“The purpose of this program was to conduct inhumane and really horrific medical experiments on unconsenting victims for the purpose of mind control. They wanted to create the perfect spies and assassins. It was coming straight from the records of the concentration camps.” Author Sharon Cameron discusses her book Bluebird with host J.T. Ellison on NPT’s A Word on Words.
J.T. Ellison: Welcome to A Word on Words.
Sharon Cameron: Thank you. I am so thrilled to be here, you don’t even know.
Ellison: You mentioned that you’ve actually watched the show for a very long time.
Cameron: I grew up watching A Word on Words with John Seigenthaler, so this is a little bit of a dream come true.
Ellison: That just makes this even more special.
Ellison: So I hear tell that when you were growing up, you had a crush on Thomas Jefferson?
Cameron: This is ridiculous and very true. When I was six years old, I had an illustrated biography of Thomas Jefferson, and I had the biggest crush on him. And then my grandparents… Because I should say it was the Bicentennial, and in our family, we did the Bicentennial intensely and hard. And so my grandparents took me on a trip through New England, and we went to all the major iconic places from American history. And we were going to go to Monticello, and I was more ridiculously excited than any six-year-old should ever be to go to Monticello. And we got there and it was closed.
Cameron: Which was devastating. And I cried because I wasn’t going to Thomas Jefferson’s house. And my grandfather told my grandmother to just stay in the car, he was going to lift me up and let me look over the fence. What he did is popped me over the fence, and we ran all over Monticello. It was my first crime, and one of the best days of my life.
Ellison: Your first crime. There have been more?
Cameron: Oh, we don’t want to talk about that.
Ellison: Oh, okay. You could tell me, but then you’d have to kill me.
Ellison: I get it. I totally get it. So, Bluebird is an absolutely amazing book.
Cameron: Thank you.
Ellison: It’s been described as a very important book, as well, and it’s based on a true story. Can you tell us a little bit about the story?
Cameron: Yes, it’s really based on two pieces of forgotten American history. And the first is Powell House, which was a multi-religious, multi-racial, program being run by Quaker volunteers from an exclusive mansion in New York City. And they created this program to provide practical help, friendship, and unconditional love to refugees of war. And it’s one of the most amazing things I think we’ve ever done in our country, and nobody remembers that it ever even happened.
And the second piece of forgotten history is Project Bluebird. And Project Bluebird was a secret CIA program begun just after the end of World War II. And the purpose of this program was to conduct inhumane, and really horrific medical experiments, on unconsenting victims for the purpose of mind control, which sounds like science fiction and like The Manchurian Candidate. But it was real, and it was something that they believed could happen, and they wanted to create the perfect spies and assassins. Spies and assassins that didn’t know what they were actually doing. And I believe we were hiring Nazi war criminals to do that experimentation, it was coming straight from the records of the concentration camps.
Cameron: So both of these pieces of history shocked me, honestly, and for reasons that could not be more opposite.
Ellison: So did you feel you had a responsibility to tell Eva’s story?
Cameron: Yes. And Eva’s story in particular comes from a lot of oral histories that I researched, really for my last book, for The Light in Hidden Places, which was a World War II book. And I listened to the stories and memories of German teenagers who had grown up in the world of The Third Reich, who knew no other world than Hitler. And what happened to them when Germany was defeated, and they woke up and really realized that they were on the wrong side of history. And it was a profound moment for these teenage girls, and the way this was handled was either to atone, to change, or to deny. And I really wanted to tell the story of change. I think human beings, we have an incredible capacity for change, and I think that’s something we forget in our very polarized world.
Ellison: So what was your inspiration for the story? What was that lightning strike of, “Oh, my gosh. I want to tell this story. I want it to be a novel?”
Cameron: It really started with Powell House, actually. As I was researching Powell House, I was able to meet with the daughter of the program director of Powell House [who] had been there during the war. And also, with one of the volunteers, a 99-year-old Quaker, who sat and told me her stories. And I realized what incredible good had just, very quietly, been done for over a long period of time, and that no one ever even knew about. It spoke so much to me about how we treat people today. It challenged me, actually, to think about how we treat refugees, and how we treat people who are new to our country. And I wanted to shine a light on them, and everything that they had done over the years. The organization that ran Powell House, The American Friends Service Committee, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for their massive global relief efforts, of which Powell House was just a very small part. But I really wanted to shine a light on lives well lived.
