How an apartheid-era psychiatrist went from torturing gay soldiers in South Africa to sexually abusing patients in Alberta
Inspected from above, there is nothing—just the converging serpents of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers, and a plateau surrounded by endless tracts of veld. In 1970, a military camp was built here, overseen by a psychiatrist who believed firmly in the curative power of pain. In apartheid’s darkest corners, he was known as die Kolonel, his camp was christened Greefswald, and no two terms inspired more dread in the members of the South African Defence Force, themselves experts in the creation and dissemination of terror.
Hundreds of white teenage boys were processed through Greefswald in the 1970s, and its survivors still drift through the country like ghosts. I recently met one, who insisted I refer to him only by his Hebrew name, Itiel. He was born in 1951, he told me, and in his teens succumbed to the Aquarian drug warp. Through a scrim of hallucinogens, he watched the apartheid regime congeal around him. “I was basically psychotic,” he said. “I felt as though I’d come to a strange planet.”
South Africa in the ’60s was the strangest planet. The Sharpeville massacre, in which the regime killed sixty-nine unarmed black protesters, served as the decade’s bloody opening allegro. Black opposition parties were banned, dissenters filled the prisons, and in 1964 Nelson Mandela was sentenced to a life term. Two years later, Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, the so-called architect of apartheid, was stabbed to death by a parliamentary messenger who claimed to take orders from a tapeworm in his stomach. As if serving the same parasite, the government introduced universal conscription in 1967. Almost every white male in his late teens was churned through the SADF’s meat grinder, and if any failed to emerge as “normal,” he was processed again until he did.
Itiel’s conscription papers ordered him to a Pretoria drill hall in January 1971. For a habitual drug user quitting cold turkey, basic training made for a cruel comedown. He committed a near-fatal error: after deciding that he no longer wanted to be in the military, he informed a solicitous officer about his substance abuse. A week or so later, without warning or explanation, he was sent to 1 Military Hospital, or 1 Mil, the SADF’s sprawling medical campus in Pretoria. Within its austere fortifications lurked the psychiatric wards, infamous throughout the army as the loony bin, the nuthouse, the abyss within the abyss. Military psychiatric hospitals were first established to mend minds damaged by war, but only a few of the wards’ inmates had experienced combat. Instead, about half the forty beds were occupied by gays, rock ’n’ rollers, and dope heads—the counterculture’s ragged foot soldiers. “They were most interested in what songs we listened to,” a former patient named Gordon Torr told me. “What they feared most were people who didn’t think the way they did.”
The wards were die Kolonel’s domain. He was everywhere and nowhere, a god but not a benevolent one. It was understood that he subjected homosexuals to shock treatment in order to straighten them out. But there were also whispers of palliative circle-jerk sessions in which the psychiatrist allegedly participated. The showers were often splattered with semen, and the enormous doses of psychotropics only enhanced the wards’ purgatorial edge. “There was just this feeling,” Torr said. “A loss of innocence, suddenly, when you realized there was a dark subculture of sexual perversity.”
When Itiel was summoned for a consultation, he found that die Kolonel was not the bogeyman he expected but a stout thirty-two-year-old with sharp eyes and a waistline so considerable that it had earned him a second, more derisive nickname: Bubbles. The doctor performed a Rorschach test and asked his new patient to fill out several questionnaires. Then die Kolonel—properly known as Aubrey Levin, rank of colonel, SADF psychiatrist principal grade—uttered the words that, by almost any measure, proved to be Itiel’s death sentence.
“To get to the essence of who you are,” he said, “we are going to peel you like an onion.”
Several days later, Itiel was loaded onto a Bedford truck and driven north to Greefswald, near the Zimbabwe and Botswana borders. No one in his family was contacted, and no one outside of a select few in the SADF knew where he was going. He was now a subject in a social experiment led by Levin in his capacity as the military’s head shrink—one of many brutal psychiatric ventures that, over the course of nearly half a century, would destroy innumerable lives on two continents. Four decades later, Levin would be convicted in Calgary for the sexual abuse of three male patients—although there were likely scores of other victims. The newspapers would call him Dr. Shock, a reference to his history of applying non-consensual shock therapy to gay SADF recruits. No one stopped him during apartheid; no one stopped him during South Africa’s transition to democracy in 1994; no one stopped him in Canada until 2010. How did this happen? How was Levin granted a comfortable career in his adoptive home, protected by its medical colleges—all when he had such unambiguous ties to one of the twentieth century’s most loathsome regimes?
These questions would only occur to Itiel much later. In July 1971, rattling around in the back of that Bedford, he was just another link in a chain that would eventually bind him to countless young men in Alberta. All were as vulnerable and broken as he was, and all were victims of an ancient and remarkably persistent trope: the monster disguised in the robes of a healer.
Aubrey levin was born in Johannesburg on December 18, 1938. “The first things you’ve got to understand about Levin are that (a) he’s Jewish and (b) he comes from not just an unusual Jewish family, but one that may have been unique in South Africa,” a forensic psychiatrist named Robert M. Kaplan told me. A South African now based at the University of Wollongong, in Australia, Kaplan has followed Levin’s career for almost two decades. The Levins, he said, were devout right-wing racists, and they existed on the fringes—boxing promoters, tombstone carvers. This made them unsuitable Shabbat table companions, so they looked elsewhere to belong. Although the ruling, largely Afrikaner National Party maintained a clause excluding Jews from membership, the Levins nonetheless managed to graduate from outspoken apartheid apologists to card-carrying nationalists, their prospects for advancement improving as they did so.
Overweight, bookish, and brilliant, Levin graduated from high school at fifteen, and in 1956 he signed up to study medicine at the University of Pretoria on an SADF scholarship. His ambition was relentless. He acted as foreign correspondent for the university newspaper, chaired the university’s Student Jewish Association, vice-chaired the SA Federation of Students’ Jewish and Zionist Associations, and helped run the Coordinating Committee of University Societies. None of these exertions took the edge off his politics. He was known to break up meetings of leftists and communists, hurling chairs and ripping down posters. While blacks came in for plenty of opprobrium, Levin hated nothing more than dope smokers and gays—cohorts he routinely conflated.
By 1966, he was treating patients with acute mental disorders at Johannesburg General Hospital. International watchdogs considered South Africa’s psychiatric institutions dumping grounds for the regime’s black opponents. While this was certainly true in isolated cases, black dissidents were by no means the target demographic. “After 1939,” writes Tiffany Fawn Jones in Psychiatry, Mental Institutions, and the Mad in Apartheid South Africa, “institutions and practitioners focused on the very people that the apartheid government wanted to uplift—poor white men.”
But how to define madness in a country that itself displayed all the symptoms of collective psychosis? Levin devised an answer: no member of white society, regardless of how deviant, was beyond the normalizing power of modern psychiatry. In 1968, he submitted a letter to the secretary of the South African parliament, asking to pitch conservative legislators on a treatment program that would rehabilitate gays and lesbians. “The problem of sexual deviation,” he wrote, “requires re-evaluation; without encouraging an unnatural extention [sic] of this problem, it would be better contained and treated by the doctor (rather than by imprisonment).”
Levin didn’t believe in criminalizing deviancy out of existence. Rather, he believed in medicating it into oblivion. Early in his career, he researched the effects of Lorazepam, Diazepam, Maprotiline—the psychotropic era’s unguided bombs. He was also an enthusiastic proponent of electroshock therapy. His clinical obsession, even more so than homosexuality, was the eradication of marijuana use in the SADF. His doctoral thesis, “An Analysis of the Use of Drugs and Certain Sequelae Thereof with Emphasis on Cannabis sativa in a Sample of Young Men Conscripted for Military Service,” was considered by the head of the South African Medical and Dental Council an “original and important contribution to the psychiatric field of drug addiction.”
In 1967, he married a young university research assistant named Erica, who hailed from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Over the course of Levin’s life, Erica would provide unfailing support, not just as a wife and mother but also as an on-hand typist and dogsbody. At what would prove to be enormous personal risk, she remained in awe of her husband until the very end. Together they raised four children, and if their Judaism held them back from becoming model members of the volk, it barely showed.
Two years after marrying, still enlisted in the SADF and under the supervision of Surgeon General Colin Cockcroft, Levin began to design a program that would implement his earlier recommendations to the government. Along with a number of other doctors who helped the regime medicate difference and pathologize dissent, he now had the full might of the South African military-medical complex behind him. He got to work immediately.
