License to Ill

Havana syndrome resembles many other “contested illnesses,” only its sufferers — and promoters — are professional disinformation producers

Full-text audio version of this essay.

Reports of “Havana syndrome” first emerged at the end of 2016, when two embassy personnel in Cuba reported hearing unidentifiable noises in their offices; additionally, they developed a range of symptoms, including headaches, dizziness, and hearing problems. Five years later, American officials have claimed that over 200 governmental employees and their families suffer from Havana syndrome, the majority of whom are in diplomatic posts overseas or work for the CIA. People have reported its effects in Colombia, Russia, Poland, Austria, Taiwan, and elsewhere.

In each case, there is a constellation of nebulous symptoms (headache, nausea, fatigue); sometimes there is limited physical damage that can be documented (hearing loss, blurred vision). But without a specific etiology, there was some skepticism about what, exactly, was happening. Former Ambassador Pamela Spratlen was brought in by the State Department to oversee an investigation into the causes of Havana syndrome in early 2021, but left that position after only six months — in part due to her support of an FBI report that concluded Havana syndrome was the result of mass delusion. Sufferers who heard her comments during a conference call labeled her attitude “invalidating”; one unnamed foreign service employee told the New York Times’ Dan Hurley, “It’s a disservice to those of us who were injured to suggest that we were just making it up in our minds.”

A lack of visible physical trauma, an absence of an immediately identifiable cause, and murmurs that it’s all just mass hallucination place Havana syndrome within the cluster of diseases that are sometimes termed “contested illnesses.” In such cases the sufferer is not just experiencing a malady of some kind, but having trouble convincing others that it’s real — a group that includes chronic fatigue syndrome, Gulf War related illnesses, and chronic lyme, among others. The experience of a contested illness can be maddening for a sufferer, because they are both fighting against the symptoms in their body and a medical establishment who in some cases denies anything is happening at all. The patient’s gender, race, socioeconomic position and geographic location can all play a role in how their symptoms are downplayed or dismissed; as editors Steve Kroll-Smith, Phil Brown, and Valerie J. Gunter write in the introduction to their volume Illness and the Environment: A Reader in Contested Medicine, “the modern relationships of environments to illnesses are almost always contested and are the sources of considerable political and technical debates.”

What made Havana syndrome different from other contested illnesses was that there was a massive institutional investment in this narrative

Often, communities of contested illness sufferers evolve piecemeal and ad hoc: a cluster of symptoms, shared stories that begin to add to a larger picture, and often unlikely voices emerging as figureheads and spokespeople. Sometimes these communities can coalesce around unsubstantiated theories (as with Morgellons, an unfounded belief by some that mysterious fibers are growing out of their skin), but other times such networks can unearth tangible malfeasance (as with the childhood leukemia clusters in the late 1970s in Woburn, Massachusetts that were eventually traced to groundwater contamination from a local factory). But in every case there is some kind of grassroots, crowdsourced detective work, in an attempt to put a name to what’s taking place.

What made Havana syndrome different from other contested illnesses was not only its proposed cause — an attack by a foreign power — but the fact that there was an immediate and massive institutional investment in this narrative. Almost as soon as the symptoms of Havana syndrome were reported, there were rumors it was the work of Russia or some other country, using secret means to cause havoc and mayhem among Americans abroad. Due to the number of sufferers who complained of specific noises accompanying their discomfort, some kind of sound weapon — perhaps using ultrasound — was initially proposed; subsequently, microwave weapons became a favorite theory. “People will have their opinions,” retired ambassador Peter Bodde said. “But our colleagues were injured, and they were attacked, and that’s real, and you can see it.”

In the process a variety of different symptoms and maladies were bound up in a political framework; rather than lengthy debates about what was really happening to these people, the conversation shifted immediately to debates as to which foreign power was responsible. Marco Rubio dismissed any assertion that the sufferers were inventing their symptoms as “quackery” — and insisted that the problem was “escalating.” in October he confidently asserted that the attacks were part of a coordinated effort that was “not something that’s happened in the past — it’s something that’s happened and is ongoing.” While the skepticism from some medical authorities around Havana syndrome put it in the same territory as other contested illnesses, the embrace by high-level politicians sets it apart.

It became a handy explanation for both those with symptoms, who immediately had a name for their experience, and for the government, who could use these nebulous symptoms as a visible proof of foreign antagonism. This marriage of convenience quickly became the dominating narrative. What may have otherwise felt like a wild conspiracy theory was instead given a governmental imprimatur asserting its plausibility.

There is a long history of bizarre and exotic weaponry in spycraft, from exploding cigars to ricin-tipped umbrellas. Various agencies have experimented with numerous dubious and far-fetched schemes, including Operation Acoustic Kitty, in which the CIA spent $20 million to equip house cats with listening devices to use as passive surveillance tools in foreign embassies. The same people behind such schemes are now the ones claiming that their own operatives are the victims of mysterious microwave guns, even as they have been unable to muster any kind of evidence of such a weapon. Importantly, the very mechanism by which such hypothetical machines might work seems beyond the laws of physics. Chemist Cheryl Rofer offered a lengthy debunking in Foreign Policy, concluding that the “evidence for microwave effects of the type categorized as Havana syndrome is exceedingly weak. No proponent of the idea has outlined how the weapon would actually work. No evidence has been offered that such a weapon has been developed by any nation. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and no evidence has been offered to support the existence of this mystery weapon.”

The raygun theory persists: because it is novel, and thus seemingly newsworthy, it’s plausible to the non-expert and thus “makes sense,” despite the debunking of specialists; and because it is politically convenient. Politicians have been using the incidents to saber rattle for some kind of diplomatic retaliation — or worse. As the New Republic’s Natalie Shure has argued, the whole thing bears a disturbing similarity to the way the Bush Administration used a story of non-existent weapons of mass destruction to launch a war in Iraq.

While medical skepticism around Havana syndrome puts it in the same territory as other contested illnesses, the embrace by high-level politicians sets it apart

But it also persists because it puts these sick bodies to work. That the government is now claiming CIA employees are victims of precisely the kind of strange and far-fetched weapons that the CIA has long tinkered with is more than merely ironic. Clandestine agencies, after all, aren’t just in the business of working in secret or devising new weapons unknown to science; they are also in the business of obscuring our ability to even judge fact from fiction. As Malcolm Harris writes of the CIA, as long as it has existed, “the U.S. government has used outlandish accusations against the agency as evidence that this country’s enemies are delusional liars. At the same time, the agency has undeniably engaged in activities that are indistinguishable from the wildest conspiracy theories. Did the CIA drop bubonic plague on North Korea? Of course not. But if we did, then of course we did.” From the perspective of a clandestine agency like the CIA, rumors of fantastical weapons do important work: they effectively gaslight foreign adversaries (and America’s own citizens, for that matter), teaching us to entertain even the most absurd possibilities.

As a contested illness that may or may not be the result of some secret spy technology, Havana syndrome exists at the connection of two epistemological black holes: none of this is provable and anything is possible. The temptation to dismiss these sufferers as merely delusional is tempered by a belief among some that there may yet be weapons out there the general public has no conception of. This has allowed sufferers to claim a measure of legitimacy that is not available to, say, people with chronic fatigue syndrome, since the government can argue that there does exist some secret microwave weapon, one whose existence may be forever obscured to us.

While other sufferers of contested illnesses have had to work tirelessly to even get their symptoms acknowledged, the raygun theory circumvents this entire epistemological work, offering a neat and tidy explanation that shifts the focus from the body and its illnesses to an international incident, where saber rattling and sanctions can act as a diagnosis and cure. Offering solid ground for those experiencing symptoms, it pulls the rug out from under the rest of us, undercutting our shared reality by demanding we accept that physically impossible weapons might exist.

Perhaps unwittingly, Havana syndrome proponents have tapped into a particular legacy that stretches back over 200 years, to a man named James Tilly Matthews. In the first decade of the 19th century, Matthews, a London tea merchant, became convinced a group of pneumatic chemists he called the “Air Loom Gang” were using a secret, underground machine to emit gaseous rays to torment him and commit espionage against the British government. He wasn’t the only one to imagine such rays. Over a hundred years later, Richard Shaver began hearing voices emanating from the welding machine at his work; they revealed to him that a secret race of subterranean robots (the Demos) were projecting malevolent rays that were the source of humanity’s misfortunes. After he sent a letter explaining this phenomenon to the science fiction magazine Amazing Stories, the editor Ray Palmer thinly fictionalized it as the postwar blockbuster sensation I Remember Lemuria! Both are examples of what Victor Tausk dubbed the “influencing machine” in his 1919 study of schizophrenia: a machine of diabolical purpose and fantastical technology, just out of reach of the sufferer, bent on causing physical harm — and often seen as one of the primary indicators of paranoid schizophrenia. Tausk described the influencing machine as being of a “mystical nature”: patients, he noted, “are able to give only vague hints of its construction. It consists of boxes, cranks, levels, wheels, buttons, wires, batteries, and the like…. All the discoveries of mankind, however, are regarded as inadequate to explain the marvelous powers of this machine, by which the patients feel themselves persecuted.”

