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.
About the Author
HOWARD DULLY is a tour bus driver who lives happily with his wife in San Jose, California. This is his first book.
CHARLES FLEMING is a former Newsweek correspondent and Vanity Fair contributor and the coauthor of a number of bestselling nonfiction books. He lives in Los Angeles.
"The lobotomy, although terrible, was not the greatest injury done to him. His greatest misfortune, as his own testimony makes clear, was being raised by parents who could not give him love. The lobotomy, he writes, made him feel like a Frankenstein monster. But that's not quite right. By the age of 12 he already felt that way. It's this that makes My Lobotomy one of the saddest stories you'll ever read."
—William Grimes, The New York Times
"Dully's tale is a heartbreakingly sad story of a life seriously, tragically interrupted. All Howard Dully wanted was to be normal. His entire life has been a search for normality. He did what he had to do to survive. This book is his legacy, and it is a powerful one."
—San Francisco Chronicle
"In My Lobotomy Howard Dully tells more of the story that so many found gripping in a National Public Radio broadcast: how his stepmother joined with a doctor willing to slice into his brain with “ice picks” when he was all of 12 years old."
—New York Daily News
"[Dully's] memoir is vital and almost too disturbing to bear-a piece of recent history that reads like science fiction… Dully, the only patient to ever request his file, speaks eloquently. It’s a voice to crash a server, and to break your heart.”
—Cleveland Plain Dealer
"The value of the book is in the indomitable spirit Dully displays throughout his grueling saga…By coming to grips with his past and shining a light into the dark corners of his medical records, Dully shows that regardless of what happened to his brain, his heart and soul are ferociously strong.”
"Plain-spoken, heart wrenching memoir ..."
—San Jose Mercury News
"Gut-wrenching memoir by a man who was lobotomized at the age of 12.
Assisted by journalist/novelist Fleming (After Havana, 2003, etc.), Dully recounts a family
tragedy whose Sophoclean proportions he could only sketch in his powerful 2005 broadcast on NPR’s
All Things Considered.
“In 1960,” he writes, “I was given a transorbital, or ‘ice pick’ lobotomy. My stepmother arranged it. My father agreed to it. Dr. Walter Freeman, the father of the American lobotomy, told me he was going to do some ‘tests.’ It took ten minutes and cost two hundred dollars.” Fellow doctors called Freeman’s technique barbaric: an ice pick—like instrument was inserted about three inches into each eye socket and twirled to sever connections from the frontal lobe to the rest of the brain. The procedure was intended to help curb a variety of psychoses by muting emotional responses, but sometimes it irreversibly reduced patients to a childlike state or (in 15% of the operations Freeman performed) killed them outright. Dully’s ten-minute “test” did neither, but in some ways it had a far crueler result, since it didn’t end the unruly behavior that had set his stepmother against him to begin with.
“I spent the next forty years in and out of insane asylums, jails, and halfway houses,” he tells us. “I was homeless, alcoholic, and drug-addicted. I was lost.” From all accounts, there was no excuse for the lobotomy. Dully had never been “crazy,” and his (not very) bad behavior sounds like the typical acting-up of a child in desperate need of affection. His stepmother responded with unrelenting abuse and neglect, his father allowed her to demonize his son and never admitted his complicity in the lobotomy; Freeman capitalized on their monumental dysfunction. It’s a tale of epic horror, and while Dully’s courage in telling it inspires awe, readers are left to speculate about what drove supposedly responsible adults to such unconscionable acts.
A profoundly disturbing survivor’s tale."
"...Hard to put down."