Ellison: And they are. They took in everyone.
Ellison: It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter where you were from, it didn’t matter your race, or your creed. You were welcome there.
Cameron: You were welcome. And it was an effort that brought together so many different organizations that we wouldn’t think of working together today. It was the Protestant churches, and the Jewish Women’s Council, and the Catholic charities. It was the Baptist churches of Harlem, where the Powell House ladies would go eat once a week. It was The Urban League, it was the Guggenheim, it was Hunter College. It was so many organizations coming together for the purpose of providing love and help. It was really amazing.
Ellison: That’s a… I think we need a little bit more of that today.
Cameron: I would absolutely agree.
Ellison: So, Project Bluebird.
Ellison: This is really fascinating. And you mention Operation Paperclip, as well.
Cameron: Yeah. So Operation Paperclip is a CIA operation, that I think is a little more known, actually, than Bluebird. But that was the operation that brought Nazi scientists from all areas of science to the United States in order to work for us, and bring their new technologies. And we expunged their records, we removed them from the Nuremberg trials. We cleansed their backgrounds so that they could come and work from us. It’s where we got NASA, it’s where we got our space program, it was where we got so many areas of technology. And so that is something that I think a lot of people know about, and books have been written about recently. Project Bluebird is much more murky, but it involves the same idea of using psychiatrists and medical doctors to try to control people.
Cameron: And as I looked at the documentation for this, which is now available on the CIA’s reading room, and on their website, all of this is available through The Freedom of Information Act. You can go read about Bluebird. I realized just how shocking and inhumane these experiments were, and it really made me understand how nuanced our history is. I think of America, we’re the good guys. We fought against Hitler, we removed Hitler, we liberated the concentration camps. But like in everything, there is nuance in our history, and Bluebird is a shameful part of our history. And I think it’s something that deserves to be talked about and remembered. We shouldn’t sweep that under the rug. Bluebird eventually became Project Artichoke, which eventually became Project MK-Ultra. And that is what eventually came to light, and was really a public shame, and shut down the entire program amid congressional hearings in 1977. But it went for a long time.
Ellison: Two things come to mind. One, the idea of doing something terrible that maybe will benefit the greater good down the road. Which, I mean, that’s really murky in and of itself, that thought process.
Cameron: It’s Nazi-esque, actually.
Ellison: And it’s very disconcerting that we, the good guys, would do something like that.
Ellison: Did they really think that it worked? A, did it work? Do we have spies that can be turned on, and don’t know what’s going on? And did they genuinely believe that we did?
Cameron: The answer to that is, no and yes. No, it didn’t work, thank goodness. That’s not really possible. The whole idea of splitting the human personality and controlling someone hypnotically, they tried it through electrotherapy, they tried it through just with messing with people’s minds. They tried it through many different kinds of drugs–
Ellison: And punishment.
Cameron: –which is where the LSD trials and MK-Ultra come from. But no, it didn’t work. But in 1946, they believed it could. And not only did they believe it could work, they were afraid that the Soviets already knew how to do it. So this was a project fueled by fear. It was the fear of what the Soviet Union could do to us in the beginnings of The Cold War.
Ellison: You clearly have done just an exceptional amount of research.
Cameron: It was a lot.
Ellison: Can you tell us a little bit more about that, and about the FOIA requests, and all of the things that you did to build this book?
Cameron: Yes. So for Project Bluebird, for that end of the research, it was a lot of trying to tease away what I could nail down as fact, and what was conspiracy theory. Because there’s a lot of that floating around the internet, in case you haven’t noticed. So, that was a lot of just teasing out. And I really tried to stick with what was actually in the CIA’s documents, and what I could say, “This is what this memo said, on this date.” So I looked at that, I looked a lot at the medical experimentation of Dr. Ewen Cameron, who is of no relation to me, I’m very happy to say, who was also being funded by the CIA for similar projects. So I tried to stick with as many facts as I possibly could and stay away from what was conspiracy theory.
