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Monarch by Candice Wuehle (Soft Skull Press)

Monarch by Candice Wuehle (Soft Skull Press)

Project Monarch is a supposed government mind control project first "disclosed" by authors Cathy O'Brien and Mark Phillips in their book Trance:Formation of America: The True Life Story of a CIA Mind Control Slave. The story isn't altogether unique (the book is partially a rip-off of The Control of Candy Jones and Michelle Remembers) but the story itself is shocking: O'Brien, placed under hypnosis by Phillips, begins to recover memories of a past spent as a sex slave and drug courier for the CIA. In the process, she was trafficked to George H.W. Bush and Hillary Clinton, among many others. The disclosure was met with ridicule by many in the conspiracy community; it was just too bizarre. But the mythology stuck around, and these days it's quite popular among the people inclined to believe this stuff.

Further reading: Monarch Mind Control and the case of Frances Fox on Failed State Update

In Wuehle's novel, a former child beauty queen wakes up with mysterious bruises and a strange taste in her mouth. As she tries to understand what happened to her (and why she doesn’t remember it), the protagonist stumbles upon a Deep State conspiracy and ends up doing battle with the secret agents who abused her.

Monarch uses conspiracy myth as a means to examine a society that does things to women every bit as dark as the conspiracy theorists maintain. At some level, even the conspiracy theorists themselves are aware of this. In The Illuminati Formula to Create an Undetectable Total Mind Controlled Slave (1996), a 500-page mind control "manual" by authors Fritz Springmeier and Cisco Wheeler, the authors put it this way: "the Monarch program miniturizes (sic) what is done on a large scale" by the culture-at-large.

The idea of Project Monarch is totally ridiculous, of course. But the fact that we have this mythology, and that a lot of people take it very seriously, says something about the United States, ca. 2022. In that way, Monarch is a serious book about a ridiculous subject, but one with serious implications.

Candice Wuehle is the author of the novel Monarch as well as three collections of poetry and several chapbooks.

The following conversation with the author was edited for space and clarity.

Failed State Update: What was the genesis of the book?

Candice Wuehle: It happened pretty quickly after Trump came into office. I’d started this book of what I thought was going to be prose poems. I wanted to talk about culture and cultural conditioning as a kind of traumatization that happens on an everyday micro-, yet really insidious, level. Obviously, there were lots of things happening during the first year of the Trump presidency that was making me think about those things. So this book of prose poems I’d started, I kind of realized I wanted to tell in a more narrative, character-driven way, as opposed to the image-language-forward way that I had worked in poetry.

In writing a book based on an existing conspiracy theory, you're setting out to do on purpose what a lot of conspiracy theorists are doing without realizing it. Conspiracy theorists are creating narratives based on these stories, but they think they’re discovering reality. Presumably, you don't believe in the historical reality of Monarch—

No. [laughs]

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How did you stumble on Monarch, as a way into this?

I knew that I wanted to write about trauma and the things that I mentioned earlier. Then I heard a true-crime podcast that was talking about the JonBenet Ramsey case, which is still a cold case, and they went through the different theories about what had happened and ranked them from most likely to the least likely, and the least likely one was this Monarch theory; that JonBenet Ramsey's mother Patsy Ramsey was an agent in Project Monarch, and that she was triggered by the very specific number listed as the ransom amount in the ransom note.

In the book, Jessica, the main character, starts to have these sleepwalking episodes and doesn't know what's happening, but she has this weird taste in her mouth and bruises, so she starts this investigation to figure out what she's been doing while she's sleepwalking and finds out she was in Project Monarch. That story for me was just this spy crime genre narrative that I laid on top of theory about trauma studies. So for me, I’m studying theories about trauma and how memory specifically works after significant trauma, and how memory becomes modified or buried. The Monarch story seemed like a metaphor for that to me.

Trauma, as a metaphor, is so useful as a way for people to frame their relationships — their relationship to the state, their relationship to their parents, whatever. And the Monarch mythos is kind of an acknowledgment of the importance of trauma and the power of that as a framing or explanatory device, but when you take it as literal reality, it's a misreading of the situation.

