The Story of Howard Dully and his lobotomy

I stumbled upon this book when researching insane asylums which lead me to read about lobotomies, and then I found this book, Messing with my head: the shocking true story of my lobotomy, also known as My lobotomy. I couldn’t believe that a lobotomy was performed on a 12 year old boy, Howard Dully. What’s worse, other psychiatrists said there was nothing wrong with him, all except Dr Walter Freeman. The man who was at the forefront of lobotomy in the US and made orbital lobotomies the method of choice. This is a harrowing and fascinating story. And it was going on into the 1960s, which is quite concerning.

How could they get away with it? How could the system fail so badly that it let this child be lobotimised? How could the medical profession do this? These questions are pertinent but only with the wisdom of hindsight. At the time, lobotomy was on the wane, but it was still an accepted form of ‘treatment’. You can only hope that Freeman really thought that he was doing lobotomies for the betterment of the patient. Though, the fact he skewed the reported success of the procedure (I don’t think that uncommon for the time) makes you wonder.

I’m unsure whether the ‘villain’ is Freeman or Lou, Howard Dully’s stepmother. Probably both and neither. Lou had her reasons, even if they were borderline psychopathic. I mean I don’t think any normal person would purposely strive to get their child a lobotomy. I think, but can’t quite recall so could be wrong, that Lou had some problems of her own as a child and she her previous husband left her and perhaps was an alcoholic. So some of these events are possibly a result of her issues. Even after the lobotomy, she still hated him and thought him dangerous, so continued to plot to have him sent away, eventually she got her way. Howard spent time in insane asylums, jails and halfway houses, of course at that time there wasn’t that much in terms of juvenile treatment, so in the asylum he was there with adults, who mostly had very serious mental illness, and yet here was this boy who was by all accounts just a bit of a handful. Hearing his account of his time in these places is fascinating, and I think this personal retelling of a story is what makes autobiographies that bit better than biographies. For example I don’t think you could would hear a retelling of how Howard in the insane asylum made a scam with cigarettes, or his escapades at the youth facility/camp. And these stories create greater depth which is really important.

Despite everything that happened Howard was able to, eventually, get on with his life. He got married, and had children, and years later he cleaned himself up, started working after a life on government support. Eventually he ended up getting into contact with a few people from National Public Radio who were interested in making a radio program about lobotomy and Freeman. After talking to him once, they changed topics, to him. The story of the interviews are quite interesting, and end up with him going to see some of Freeman’s documents in the archives, which is a harrowing experience. The things that were written about him, and what Lou told Freeman, some things which certainly were untrue, which highlights her pathological (she was the one who needed help) desire to ‘deal’ with Howard.

And then they eventually interviewed Howard’s father, which would have be so difficult for Howard. They didn’t talk that much to begin with, let alone the past. His father certainly wasn’t that keen on discussing the past, he thought that it’s happened, so no use crying over it. It was awkward between the pair and his father didn’t seem to blame himself nor want to apologise. The wonderful thing is that other people who were lobotomised and their families were inspired by Howard’s story and his bravery in sharing it. The radio show was a success and NPR was overwhelmed with the response (the email server crashed).

I almost feel wrong saying I enjoyed this book because of all the pain and trouble Howard went through. But I found it fascinating, heart wrenching, enlightening, moving, and often made me stop and think. Most certainly I just hope we as a society don’t make such blunders in the future, but unfortunately we probably will.

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One thought on “The Story of Howard Dully and his lobotomy

  1. The science of lobotomy have always disturbed me, especially how it was included in the admittedly fictional (and disturbing and engrossing) work Shutter Island. And I still get chills thinking of a man being led off to get the transorbital lobotomy at the end of that book/film.
    This autobiographical account would be very interesting to read, although I obviously have too much on my plate at the moment. I’ll try to remember it for some time.

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