For Powell House, I stumbled upon a treasure trove. And I know, as an author, you probably know the joy of stumbling across an unknown treasure trove of information. The American Friends Service Committee archives in Philadelphia was a place of magic. And they brought me box, after box, after box. So I was able to read the diaries of the girls who volunteered. I was able to read an unpublished memoir that discussed the beginnings of Powell House. I knew everyone’s salary, and the colors of the wall, and what their taxes were. And every program, every newsletter had been saved, every program description had been saved, photographs. It was absolutely amazing. So Powell House was written with as much accuracy as I think historical fiction allows. Obviously, it could not be there, but every person inside Powell House is based on a real person that was there. And every program, every class, is a real class or program that was available.
Ellison: That’s absolutely amazing. They had a summer place, too.
Cameron: Yes. Yes, Sky Island, in Nyack, New York. And that was actually donated by the same family, the Powells, who donated the mansion on the Upper East Side that they used as their hub. And Sky Island was used as, really, a vacation spot for refugees. Pat Hunt, the 99-year-old Quaker, described to me the purpose of that program. And she said they really had no idea of the kind of trauma that they were dealing with. These were people coming out of concentration camps, coming out of the aftermath of war, and these people were traumatized. And so, in the language of 1946, that meant they needed a rest. And so they would send them up to a beautiful storybook Tudor mansion on the Hudson River, with walks, and woods, and a swimming pool, and let them relax. And people would come and cook for them, and make their beds, and they would just allow them to have a time of quiet. And again, I think we will probably never know how much good was done by the thoughtfulness of some of these programs.
Ellison: That is just remarkable. So you’ve said, “For every injustice committed, there’s a hero who will defy it, whether we ever know that person’s name or not.” That spoke to me on a lot of levels, because I think that’s why historical fiction exists, to pull back the veil on the heroes that we don’t know anything about.
Cameron: Yes, absolutely. And for me, even writing this book, a lot of the research had been done, but the writing happened during lockdown, and during the pandemic. And it was very much a time of fear, and racial unrest that was going on, and all the things that were happening in our country. It felt like such an oppressive time to be writing. And as I was writing, I thought, exactly what you’d read just then. I realized for every Project Bluebird, there is a Powell House, even if we’ve never heard of it, if we’ve never known their names. And that spoke to me, it helped me to remember that there is a balance in our world. And I think we focus so much on the darkness, we forget sometimes that the light is there. I think that is, like you said, that’s the power of story. It shows us something that we have either forgotten, or never knew about our world. And I think it’s interesting when the power of story… Sometimes that story can be yours and it can be just as powerful. It was for me.
Ellison: Well, it’s very easy to look away from the past and pretend that horrors didn’t happen. And that’s how we’re doomed to repeat them.
Cameron: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely.
Ellison: So you’re doing us a service.
Cameron: I hope so.
Ellison: This is an important book for just that reason.
Cameron: I hope so.
Ellison: There’s a continued fascination with World War II.
Ellison: It astounds me. This is a genre, just a little lingo here, it is a genre that just will not quit.
Ellison: There are so many stories to be told. Why do you think we’re still so fascinated by it?
Cameron: It is such a time of evil. The world… When I look at World War II, it feels like the world just inexplicably fell into an evil that we didn’t see coming. And I think that the drama of even the reality, the real drama of how we fell into that, and then pulled ourselves out, that is a real human story. That is always going to find significance in readers’ minds, I think.
Ellison: No, I agree. And evil is also in the mind of the beholder, right?
Ellison: What we see as evil could be a way of life.
Cameron: Exactly. Exactly. Which is exactly what I heard from so many of those German teenagers telling their memories, they had it the other way around. So when your world turns in that way, what does that do to someone? How do you handle that? What do you do, how do you change? And that was really the heart of why I wanted to talk about, not just World War II, but the aftermath of war. What do we do after? And if we find ourselves on the wrong side, how do we change that? And really what I wanted to say, I think, in the story, is that unconditional love, like what these refugees found at Powell House is transformative. Love is transformative, and that is really what I wanted to say in Bluebird.
