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My Lobotomy by Howard Dully

My Lobotomy (original 2007; edition 2007)

by Howard Dully, Charles Fleming

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7114213,267 (3.7)69
Title:My Lobotomy
Authors:Howard Dully
Other authors:Charles Fleming
Info:Crown (2007), Edition: First Edition, First Printing, Hardcover, 288 pages
Collections:No longer own
Tags:non-fiction, memoir, mental health, lobotomy, mental illness, psychology

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My Lobotomy by Howard Dully (2007)


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Howard Dully's memoir is a story of his tragic childhood and his search as an adult for answers about his past. Both fascinating and very disturbing! ( )
  michellebarton | Dec 11, 2013 |
This book kicked my ass. Seriously. I've got that Schindler's List feeling in my stomach right now.

Author Howard Dully was a "rambunctious" kid growing up in San Jose in the mid-1950's. His neatfreak stepmother could never seem to get him to remember to wash his hands when he came in from outside, and he sometimes fought with his three brothers!!! What would you do if your life was being completely destroyed like that, by such an out-of-control monster?

Would you go doctor shopping until you found a psychiatrist willing to certify the child as a dangerous lunatic?

If so, you just might have hit the doctor-shopping jackpot, by meeting Walter Freeman, M.D. In 1947, he declared himself the "Father of Modern Lobotomy" (I guess there was ancient lobotomy?), and started touring mental facilities around the country in his "Lobotomymobile" (I shit you not). After extremely brief consultations with patients he had never met before, he would usually conclude that the cure for what's ailing them was to remove some of their brain tissue. Some of his patients had severe psychiatric problems. Others, no so much. The following tendencies could land you under Dr Freeman's knife:
-boys fighting
-girls acting slutty
-not listening to parents or teachers
-not having as many friends as the other kids
-not engaging Dr Freeman in "thoughtful conversation"

That was informative; let's make some more lists. The following are some fun facts about Dr Freeman, which are no cause for alarm, and should not reflect negatively on him in any way:
- he practiced surgery, without having done a surgery residency
- he practiced neurosurgery, without having done a neurosurgery fellowship
- by his own account, he was "not overly concerned" with keeping a sterile field during operations (this may be due to the first two items)
- when challenged that there was no scientific basis for performing lobotomy on schizophrenics, he defended: "I just think some people are better off with less brain tissue".
- he had his priviliges revoked by the executive committee of the medical staff, Stanford Palo Alto Hospital, for performing unneccessary procedures
- he killed a patient in the middle of surgery once, when he stopped the procedure while an instrument was in the patient's brain, so he could run around to the other side of the operating table and activate a timer on his camera, to take a picture of himself. Since he didn't instruct any assistants to hold the instrument during the photo session (you think maybe he could have asked one of them to take the picture?) it sagged under its own weight and sliced through the patient's brain, killing her instantly
That's some crazy shit. Here's some more:

To his befuddlement, Dr Freeman observed a very wide range of results from his surgeries. Some patients seemed to improve. Some developed serious complications, like loss of cognative function, dramatic personality changes, and seizures. About 15% died. This lack of uniformity is no surprise, if you consider that Freeman never actually saw what tissue he was cutting. ...That's right, you heard me. You see, instead of opening the patient's head to visualize the anatomy of the brain, he drove metal "lobototomes" (like long hollow knitting needles) through the back of patients' eye sockets, breaking through the thin bone back there to get into their brains. Then he just kind of wiggled the lobototomes around through the soft gray matter (living brain has the consistency of butter), until enough broke off that it could be sucked up through the lobototome like a straw. Naturally, there was quite a bit of variability from patient to patient as to what part of the brain was being removed, and how much.

GOOD GOD!! How could something like this be allowed to transpire?

To be fair, a lot of the medical establishment was up in arms about it. Unfortunately, a powerful minority among them was allied with hospital administrators, who were fretting about the rising cost of long-term psychiatric care. This was the 40's and 50's (and into the 60's) we're talking about. Most serious medical conditions either got cured, or resulted in a timely death. Mental patients were somewhat unique in requiring decades of continual care, with no cure in sight. Administrators found Freeman's procedure attractive, because even if it rendered a patient comatose, at least that person could then be discharged from the hospital and sent back to his family for long-term care.

Well... most patients. Howard Dully got lobotomized at age 12, but after the procedure, his insane stepmother and mostly-absentee Dad decided they didn't want him back. He bounced around between state hospitals and juvenile detention until he became a legal adult. Then, with no education to speak of, they turned him loose.

You can probably write the rest from here. Meeting bad influences. Petty crimes. Jail. Drug use. Unplanned pregnancies. More jail. More drugs. Begging money off his relatives. Begging money off friends. Begging money off strangers.

I was amazed how much mental function and personality Dully retained after the lobotomy. My only prior image of the lobotomized had been Jack Nicholson staring inertly at the ceiling, at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Freeman must have been having a good day when he did Dully. Thirty turbulent years followed, until Howard sort of settled down. He eventually went on to get an Associate's degree, and learned some trade skills- first in a printing shop, and then as a bus driver. He's an intellegent guy. His bizarre and mostly-criminal adventures make for fascinating, if not slightly guilty, reading. I'm fairly astounded how much tail this man got in his younger years! Normally that would be inappropriate for me to say, but Howard basically says it himself, in his good-natured way. He attributes the number of women willing to look past his substance abuse, occassional violent outbursts, infidelity, poor socioeconomic prospects, and criminal record/behavior as a testiment to the power of the "bad boy" image, and I guess he must be right.

Toward the end of the book, he's mellowed out a bit, and is remarkably nice, considering what he's been through. He's not nearly as angry about what happened to him as I am for him (if that makes sense) ...or as I would be if it happened to me. He even went as far as reaching out to his father, and asking him about the decision to lobotomize his son. The father comes across very unsympathetically: essentially shrugging and saying "what's done is done". Even after everything Howard has endured, he loves his father, and forgives him. In the afterword, he even forgives his stepmother. That's going further than I ever could, but I think it has brought Howard some peace, and I'm all for that.

Dr. Freeman died miserable, an estranged alcoholic after two failed marriages, living with the guilt of indirectly causing his son's accidental death on a camping trip. Karma wins again, I guess. There's your happy ending for you. ( )
  BirdBrian | Apr 2, 2013 |
I read this book carefully as my grandfather had bi-polar disease (or manic-depression as it was called then) and regular electric shock treatments and was recommended a lobotomy.

I could not for the life of me see what difference a lobotomy made to the author. He suffered not a single one of the complications of the operation and it was only his shame at having been lobotomized that affected his life. He made it the centre of his life when it was really not the issue at all.

The issue was the extreme child abuse, of which the lobotomy was part, handed out by his stepmother, a classic wicked stepmother for true. The stereotype of Snow White's murderous stepmother, the abusive stepmothers of Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, even Imogen's stepmother in Shakespeare's Cymbeline are all brought to life in the person of the second Mrs. Dully and her hateful, enabling husband, Dully's (un)natural father.

I understand Mr. Dully. At 14 I was taken to Wales' only 3-star Michelin restaurant for my first dinner alone with my father. I was grown-up! This was wonderful. Not. Although he was still quite young my father had had several heart attacks - it ran through the men in the family and would eventually kill him - and he told me over dinner that my behaviour towards my mother was causing his heart attacks and that if he died, it would be my fault. He said that my mother was his wife, the woman he had chosen to marry and I was only the daughter born to them and if he had to choose, he would choose her. So, in the same way that my father enabled my mother to abuse me in every which way and even joined in when requested, so did Dully approve of his wife's awful treatment of his son. He took scarcely 48 hours to approve a pre-frontal lobotomy performed through his son's eye socket with an ice pick. It wasn't the ice pick that did the damage it was Dully and his chosen bride.

Howard Dully acknowledges that his stepmother was the author of his problems, that without her he would probably have been a normal kid, teenager and adult, but he doesn't blame her for all his shortcomings, he blames the lobotomy instead. His reconciliation with his weak father is that of a little boy wanting to be kissed and hugged and made to feel loved and wanted, but the father, that cold and unnatural man, cannot bring himself to even give his son that, not even a simple hug and kiss and 'I've always loved you my son', he's still with his evil bride in the spirit if not in the flesh.

Howard had no confidence in himself, he felt himself to be the lowest of the low and acted this out for most of his life. It is only when he is valued for his first-hand knowledge of lobotomy, his articulate intelligence and beautiful speaking voice that he recovers and, at last, begins to live the life of a successful man, successful in all ways.

You can't recover from a lobotomy, but you can recover from the damage of abuse and he did recover and I'm glad of that, I like my stories, fairy tales or anything else, to have happy endings. Good luck for the future, Mr. Dully. ( )
  Petra.Xs | Apr 2, 2013 |
Like countless others, I heard Howard Dully's My Lobotomy on NPR in November, 2005. This was the second time I've ever stayed in the car when I got home or pulled to the side of the road to finish listening to a program. (Notably, the other piece, Remorse: The 14 Stories of Eric Morse was also produced by David Isay and aired on NPR.) In only 22 minutes, Dully described his complex and difficult childhood relationship with his stepmother and father, his stepmother's decision to have him lobotomized by Walter Freeman, the pioneer and zealous advocate the "icepick lobotomy," and his attempt to understand what had happened to him from the vantage of about 40 years later. While the producers did a masterful job, much of the emotional impact of the piece derives from Howard's narration.

I am a psychologist, and teach in a department that trains interventionists and therapists from the bachelor's to doctoral level. I have my students listen to Dully's NPR piece every year. In the lesson I ask, "What current practices in your profession will cause you shame and anguish 20 years from now? What will you be referring to when you have to say, 'I don't know what we were thinking'?" My students are always moved and horrified by Howard's experiences and determined to ask questions and raise concerns about professional acts that may be more dubious or dangerous than they appear.

Dully has now published a fuller account of his experiences. I will be sharing an excerpt with students this term and will add it to the books I assign in future classes. Dully's narration is simple and calm. At times there is repetition, and at times it is a straignhtforward accounting of events--I did this, this happened, this happened. Since the tone is conversational, I did not think this detracted from the overall experience of the book. I suggest listening to the NPR piece first so you can hear the book in Dully's voice.

Dully's account of his childhood and post-lobotomy adolescence and early adulthood is fascinating and raises the complexity of his story considerably. What was he really like as a child? Were there good reasons to think he was schizophrenic, or was he badly misdiagnosed? What would he have been like in a different family constellation? How would a similar child be treated today? Are any radical psychiatric interventions justifiable with children? It's impossible to answer these questions, of course, but it is interesting to compare Dully's origins and outcomes to Noah Levine's as recounted in Dharma Punx, or Jeanette Walls's in The Glass Castle.

I'm very grateful to Howard Dully for telling his story of a chapter of U.S. psychiatric history that is often downplayed, not fully explored, or simply missing in contemporary psychology education. I hope this book brings him even greater recognition and regard for his willingness to describe such a difficult life. ( )
  OshoOsho | Mar 30, 2013 |
Browsing through a collection of used books for sale in a church basement, I ran across this one, I'd learned something about Dr. Walter Freeman's infamous ice pick lobotomies earlier in the year, so the idea of a book written by someone who'd had a lobotomy at age 12 grabbed me.
This is a great read but a terrible story. A somewhat rebellious adolescent from an exceptionally dysfunctional family can't get along with his neurotic stepmother. She takes him to a series of psychiatrists (in the days before the advent of psychactive meds), but they all tell her that she's the one with the mental problems. Finally, she learns of the famous Dr. Freeman, the flamboyant self-promoting physician who performed hundreds of lobotomies and reported tremendous outcomes, albeit with the occasional patient being rendered paralyzed or even vegetative.
After several interviews with young Howard and the stepmother, Freeman agrees to perform the procedure if Howard's father signs off. He does, and the the 12 year old goes into the hospital expecting only to have some vague tests performed.
The resulting story is both horrific and inspiring. When the procedure doesn't change his behavior, the family places him in settings ranging from group homes to psychiatric hospitals until he's legally an adult. But an adult with no skills and no guidance. He descends into alcohol, illegal drugs, and criminal behavior before finally getting himself together in his 40's, finding a stable wife, and building his career.
As much as anything, though, the book is the story of his search to find out not only what happened to him but why it happened and how it was permitted to happen. ( )
  dickmanikowski | Nov 17, 2012 |
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Book description
Howard Dully recounts how the lobotomy he had at age twelve impacted every aspect of his life, leaving him struggling to get through each day, until, decades after the surgery, he was able to pull himself together and uncover the truth about why his parents made him have the operation.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0307381277, Paperback)

At twelve, Howard Dully was guilty of the same crimes as other boys his age: he was moody and messy, rambunctious with his brothers, contrary just to prove a point, and perpetually at odds with his parents. Yet somehow, this normal boy became one of the youngest people on whom Dr. Walter Freeman performed his barbaric transorbital—or ice pick—lobotomy.

Abandoned by his family within a year of the surgery, Howard spent his teen years in mental institutions, his twenties in jail, and his thirties in a bottle. It wasn’t until he was in his forties that Howard began to pull his life together. But even as he began to live the “normal” life he had been denied, Howard struggled with one question: Why?

“October 8, 1960. I gather that Mrs. Dully is perpetually talking, admonishing, correcting, and getting worked up into a spasm, whereas her husband is impatient, explosive, rather brutal, won’t let the boy speak for himself, and calls him numbskull, dimwit, and other uncomplimentary names.”

There were only three people who would know the truth: Freeman, the man who performed the procedure; Lou, his cold and demanding stepmother who brought Howard to the doctor’s attention; and his father, Rodney. Of the three, only Rodney, the man who hadn’t intervened on his son’s behalf, was still living. Time was running out. Stable and happy for the first time in decades, Howard began to search for answers.

“December 3, 1960. Mr. and Mrs. Dully have apparently decided to have Howard operated on. I suggested [they] not tell Howard anything about it.”

Through his research, Howard met other lobotomy patients and their families, talked with one of Freeman’s sons about his father’s controversial life’s work, and confronted Rodney about his complicity. And, in the archive where the doctor’s files are stored, he finally came face to face with the truth.

Revealing what happened to a child no one—not his father, not the medical community, not the state—was willing to protect, My Lobotomy exposes a shameful chapter in the history of the treatment of mental illness. Yet, ultimately, this is a powerful and moving chronicle of the life of one man. Without reticence, Howard Dully shares the story of a painfully dysfunctional childhood, a misspent youth, his struggle to claim the life that was taken from him, and his redemption.

From the Hardcover edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:40:18 -0400)

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At twelve, Howard Dully was guilty of the same crimes as other boys his age: he was moody, messy, rambunctious, and perpetually at odds with his parents. Yet somehow, this normal boy became one of the youngest people on whom Dr. Walter Freeman performed his barbaric transorbital--or ice pick--lobotomy. Abandoned by his family within a year of the surgery, Howard spent his teen years in mental institutions, his twenties in jail, and his thirties in a bottle. It wasn't until his forties that Howard began to pull his life together. But he still struggled with one question: Why? Through his research, Howard met other lobotomy patients and their families talked with one of Freeman's sons about his father's controversial life's work, and confronted his own father about his complicity. And, in the doctor's files, he finally came face to face with the truth. -- From publisher description; Crown Publishers, 2007.… (more)

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