“It was what Kierkegaard would call almost a dizziness of freedom. You can ask this question, and you have to live with whatever you’re gonna do.”—-Eric Olson, Wormwood
“The most efficient accident, in simple assassination, is a fall of 75 feet or more onto a hard surface.”—-CIA assassination manual, circa 1953.
Eric Olson has been “opening the lid” on his father’s murder in one way or another since he was a child. He had never gotten past the initial trauma of his father’s disappearance—the act of seeing him leave for work one morning only for him to never return—and has subsequently spent his entire life trying to uncover the truth. It’s only in 1994, when Eric had his father’s body exhumed for the purposes of a second autopsy, that he achieves a moment of peace surrounding the issue. “I saw his face,” he told Morris, “and I recognized him.”
Of course, new information begets more questions, and it’s telling that Eric somewhat acknowledges the futility of his quest in “Opening The Lid.” Once you go down enough paths and open up enough passageways, it’s unclear if there’s ever going to be any kind of meaningful resolution. Does it end once you open up the grave of your father? Does it end with the autopsy? Does it end with a cold case investigation? The answer, unfortunately, is no, it doesn’t end. It never ends. There are just more and more questions.
The second autopsy of Frank Olson, conducted by James Starrs, friend of the family and a forensic scientist who specializes in exhuming bodies to solve old cases, found two pieces of evidence: There was no indication that Frank ever went through glass, and there’s an impact on the skull above his eyes which could only have come from a blow in the room. Starrs cannot say definitively from this evidence alone that Frank was murdered, but it raises suspicion that it wasn’t a suicide.
In 1997, three years later, the CIA’s assassination manuals were released along with a trove of documents pertaining to the United States’ coup in Guatemala. Eric contacted the National Security Archives to obtain the first manual used in 1953, which states very clearly that the most efficient assassination method was a fall of 75 feet or more onto a hard surface. It also instructs the agent to play the “horrified witness” and that it’s best to give the subject “a blow on the head to render them unconscious,” preferably above one of the eyes.
Morris’ dramatizations follow the immediate aftermath of Frank’s death, in which Dr. Lashbrook plays the detached observer to the police (“I don’t know why he jumped,” he tells the cops who first enter room 1018A. “Maybe it was his ulcer.”), and eventually travels to Dr. Abramson’s office to get their story straight. It’s here when Christian Camargo’s performance truly shines; he plays someone who follows through on his duty but also privately has his own reservations about Frank’s death. At the top of the chapter, Eric explicitly says that over the years Lashbrook couldn’t keep the cover story straight. In the hours afterward, he keeps it straight to the cops, and to the CIA’s security detail (Jimmi Simpson) as well as to Dr. Abramson. But it’s unclear if he keeps it straight to himself.
Morris continues editorializing in these sections to great effect. If Dr. Lashbrook indeed saw Owen Crump’s Cease Fire, a war filmed on location in Korea, after leaving the police station, it’s unclear if he left in the middle to go to the bathroom only to be pointedly followed by the detail. We also don’t know if Lashbrook explicitly dictated Abramson’s statement to him. Yet, these bits work all the same, precisely because their speculations are based on statements these subjects made in the future. Lashbrook knew just as much as Olson about the government’s use of biological weapons. He frequently changed the details of that night whenever it was brought up. Maybe it was out of guilt? Maybe he saw Cease Fire and he felt Olson’s pain. Maybe he heard Abramson’s tape where Olson says that he knows Ruwet and Lashbrook have a “master plan” and that rattled him enough to keep the cover story as tight as humanly possible. Maybe he instinctively knew that the cover story was ultimately unsustainable.
Meanwhile, in the 90s, Eric pursues a cold case investigation into his father’s possible homicide. He consults Harry Huge, an attorney he had met in the 70s who had sued Pittston Coal for building an illegal and unsafe slag dam that eventually broke and caused the Buffalo Creek flood disaster. (It’s telling that slag is just another form of wormwood that infects the waters.) Huge eventually passes on the case to Stephen Saracco, an assistant DA in Manhattan, but it’s unclear if they ever acquired any pertinent documents because it’s under grand jury secrecy. Notably, or coincidentally, when Saracco writes the CIA a letter saying they’re reopening the case, former CIA director William Colby disappears. He went canoeing and suddenly vanished. His body washes ashore a week later. Colby’s son believes he committed suicide because he was overwhelmed with the guilt of his past actions, including his involvement in the Phoenix Program, and possibly, Frank Olson’s murder.
“Opening The Lid” delves quite heavily into speculation, and it understandably dips slightly into conspiracy theory realm. Yet, Morris never frames nor positions any of the evidence as smoking guns (even though the CIA manual line feels particularly damning) but rather as symbolic layers that demonstrate the truth is not what it seems. Wormwood, just like the biological weapons developed at Fort Detrick, is a disease that poisons everything. The repercussions are vast and endless. But it’s remarkable that Morris never gets too far into the weeds of the conspiracy before grounding it in the actual real-life pain of Frank’s death. The close-ups of Eric’s face as he talks about digging up his body are especially poignant, and yet it’s the final terrifying scene that neatly illustrates what exactly the CIA might have done. It may not be a New York street crime, but it’s still murder. Plain and simple.
- Lashbrook tells Abramson that Frank had been suffering from delusions, guilt, and a persecution complex. “He thought he was stealing because he was taking a pension.”
- I’m genuinely not sure what to make of Morris lingering on Eric’s face for an uncomfortably long time before Eric talks about how his father’s penis was still in tact even after years of degeneration. It’s a weird, slightly comical moment, so to speak.
- Frank begging Lashbrook to open the bathroom door is downright heartbreaking.