“You think that finding the answer to this is gonna restore the path of your own life. But how can it possibly do that if you’ve lost yourself along the way?”—-Eric Olson, Wormwood
“But don’t you know how wonderful it is not to have an ending?”—-Seymour Hersh, Wormwood
By his own estimation, Eric Olson sacrificed his own life to discover the truth of his father’s death. Though Errol Morris believes there’s a certain amount of poetry in his sacrifice, it’s telling that Eric himself views it as a futile, tragic gesture. Everyone from family lawyers to fellow academics to journalist Seymour Hersh believe that Eric is a uniquely intelligent individual and it’s a shame he contributed so little to the world beyond his constant, determined inquiries into his father’s demise. As much as Wormwood is about Frank Olson, it also functions as a showcase for Eric’s perceptive mind and how it’s been poisoned by trauma. Not just any trauma, mind you, but a trauma undertaken by the United States government with the full authority of the intelligence community. It’s a national crime with wide-ranging cultural and political implications, but its victims are just one man and his family.
But in 2017, when all is said and done, the only victim left to speak of is Eric because he won’t let this go (or, as he puts it, it won’t let him go.) If life is, in the words of Lester Freamon, just the shit that happens while you wait for moments that never come, Eric has waited, and waited, and waited for his day of reckoning that he knows will never come, and in the process, forfeited a life of his own. Errol Morris never lets his audience forget that there’s a human toll in Wormwood in the form of a father and son.
“Remember Me,” the final chapter, brings Seymour Hersh, the journalist who first broke the Frank Olson story in 1975, back into the fold. Last year, Eric solicited advice from him for what to do with all the information he has, not knowing that Hersh had no idea there was more to Frank’s death than the official story. After Eric tells him that Frank didn’t commit suicide under the influence of LSD but rather was executed by the CIA, Hersh starts sniffing around on his own. He contacts a source that essentially confirms Eric’s story, but he can’t publish a story on it primarily because it would jeopardize his source and because he needs further confirmation for it to go to print.
Seymour Hersh is an interesting figure in the context of Wormwood because he holds the skeleton key to the full story but cannot be compelled to open it. He’s a compelling screen presence, one who projects confidence and authority, but he’s also something of a frustrating malcontent. He openly says that he believes the CIA murdered Frank, and he has a source that backs up this story, but he ultimately can’t prove it, and trying to do so would expose how his source acquired the necessary information. He claims he knows what Frank did that got him killed, but can’t reveal it. He can only offer suggestions and hints. He says that he tried to get further information, and he believe he will one day, but as of right now, the story stays where it is.
On the one hand, Hersh’s position is very understandable. He says without an ounce of compunction that the source is more important than the story, and if he truly believes that publishing an updated story on Frank Olson would put his source in danger, that should be taken into serious consideration. (It should also be noted that Hersh has faced frequent criticism over his reliance upon anonymous sources throughout his career, which, depending on how you look at it, either makes him uniquely qualified to judge the safety of a source or renders him completely full of shit.) At the same time, Morris clearly sympathizes with Eric’s view, which is that if nobody will believe the story based upon one source, who’s to say they’ll believe it when it’s backed up by two or three sources? Plus, it puts Eric in the worst position of all: He knows what happened to his father, but no one else does.
Hersh doesn’t really see it that way, and that’s where he and Wormwood diverge. Hersh’s point is that it’s wonderful that Wormwood doesn’t have a neat ending because a) that’s not how life works, and b) it says a lot about the world of intelligence. Besides, Eric knows the ending. Hersh knows the ending. They can’t prove it, but they know. So what difference does an exposé make at this point?
After spending six chapters and four hours immersed in Eric’s determination and fervor, I’d wager it’s flat-out difficult to side with Hersh on that point, especially because he has the truth. It’s easy for him to say, “What’s the difference?” because he hasn’t lived with pain for 40 years. Hersh might have legitimate reasons not to publish a story, but that doesn’t make the story irrelevant. If what Eric believes is true, it means that the United States government flagrantly put its own democratic institutions in great jeopardy. It means that the CIA, spurred by Cold War paranoia, executed Frank Olson, an Army scientist, because they believed he was a dissident. They gave Frank an opportunity to recant his beliefs about the United States’ use of biological weapons in Korea, but, like Martin Luther before him, he refused. So they killed him in cold blood. “The only way this becomes bearable at all is if it’s known,” says Eric, and Wormwood believes that opinion is the one that matters most.
Wormwood ends with the most plausible scenario for Frank’s death: The security detail (Jimmi Simpson) that tailed Lashbrook contracted two thugs to “drop” Frank Olson. Morris presents two theories of how this went down. The first is that Frank broke the window with a lamp and jumped before the men could kill him. The second, more gruesome theory is that the two men knocked Frank out, broke the window, and just tossed him out. Both versions are chilling Morris stages it with the least amount of drama. Frank’s death is quick and unceremonious, conducted with the no emotion and without any hesitation. It’s just the cost of doing business with a government supposedly of the people, by the people, and for the people.
The only saving grace in all of this is that Wormwood serves as the de facto “official record” of what happened to Frank Olson. Even though, as Hersh predicts, the CIA will relish that Morris couldn’t get the definitive proof that fingered them, it still stands as a testament to Eric’s resolve and a portrait of a father who wouldn’t back down from his principles. The truth exists, even if it can’t set Eric free, even if, like wormwood, it has permanently poisoned the waters. That has infinite value.
- The interesting digression in this last chapter involves a signed agreement between the CIA and the Justice Department that stipulates the CIA will never be prosecuted for serious crimes if the claim of national security can be invoked. Eric notes that this agreement was signed in the early days of 1954, basically a month after Frank’s death.
- Hersh notes that he has found other incidents of suspicious deaths and Morris runs through a series of headlines about similar “suicides” and “falls,” suggesting that there is an ingrained mechanism in place.
- “‘Remember me.’ It’s easy to emphasize the word ‘remember.’ But the other part is the ‘me.’ One can make a terrible mistake if you remember the other, but you forget yourself. I remembered my father, but I forgot who I was.”