Ellison: Tell me about New York in this time. It is undergoing some serious upheavals itself. You’ve got jazz clubs, and the Harlem resistance, juxtaposed against the Nuremberg trials. And Eva is experiencing joy for the first time, and acceptance where she doesn’t feel she deserves it, and a huge shift in cultural norms. So, tell us a little bit about that era in New York.
Cameron: I think it is such an interesting time, because we are on the cusp of change, but we’re not there yet. And I think that there are so many interesting parallels in the attitudes of Americans, particularly racially and our racial attitudes, that draw many parallels with the Nazis of Germany. And in fact, many of the medical policies of the Nazis were taken from American medical policies, particularly on what we decided to do with those who were disabled or mentally unwell. A lot of that came from America. So I think there’s a really interesting juxtaposition there between America, what we were trying to become and we weren’t there yet, what the Nazis were, and then the completely different view of the world that the Quakers of Powell House were trying to show.
Like with their integrated art show. That was something that would have never been seen, to have the work of Negro artists displayed side by side with white artists. That didn’t happen at the time. But that was their view of the world, and they were really trying to change hearts. So it was an interesting challenge, actually, to show the nuances of all of these different views through the eyes of one person.
But I have to say, my research into the bebop and jazz world was really a lot of fun, and I enjoyed that a lot. My editor and I have taken a couple of trips together to the Village Vanguard to listen to jazz, because that is something that… It’s an interest we share. And when she read my first draft, she said, “Oh, I feel that night we were in the Vanguard.” And I said, “That is exactly what I wanted you to feel. So I must have done something right.” So, that was a lot of fun, that part.
Ellison: There’s always something that doesn’t make it in the book.
Cameron: Oh, yes.
Ellison: What didn’t make it into this?
Cameron: This time it was more what I could not put into the book. She pretty much kept everything I put in, which is not always the way that works with my editor and I, but it did this time. I’ve had the same editor for all seven of my books, so we have a long history of working together, it’s been a very wonderful relationship. But, I think for me, what I wish I could have put in was all of the refugees’ stories that I came across. Powell House created 22,000 refugee files, most of which are now held in the United States Holocaust Museum. And there’s an archivist there whose mission is to reunite these files with the families of immigrants who came. But I think that if I could have put all of those stories in, I would have, they were amazing. There was novel after novel inside those boxes, and so maybe those are stories I’ll go back to at another time. But even all of the refugees that I wrote, have… Their stories are grounded, or have the seed of their story in one of those files, or the case studies written by the volunteers. I had files and files of case studies.
Ellison: So, I want to talk about the YA genre for a moment. Because there was an argument recently, I’m not going to say where, but I’m sure we can all figure out where that argument was…
Cameron: Oh, we probably know, yes.
Ellison: …That YA isn’t written for young adults, that it is actually written for adults, that young adults don’t read it. And it also is, this is not a light book.
Ellison: There are a lot of very, very serious, scary things that happen. And I’m fascinated by the nuance of books that are meant for children tackle the most difficult subjects.
Cameron: Yes. I think that’s often true. I think for me, I know that Young Adult is considered Children’s because we think of children as through 18. I have a hard time thinking of an intelligent, thinking 16 year old, as a child, so I think that that’s why Young Adult does often find itself crossing over into Adult, and vice versa. I can honestly say that when writing a book, even though all of my books so far have been classified as Young Adult, I’ve never actually considered that classification while I was writing.
I think for whatever reason, I tend to reach for characters who are on the cusp of change in their lives, and that often means an older teenager. That’s when you’re having to make these decisions that set the path of your life. And I often reach for that time when I’m writing, but I’ve never sat down and specifically said, “This is a subject that young adults should hear. This is a subject that only adults should hear.” I don’t think I’ve ever actually done that. I think I really try to focus on humanness, the humanness of the stories, and we all respond to that. I love middle grade.
