Much of the footage in this video looks like it comes from a security camera because it kind of does. It’s from a camera fixed to the wall of a treatment room, part of a routine medical setup. At the start of the video, you see a man adjusting the camera angle. The footage was supposed to be checked by professional monitors, who, if they saw it, might have asked some obvious questions: Why is this woman screaming? What are they doing in bed? Why is he using that soft doctor voice to tell her to spread her legs?
The woman seems physically pliant and helpless in the video because she’s on a psychoactive drug: MDMA, better known by its party names ecstasy or molly. The other two people are a therapist couple, though the man, it turns out, is not a licensed therapist. They are doing something that would have seemed outlandish only 20 years ago: testing psychedelics as an actual medicine, in this case a treatment for trauma. Not under a tent in Burning Man, but in an official clinical trial designed to get FDA approval.
The trials are run by a group called MAPS — the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies — which has been driving research on psychedelics for decades. Off-screen are a lot of powerful interested forces hoping these trials show results: new companies already worth billions opening treatment clinics around the country, schools training psychedelic guides, a whole movement invested in the potential of psychedelics. These trials have already moved on to phase three, the last stop before legalization. This video doesn’t help that cause.
Maybe your friends have started pulling out bags of mushrooms at parties or your super-depressed friend is trying ketamine therapy. I live in square Washington, D.C., and a month ago, my real-estate agent offered me mushrooms as a signing gift. Once Michael Pollan approved them, mushrooms graduated to the refined company of yoga and meditation, a stop on the thinking man’s journey to wellness. It’s as if 50 years after exiling Timothy Leary, the culture decided, Go ahead, these things are as anodyne as a sound bath.
If you’ve ever seen pictures of “psychedelic therapy,” they generally show a peaceful, formal arrangement: a few people, a couch, a blindfold, maybe a handhold. That tableau doesn’t do justice to the drug’s actual power. People like psychedelics because they break down your ego boundaries, a fixed sense you have of yourself as separate from others. (For more on that, listen to episode one of our podcast Cover Story: Power Trip.) This can lead to new insights and revelations, but it can also present problems for consent because it’s often another person — a guide or maybe a therapist — breaking you down. Some experienced guides in the psychedelic movement like to say that boundary violations are in service to growth. But there are others who think of boundary violations as in service to assault.
The young woman in the video posted here is Meaghan Buisson, and she’s not at all usually pliant or helpless. In her 20s, she was a champion in-line speed skater and broke a world record. Now, at 42, she lives in Canada with a dog and a closet full of hiking gear and works as a wilderness guide. She’s the one who got the clinical trial footage and gave it to us.
When it was taken, in 2015, Buisson was at her most vulnerable. A history of sexual assaults was catching up with her, and skating was no longer keeping the trauma at bay. (For a fuller version of her story, listen to episode six of Cover Story). By that point, she could no longer bear to be in the same room as another person, and traditional therapy wasn’t helping. The phase-two MAPS trials had been advertised specifically to people with treatment-resistant PTSD, so as she put it, “I kicked the door down” to get into one.
The room is a basement, just big enough for a bed and a couple of armchairs. Buisson remembered a beautiful stained-glass window just above the bed. The therapists, Richard Yensen and Donna Dryer, guide Buisson through three long sessions with follow-ups in between. They give her the drugs and, as she recalls, coax her to relive her sexual assaults. They ask her to spread her legs, and at several points, they lie on top of her and pin her down, sometimes holding her wrists. The two then comfort Buisson by stroking her face and climbing into bed with her. There are periods in the video when Yensen is in constant physical contact with her. One of the more arresting scenes is when Buisson turns her body away from him and he backs off, holding up two hands in retreat. It’s hard not to see the tiniest bit of annoyance, maybe even peevishness, in the gesture.
In the podcast, we covered several problems we discovered with the MAPS clinical trials (that’s episode seven), and one of them is what we called the “black box of therapy.” As Buisson says in the video, this is uncharted terrain. Psychedelic-assisted therapy has mostly been practiced by underground practitioners, so these clinical trials leave a lot of room for improvisation. Yensen, for example, was a student of Salvador Roquet, a Mexican psychiatrist known for, among other things, torturing student dissidents (that’s episode four).
On paper, Buisson was marked as one of the clinical trial’s success stories, but in life, she felt worse than ever. She felt as if some boundaries had been crossed in those trials but wasn’t sure what they were. She couldn’t remember much. She was concerned enough that she sought out the videos but for the longest time didn’t watch them. In fact, as I’m writing this, Buisson still hasn’t seen some of those images — of Yensen stroking her face, spooning her in bed. She’s only had them described to her by Cover Story reporters David Nickles and Lily Kay Ross.
Buisson knew something went wrong because of what happened after the trial. When her three sessions were over, she felt desperate — more specifically, desperately dependent on her therapists. She’s not alone. Another clinical-trial participant told us that, at the end of her trial, she felt “like someone did open-heart surgery, and they tore open my chest, and they repaired the little damage in the heart there, but then everyone just walked away from the table, and my chest was still wide open.” (She, too, was marked as a success.)
To repair the rest of the damage, Buisson moved to a small island where Yensen and Dryer lived and continued to do therapy with them. During that time, Yensen started what he called a consensual “intimate and sexual relationship” with her. Buisson later reported him to various authorities, including the police, for sexual assault and therapy abuse. You could say getting the videos were part of her search for the origin point. How did a champion speed skater end up feeling trapped on an island, the subject of a twisted form of what she recalls him telling her was “exposure therapy”?
During the time we’ve been airing the podcast, a few people have asked us, “Why so many negative stories?” This is an absolutely legitimate question, but there is an easy answer to it. The overwhelming coverage about psychedelic therapy — in the New York Times, in Nature, on Tim Ferris’s podcast — ranges from positive to glowing. I can’t recall a time when such a radical psychological experiment has gotten so little scrutiny.
I get it. It’s been a shitty couple of years, and everyone has been spending way too much time with their own minds. We need relief. Plus it’s a grand inside joke that we suddenly get to do mind-altering drugs and call it wellness. But also it makes me angry because the drugs aren’t being tested on the Pollans and the Ferrises of the world. They’re being tested on suicidal veterans and a whole bunch of women who are victims of assault.
If you think about it, Buisson was in the safest possible setup: a clinical trial with a camera rolling. Buisson reported to MAPS what happened on the island and asked them for the trial footage. The organization gave us more than five conflicting answers about who had watched the videos and when. MAPS said it couldn’t talk about what had happened because now, more than five years after those videos were made, it’s doing a compliance review. It drafted a statement saying, “Though the review is ongoing, MAPS has determined that Yensen and Dryer did not follow MAPS therapeutic protocol on several occasions during the sessions.” It also put out a statement saying, “Monitoring of study records throughout the course of the trial and afterwards did not indicate signs of ethical violation.”
We caught up with Buisson last week. She’d never really wavered about talking to us and going public, but now that we were reaching the end of the podcast, she was wondering if people were hearing her. “I didn’t think it was going to be this hard and this long and this awful,” she said. “I’m not sleeping because every single night I just think that it’s not going to make a difference. I don’t know. I’m sorry. I’m tired.”
We debated a lot about whether to show this footage. Buisson waited months before sharing it. A person who lives at the edge of the woods doesn’t really want to put out a video in which the entire world can see her at her most vulnerable and helpless. But she said, “I think that putting a face and a name to what is unimaginably horrific makes it harder for people to forget it, makes it harder for people to ignore it.” For five years, she couldn’t get any authorities to even begin to take it seriously. And she really didn’t want anyone after her to walk into that black box of therapy blind. So we’re showing the video mostly because Buisson asked us to.