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Trauma itself is a misreading of the situation, right? I mean, in the more kind of academic definition of what trauma is, of course, we have associations of it with violence, terrible things happening. But technically trauma is when an event occurs that we don't yet have language for. We don't have the context to explain it. And then the triggering moment — to use the popular language of our time — the triggering moment is when we realize what happened and we get the language to describe what happened. I think that the Monarch theory on this wild, huge, surreal cultural level, once you get into some of the details of the conspiracy theory, the kind of poetic and majestic details of it, the surrealness of the theory is in itself a way to try to explain a feeling that something terrible has happened that you can't yet explain to yourself.

A lot of the things that I was writing about in Monarch, specifically relating to sex trafficking, were totally in the realm of conspiracy theory, and then the Jeffrey Epstein case broke in the middle of writing the book. And then a lot of things happened — stuff I’d been writing about that I probably wouldn't have publicly said “I really think that this happens,” all of a sudden everybody knew that it really was happening.

I’m sure the conspiracy theorists will love the fact that you wrote about Monarch, and they'll love the fact that you kind of validate what they say, a little bit, if they don’t think too hard about it.

I haven't heard from a single person like that yet. I don't look forward to it happening, I guess. [laughs] And I'm kind of surprised that it hasn't happened yet.

There's a great book called Republic of Lies by Anna Merlan, where she breaks down the way in which conspiracy theories are really just points that are not yet clearly connected. Many stories, especially for people who come from marginalized communities or who are not able to communicate openly, begin as a conspiracy theory. If you think of #Metoo and the Harvey Weinstein case, that begins as a sort of conspiracy theory at some point, where this information is operating through whisper networks. So in that way, I was really thinking about the idea of conspiracy theory or networks, constellations of people who are speaking together in a necessarily secret way as being inherent to that political moment [of the Trump presidency].

It is really fascinating that on both sides of the spectrum, you have people who feel so silenced or unable to communicate openly that you get those theories. But of course, the difference for me is Monarch is a conspiracy theory with no political agenda in the end. As far as I know, Monarch is not trying to get anyone elected into office.

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I would say that was possibly the case in the past, but it has morphed into Pizzagate and then QAnon, and now Walt Disney's allegedly grooming children. Somebody at some point realized that these types of conspiracy theories will get you elected. On the whole, I think politics has become a lot uglier in recent years. There was just this poll by The Economist which found that a majority of Republicans believe in elite Democratic pedophile rings. Fifty-two percent, just barely the majority, but somebody figured it out. Roger Stone and Steve Bannon figured it out.

I think that Roger Stone probably has people who are writing these narratives for him and figuring out which details play best and how to make it most terrifying.

In terms of the conspiracy theory element for me, I was really interested in the things that the government actually does, the way that the government did do experiments during the Cold War to figure out how to modify memory. One was just to see if they could modify behavior to get the secretaries to be more flirtatious. So you can see from there how the actual government is playing with the idea of modifying personalities in the direction of desire.

Monarch is supposedly using sex to implant personalities, in the style of a Manchurian Candidate. That is in line with the theoretical ideas of my book, relating to how culture itself is a sort of programming that puts certain desires into us that are usually really commodity-culture driven.

Monarch is set in the nineties because I was sort of reflecting back on the things that I thought that I wanted in the nineties, and where those desires came from. I was especially thinking about sexuality and queerness and what is considered conventionally attractive for women. Reflecting back on the messaging that I got in the nineties, a lot of that was blatantly violent. You know, "heroin chic." There was more interest in that time in aestheticizing extreme depression, books like Prozac Nation, right? It's a time where you can pick up a magazine, you can be like a 13-year-old girl who picks up a magazine written for you that's giving you information about how to sexually manipulate your crush through the use of makeup or your posture, right? This is social conditioning. At the same time, that message is right next to an ad suggesting the most attractive way to be is extremely thin, to literally aestheticize a body that looks like a corpse.

I think there is something very poignant about these people that promote Monarch, you know? Cathy O’Brien, for instance. She comes across as an abuse victim.

Absolutely. That gets back to the idea of trauma as being the thing that you don't have context for. I mean, my just totally personal, uninformed opinion about Cathy O’Brien is that she's someone who suffered something terrible in her childhood and now she's trying to explain it to herself, and potentially explain it in a way that gives it worth, as opposed to it being something chaotic and awful and totally without meaning.

When there is a person who's trying to explain something to themselves and there's someone who offers any kind of explanation for that, one gravitates towards that explanation. Maybe the more outlandish the explanation, the more the explanation feels like it is important and worth advocating.

Want more Monarch talk? Check out the author’s recent interview on J.G. Michael’s podcast Parallax Views.