Ellison: Me too.
Cameron: I love stories. I love adult, I love all of them. I think story is story, no matter who it’s marketed to.
Ellison: No, I agree. I think some of the Adult novels gloss over some of the important things that will help the kids self-actualize, that the Young Adult books have.
Cameron: I think if there’s a difference, maybe between adults and young adults, and this is painting with a very, very broad brush.
Ellison: A broad brush.
Cameron: Which is probably not a good thing to do, but I think Young Adult focuses on story more often than Adult does. And I love issues, I love to understand history. I love a book that makes me think, but I also love a good story. That is what is powerful, and that is what you will remember more than an issue. You will remember what the story made you feel, and when we feel it, that’s when we don’t forget it. And that’s what a good story does, so that’s what I try to write.
Ellison: That’s perfect, because I want to know, you have… I’ve been reading you for a long time, and your work has evolved. You’ve moved through a number of different areas.
Ellison: And now you’re doing the historicals.
Ellison: What do you feel is your thematic link?
Cameron: Time. Time. I am such a history buff, I guess. But I’m certainly not an expert in any one area, but history is where I spend my extra time. It is what I spend so much time thinking about, our connection to the past and what that is. So even when I’m writing Sci-fi, I find that I’m actually doing a lot of historical research, because I want to ground that fantasy in the real stories that have already happened. Because that’s when we can grab a hold of them and understand them, even if we’re kind of spinning them in a slightly different way, there’s that historical grounding that is there.
And I think that is what makes them so relatable to us, because it’s based on real things that have happened to real people. And I want all of my books, actually, to be like that. And I probably can’t help it, it’s probably what they’re going to be, whether I try to make them different or not. I have this yearning inside of me to find the things that have been forgotten. I don’t want people to have been forgotten, I don’t want cultures to have been forgotten, times and places. There is so much in our past that contributes to who we are right now that is a mystery, and that’s very alluring.
Ellison: You were a classical pianist.
Cameron: I was.
Ellison: What was your favorite piece to perform?
Cameron: Oh, my favorite piece to perform was a very simple piece, Prelude in E Minor, by Chopin. And I just think it’s short, and it’s quite simple, but because it’s simple, there is so much story to be told within it. I never would have considered that 23 years as a classical pianist would be such a great background for becoming a writer, but somehow for me, it really was. I spent many years telling story through sound and music, and somehow that translates so well to words for me, it was really, actually, great training.
Ellison: So, when did you set aside the piano and pick up the pen?
Cameron: Well, what happened? It’s history’s fault, again. I became quite obsessed with a little obscure piece of Scottish history. And when I say obsessed, this was in the days pre-internet, so interlibrary loan and I were best friends for a while. So I was having manuscripts sent to me, and old books, and I went to Scotland and I met the descendants of the people that were in the story, because it was so profound to me. And it just meant so much to me, but there had never been a novel written about it. And one fateful day, I had 45 free minutes in my schedule, and I walked past my computer and I said, “Huh, I wonder what would that even be like? What would it be like to write a first chapter about this piece of history?”
And I sat down for 45 minutes, and I’m not even exaggerating when I say, that I got up and I decided to change my life. I let go of every extra thing that I was doing. I kept my husband, my children, and my job. I do recommend you keep those very important elements to your life, but everything else went by the wayside. I started writing every day. I found professional organizations, I found a critique group, I started learning the craft, I learned the business. I just threw myself in headlong, on a whim, really. And it was an enormous left turn in my life, and I can’t imagine what would have happened to me if I hadn’t done that.
Ellison: That’s amazing.
Cameron: I can’t imagine my life without that left turn.
Ellison: Can you tell me very quickly, what’s next?
Cameron: What is next? I am working on another World War II story, actually. This one is about art forgers, and baby smugglers, in Amsterdam.
Ellison: Oh, wow.
Cameron: And it is some fascinating research. I’m really enjoying myself.
Ellison: That is fantastic. Sharon, thank you so much for joining us today.
Cameron: Thank you.
Ellison: Keep reading!
Sharon Cameron Recommends
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert