The Montauk Project

Now that “The Dark Files” has aired, I thought I’d share some of my thinking about the Montauk Project, a conspiracy of seemingly endless strange claims.

As a quick primer for those who might just be stumbling into this subject, the Montauk conspiracy is one of the more elaborate tales in the entire field of paranormal and conspiracy-oriented thinking, involving allegations that a military base at the tip of Long Island, N.Y., housed secret efforts to create an army of up to 1 million “super soldiers.” These people, now known as “Montauk boys” (and also some “Montauk girls”), were allegedly victims of government mind control experiments. These soldiers would exist as a secret government military force, ready to be deployed wherever and whenever they’re needed, even off-planet or in different time periods. The story balloons from there, encompassing wormholes that allow for interplanetary journeys and even a time travel machine. Reptilian aliens make an appearance. And so does a Bigfoot-like creature created by pure thought.

The story gets so big, in fact, that its believers invoke it to resolve numerous mysteries. Montauk is one of a number of areas on Long Island associated with cancer clusters. This spike in cancer cases sometimes comes up among the Montauk project’s adherents, who look to the ominous radar tower, on the old military base, or experiments going on underground, as the possible culprit. There have been numerous stories about increased cancer rates throughout Long Island. The concern is not restricted to Montauk and possible causes vary depending on the source, including toxic landfills, utilities, gas additives in the well water and outdoor pollutants associated with industry. In fact, Suffolk County, where Montauk is located, has failed the American Lung Association’s air quality test. Suffolk is afflicted by a high level of pollution, much of it generated by man made industry and natural weather patterns. Coal-burning plants and other sources in the Midwest follow the Jet Stream and wind patterns push pollution into the area, reads one report.

In short, it seems grossly unlikely—a nonstarter—that any secret government program is to blame when well-known sources of pollution and the Jet Stream provide sufficient explanation.

The Montauk Project is also blamed for creating dramatic events in which deer scatter and run into town—scared, presumably, by something emanating from or happening at the old military base. Locals laugh this off, ascribing this often retold tale mostly to a single incident: A deer lost its footing while running through town, slid into a closed tavern door, righted itself and galloped off. I stayed in Montauk for about two weeks (I highly recommend Shagwong tavern; try the braised short rib). The place is famously thick with deer, which are so accustomed to living in the small town that at dusk they stroll along the streets, like vacationing families heading out to dinner. I would be more surprised, frankly, if none of these deer ever ended up downtown.

Believers in the Montauk Project raise further questions about security at the base, which has now been converted into a park. From my point of view, however, restrictions preventing trips underground or walks through hazardous areas reflect typical bureaucratic concerns about liability. Shots of the base’s old radar tower are dramatic, revealing panels missing from the big heavy dish—panels that weigh hundreds of pounds. Putting up a fence, lest people get killed, strikes me as a necessary safety precaution. And the presence of a work crew as seen in “The Dark Files,” operating complicated ground penetrating radar systems, further suggests a bureaucracy with lax security and nothing to hide.

I realize that up to now I am dealing with the small claims, but I am starting here because in some respects they represent the most immediately accessible aspects of the alleged Montauk conspiracy. As far as I know, we cannot travel back in time to see the alleged mind control experiment in action, so any residual weirdness might at least provide some scintilla of evidence that something there is out of the ordinary. Near as I could see, however, nothing was.

How was the talk of a Montauk conspiracy spawned? The short answer is that Preston Nichols started all of this, decades ago. As the legend goes, he was a technical expert on the project, but his mind had been scrubbed of any recall. Then he became part of a small group of people who started regaining memories of the experiments.  They first held gatherings to discuss their memories. Then Nichols wrote a book. Today, he looms as the story’s foundation: Want to get to square one? He’s it.

I wouldn’t want to hold anything he says right now against him, given his haggard state, but I still think we can investigate the man as he was many years ago, when his book first came out.

In his book, Nichols included electrical engineering diagrams. But I had a couple of electrical engineers look them over and neither thought the diagrams displayed any meaningful competency. I invite any believers, skeptics or strictly neutral parties with an interest in the Project to submit the drawings to still-more electrical engineers. Perhaps my guys are wrong. But my own sense is that this story started with Nichols and never gets off the ground. It is up to the people making a claim to present evidence, after all, and the entire foundation of the Montauk tale just crumbles.

Both Nichols and the Montauk story, I’d suggest, are also undermined by Stewart Swerdlow. A self-proclaimed “hyperspace intuitive,” Swerdlow claims to be one of the many thousands, if not cool million, subjected to the super soldier program. He also has a past conviction for bank fraud, in which he pleaded guilty to an embezzlement scheme. Swerdlow has since claimed the plea was coerced: The government wanted to discourage him from sharing his memories of Montauk. And of course, the presence of one opportunist doesn’t undermine the entire story. But Swerdlow was accepted as a “Montauk boy” long ago by Nichols, which strikes me as another blow to a tale that already can’t survive scrutiny.

