Head trip

Lizzie Skurnick edits Old Hag, a literary blog. Her reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World and other publications.

IN 1960, 12-year-old Howard Dully had his prefrontal lobes jumbled as one of the youngest patients ever to receive a transorbital lobotomy. “My Lobotomy” is his story, and it’s a Grimmsian saga, complete with evil stepmother, unloving father and mad physician, all conspiring to unwit the unwitting victim.

As crafted by co-author Charles Fleming, Dully’s tale is Redemption 101: After the early death of Dully’s mother, his father marries a woman named Lou, with whom the boy is perpetually on the outs. There are repeated beatings and tongue-lashings; he’s kicked out several times before, at Lou’s instigation, he is lobotomized by Dr. Walter Freeman, who pioneered the procedure.

What follows is a temperamental adolescence filled with stints in both juvie and mental hospitals -- and an even more chaotic adulthood, marked by halfway houses and fractured relationships, drug and alcohol abuse and petty crime. It’s only after Dully meets the woman he will marry, Barbara, and sobers up that he tries to make sense of it.


Attempting to approximate Dully’s voice, Fleming shoots for something between Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway. Here’s Howard on his daily fare: “They baked their own bread at Agnews, and it was good bread.” Or on an extramarital relationship: “[S]ome things happened. Nice things. And those nice things continued to happen.”

What this illuminating account manages to sidestep, however, is the lobotomy. Dully includes reams of Freeman’s notes, as well as a long, fascinating chapter on the doctor, and he dutifully records everything that occurred pre- , mid- and post-op. Still, he never tells us how the operation changed him.

Because what has the lobotomy done to Dully? There’s no evidence that he’s addled. An equally likely culprit for his troubles is Lou’s cruelty -- and his father’s disturbing acquiescence. After the adult Dully shows his father a photo taken mid-lobotomy, leucotome sticking out of his eye, the older man says, “It’s just a picture.”

Nowhere is this clearer than when Dully, along with other patients of Freeman, participates in a National Public Radio piece produced by MacArthur fellow Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps. Most of the story’s subjects have clear before-and-after impressions of their treatment -- cured, permanently shattered. But as evidenced by Freeman’s files, Dully has had the narrative of his life redefined by other people’s voices early and often: most cruelly by those of Lou and his father, but also by those of medical and penal authorities and close relatives. Even Isay can’t keep his hands off when Dully is presented Freeman’s file: He intercepts Dully to look it over first. At the public airing of the piece, Isay admits that what appears to be Dully’s thoughts are actually “a collaboration.”

Now, Fleming has taken a crack at helping Dully channel Dully. What would we find out if Dully took a crack at it himself?