Friday, August 21, 2015

Book Review 351: My Lobotomy

MY LOBOTOMY, by Howard Dully and Charles Fleming. 286 pages, illustrated. Three Rivers paperback, $13.95

I have never known anyone who had had a lobotomy, but in the 1960s a friend told me about his aunt who had had one. She was always happy, he said, but had no memory.

That helps explain why we don’t have memoirs by people who had their prefrontal cortices cut off from the remainder of their brains. That, and the fact that up to a third of people died after the operation.

So Howard Dully’s “My Lobotomy” is a precious document. But an outlier in many respects.

First, he apparently had nothing organically wrong with him. Some people who were lobotomized were sick.

For example, while reading “My Lobotomy” I came across the case of Sherwin Nuland, a surgeon at Yale Medical School who in middle age was so affected by depression that he could not work. It is a measure of how sick he was that his colleagues supported giving him a lobotomy even though they recognized that it would mean he would never do surgery again.

And this was as late as 1973. As it happened, he avoided lobotomy and was cured with massive electroshocks, so that he enjoyed a long further career as a surgeon and teacher. (You can find his story in a TED talk on Youtube.)  

Second, Dully was young, just 12. Lobotomies on children were not uncommon but were rarer. As Dully learned by offering his brain up for MRI imaging, apparently his young brain was unformed enough that as he grew older it developed alternate structures so that no one would tell from his behavior that he had had his brain “scrambled like an eggbeater.”

Third, and perhaps of no particular significance to his story, he was a boy. Doctors overwhelmingly did their lobotomies on women.

Howard Dully came from a family that was a mess. Lots of drunks and head cases, plus humdrum diseases like cancer, which killed his mother when he was five. Hardly any members of the extended family seem to have had any idea how to be parents, even the ones with little or no mental disease.

Bring in a hateful stepmother and Dr. Walter Freeman, the Johnny Appleseed of American lobotomy — and a product of another family where no one seemed to know how to rise children — and you had a formula for disaster. Dully believes his stepmother hoped Freeman would kill him, or at least turn him into a vegetable.

Either way would get him out of the house. As it turned out, the observable effects of the operation were small, but Dully was kicked out anyway.

He was soon involved in petty crime — by his own account, he seems to have been a bit of a con artist — and so was labeled troublemaker. That was nearly as good, from stepmom Lou’s point of view, as vegetable.

Once labeled, it is difficult to get people to look with clear sight at your behavior, and much of the memoir is devoted to Dully’s worries about his own status. If I’m not really bad, he thought, why am I being treated the way I am? So I must be bad.

With the love of a good woman — though a cocaine addict; few people in Dully’s world were outstanding citizens — he eventually learned how to function in society. Nobody had ever tried to teach him that, he says in one of the rare bitter passages.

His tone is remarkably sweet though never saccharine. Too much bad stuff happened to allow for that.


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