Illustration by James Steinberg
Illustration: James Steinberg

Madness filled my inbox. In the summer of 1977, I interned in the Chicago office of Senator Adlai E. Stevenson III. A big part of my job was to handle oddball mail, most of it handwritten. The pathologies of the correspondents varied wildly, but their penmanship fell into a few discernible styles. There was the severely slanted cursive that seemed to slice the pages, for example, and the wide loop-de-loop script that rolled along with little spacing or punctuation. Many of the letters went on for many pages, soaked with suspicion. I read pleas from constituents whose evidence of poison plots against them was that their bath water came out brown or their hamburgers burbled with toxic gray globules. Could the senator please investigate?

The senator did his best, encouraging his office staffers to answer every writer at least once. Most of us were do-gooders attracted to Stevenson’s intellect, his heart, and his family’s public virtue. Larry Hansen, the aide in charge, had built toilets in Peru and joined the freedom riders in Mississippi. He’s the one who’d offered me the internship after I’d interviewed him for an “underground” paper I ran in high school. I’d shown him some pages, and he said he liked their spirit. He also liked that I was heading to Princeton in the fall. I waited a year to take Hansen up on his offer, and on the first day of my first summer break from college, I was given a desk and a load of correspondence. I kept the letters that intrigued me.

One I saved came from a constituent I’ll call Audrey. It was a confused yet oddly clinical jumble of decades-old dates, doctors’ names, and rantings about local medical institutions. It had been scrawled on letter-size sheets that appeared to have been torn from a roll of butcher paper. The handwriting looked shaky, the product of a city bus ride or a tremorous hand. I read a few lines, then turned in my chair and read some of it out loud to my colleagues, assuming the vacant affect I imagined the writer possessed. As I recited it, my little audience laughed, not altogether heartlessly. That people imagined the senator could right any wrong was funny, but our impotence was the real joke.

A few weeks later, I arrived at work to find a woman with woolly gray hair and wrecked clothes fidgeting in the office’s small, drab lobby. I nodded at her as I walked to my desk. She wanted to talk to a staffer, but everyone stayed away, so she just sat there, watching our activity with a lost smile. After a couple of hours, I asked a senior colleague if I could bring her back to my desk. “Yes, please,” came the answer. It was my first direct encounter with a constituent.

The woman told me that she had written the senator and received no reply. Then she remarked that I looked too young to work in such an office. I was an intern, I told her. She wanted to know where I went to school. Her hands trembled, and I asked if she was nervous. She nodded and said she had a big story to tell.

As she spoke, I made a show of taking notes. The woman described how decades earlier she and other patients had been kidnapped from a mental hospital and transferred against their will to labs at the University of Chicago Hospitals. There, she said, orderlies tied them down and doctors forced drugs on them, and she and others had organs removed. She said that some of the university’s top scientists conducted experiments on her. The details rang a bell. Suddenly I realized the story she was telling was the same one I’d mockingly read out loud in the office. This was Audrey.

Her tale lurched toward its conclusion: The procedures, she said, left her damaged and confused, unable to keep a job or have a normal life. She was in and out of institutions and continued to be pursued by the team that worked on her. The experiments and their wrongs needed to be exposed.

Senator Stevenson, I told her, would get a report and we’d see what could be done. Cheered, she thanked me and said that I was the first person who’d taken the time to listen.

“That was nice, asking her if she was nervous,” said one of the staffers after Audrey had left. I dug up her letter and reread it. I had the creepy thought that the heavy white paper was perhaps not from a butcher’s shop but from a doctor’s exam table. That encounter with Audrey chilled my fascination with weird letters and their troubled writers. It was too close for comfort. My notes from the meeting read nearly as mad. My pad went into a drawer. Audrey’s account, I was certain, was delusional. I never filed a report.

A few months later, in the fall, a stamped envelope was hand-delivered to my dorm room. It was addressed simply to “Ted Fishman, Princeton University, New Jersey,” with no street address or ZIP code. Somehow the postman had found me. Inside was a letter in a familiar hand: “For information about my recent brainwashing experience,” it began, then gave the name of a sergeant in the Chicago Police Department. Audrey had tracked me down. Did she think I was her only hope? I was impressed, and slightly unsettled, by her tenacity. I threw her letter in the trash. It made an entertaining story in the dining hall that night.

About a year later, my junior year, I was killing time in the library, at a favorite table where the world’s better newspapers appeared each day. A headline deep in the Washington Post caught my eye: “Mentally Ill Used in Cancer Surgery, Chicago Suit Says.” The article detailed the charges: “Some mentally ill patients in Illinois were subjected involuntarily to experimental cancer surgery in the 1950s and 1960s.” I read on. The Cook County public guardian’s office had uncovered a program that delivered patient-inmates from the now-shuttered Manteno State Hospital to the university without their consent and subjected them to experiments involving drugs and, in some cases, the removal of their hormone-producing adrenal glands. “What the hell!” I whisper-shouted, and dashed out of the library, jolted by a sense of guilt and dread.

I followed the story over the next year. Audrey had gotten some of the details wrong. A lawsuit brought against the Illinois Department of Mental Health and the University of Chicago by the public guardian described the procedures as cancer research, not brain experiments. But the medical literature I dug up on adrenalectomies said that the procedure can lead to psychosis, depression, mania, and a variety of cognitive impairments. It wasn’t hard to understand why Audrey might have thought it was a brain experiment.

The University of Chicago pushed back hard against the lawsuit, claiming, albeit without providing documentation to the court, that its researchers had not experimented on Manteno inmates and had performed operations only after gaining the consent of the inmates or their families. Still, the university ultimately agreed to dozens of reforms in its practices, and the Cook County public guardian dropped the complaint, saying the agreement satisfied the goal of better treatment for patients.

When Audrey had come to the senator’s office, I’d applauded myself for giving her a hearing. And yet in reality, I’d failed her. She’d placed the truth in my hands, and I’d tossed it in a drawer.