Levin’s primary innovation was the establishment of a treatment pipeline that extended from 1 Mil in Pretoria to Greefswald in the scorching northern bush. The SADF’s wayward boys (and, later, girls) were flagged by commanding officers, chaplains, or medical staff and processed through 1 Mil’s psych wards. There, in a highly insular environment, Levin “fixed” inmates’ sexuality and other deviances with a combination of drugs and electroshock equipment. Those who didn’t fit this treatment profile, or who refused to co-operate, were sent to Greefswald, which die Kolonel began to oversee after Cockcroft installed him at 1 Mil. If his methods were grotesque and unethical, he was the regime’s ranking psychiatrist, so it hardly mattered.
No account lays bare the extent of Levin’s sway more comprehensively than a document called The aVersion Project. Subtitled “Human rights abuses of gays and lesbians in the South African Defence Force by health workers during the apartheid era,” compiled by activists and academics, and published in October 1999, it is a multidisciplinary text that reads like Dostoevsky. The report took its cue from South Africa’s controversial Truth and Reconciliation Commission process. Convened in 1995, the TRC was meant to cauterize apartheid’s suppurating wounds: if the country had any hope of overcoming its past, the reasoning went, then its people needed to hear testimony from both the victims and the perpetrators of the regime’s atrocities. The TRC offered certain perpetrators amnesty in exchange for information. Most of those called to the commission came before their fellow citizens to confess their crimes and cast around in the carnage for forgiveness. Levin was not among them.
One TRC submission, compiled by the Health and Human Rights Project and titled Professional Accountability in South Africa, implicated twenty-four doctors in human-rights abuses, with Levin making the cut for his torture of SADF recruits at 1 Mil. The TRC proved that regime-doctor complicity was coded into apartheid’s operating system, and The aVersion Project was an attempt to challenge this hierarchy. Levin goes unnamed in its pages, because the terms of its funding forced the compilers to refer to him as the “Psychiatrist” or the “Colonel.” But he exists between the lines as its open secret, its Baal.
One of the primary questions posed by the report was whether gay recruits under Levin’s supervision consented to conversion therapy or were forced to comply. Shock treatment was a frequently used and much studied method of “averting” patients from engaging in homosexual behaviour, and although it had fallen out of favour in the United Kingdom and the United States by the 1970s, it was hardly a radical practice. It was, however, behavioural psychiatry at its crudest: show patient image of same-sex nude, apply shock; show patient image of opposite-sex nude, withhold shock; and, lo!—“normalcy” emerges from a chrysalis of pain. Needless to say, there was scant scientific evidence to suggest that the procedure worked.
If, as The aVersion Project asserts, the shock therapy became excessive, or if the patient resisted, there was little to distinguish treatment from torture. According to testimony from seventeen informants, including patients, family members, and health care professionals, refusing the Colonel was not an option. Recruits did not check themselves in voluntarily; instead, they were channelled into the wards by authority figures. One such recruit, identified as Clive, told the researchers how the Colonel had claimed that there was nothing to fear from shock treatment, and that he’d used the procedure himself to cure a “predilection for chocolate bon-bons.” Clive saw things otherwise. “It kind of like twisted the muscle,” he told the researchers. “And then when you kind of reached the maximum point, and then you’d say ‘No, no, no, I couldn’t stand it any more’ then he would say, ‘Now you must think about your girlfriend.’ ” An intern psychologist named Trudie Grobler told the researchers that she once witnessed a lesbian recruit shocked with so much force that her shoes blew off. “I couldn’t believe that her body could survive it all,” Grobler said.
The report included other accusations. “My first experience with the Colonel,” a patient said, “was when he ‘checked’ my penis for hygiene. I thought that was very unsuitable as his examination had little to do with my mental condition.” Levin swamped his patients with medication. Parents were rarely informed. Most recruits cracked; some were broken beyond repair. As one former SADF member told the The aVersion Project’s authors, “A chap in our unit couldn’t come to terms with the military or his homosexuality, and put his rifle to his mouth and shot himself. Two weeks later, his family [was] notified.”
The evidence was overwhelming. The report concluded that inmates “suffered human rights abuses” because they were treated “without proper informed consent. Almost all suffered varying degrees of harm as a consequence of treatment.”
And then there was Greefswald. A 1973 United Press International article reported that it was designed “to group addicts together and expose them to the rigors of a fighting military unit.” But if at 1 Mil Levin abused conventional psychiatric practice, his camp belonged to a long line of twentieth-century institutions that subscribed to a much darker ideal: Arbeit macht frei. Work makes you free.
On arrival, each new boy, or “roofie,” was offered his own bespoke welcome. The corpse of a mutilated wild cat was flung onto Gordon Torr’s lap; Itiel was pulled from the truck by his hair, a knife against his throat. The boys were dropped into the middle of an Africa they had only encountered in storybooks. Cheetahs and leopards loped beneath acacia, baobab, stinkwood, and buffalo thorn. Shadows revealed themselves to be browsing kudu. Every so often, SADF brass would drive up in Jeeps and Mercedes Benzes for some R and R, drunkenly spraying game with machine-gun fire.
The boys were stripped of their identities the moment they stumbled out of the Bedfords. The first things they lost were their names. They became symbols, and then they became nothing. “The deprivation of food, water, incredible stress and strain we were put under,” Itiel told me. “You went through the next threshold, then the next one—then the next one.”
They rarely slept, marching through veld, carrying guns with no ammo. Sometimes they worked eighteen hours a day—cracking rocks, digging ditches, building barracks. Contact with their families was forbidden. Violence from the officers begat violence from the other roofies. Itiel worshipped at a big rock in the middle of the camp, supplicating himself before it as the sun rose. “I went back to primal man,” he explained. “I saw things there of such mystical meaning, things that were reptilian in myself.” There was a term for this in the SADF: Bosbevok. Bushfucked.
Every so often, the wacka-wacka of a chopper would crack the stillness below Greefswald’s plateau, and an SA-330C Puma would disgorge Levin for consultations. When Bubbles arrived, sweating through his khakis, Itiel knew that he and his fellow recruits would be spared hard labour until the doctor returned to Pretoria. In an unbreakable cycle, their tormentor became their saviour became their tormentor. “There are very few people on earth that went through what we went through physically and mentally,” Itiel told me. “It was hell.”
But the secret could not be contained. Although Levin left the camp’s administration in 1974, the death knell was not properly sounded until 1977, when Greefswald’s violence spilled over the Botswana border. Three roofies gang-raped a woman, who was eight months pregnant at the time. The attack occurred within full view of her mother and sparked an international incident so serious that even the apartheid government could not cover it up.
After Levin’s discharge, he transferred to Addington Hospital, in Durban, where he served as principal specialist and head of the department of psychiatry between 1975 and 1981. He then took a university post in Bloemfontein, followed by a quiet stint as a psychiatry professor at Rhodes University, in Grahamstown, treating patients in a reviled institution called Fort England. His notoriety faded along with his influence. “He had this attitude of, Why would you listen to me? I’m just a big fat frog,” a former patient told me.
Nonetheless, like many of his peers, Levin must have known that when apartheid ended, his medical innovations would be recast as his crimes. In 1995, just a year after the inauguration of democracy in South Africa, the doctor and his family evaporated. One day, he was in his rooms at Fort England. The next day, he wasn’t. He left in such a rush, claimed his successor, that he didn’t even clean out his office. South African justice, blinder than most, would never catch a glimpse of him again.
The Levin family moved to Calgary in 1998 and soon settled in a quiet, leafy neighbourhood in the city’s southwest. Aubrey joined the House of Jacob Mikveh Israel synagogue, participating in the familiar rhythms and rituals of Orthodox Judaism, and he became familiar in turn—the obese, devout psychiatrist, an avid reader of non-fiction books and newspapers.
Three years before arriving in Calgary, Levin had moved to Canada and been granted a medical licence based on a dazzling fifteen-page CV he presented to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan. He quickly became chief of psychiatry at the Regional Psychiatric Centre of Saskatoon, a correctional facility. His resumé read like an inversion of The aVersion Project, trumpeting his past as an apartheid-era military psychiatrist, detailing his work with drug users, and quoting proudly the review of his doctoral thesis. The CV made no mention of his conversion program, nor of the camp built near the banks of the Limpopo and Shashe.
Nonetheless, there was more than enough in its pages to give one pause. Had the CPSS investigated Levin more thoroughly, it would have found several black marks on his record after he was discharged in 1974. During his tenure at Durban’s Addington Hospital, two complaints were filed with the registrar of the South African Medical and Dental Council. Both concerned invasive physical examinations that accompanied psychiatric consultations. Even when one of the patients later retracted his complaint, his account was disturbing:
He asked me to take off my shoes, socks, and shirt and lie on the examination table . . . he asked me to pull down my underpants and examined my penis, about which I had complained, he pulled the skin completely back, and then he showed me the redness and the inflammation, asked how it felt. He then took a cream or ointment from a small jar and put it around the inflammation, which aroused me physically, although it was not my intention or Dr. Levine’s [sic] intention to do anything which might have been abnormal. . . .
The doctor’s eleven-page rebuttal dismissed the accusations as an elaborate conspiracy. In what would emerge as a theme throughout Levin’s career, the SAMDC deferred to his power and reputation. “The committee resolved that the explanation of dr [ sic] Levin be noted,” wrote the registrar, “and that no further action be taken.” In an enraged follow-up letter, the other patient’s father described the investigation as “quite astonishingly unsatisfactory.” Nor were all members of the SAMDC as sanguine as the registrar. “I must express in the strongest terms my objections as a member of the Medical Council,” wrote a professor referred to as I. Gordon, “that both cases would seem to have been disposed of.”
Dealing with complaints from psychiatric patients constitutes a nearly impossible balancing act: How does an outside arbiter distinguish a lucid grievance from a delusional invention? But in Levin’s case, a pattern was taking shape. His most dogged critic was Robert M. Kaplan, the forensic psychiatrist based in Australia. Like Levin, he had grown up in the South African Jewish community and trained as a psychiatrist. Unlike Levin, he had developed an obsession with doctors gone bad and written numerous papers and books on the subject. According to Kaplan, Levin’s pro forma licensing by the CPSS was typical when it came to overqualified medical practitioners seeking to flee former conflict zones. “I think Levin got into Canada simply because they were looking for well-trained doctors,” he told me. “There’s always a shortage of psychiatrists, and of course he gave himself a wonderful CV.” The Canadian immigration system leans heavily on professional qualifications and experience—the higher the number of points accorded for the applicant’s skills, the likelier it is that immigration authorities will rubber-stamp a residency permit.
Levin was also becoming an expert at disappearing. In 1997, he had his name wiped from the SAMDC’s register. His last publication was a short essay in a 2004 anthology of psychopharmacology. Referencing only his own work, he wrote an ode to psychotropics called “A Fly on the Wall.” By then, he had reinvented himself as a psychopharmacologist and forensic psychiatrist. “My interest,” he wrote, “has shifted to borderline personality disorder, risk assessment, management and prevention of violent behaviour.” Which meant that, once again, he was given access to an infinite supply of powerless young men—this time in the Canadian correctional system.
If Levin’s licensing by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan can be explained away by provincial naïveté, a desperate need for forensic psychiatrists, and the pre–search engine era, his licensing by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta presents a much more complicated case. By 1998, the TRC submissions were world famous, and Levin was instantly searchable—and his story was soon making headlines internationally.
Around the time The aVersion Project was published, he felt compelled to tell a Guardian reporter that at 1 Mil “nobody was held against his or her will. We did not keep human guinea pigs, like Russian communists; we only had patients who wanted to be cured and were there voluntarily.” Shortly thereafter, an error-riddled and unverifiable article was published in South Africa’s weekly Mail & Guardian, claiming that Levin had forced gender-reassignment surgery on unwilling recruits. (This rumour had been circulating for a long time but was never proven.) The doctor retained Grant Stapon, from the law firm Bennett Jones, who threatened legal action against media outlets that covered the story.
By the mid-2000s, however, the CPSA had received legitimate queries about Levin’s past. In 1998, when the college granted him a licence—which he earned without completing a residency or any further training—a doctor with the TRC’s Health and Human Rights Project sent the college a letter of concern. He received no reply. In 2003, a film called Property of the State: Gay Men in the Apartheid Military was released, featuring an interview with a patient named Michael Smith, who described in detail an electroshock session that Levin oversaw. Kaplan contacted the CPSA, armed with the TRC submissions, The aVersion Project, and his own researched, footnoted work. “I got back pretty much a form letter,” he told me, “and I understood other people in South Africa got the same letter: ‘Dr. Levin didn’t fall into our jurisdiction before he came here, and therefore we have no authority in this.’ I then tried writing the Canadian Medical Association, and I got lost in a mire of bureaucracy.”
