Something I never think about: In the fall of 1986, I started my senior year in high school at a boarding school where you were in the classroom for four hours a day and worked at a job on campus for four hours a day. I started out that school year working in the new nursing home that had been established in the old hospital right next to campus.
It wasn't long before I was screaming to get out of that job. By Christmas I had been given a job helping the home ec teacher. But while I was there, part of my job was to go to each patient's room in the morning for "reality orientation." I'd walk in and tell the patient the day and date in a cheerful voice and then pull open their curtain for them. I'd get them water or whatever they needed and help them out of bed, if necessary.
The patient I most identified with was a woman named Ginny. Though she had cancer, she seemed the least sick of all the patients there. There was another woman whose name I forget now, but I spent a lot of time with her too. She would hold my hand and tell me what I'm sure were lovely stories of her childhood that I couldn't understand because she'd tell them in Croatian. She spent most of her time strapped in a wheelchair. Often she would wheel herself over to the door and spit behind it.
There are other stories I could tell, but I'd really rather not think of them. I will say that my least favorite days were the days when I would come in to find a room cleaned and empty. I hated that job because it made me so sad - sad when someone was gone and sad to see someone new come in to take their place among the sick and demented and dying. I was already an angst-ridden teen; I really didn't want any more sadness in my life.
So if you knew that about me, and if you knew other certain things about me, like exactly how tenderhearted I can be or how full of rage I get when I hear stories of parents who abuse and neglect their children (don't we all?), then you might wonder why I picked up a book called My Lobotomy: A Memoir. I was in Barnes and Noble when I saw it. I picked it up and read the back cover and put it down and walked away. Five minutes later, I picked it up again. This is what the back cover says:
My name is Howard Dully. In 1960, when I was twelve years old, I was given a lobotomy. My stepmother arranged it. My father agreed to it. Dr. Walter Freeman, the man who invented the "ice pick" lobotomy, performed it. My family paid the hospital $200. And I never understood why. I wasn't a violent kid. I had never hurt anyone. I wasn't failing out of school. Was there something I had done that was so horrible I deserved a lobotomy?
I asked myself that question for more than forty years. Then, when I turned fifty-four, I went looking for the answer.
I read that and I had to know. Why on earth would a doctor perform a lobotomy on a normal twelve-year-old? Why would his father ever agree to it? Wasn't there any advocate for this boy? I absolutely had to know.
Once I started reading, I discovered that the book came about because someone from NPR found Howard and decided to do a story on him. I thought it was going to be hard for me to listen to, but I wanted to hear his voice. I'm glad I did. Howard has made a life for himself - against much greater odds than most. He is one of Dr. Freeman's luckier patients. He was young enough when it happened for his brain to adapt to the "surgery," and he has been able to tell a story that others have not been able to tell. Though I thought that I would find this book depressing, and it is rough-going there for a long while, by the end Howard is at peace with his past. And I'm thinking of Howard often and wishing him well.