Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The Room That Makes Men Mad

     Society's memory is short, I am sure, unless it is constantly refreshed. Etched in my personal memory, for instance, is the incredible suddenness with which the Soviet Union, with hardly a shot being fired, was swept into the dustbin of history. But that was a quarter of a century ago. I have to accept that an entire generation has grown up, finished their education, and started both a family and a career without ever being aware of such momentous events. So one would hardly expect them to remember those landmarks along the way which loomed so large to those of us who lived through them. Like the short-lived Hungarian Revolution of 1956. It was quickly put down by Soviet tanks, but not before hundreds of political prisoners were released. The most famous was Cardinal Mindszenty, who sought refuge in the United States' embassy until 1971. A much more minor character was Lajos Ruff, who managed to join 200,000 other refugees in the free West, where he described his experiences in a book first published in Paris in 1958, and then in English under the title, The Brain-Washing Machine. It is hard to believe I had it in my possession for 44 years before reading it.
     22-year-old Ruff's "crime", for which he was arrested in 1953, was pamphleteering, and for making a run for the border when it was clear the secret police were after him. The mistreatment to which he was exposed at their hands would be tedious to relate in detail. Except for what he calls the "magic room", it will contain no surprises to anyone who has read other accounts of the repression of those days - and you should read them, for there are some things which must not be forgotten. It was the same old story of cold, austere accommodation, inadequate food, constant harassment - and torture. He was subjected to multiple beatings, burning with naked flames, being forced to stand in waist-deep, frigid water, and locked for five days in a cell 20 inches [50 cm] square, where he could neither sit nor lie down.
     He and his comrades had sent pamphlets to about 100 prominent people, and it was their names that the authorities wanted to know - because, obviously, anybody who had kept the pamphlet rather than turning it over to the secret police was a subversive. When the stick approach failed, they tried the carrot. An informer was added to his cell and allowed to consume extra food in his presence, while exhorting the poor prisoner to collaborate. He also warned him: "Do not let them expose you to radiation . . . the radiation ruins the nerves for ever." At last, he was led, hooded, down a series of corridors, until the hood was removed in a room which appeared luxurious after the cell, but very, very strange.
The first thing I noticed was that the room was not rectangular. The wall facing the door had an oval shape. In its middle was a large window with a snake-like grille painted blue. Behind the window there was complete darkness. The size of the room was twelve feet by fifteen feet [3½ x 4½ metres]. On the left side there was a soft bed with mattresses and pillows; behind the bed, in the corner, a toilet. In the middle there was a solid, wooden table with a round seat without a back. On the right, I discovered to my surprise, there were two comfortable easy-chairs. Close to them was a wash-basin with hot and cold running water. Next to the bed was a solid night-table. The door was on the right side of the wall from the window, and had the usual spy-hole. The floor was completely covered with a thick, shaggy carpet.
     A great improvement of a typical cell, you might think, but there were peculiarities. For instance, the bed sloped so that its lower end touched the floor, with the result that a wooden board had to be attached to the end as a support for the feet. As a consequence, although it was softer than a cell bunk, he was forced to brace his feet in an uncomfortable manner every time he lay down.  Opposite the window was a white spot about nine feet square made of some rubber-like material, which looked like what it was: a cinema screen. The carpet was a beautiful pale orange in colour, the ceiling dark blue. However, the walls were vividly painted in spots, spirals, lines stretching into the infinite, and dice like abstract art. If he had been writing a decade later, the word he would have used would have been "psychodelic".
     I have left till last the really weird aspect of the room: the lamps on the ceiling and the night-table. While they gave off a soft, reddish light, their semi-transparent shades were full of spirals, blotches, and serpentine lines, all in vivid reds, yellows, blues, and blacks. They also possessed  a number of perforations. Not only that, but the shades were constantly rotating, casting weird, and endlessly moving patterns of light over everything. In addition, all the furniture, solidly attached to the floor, was covered with a strange nylon-like material which reflected all this light.
     At first he thought it was a bitter joke when a blond man in civilian clothes asked him what he wanted to eat. Eventually, he asked for scrambled eggs, milk, and rolls. He got them - except that, instead of milk, he received coffee with "a special flavour". He began hearing strange, nondescript sounds. The room was spinning. He lay down and went to sleep.