Of course, believers will object to my analysis. And there is a danger that even discussing the Montauk Project can trigger some “backlash effect”: Sometimes, merely presenting conflicting evidence causes believers to cling to a false story more strongly.

I could go on. But I want to go big picture for a second. I am identified in the show as a skeptic, which isn’t a definition I’d reject. However, I’ve been a big critic of organized skepticism, primarily because I think it’s often too strident, condescending and dogmatic for its own good. I bring this up because I didn’t approach this as a debunking exercise. In my own head, I kept thinking, Well, can I find evidence that anything truly weird ever happened here? Can I find any evidence to indicate some facet, any facet, of the Montauk Project is real? But every time I interacted with this story, it seemed to fall apart like wet tissue paper in my hands.

There’s a particular moment in the show that captures the fragile nature of the whole tale, in which Brian Minnick—who often explored the abandoned military site as a teen—talks about some old food receipts he found there. The receipts supposedly dated from the time after the facility was closed, but he threw them away. “I’m really sorry,” he says.

“I’m sorry, too,” I reply. The thrown away receipts, in fact, matched my whole experience: Is there any evidence of any weirdness out there? Forget reptilian aliens. Forget time travel. Is there even… an unexplained grocery bill?

The short answer is, no.

The show does end with the discovery of some unidentified structures or anomalies beneath the ground, which might be consistent with a fuel storage tank or could represent… something else. I find that discovery interesting, but it doesn’t even begin to confirm the Montauk Project: It’s one thing to find a structure underground, after all, and quite another to discover what happened there.

I wanted a chance to do journalism on a subject—conspiracy theories—at the center of our national conversation. The topic of conspiracy theories, and the paranormal, for that matter, is in desperate need of smart coverage. And even a conspiracy theory like Montauk could provide a kind of jumping off point: I think it’s particularly important to explore why people might believe so outrageous a story in the first place. I’m also on the record, in past work, arguing that the stories we keep on the margins—the stories we usually push to the fringe—are worthy of and require serious exploration. And today, I remain confident, we still need that sort of investigation.


The Dad Files: Beautiful Dreamer

The other evening I walked upstairs to find one of my sons, Eli, playing quietly on the carpet in his bedroom. He glanced at me, blue eyes regarding me coolly, then turned back to his toys. Eli builds, habitually, utilizing Legos, blankets, stuffed animals, stickers, loose paper, tape, clothes and Magna-Tiles in single structures and vast multi-media tableaus. He once built a “Halloween party,” in which he incorporated a toy silver pot, a broom, three cardboard boxes and a grilled tomato. As an addition to the party, he built an adjacent “baby squirrel nest” using an easel, a box of raisins and his favorite blanket.

Sometimes, when the projects are big and incorporate large pieces of furniture, he asks us to leave it up overnight because he wants to see it again, and work on it some more, in the morning. The request triggers a slight tremor in his voice, conveying his hope we will say yes, his fear we will say no and his overwhelming desire to see what he created survive. We say yes, always, and my heart breaks a little because I do not know for certain what is happening in his young and developing mind but I know it is beautiful and I love him so fiercely that I fear for myself—fear I will simply gut anyone who ever stands between him and his dreams.

The other night, he kept his building project very simple. He arrayed a big panel of large Magna-Tiles—semi-transparent, colored magnetic squares—on the floor in front of him. He rearranged them in varying patterns and looked utterly content, just seeing which order pleased him most.

Strangely, this was a problem of sorts. I love Eli’s solitary excursions, and as a writer I relate to them. But my wife Lisa and me recently decided that we needed to recommit to spending more dedicated time focusing on each of our boys. We both work full-time jobs, and settling into play or interact with the boys on a daily basis, without distraction, requires serious commitment. The boys had reminded us, indirectly—by virtue of increased defiance, delay tactics that turned brushing their teeth into a 10-minute drama, and shrieking in tones consistent with having their entrails pulled out—that we had been slacking. For a little while, we actually felt upset with them, till we got a little sleep and remembered the problem was us.

We get that sometimes kids just need to test their boundaries. But habitual misbehavior is a kind of political statement: As citizens of the tiny township of Volk, they were trying to tell us that they were disillusioned with our leadership, and upon reflection we had to agree. They wanted and needed more attention. And so I had come upstairs to give Eli some of the alone time with dad he seemed to be craving. “Do you want to play with daddy?” I asked, “Or keep doing what you’re doing?”

“Just stay with me,” he said.

So I did, curling up behind him on the floor and watching while he played. I wasn’t sure, initially, if this would count as quality time. Shouldn’t we be wrestling or something? Then he inched back toward me a little. Maybe it was my imagination, but I believed I could feel him taking pleasure in my being there.

