Howard Dully with Charles Fleming
Three Rivers Press, 2007
Howard Dully's book is a first-person narrative of a life marred by the after-effects of an ice-pick transorbital lobotomy that was performed on him at the age of 12. The sheer horror of this barbaric operation was compounded by the fact that Dully's stepmother lied about his behaviors in order to convince noted lobotomist Dr. Walter Freeman to proceed. Moreover, Dully's father acquiesced to the lobotomy as a means of keeping peace in the house.
The book follows a chronological approach, recounting the death of the four-year-old Dully's birth mother and the life of abuse heaped on him by his father's second wife. While Dully was aware of the fact that a brain operation had been performed on him, he spent most of four decades in and out of mental institutions and jails, while never really understanding why he had such difficulty coping with the world.
Gaining access to Freeman's voluminous archives and detailed medical records helped Dully, as a man in his fifties, come to grips with the reasons why his traumatic life turned out the way that it did. Yet Dully avoids the temptation to heap scorn on his detestable stepmother, and the reader realizes that all Dully really wanted from this bitter, cold woman was love, an emotion she would never share with the child.
1960 photograph of 12-year-old Howard Dully receiving his "ice pick" lobotomy; image (c) 2008 Howard Dully
However, the years of foggy frustration never dampened Dully's spirit, and his archival work led to a critically-acclaimed series of interviews with Sound Portraits that aired on NPR. Dully's radio work undoubtedly assisted thousands of lobotomy patients and their families better understand the brutal magnitude of the bizarre psychosurgery performed by Freeman and other practitioners of lobotomies.
And as I closed the last page of this disturbing-though-triumphant book, I began to consider that there may indeed be psychiatric regimens that we today find perfectly acceptable, but which might some day be derided as equally savage and foolish. We always stand in danger of the fallacy of perpetual progress, or the assumption that humanity is somehow "past" the point at which it can engage in horrific, benighted behavior. Dully's book is an unsettling reminder that today's experts may one day turn out to be shockingly malevolent.