The problem is that the medical-college system has a crucial flaw. On the one hand, the CPSA is a self-regulating body empowered by the Health Professions Act to serve “the public by guiding the medical profession.” On the other hand, it arguably privileges professionals over the public, because its stakeholders are right up there on the letterhead: physicians and surgeons. Medical colleges play an important role in firewalling doctors from spurious malpractice claims, but self-regulation inevitably slams into the wall of self-interest, and the system tilts toward those who fund it.
At its worst, the system seems like an endless game of whack-a-mole. “Any allegations that we may hear against any physician coming from anywhere are only that: allegations,” said Kelly Eby, the CPSA’s director of communications and government relations. “We do our best to investigate those within reasonable resources, but until we have proof, it’s very difficult to move forward.” How the college defines reasonable resources, she did not say. And while this would lead an outside observer to assume the CPSA is flooded with sexual impropriety complaints made by unstable patients, forcing the college to be selective about which to investigate, that is not the case. “I would say it’s reasonably uncommon,” Eby conceded. “If you look at our complaints statistics, sexual-boundary issues are relatively rare, and proving them is even rarer. I would say one to two a year, and not against psychiatrists.” The flood, in other words, was barely a trickle; the complaints against Levin did not get lost in a torrent, but a vacuum.
The Bowden institution, a federal penitentiary, feeds troubled probates to the forensic assessment outpatient service at the Peter Lougheed Centre, one of Calgary’s major treatment locations for men moving through the prison system. By 2002, Levin was assessing patients at both facilities, providing them with psychiatric treatment as per judicial order. His choice of specialty put him in contact with men who were in no position to complain about his conduct, since their freedom often depended on positive evaluations.
Lougheed was his primary hunting ground. The most typical—and most fateful—of his prey was a young man who, due to a publication ban, can be identified only as RB. Levin first assessed him in Bowden, following a drunken, near-fatal car crash in 1999. RB had grown up rough—“there were some alcohol issues and substance abuse issues in his family,” his lawyer, Richard Edwards, told me—and spent most of his life pinging around the correctional system. Levin was assigned his case and diagnosed the young man with borderline personality disorder. When RB was released on probation in 2002, he entered into Levin’s care. According to RB’s testimony, that was when the first sexual assault occurred. They continued on and off for eight years.
Levin groomed RB by offering him bus fare, helping him access social assistance, and plying him with so much medication that at one point a pharmacist refused to fill the prescription. As the young man’s life unravelled, Levin’s influence only increased. In 2006, he was appointed professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Calgary—despite the fact that Thomas MacKay, Levin’s superior at Lougheed, had received at least one boundary violation complaint and asked that a third party be present when Levin conducted physical examinations. (Why a psychiatrist was conducting physical examinations remained a question for another time.) Levin ignored this, just as he ignored requests to conduct sessions with his office door open and to refrain from seeing patients after hours.
RB would sit in his girlfriend’s truck before appointments and weep with shame and rage. In one instance, Levin’s examinations were so rough that his scrotum began to bleed. The young man understood that there was no point in telling anyone about the doctor’s behaviour, because no one in a position of authority would believe him. On the verge of suicide, he purchased a wristwatch spy camera he couldn’t afford and wore it into Levin’s rooms on two occasions.
The fourteen minutes of footage given to Calgary police in March 2010 told a story much larger than his own. The images revealed a pair of hands, nimble with practice, as they unbuttoned RB’s pants and went to work. The sound was inaudible, but, at considerable expense to the Crown, a forensic analyst coaxed meaning from the dissonance:
Levin: That’s getting harder, ultimately getting bigger. You can feel it. Just contract it at the bottom as well. That’s it. It’ll [indiscernible] (clears throat) [indiscernible]. Just try and contract at the balls. There. I’m sure you can see it getting harder.
Levin: And feel it getting harder.
Levin: You could come [indiscernible] already and easier. Can you try coming now? Can you try coming?