Of course, we—mom and dad—feel like dopes. We’re aware of the research on how much kids need undivided attention from mom and dad—blocks of time in which we are not simultaneously cooking, cleaning, working, or use our cell phones. But our summer was so busy, particularly around vacations, that we slipped and became too task-oriented. A bad week like that, of washing the dishes before sitting down with my kids, had become a month in which I hadn’t spent much time purely focused on them at all.

All of this was on my mind as I sat on the carpet. I watched Eli build—he was particularly engrossed with determining if he should intersperse the orange and yellow tiles or separate them—and found myself reaching out, absent-mindedly, to touch him. I casually tousled his hair. I lightly scratched his arms as he played. I reached over, rested my hand on his shoulder, and gave an occasional squeeze.

“Sorry,” I said. “I can’t help but want to snuggle you a little.”

“I don’t mind that,” he said, without looking at me.

We spent about 15 minutes like this—him playing, me watching and offering small gestures of affection—in almost complete silence. Looking back on the previous couple of weeks, I felt like I’d been away for a while, only to return home find him waiting for me.

That night, he donned the backpack he just received in preparation for kindergarten right over his pajama top. Then he climbed into bed and dropped right off to sleep. He looked so peaceful when I kissed him before leaving that I lingered over him for a moment, believing I saw both the beautiful face—and the satisfied mind—of a boy who had just built a fabulous new creation and taught his daddy a lesson, too.

Mutt and Jeff Take Chicago

Kübler-Ross at play.

One of the earliest posts from my old site.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross ran counter to people’s expectations in most ways. She rolled right over her father’s objections and got a university education when he wanted her to become his secretary. She insisted on pursuing a career in medicine at a time when women rarely entered the profession. She treated the mentally ill with dignity and respect, bent on returning them to a normal life, at a time when the dominant thinking was simply to warehouse them, like dogs in a kennel. Most famously, of course, she stalked the hallways of a Chicago hospital, chronicling westernized society’s shoddy treatment of the terminally ill.

The only time I am aware of that the little Swiss pirate bowed to popular convention is when she decided not to publish any material on Near Death Experiences in On Death and Dying. I write about that decision at length in Fringe-ology. But Kübler-Ross’s story goes much deeper than space permitted me to explore in my book. So here’s one of the funnier, more telling anecdotes I didn’t have the opportunity to include—one that speaks to the depth of her friendship with a particularly important person in that chapter, The Reverend Mwalimu Imara.

Kübler-Ross and Imara were allies in the 60s, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, at the University of Chicago Hospital. The administration believed Kübler-Ross needed a kind of symbolic bodyguard—a sidekick appointed by the hospital to indicate that she was not alone. When I spoke to him, Imara delighted in recalling what an unlikely pair they were: He was tall and black; she was a tiny, Swiss-born white woman with a thick accent. He was a Reverend; she rejected organized religion.

“We were a Mutt and Jeff team,” he says.

Over time, their friendship leant them the strength to buck standard hospital practices. Rather than ignore the terminally ill, they focused on them. Rather than discouraging conversation with the dying, they sought it out. And looking back, the revolution they fomented inside the hospital’s walls mirrored the cultural forces bringing a whole new day to America on the streets outside.

For her part, Kübler-Ross found all these cultural concerns decidedly unhelpful. And as Imara remembers it, she seemed entirely disinterested in whatever cultural taboos they were breaking—either in their friendship, or on the hospital wards. He didn’t feel that he could be so cavalier about the questions their friendship raised. But he did know he could trust Kübler-Ross. He could relate to her in a way he simply couldn’t afford to relate to most other white people. And so Kübler-Ross also broke taboos that existed for him.

For instance, in quiet moments, when they were relaxing after a day spent ministering to the needs of dying patients, Kübler-Ross sometimes asked Imara to sing. Imara still retains a deep, resonant baritone. And in his younger days, he boasted a fine singing voice. But Kübler-Ross didn’t ask for just any song. She asked Imara to sing “Ol’ Man River.”

To this day, of course. “Ol’ Man River” raises up some powerful ghosts from this country’s past. “Ol’ Man River” is Al Jolson in black face. Minstrel shows. Racism institutionalized as “entertainment.” In the 60s, “Ol’ Man River” spoke of a country that had yet to award African-Americans the right to vote.

“If anyone else, any other white person had asked me to do this,” Imara told me, “I would have taken offense. But I knew Elisabeth. And so I knew there was no ulterior motive for her.”

In short, Kübler-Ross asked Imara to sing “Ol Man River” because the rigors of ministering to the dying left her in need of some solace by the end of the day; because she thought Imara had a good singing voice; and because she liked the song.

So how did Imara handle this odd request?

“I sang it,” he said. “I sang ‘Ol Man River’.”

There was a real, familial love between Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and Imara. And now that there is a movie about her life in the works, I hope, very much, that it will capture that bond for everyone to see.