Jan 21, 2009

Book Review: My Lobotomy

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.


historymike said...

A few relevant links:

Howard Dully's NPR story (Real Audio)

Howard Dully's personal website

Mad Jack said...

Sheer horror? You really think that this is a thing of the past? Not so.

Allow me to enlighten you and whomever is reading this. Right now, today, if anyone admits to a medical professional that they have had thoughts of harming themselves or others, they can be hospitalized in a state run institution against their will. They can be held incommunicado, and in many cases medicated against their will. At the whim of the staff they can be placed in four point restraints until someone releases them.

The person might also be given shock treatments against their will.

The worst part about this is that the police will assist the medical professionals who cart you away, and, short of direct judicial intervention, there isn't anything you can do about it.

These medical professionals, by the way, may have no high school diploma, might easily be dead ignorant and dumber than a box of rocks. They might also be malicious and somewhat sadistic, with the kind of cruelty that comes from ignorance and stupidity.

And while I'm at it, all a medical professional really has to do is say that you were heard to make comments about harming yourself or others. Nice way to put your blood sucking ex-spouse on ice for a while, isn't it?

Very similar to the fabled blue wall of silence, there is a white wall of silence. Medical staff won't rat on each other, and they'll deny everything. Even the good ones.

microdot said...

Interesting to see this account of a mind destroyed by the manipulation of the legal system....
I have just read EyeMind:The Saga of Roky Erikson by Paul Drummond, which was released in 2007.

Erikson was a very talented musician from Austin, Texas who was a pioneer of psychedelic music, but really wrote great grungy rock songs.
In 1969, he pleaded guilty to the posession of marijuana in Texas and on the advice of his lawyer, used an insanity defense in an attempt to get a lighter sentence.
That was the beginning of a black hole that lasted until 1972. He was sent to a an institution for the criminally insane and subjected to shock treatments and drugs.
When he was released, he was unable to exist in the real world with out supervision. He was still a vital musician and creted a lot of great music after his release, but personally, his mind had been irrevokably shattered.
In the 80's, there was a great tribute record record called The Eye of The Pyramid featuring REM and a lot of other bands who called him an influence.
Roky is 61 now and with the support of people who have grown up with his music, he is still performing, writing and recording....and obsessively stealing peoples mail.

mud_rake said...

I have frequently used the phrase, 'You ought to go get a lobotomy' on people who continually represent themselves as idiots.

I'll reserve the use of the phrase where appropriate, thank you.

Linda said...

Dear Madjack -

I've worked in the mental health system and I can tell you that what you are describing is not my experience.

A patient has to display immediate and present danger to themselves or others. The key is IMMEDIATE. There are plenty of times when family members express concerns and would like to have their loved one hospitalized but if the loved one does not present an IMMEDIATE threat they will be not be admitted.

A person with persistent mental illness often does not realize how their behaviors threaten or intimidate others and therefore feel their hospitalizations are unfair and unneccessary.

Here are your rights as a patient in the State of Ohio in regards to civil commitment: