufactured and sold tombstones in English and Yiddish.
As a child, he had attended McGill University. So Charlotte said. She believed him when he told her he had been in a special program at McGill. In 1960, at age 15, he had crashed after dozens of out-of-body experiences (OBEs) on LSD and other chemicals. He boasted of spending days and weeks in sensory deprivation, drifting in a flotation tank on drugs. From this special training he emerged with a photographic memory and well-honed psychic abilities. He had confessed all this to Charlotte over dinner.
In the early 60s, Ken had been briefly famous as a poet. He had a poster dated 1961, the year he had headlined a poetry reading at the Seven Steps cafe on Stanley Street. At the bottom of the poster, in smaller type:
And Special guest -- New York folksinger, Bob Dylan.
By 1975, Ken’s main activity seemed to be collecting information on everybody. Once he met you, he took hold of you like a pitbull. First he made you feel important and interesting with his attention. He would stare into your eyes and put you off guard by asking you strings of probing questions about yourself and people you knew.
Not long after I met Leonard Cohen, Ken’s interest in me suddenly grew. He said he also knew Leonard from back in the old days "at the Allan."
"What were you both doing at a mental hospital?" I wondered aloud.
"I can’t tell you.”
I recalled Leonard saying he used to entertain mental patients. “They’re my best audience,” he had quipped in an interview. “Maybe he was there to give a concert?”
Ken shook his head emphatically. “I also visited him at his apartment on Pine Avenue. He would point to things in the apartment, then tell you how much they cost.”
Obviously Ken was jealous. The next time I saw Leonard, I brought up Ken and the Allan Memorial. "Were you ever there?" I thought I detected a flicker, a slight pause before he answered.
“Oh,yeah, a few times, mostly visiting my mother. After she went in with a skin condition and they gave her a drug that made her psychotic. They kept her in there for a few weeks. I had to fight to get her released.”
So Ken was right.
Leonard and I were watching TV. Suddenly he turned and asked me, in a light-hearted way: “Were you ever in a flotation tank, Annie?”
No, I had never been in a flotation tank. I had read about them, though.
“I was in one, once,” said Leonard. “On LSD. It was wonderful. I could have floated out there forever.” The soft dreamy monotone, just shy of a lisp. We turned back to the television drama we had been watching.
There were certainly lots of crazy people in our neighbourhood. I rarely questioned how they got that way. Drugs were the usual answer. And Ken had taken plenty of those - back in his childhood. At McGill.
Come to think of it, I don’t know why I just accepted that absurd story. But who was I to say that during the 1950s, there had not been a special program for gifted children, for which Ken was chosen, or placed by his schizophrenic mother – or had she become schizophrenic only later? Her being schizophrenic would explain Ken. But could it explain all the LSD trips, sensory isolation tanks, OBE’s, and superhuman abilities he claimed to possess, and sometimes actually demonstrated?
At 15, he had written a brilliant book of poetry about a Zen monk in Japan who succumbs to material temptations and is destroyed. How could a 15 year old compose such a convincing tale in blank verse?
I had witnessed him reading minds. I didn’t doubt he was psycho-kinetic. When he boasted he could make people and animals obey him, I shrugged it off as a waste of time.
I tried to imagine a special program that could produce a Kenneth Hertz. It was beyond me. Neither could I see the point of having magical powers, or joining MENSA as a teenager. And? Where had it got him? One look told you he was a nut no woman in her right mind would get involved with. And yet, women did. They fell for him regularly. He had photos of himself, bald, bespectacled, jammed up against a series of beautiful women in photo machines. He had even got me with him into one.
Sometime in 1979, Ken started digging in the files. His own mother had recently died and left him some money. She too had been schizophrenic, he told me, and a patient at the Allan.
Little by little, Ken began telling me the truth.
He started sketching a large, amorphous picture, an unfinished jigsaw that he was still deciphering. The pieces made no sense, because the complete image on the box was missing. There was no label, no user's guide, to tell you what you were looking at.
He began by telling me anecdotes. There was one about Henry Moscovitch, another gifted young poet, more brilliantly talented than Leonard, who after a stay in the Allan began hearing voices telling him to jump off an overpass on the Decarie expressway. So, one night, he went for a walk and jumped to the pavement below. Landing on his head.
He was Ken’s friend. There were others like him. They had all been in the Allan.
It seemed everyone had spent time in the Allan. Except me.
Ken told me about the time he and his friend Bozo took a woman they knew to a cabin in the Laurentians where they tied her up and said they were going to kill her. They kept her there for an entire weekend, terrorizing her with their plan, and then released her, totally traumatized. Later they laughed about it.
I said "Why did you do that?"
He implied that he and Bozo were carrying out someone else’s instructions. That it was an experiment they were required to do, like an initiation rite. A test that would qualify them for some future mission.
I was horrified. It was midnight. I had to work the next day. I told him to leave. That's when he pulled out the Exacto knife. He flicked the blade, making it click several times, in and out. As he did this, he seemed to change into someone else. A dangerous madman.
I said, "Don't try that on me, or you’ll be sorry.”
I said, “I’m calling the police.”
He refused to budge, just sat in the next room, in the dark, clicking the Exacto blade, in and out, over and over, until 1 am when he finally gave up and left.
I debated whether to tell Charlotte. I pondered how a gifted poet could suddenly display these criminal tendencies. Ken did not fit the profile of a criminal. He lived on the edge of poverty but moved in intellectual and artistic circles. He knew professors at McGill. He was friendly with local politicians. His personal phone book was filled with names of important people.
It must have been later, around 1980. Ken showed up at my door, excited and triumphant. He had stumbled on a treasure. Medical files. Psychiatric files. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of files were sitting in the MacIntyre Medical Building at McGill. He’d already been through thousands of pages. He was launching a business as a freelance medical researcher. Behind this scheme lay something more personal. The first file he had searched for and found was his own, dating back to the 1950s.
“I found files on everyone we know. There’s even one on you and your brother.”
“That's ridiculous. My brother and I never went to McGill.”
“No, no. They’re from your childhood. They were experimenting on the two of you while you were still in your mother’s womb.”
“The doctors. The scientists.”
He sat in front of me, grinning. Light glinting off his wire-rimmed glasses. Hands nervously gliding over surfaces, skimming the tabletop.
“The files are there. I can show you if you want. I swear I’m telling the truth.”
Files were not what I wanted to hear about. I was 29 years old, trying to live a normal life in a room, alone, in downtown Montreal. I told him to stop making up malicious, crazy stories, go home, and get a life.
“This is real. I am telling you.”
“Real to you.”
“There is proof. Let me show you.”
I hurled every stinging accusation I could think of to make him go away. Files on all of us, at McGill? Was this Nazi Germany? A Russian Gulag?
The Berlin wall would not fall for another 12 years. Ken would have continued his search for files until the Iron Curtain came down, had he not fallen ill in 1983 with a paralyzing disease that would slowly imprison his body in a vise. There was never a diagnosis for what was killing him. Therefore there could be no cure.
He thought the cause might be a chemical he was exposed to, once, while living in an apartment that was sprayed for bedbugs. He researched relentlessly. Travelled to Mexico for a foetal cell implant that failed. His friends raised thousands of dollars for him. Leonard Cohen made a generous donation. Irving Layton did as well. Ken’s mind remained hyperactive, even after he lost the ability to speak. His desperate struggle made the newspapers. MACLEANS published an article on his fight against a rare, mysterious, Parkinsonian condition. They even printed a photo of his ravaged, twisted face, above a tasteless caption:
“The face of the future?”
His friends looked on, at first in horror, and as time passed, increasing hopelessness. In 1995, he died, strangled by his own, constricted throat. By then, the files were gone. Disappeared or thrown into dumpsters in a frenzy -- as I was told years later, by people who worked for McGill after the revelations began to leak out, just at the time Ken started investigating his childhood at university.
It had taken years to get rid of those records: births, adoptions and abortions dating back to the 1950s. Records of LSD and other classified experiments during the crucial years from 1953-64. And afterwards. All the way up to 1977, when the story first made international headlines.
The name for all this was EUGENICS. The experiments never really stopped. They continue today. You don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.