Who Killed Frank Olson?


a six-part Netflix series directed by Errol Morris
Eric Olson with his father, Frank Olson, Frederick, Maryland, late 1940s; from Errol Morris’s Wormwood

“Wormwood, wormwood,” Hamlet mutters as he absorbs the realization that his mother was complicit in the murder of his father. Eric Olson uses Hamlet’s word when, at the end of Errol Morris’s devastating Wormwood, he sums up what it means, finally, to know that his own father, a biochemist employed at the US weapons laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland, did not die in an accidental fall from a New York hotel window in November 1953, did not take his own life after being administered LSD as the authorities had claimed since 1975, but was in fact executed on orders from his superiors in the Central Intelligence Agency.

When Morris asks at the end of the film what it means for Eric to know this, he replies: “You think you’re going to find peace of mind? What’s that consist of? You’re going to find out that your father was murdered by the CIA. Feel better now?…Wormwood. It’s all bitter.”

Olson was nine years old when he last felt his father’s touch grazing his head as he went out the door of their wood-frame house in Frederick, Maryland, never to return. It was in that house that about a week later, his father’s superior at the CIA woke the family up and told them that Frank Olson had suffered a fatal accident. Eric was told that his father “fell” or “jumped” from a hotel window. Even a nine-year-old knew that “fell” and “jumped” meant two different things, and in the space between the two words a doubt grew that was to consume his whole life. He lives to this day in the same house where he heard that first lie. Now he knows that the right word was “dropped.” Agents working for the CIA knocked Olson unconscious and dropped him from the window. Does such knowledge give him a feeling of vindication, having sought it for so long? “I needed truth a long time ago,” he tells Morris. “Truth is no good to me now.”

In writing about the Eric Olson story, I can’t pretend any detachment. We were graduate students at Harvard in the 1970s, and we’ve stayed close since then. In 2001, I wrote a piece for The New York Times Magazine about his case. Writing it made me aware of just how reluctant I was—and still am—to believe, although I’m not even an American citizen, that the US government could have done what Eric came to believe it had done to his father. To believe such a thing was, in Eric’s words, “to leave the known universe.”

Though I still resist the facts, the facts, as Olson’s research has established, are that Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, and other unnamed persons at the highest levels of the American government ordered the death…

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