I don’t want this to sound like ‘poor me,’ but there is something I want to tell you. I am an alcoholic. I would not have become an alcoholic if Frank Olson had lived.” Alice Olson, a handsome, articulate woman of 59, sat in the living room of her home near Frederick, Md. and talked about the 22 years since her husband, Frank Olson, plunged to his death from a 10th-floor New York hotel room.
Olson, 43, a civilian biochemist, had been working with the Army on a top-secret project for the CIA. The release of the Rockefeller report on the CIA led to the shocking and belated discovery by the Olson family that he had committed suicide after CIA agents had given him LSD, without his knowledge or permission, as part of a drug-testing program.
Ironically, it was Frank Olson’s old boss, former Army Col. Vincent Ruwet, who confirmed the revelations to one of the Olson children. Ruwet, who was one of four other scientists also given LSD by the agency, had remained a close friend of the family since Olson’s suicide. “After Frank died,” Mrs. Olson says, “Colonel Ruwet used to come up here and talk to me. He made a point of dropping in at dinner time because he knew that’s when husbands come home. The Ruwets always included me in their activities. When they moved away, we kept track of each other. Since this was revealed, I haven’t heard from him, although I have talked with Hazel, his wife. It is a difficult situation. I hope it clears up.” Mrs. Olson is remarkably free of bitterness that her old friend concealed the truth from her for more than two decades.
As a widow at 38, Alice Olson agonized over her husband’s mysterious death and coped with the problems of being both mother and father to her three young children. She took them camping and on hikes. “I tried to attend every event. It was extremely difficult. I was afraid the fact that their father killed himself would leave a stigma.”
The family all had vague feelings of guilt. “We all wondered if we were responsible for his suicide,” remembers Lisa, 29. All through her childhood, she tried to hide the details of her father’s death: “I’d say he died in an accident.” Mrs. Olson recalls the pang she felt when the suit she had packed for Frank’s last journey was returned from New York, minus a button. “I thought, ‘Oh God, did I send him off with a button missing from his coat?’ ”
Eric, 30, the oldest son, feels that the tragedy affected his own career. He teaches at Yale and is a graduate student in clinical psychology at Harvard and the co-author of two books, Explanations in Psychohistory and Living and Dying. In the family copy of the latter book, he has written an inscription: “For Mom, who knows well that in a dark time, the eye begins to see.” The youngest child, Nils, 26, a dentistry student at the University of Maryland, was only 5 when his father died, but not too young to share the family’s anguish.
Two years after Frank’s death, Alice Olson went to work as a home economics teacher at Frederick High School. Her earnings enabled her to send her children to good colleges, but the job also exacted a terrible toll. “On paper teaching is a perfect job, but I found it extremely draining,” she says. “When I began working I cut myself off from my friends. It is an oversimplification, but you can’t understand the loneliness and the need for adult conversation.” To compensate, she began to drink heavily. “When you are tired, a drink gives you a lot of immediate energy. Somehow it’s easier to get dinner on the table.”
As each child left home, she felt lonelier and less needed, and drifted deeper into alcoholism. In 1968 she quit her teaching job, and in 1971—after 20 hospitalizations—her health had deteriorated to where she was “virtually nonfunctional.” The children put her in a rehabilitation clinic and began family therapy. “The therapist wasn’t only treating a sick alcoholic,” Mrs. Olson says, “but a sick family. Before that, one of the stumbling blocks was that the therapist would zero in on the suicide, not the incredible loneliness.” The new therapy worked. Alice Olson has not had a drink in four years and is now a full-time, paid counselor at the Frederick County Alcoholism Clinic. “These four years have been the best I’ve ever had,” she says, beaming at her children. “I mean, since Frank died.”
In learning the true circumstances of her husband’s death, Mrs. Olson says, “I felt a degree of relief, followed by an enormous, overwhelming sorrow. It was as if I was living the whole thing over again. I broke out in a rash.” The children’s reaction was mixed with rage, and together the family decided they had to bring suit against the CIA. “We’re not suing because we’re impoverished,” says Eric. “We’re suing because we hope to get all the information surrounding my father’s death. We want the CIA to be publicly and punitively accountable for its actions. They owe us damages, and in this society that’s the way they pay.”
“Money can’t bring back 22 years,” adds Alice Olson quietly.