Non-Fiction Friday: THE LOBOTOMIST by Jack El-Hai

My book talks are coming at you from a librarian, not a reviewer. You won’t find me talking about style or craft, why I think this could’ve been better or what worked or didn’t work. I only do book talks on books I liked and want other people to know about. So if it’s here I probably think it won’t injure your brain if you read it. (Which, considering the title of this week’s Book Talk, is a pretty funny statement).

Earlier this year I read MY LOBOTOMY by Howard Dully, the memoir of a lobotomy patient who had his frontal lobes severed when he was a young boy. It was obviously an alarming story, one that readers can hardly believe occurred in the very recent past. In it, the performing surgeon – Dr. Martin Freeman – is not portrayed very positively. To be fair, I thought I’d read his biography to get the other side of the story.

And it was truly fascinating. Drawing on interviews with surviving family members and Freeman’s own prodigious documentation, El-Hai paints a picture of a man who truly wanted to help the insane – especially those facing a lifetime inside insane asylums no longer looking to treat the insane but rather to manage them.

Truly dedicated to his patients and believing that lobotomy was the answer to their problems, Freeman would personally travel to their homes and track down patients across the country for as long as 10 years after their surgeries to interview them and catalog their recovery or decline. He was honest in his findings, even when they did not align with his own beliefs that psychosurgery was the answer.

If anything, Freeman’s failings came in being too zealous in his work – sometimes performing double-digit lobotomies in a single day as an outpatient surgery in his own office. Freeman wanted to provide relief to the suffering… even when the time of the knife as past and the introduction of Prozac and the “chemical lobotomy” offered a much less invasive and reversible solution.