In pursuit of ‘Dr Shock’

Posted on November 24, 2010

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(First published, March, 2010)
Aubrey Levin, the Johannesburg-born psychiatrist charged in March 2010 in a Calgary, Canada, court with the sexual assault of a male patient, has a history of allegations of abuse.  However, by the time many of these allegations surfaced during hearings of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Levin was long gone and made it perfectly clear that he had no intention of returning, let alone answering any questions.

The son of the first Jewish member of the National Party (NP) Aubrey Levin’s family were perhaps unique as Jews who attempted to assimilate completely the Afrikaner nationalist ethos. Unlike other Jewish collaborators such as Percy Yutar, the state prosecutor of Nelson Mandela and the Rivonia trialists, the Levins did not align themselves primarily with the Jewish community or Zionist organisations. An uncle was the first Jewish NP member of parliament and young Aubrey apparently grew up as a perpetual outsider, pretending to be an insider in a party and regime riddled with anti-semitism.

Academic and far from the macho image to which he evidently aspired, Aubrey Levin played a prominent role in his local NP branch. He also tried to start a conservative student organisation while at university and, even before he qualified as a psychiatrist, manifested the homophobia for which he would become notorious. In 1968, as a general practitioner studying psychiatry, he wrote to parliament asking to be invited to speak on possible changes to the laws on homosexuality being contemplated at the time. He noted that in the course of his work he had “treated many homosexuals and lesbians and enjoyed some measure of success in therapy”. The therapy he referred to was the now widely discredited aversion therapy using electric shocks. Some colleagues called him “Dr Shock”.

On qualifying as a psychiatrist, he joined the army and was immediately given the rank of colonel, a fact that also raised eyebrows and caused comments to be made about political favouritism. He began practising in Ward 22 at the Voortrekkerhoogte military hospital near Pretoria. This was the ward set aside for the treatment of those classified “deviant”. The “deviant” category in apartheid South Africa’s white military included not only male and female homosexuals but also heterosexual men who for pacifist or political reasons refused to undergo military training. Levin has admitted that he was in charge at Voortrekkerhoogte and that he used “aversion therapy”, including the use of “mild electric shocks”.

Individuals treated by him tell rather different tales. Only one of the people who, for a brief period, worked with him, has given evidence. A young psychologist intern was so horrified by what she had seen that she reported what seemed to be blatant cases of abuse to her superiors and the University of Pretoria. She referred specifically to the case of a woman being “treated” for lesbianism who had been so severely shocked that her shoes “flew off her feet”. The result was that the intern was subsequently excluded from the psychiatric wing of the military hospital run by Aubrey Levin.

Levin’s “treatment” of homosexuals, both male and female, comprised attaching electrodes to the arms of his subjects. These were connected to a machine operated by a dial calibrated from one to 10. In the case of suspected gay men, the subjects were shown pictures of naked men and encouraged by Levin to fantasise about the pictures. They were then given increasingly painful shocks. This process was followed by showing the “patients” Playboy centrefolds, which would be described in glowing terms by the psychiatrist, with no shocks administered. The same process, using pictures of women, counterposed with naked men, was employed with those women deemed to have lesbian tendencies.

Also referred to Aubrey Levin were various individuals who displayed their deviance by refusing to take up arms or to serve in the apartheid military. They were designated unstable, but were obviously not subjects for simple aversion therapy: they were the subjects for narco analysis. This involved the administration of drugs such as sodium pentathol — the so-called “truth” drug — which lowers the inhibitions of the subjects to whom it was administered.

Levin admitted using narco analysis, but “only sparingly and in cases where patients suffered severe post traumatic stress”. However, a military conscript referred to Levin when he refused to undergo military training, gave me a starkly different story. He was regarded as a perfectly normal young man when he reported for military training and informed the authorities that, on principle, he could not serve in the apartheid forces. He was handed over to Aubrey Levin.

He told how Levin strapped him down and drip fed him some kind of drug that made him feel drowsy. He then apparently lost consciousness. It was only on the following day, again strapped down, with Levin standing over him, that he found out what had happened. Levin played back to him tape recordings of his uninhibited ravings, prompted by goading and questioning from the chubby psychiatrist. His innermost thoughts, fantasies and fears were laid bare and were mocked and teased by Levin. He heard himself eventually “howling like an animal”.

This process was repeated on several occasions. The victim was 18 at the time and neither his consent nor the consent of his parents was sought for the treatment he underwent. When he finally emerged from what he still describes as a nightmare, he suffered the same “disorientation” mentioned by other Ward 22 patients. Years of therapy followed before he felt he had again achieved some degree of emotional stability.  But although he went on to complete a doctorate at university and became a newspaper editor, the nightmare never disappeared.

These were serious allegations. They cried out to be investigated in depth. They never were.  Had it not been for the work of a small group of gender activists and the journalist, Paul Kirk, many of the allegations would not have surfaced publicly.  When they did, Levin refused to return from Canada where he went on to become a frequent “expert witness” in a number of sexual assault and sexual abuse trials.

But in March he was suspended by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta that announced its own investigation, separate from that of the police.  According to the college:  “We will continue with our investigation, and that could include a review of his files. It will include interviews with witnesses, interviews with the victim.”

The Calgary police have, in the meantime, called for members of the public who may have additional information to come forward.  They confirmed that the charge Levin now faces relates to allegations of sexual assault over an extended period against a 36-year-old patient. However, the prosecuting authorities say that Levin could drag out the legal process for up to seven years before a formal hearing becomes inevitable.