Historically, the medical treatment of mental illness has been fraught with quacks and questionable practices. Possibly the scariest thing about this all is just how relatively recently some of the most blatantly inhumane treatments were abandoned. Don’t like your wife? Have her involuntarily committed to an asylum for “hysteria”. Don’t like your step-son? Have him lobotomized.
My Lobotomy is the poignant memoir of Howard Dully, whose step-mother, for no discernible reason other than a deep hatred of the young boy, had him lobotomized in 1960 when he was just 12. To accomplish her plan to destroy him, she enlisted Dr. Walter Freeman, the foremost lobotomist of the period and creator of the trans-orbital lobotomy. This appalling procedure has a macabre, and totally accurate nickname, the “ice pick” lobotomy. Accurate because Dr. Freeman did, in fact, use ice picks when he first began performing the procedure. By the time he operated on Dully, he had his own tools specially made. He would insert these into the brain by nudging aside the eyeball and using the eye socket as the access point. He would then wiggle the tools around inside the patients brain, severing the frontal lobes, and making mincemeat of it. Complications, including deaths, were common.
That this procedure was once accepted medical treatment is stunning. That it was performed on many children, a sad, sad thing. That it was performed on Dully, a travesty. The files Sully discovered and shares in the book show that his step-mother, herself the mother of two boys, complained of…not much, normal boy behavior drove her to the brink, and Dully bore the burden. Verbally and physically abused by both step-mother and biological father, Dully was an average boy. The good doctor himself initially saw nothing wrong with the boy. In fact, several other adults in Dully’s past claimed the problem was with the step-mother. The many doctors she consulted prior to finding Freeman said much the same. She was even recommended therapy by one of the doctors she consulted. When she met Freeman, she found a man who felt he could do no wrong, even in the face of increasing criticism from his peers.
One carefully places lie, two months and two days, and Dully had his lobotomy. Dully was told he would be having more tests done…no one felt he should be told what was going to be done to him. Worse yet, even after the procedure, his step-mother could not stand to have him in the home. Dully was placed in an asylum because there was nowhere else to put him, juvenile hall for much the same reason, a residential facility for troubled kids, and a foster home. He was dumped out of the system in his late teens with a disability check, no life skills, no job skills, and a mediocre education. He drifted, found booze, found drugs and then, in an incredible show of willpower and fortitude, he and his wife got clean and he found himself.
The writing in this book is clumsy at first. Dully uses his parents first names (as opposed to mom/dad) and this makes the early biographical information unwieldy. Once the book gets beyond that, the writing markedly improves. A brief return to this convoluted arrangement during Dr. Freeman’s biographical sketch is the only distraction in the prose. The writing in the remainder of the book is lively, beautifully simple and allows the reader to decide how they feel about the material, emotional cues being mostly absent. My Lobotomy is a fascinating look into the life of someone who fits every description of a victim, yet is remarkably anything but.