     Two hours later he awoke with a splitting headache, to meet the devious master of the Magic Room: Dr László Németh. He, and the blond orderly accused him of attempting suicide. His neck was swollen and sore, there was a patch of blood on the ceiling, and they produced from under the bed a silk scarf he had never seen before. Then the devil doctor told him he would give him an injection to calm him down. It made him pass out right away. For the next six weeks he was injected with scopolamine and mescaline. The former is a sedative, and one of the classic "truth drugs", while the latter, derived from peyote, has effects similar to LSD. And, of course, there was the regular coffee with the funny taste.
     Every day, for five or six hours, Dr Németh would talk with him. At first the conversations were on general subjects. It was a battle of wits in which one combatant was overwhelmed with will-destroying drugs. In the end, he found it easier to co-operate with the doctor, even warm to him.
Yet this is the core of the treatment in the magic room. To use a metaphor, you can behead a man with an axe, but in order to shave his beard you need his permission. To produce schizophrenia in the magic room the conscious co-operation of the victim is an absolute requirement.
     And all the time, there was the constantly shifting light display. The doctor told him it was part of the treatment, but warned him about the silver beam, for "[I]t has an unusual effect on the brain." After he awoke from a drugged sleep, he watched the silver beam flood out through the dark window, and start searching for him. Now at last he understood the reason for the oval shape of that side of the room; there were no corners; there was no place the beam could not reach. Even hiding behind the furniture made no difference; the material was transparent to the beam. Eventually, he gave in, like a sunbather surrendering to the sunbeams. He never found out its function. Personally, I think it was just ordinary light, its only purpose being to terrify the victim.
    Weird dreams disturbed his rest, and when he awoke, it appeared they had come alive, for moving pictures were playing on the screen. Often they were erotic, pornographic, but at the same time surreal. Quivering bodies would turn into quivering hills and valleys, giant toes or soles of feet moved across the screen, or else there would be running lines and abstract figures, a man walking off a balcony and into the air, then back to the erotica. He would see the mouth of a tiger, followed by a dentist extracting a human tooth, a man scratching his head and his fingers going in to scratch his brain. Needless to say, the same imagines haunted his dreams. He was losing touch with reality.
     In this short summary it is impossible to fully capture the weirdness of his experience: the patterns from the endlessly rotating lamps, the psychodelic walls rendered more vivid by the hallucinogenic drug, the chaotic films mirrored in his chaotic dreams, the constant glib tongue of the devil doctor, who openly explained that his aim was to turn him schizophrenic. He believes that about this time he gave them the information they wanted; it didn't seem to matter.
     Once, after going to sleep following a pornographic movie, he awoke to feel himself being caressed. He was naked, although he distinctly remembered going to bed fully clothed, and beside him was a naked woman who continued on him the passionate scene he had witnessed on the screen, and talked about events in the film as if they were reality. His own grip on reality was slipping. Also, Dr Németh began turning up in both the orgies on the screen and the orgies in the room.
     Then the movies changed. The hero was a resistance leader, called simply "The Leader", organizing all sorts of activities against the communist system, and Dr Németh was his aide. At one point The Leader spilled coffee on his suit. When Ruff awoke, he found a coffee stain on his own suit. On another occasion, he watched The Leader fleeing though the rain, and when the doctor shook him awake, water was dripping from his own clothes. Dr Németh started addressing him as The Leader, and gave him reports. When Ruff objected, he was told he was showing signs of insanity by not remembering. When The Leader cut his hand on the screen, Ruff awoke with his own hand cut and bandaged.
    The victim suspects they were trying to make him believe he was a real resistance leader so that they could make him confess to it in a public show trial. He was later to meet six people - he gives their names, ages, and occupations - who were driven permanently insane by the magic room. He himself only escaped that fate by an accident.
Unintentionally, I did what I should have done six weeks earlier. I fell against the lamp on the night-table and ruined it. At first I was horrified. I thought they would accuse me of doing it deliberately. In this moment I underwent a strange psychological reaction. In a flash I perceived the abyss towards which I was being directed step by step by their friendliness. I smashed up other things in the room and in a crisis of genuine fury I decided to simulate violent madness.
     He refused to accept any food, and broke everything he could lay his hands on. For five days they experimented with him, using a strait-jacket and other restraints. At last, deciding he was permanently psychotic, they gave up on him, and turned him over to the insane asylum run by the secret police.

     The chapter on the magic room occupies only an eighth of the length of the book. The rest adds few surprises to anyone familiar with the literature on communist prisons, so I shall neither bore nor shock you with the details. First he experienced the horrors of being sane (more or less) in a madhouse run by sadists. He does not shirk from naming the personal staff, of which the chief was Dr. Ödön Németh, unrelated to his former tormentor. (It is a not uncommon surname in Hungary, and means "German".) When they discovered he was more or less rational, they gave him a secret trial and handed down a sentence of fifteen years. Ironically, his former treatment in the magic room served him in good stead, because they assumed he was insane (and he did nothing to discourage the idea). Like most simple people, the guards were somewhat afraid of the mentally ill, because they are not predictable. They made him an orderly, which gave him certain privileges, because it meant he would be able to go places and see things he would otherwise be denied, and who better to be allowed to see your secrets than someone who is "crazy"? Three years into his sentence he was released by the revolution. Eventually, he gave evidence to the U.S. Congress.
    Mr Ruff assumed that something similar to the magic room was used in Stalin's show trials (another thing rapidly retreating from our collective memory), where his old Bolshevik comrades made ridiculous confessions of treachery. However, I have my doubts. For a start, it is recorded that, during one of these group trials, while all the "defendents" were confessing like they were in church, one of them, Nikolay Krestinsky broke ranks and loudly insisted on his innocence. He had to be whipped away and worked on during the night, so that he was singing the proper song when he was brought back into the dock the next day.
     Secondly, I have failed to discover any reference to similar practices in other accounts. The magic room appears to have been unique to this period in Hungarian history. The reason is rather obvious: it required full time handling of a single victim for weeks, if not months, by a highly trained specialist, plus the use of expensive cinematic effects. Also, torture is easy; any knuckle dragger can do it, and normally only knuckle draggers do do it. However, something like this has to be the work of an evil genius, and they are not easy to come by, even in totalitarian societies.
     I suspect they used it on Lajos Ruff because they had failed to get the information they required from him by any other means, and because there was a vacancy, so to speak, in the magic room. Their motives for continuing it once the information had been received is anyone's guess. The films he witnessed of The Leader would not have been specific to him, but would have been devised for other prisoners before him. Probably the sadists continued it for the same reason dogs lick themselves: because they could.
     Anyway, it should be noted that the science of repression has had 60 more years to mature since then. And there are some things which should never be forgotten.

Reference: Lajos Ruff (1959), The Brain-Washing Machine (Robert Hale), reprinted as a paperback by Pedigree Books as House of Torture. This book can still be obtained through such sources as Amazon, and it is possible to download it as a PDF.


  1. Malcolm--Thanks for bringing Ruff's book to our attention! A similar "magic room" is an adjunct of the Jack Vance SF novelette "The Dogtown Tourist Agency," which appeared in the mid-seventies. Perhaps Vance had read the Ruff account... --Rob Swiatek

  2. Do you happen to know where a PDF version can be obtained? I'd love to read the book, but I can't seem to find anything when searching for it. :(

  3. This experimental torture seems similar to what the CIA did with the MK Ultra project. Interesting that they used Peyote - considering Peyote is derived from a cactus endemic to North America.