Beyond the immediate clinical context, Tausk’s analysis offers a useful analogy for understanding the structure of Havana syndrome. The person with schizophrenia conjures the influencing machine because, above all else, it provides answers. Tausk notes that “its appearance… serves the purpose of an explanation for the pathologic changes that are felt as alien and painful and dominate the patient’s emotional life and sensations.” This search for the secret truth is not unique to schizophrenia, of course. What lies behind conjectures of secret government technology is a belief in a hidden but real order behind the veil of appearances. Those with contested illnesses are also looking for the hidden order behind their suffering: the virus, the bacteria, the environmental factor — the key which will unlock this feeling, give a name to this constellation of symptoms and provide a roadmap for treatment. For the contested illness sufferer, the goal is not an illusory sense of order to provide meaning to the chaos; it’s getting well, feeling better. Whether or not there is a secret disease undetected by science that could be the answer to everything is an important pursuit, but it is always a means, rather than the end.

Havana syndrome exists at the connection of two epistemological black holes: none of this is provable and anything is possible

Neurologists in particular have been vocal critics of the weapon theory, arguing instead that Havana syndrome is a functional neurological disorder (FND), a diagnosis that has come to replace “psychosomatic.” Whereas psychosomatic (with its “psych” prefix) can carry a stigma that the patient is simply delusional, and that it’s “all in their mind,” neurologists use FND to designate real and significant biological problem, one affecting the patient’s nervous system and impairing function — while recognizing that the cause may not be physical, external trauma. “Both psychosomatic disorders in the realms of general medicine and functional neurological disorders in neurology are incredibly common and have the potential to be very serious medical problems,” neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan writes in her book The Sleeping Beauties And Other Stories of Mystery Illnesses. “Yet people aren’t always aware of that, because, in the public arena, they can be very hard to spot, hidden as they are behind euphemisms, clichés and misunderstanding.”

With Havana syndrome it seems more and more the case that such misunderstanding is deliberate. Voices in the government — from the Trump administration to the Biden administration — now have too much at stake in a narrative of foreign malfeasance. There are enormous political incentives in propagating the weapon hypothesis. Rather than a moment when we could rethink what illness is, how it’s diagnosed, how it’s caused, how to treat it, and what to do with the self-reports of people in pain and distress, the conversation about Havana syndrome is instead mired in questions of technology and geopolitical intrigue. Does a thing exist that has never existed before that might be able to cause this? And assuming yes, who is responsible for it?

In Tausk’s article, he discusses one particular influencing machine that tormented a patient he called Natalia A. The machine, she explained, was identical to Natalia A. in every way: a perfect copy of her laid out on a table, her internal organs replaced with batteries and wires. It was operated by a jealous, spurned suitor: when the man stroked the machine’s genitalia, Natalia A. would have sexual thoughts, and when he would strike it, she would feel pain in the corresponding area. The influencing machine, Tausk thus suggests, is a kind of narcissistic projection of the patient’s own self on the world, a doppelganger designed to torment them.

Likewise, the CIA agents and State Department employees suffering from Havana syndrome find themselves the victim of their own double. Their work has continued a policy developed since the Cold War, one in which any possibility of truth must be undermined, where epistemological uncertainty is leveraged and weaponized. Now, it seems, maintaining this posture for decades has allowed for the possibility of a magical, heretofore inexplicable weapon capable of targeting them with invisible, malevolent rays. At the intersection of two epistemological black holes, a narrative of state-sponsored paranoia has been allowed to win out over a medical narrative that might actually help people recover from their symptoms.

Colin Dickey is the author of, most recently, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, and the forthcoming The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained.