Wednesday, June 24, 2009

My Lobotomy: A Memoir, by Howard Dully and Charles Fleming

I expected to like this book. I have done a great deal of reading about mental illness and the horrors that pass as cures, including lobotomy. Seeing lobotomy from the patient’s perspective is a rarity.

The story is certainly compelling. The telling of it is not. I suspect that a combination of the natural talents of Howard Dully and his co-writer, along with the effects of the lobotomy, is why the book is not all it could be. The book is unnecessarily repetitious, which takes away a lot of its power. Much of it is also infused with an adolescent point of view. I had the disturbing feeling that Howard Dully is a 50-something teenager. Or perhaps now a young adult.

I have heard that alcoholics tend to be stuck chronologically where they first became alcoholics. So if they were teens, that’s where they stay until such time as they burst free of the addiction, insofar as one can. It seems to me that the same might be said for this particular lobotomy. It was performed on Howard as a 12-year-old and his thoughts and actions for years afterwards mirror the feelings and impressions of a 12-year-old.

I became impatient with the explanations. Howard, as a young teen in Agnews, the mental hospital, did not know when he would get out. His reaction, therefore, was to “have fun”. Because he did not know nor was he able to control his future, he felt his only option was to have fun. This attitude, along with the lack of any real training for the real world, is what got him into trouble year after year. It also was the reason I had trouble liking Howard as I listened to this CD version of the book.

He recognizes, late in the book, that it was the lack of preparation for work or life outside that got him in trouble so often. Is this a common experience for people in similar situations? Those who are young and placed in mental institutions for a relatively short time? It seems an astounding lack of foresight on the part of the caretakers. How can you expect somebody to do well on the outside without the necessary skills? Even in prison inmates get an opportunity to train for some work.

The part of the book that is especially disturbing is the treatment of Howard by his stepmother Lou. The unfortunate combination of a distant father (emotionally), who does not share significant information or thoughts with his son, and a distrusting, disapproving stepmother who singled Howard out, was bound to have a significant effect on Howard’s behavior as a young child. He was beaten daily by either or both parents, he was not told of his real mother’s death when it happened (she just “left”), and it seemed to make no difference what he did. It makes sense that he acted out, that he rebelled, he made good on what his parents accused him of. When Lou took it upon herself to press for the lobotomy, Howard had nobody in his corner.

As I listened to the CDs I was also affected by the manner in which the book was read. It is not read by Howard, but by a skilled reader, who reads an attitude into the words. I was not fond of the way he read it and wondered if I would feel differently about the book if I had read the paper version. Therefore, I sought out information online, and especially looked for the NPR program featuring Howard. It was easy to find: NPR program

In this radio program we get to hear Howard narrate and talk to lobotomy experts and others affected by lobotomy. We get to hear the real Howard speak. His voice has almost a monotone quality to it, which is something I might expect of a person who has undergone a lobotomy. When he is emotionally caught up we can tell by the hesitation and difficulty speaking, so his delivery is not actually “flat”. I wonder if I would have liked the book better if it had been actually read by Howard. I think it’s possible, because it would have felt more real.

I am glad I had the opportunity to listen to this book, which I had not even heard of before I saw it on the list of books in a virtual book box through bookcrossing. It gave me a lot to think about. I do wish it had been more skillfully written, yet it is hard to see how it could have been done without changing the character of Howard Dully.

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