When the police arrived at the Levin home on March 23, Erica tried to stop the arresting officer. “Please leave him alone!” she exclaimed. “He was just trying to help those boys!”
Chief crown prosecutor William Wister and his paralegal, Valerie Wallace, make an odd couple. He is thin and stands about six feet five inches tall, while she is rounder and a foot and a half shorter. When the Levin docket landed on their desks in 2010, Wister was based in the Edmonton Crown Prosecutors Office. (Because Levin had so often testified for the Calgary Crown in his capacity as a forensic psychiatrist, the prosecution had to come from elsewhere, to avoid a conflict of interest.) By October 2012, Wister and Wallace, along with a third member of the team, Dallas Sopko, were inhabiting the second floor of the Calgary Delta Hotel, facing off against the doctor and his defence counsel, which was bankrolled by the Canadian Medical Protective Association.
The prosecution had access to hours of police interview tape that depicted Levin as he watched RB’s footage, his hands covering his face. He did not apologize or admit guilt, but he told his interlocutor, “Whatever happens, there will be mud on my face. I’m horrified also to the name and the reputation of psychiatry to have somebody charged.” It is impossible to decode this statement—to know if it was intended to suggest contrition, a genuine if morally mangled sense of responsibility to uphold the standards of his profession, or if it was merely an acknowledgment that the coming fight would be a hard one.
By then, nearly fifty former patients had come forward. Over the course of what Wallace described as “a very hard few days,” the Crown whittled down this group to twenty and then, finally, to nine feasible cases. All of them were troubled, all their stories tragic. One patient would eventually tell the jury that Levin had masturbated him without wearing gloves—a significant detail, since the young man was battling leukemia at the time and was susceptible to infection. “I was so distraughted [sic] because of so much medication, I wasn’t—I was in—I am in chemo,” he testified. “I felt—well, I mean, humiliated.”
The defence first moved for a fitness hearing. The submission portrayed Levin as a man in his seventy-third year who was chronically unwell—and the psychiatrist played the part by sitting dead eyed and slack faced beside his lawyer. “His memory has deteriorated, his concentration,” his wife told the judge. “I don’t even like to mention it, but he—after he goes to the washroom, often he doesn’t do up his zip.” The jury dismissed the request, and Levin made a stunning recovery. Supportive colleagues were brought in to attest to the absurdity of a doctor of Levin’s stature standing trial. Then the tricks turned dirty. Levin used glaucoma drops to decrease his blood pressure so that he’d be deemed too unwell to stand or so that the trial would be adjourned. He fired his attorney, Alain Hepner, in what seemed like a bid for a mistrial; when the judge refused to call one, he hired the similarly top-drawer Chris Archer.
Once the trial got underway, a perceived hypersensitivity regarding inappropriate touching emerged as the defence’s tent pole. While his methods may have seemed irresponsible and abusive to outsiders, his lawyers claimed, Levin was in fact a maverick in a field starved for new ideas. The doctor insisted that his practice was derived from a multidisciplinary grab bag that included psychiatry, urology, and sex therapy. RB’s footage, said Levin’s legal team, depicted a vastly experienced professional in the act of stimulating the bulbocavernosus reflex, a test that is typically used to gauge the extent of a spinal injury, but that was in this case meant to elicit a behavioural response.
The Crown contended that Levin was not trained as anything other than a psychiatrist, and even there he seemed unwilling to commit himself to anything approaching a recognizable methodology. His records made no mention of his innovative practices; he gave his patients financial assistance; he made comments like “Your wife is lucky” and “You could do damage with that thing.” According to Wister, “His defence was that the footage depicted an examination. Ours was that it was sexual assault. Obviously.”
As the Crown had anticipated, the defence used the victims’ circumstances against them. “There were lots of things to attack them on, in terms of credibility, motivation, reliability,” Wallace told me. “So, were they credible witnesses? Did they have some ulterior motive? Which goes to the issue of, how can they accurately report what happened to them? ” The jury was confronted with the full extent of the victims’ mental decay: when RB testified, he was so agitated that he could not remain sitting and spun around in the witness box. Bizarre behaviour was not restricted to witnesses for the prosecution. Deep into the trial, Erica Levin followed a juror from the courtroom to a transit stop and attempted to buy her off with an envelope of cash. This almost prompted a mistrial, as it was no doubt intended to do. But Wister and Wallace refused to give up. “They just came across the wrong team,” Wallace told me. (Erica was found guilty of attempted obstruction and is serving an eighteen-month conditional sentence with house arrest.)
Throughout the proceedings, Levin remained a cypher. He made his way to the court using a walker, Erica by his side, tramping through the snow in a coat that made him seem even bulkier than usual. He did not exclaim or weep.
On January 28, 2013, a jury found Aubrey Levin guilty of three counts of sexual assault. He was found not guilty of two other counts, and the jury was deadlocked on the remaining four cases. He was sentenced to five years in prison, which ended up sticking despite a spirited appeal. The penitentiary itself remains secret, in order to protect his safety.
I last spoke with Itiel at a Johannesburg kosher restaurant called Frangelica’s, which serves coffee, blintzes, and cholent to the residents of Glenhazel, the city’s Orthodox Jewish enclave. He wore his grey hair and beard wizard-long, and a pair of yellow-tinted aviators implied a close familiarity with psychedelics. He lived nearby, he told me, in an apartment block maintained for the indigent by the Jewish Burial Society.
When Itiel was discharged from Greefswald in July 1972, he found a patch of garden at his family’s home and did not move from it for six months. “People used to come down and talk to me, and I didn’t know what the hell they were saying,” he explained. “You can’t relate to anything, can’t relate to the future, can’t relate to the past. You are, like, there. The present only.”
Not a trace of Greefswald remains. But many of its ghosts tell a similar story: none survived the journey back to real life intact. Gordon Torr, who managed to build a successful advertising career in the UK, suddenly fell apart a few years ago. He suffered a catastrophic breakdown, became suicidal, and wrote a stunning novelization of his experiences, called Kill Yourself and Count to 10. He has come to an intellectual accord with Levin’s legacy. “I think of the camp as a metaphor for that peculiarly dark and twisted place in the minds of the people who conceived a pure-white world in which ‘otherness’ could be dumped like trash into the ghettoes and prisons of apartheid,” he told South African GQ.
Now that Levin is in prison, has there been any closure—that intangible condition the TRC reached for in the late 1990s? Certainly not for RB, who by September 2014 was broke and homeless. He is now suing Levin, the CPSA, the Calgary police, and the Peter Lougheed Centre in a complicated civil case. The fallen doctor still has his defenders, those who can’t—or don’t want to—fathom the breadth and depth of his crimes. During sentencing, Jakob Mikveh’s Rabbi Yisroel Miller sent a letter pleading for leniency. “The bad does not erase all the good,” wrote the rabbi. “I know all the goodness within him still remains. A prison term would be a death sentence for him.”
Authoritarian regimes have enlisted numberless medical professionals to treat not the disease in the patient but the patient as the disease. The vast majority of people who come to Canada to work as psychiatrists are committed, well-trained professionals who will never be guilty of malpractice. But the Aubrey Levins of the world, anomalous though they may be, cannot be ignored out of existence. Have Canadian medical colleges become more robust in ensuring that people like him do not enter the system? Kelly Eby told me she wasn’t “specifically aware” of any formal process for looking at the history of an applicant’s country of origin. Self-report remains a key phrase in the CPSA’s long list of requirements for those applying for medical licences in Alberta.
A good doctor ends his or her career largely unsung—a cake at a retirement party, a nice obituary in the local paper. A bad doctor destroys hundreds, sometimes thousands, of lives. I spoke with a number of Levin’s former patients, and none of them can quite believe that he’s in prison. They still fear his reach; they still believe he’s out there. One told me, “All I want is to know that he won’t hurt anyone anymore.”
As for Itiel, things eventually improved, but not by much. His life never found a track, and he is now dependent on the charity of the Burial Society. “I haven’t managed to get back into anything,” he said, taking a slug from a can of Coke. “Nobody wants to give me a job.” In the final reckoning, he had to concede that Levin had done exactly what he said he’d do—and then some. He’d peeled Itiel like an onion and gotten to the essence of who he was. Then he kept peeling, until there was nothing left at all.
Note: this piece has been edited to remove the name of a former patient who has asked not to be identified.
This appeared in the September 2015 issue.