Howard Dully writes a mind-bending memoir about his lobotomy
The year was 1960. Dr. Walter Freeman shoved two ice picks through 12-year-old Howard Dully’s eye sockets and scrambled his brains. Dully was known to be the youngest person to ever receive a transorbital lobotomy by the controversial doctor. And that was just one of Dully’s problems.
The boy grew up in a dysfunctional home with a step-mother who treated him like garbage, like the dirtiest garbage possible—the egg shells, the banana peels, feces, you get the picture. Life sucked for Dully. And on top of that he possessed a heavy dose of rebellion and quite possibly a case of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). As a result, his father, and particularly his step-mother, found Dully to be a quick-growing son whom they couldn’t control. And so the emotional, verbal and physical abuse began. And it didn’t end. In an effort to “control” Dully’s behavior problems (which frankly probably stemmed from growing up with a legitimately crazy step-mother), his parents decided to have him undergo a lobotomy, in an effort to diffuse his strong personality and rebellious streak.
Thankfully, unlike many other people who’ve undergone such surgeries and have come out with fried brains, Dully’s physical effects from the lobotomy were minimal—maybe some memory loss, but not much that he can quantify. However, the emotional turmoil that followed was tragic.
Unable still to control their son, even after his lobotomy, Dully’s parents sent him to live with relatives, and then he went on to become a ward of the state, bouncing around from a mental hospital to juvenile hall, back to the mental hospital, to a camp-like setting for troubled youngsters, to a half-way house. As Dully entered his 20s and later his 30s, life continued to be a raging mess: drugs, alcohol, promiscuous sex, botched relationships, the list went on.
Finally, there came a time when Dully was ready to change his life. It was then that he received some education, got off the substances and turned his life around. And it wasn’t long after, that he also began to find answers to the questions that had long plagued him. Was he crazy? What had he done to deserve a lobotomy? How could his parents do such a thing? And on and on. His research on the internet led him to meeting some people, which eventually led him to appear on a NPR show where he spoke about his lobotomy. From there, he went on to write a memoir about his life.
The tale, “My Lobotomy,” released this month by Crown publishers, is a stunning read. It’s powerful and a breeze to fly through, and frankly, you can’t put it down—the subject matter is too compelling to wander away from. It’s a deep, disturbing and heavy story that reads like a fictional novel yet sadly, there’s not a drop of make-believe in it.
GT recently caught up with the author who lives in San Jose, and we spoke with him about his book and his lobotomy.
HOW DID IT END UP THAT YOU DECIDED TO WRITE A BOOK AND WAS IT A SCARY PROSPECT TO TELL YOUR STORY?
I always wanted to know about my lobotomy and I didn’t know how to go about it. When the Web came into being I was able to search the Web on Dr. Freeman. … After the program on NPR in November, 2005, it was on a Wednesday, we talked about how I could expand the story. It was allowed 22 minutes on the radio so there was much more to the story. I wanted to tell the story that I wasn’t an angel myself and the only way that could be done was in a broader format. Someone referred me to an agent. The agent contacted a writer and the writer and I talked and we came to a meeting of the minds. We came up with the proposal and sent it to publishers. We got a few bites and Crown liked it so much they gave us a preemptive bid.
WHAT WAS THE PROCESS IN WRITING IT AND HOW DID IT END UP GETTING PUBLISHED?
I turned over the documents to [the writer] that I got from the archives. He got the NPR piece and the hours of tape that we had that wasn’t used. We did interviews and I met with him here and in L.A. and we would bounce [the story] back and forth.
WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE TO HAVE WRITTEN A BOOK?
It feels scary … your life being out there in the public is a fearful thing. It makes you feel vulnerable. My brothers have not responded to the book yet … and my dad has not read it yet. He says he’ll get to it someday.
HOW HAS YOUR LIFE CHANGED SINCE WRITING THIS BOOK?
I feel that a weight was taken off of me. I don’t feel that I have to hide what happened to me.
WHAT WERE THE PHYSICAL AND EMOTIONAL EFFECTS ON YOU FROM HAVING A LOBOTOMY?
I don’t know that there was really anything physical, probably some memory loss, but nothing I can point to. I remember stuff prior to it and after it, but I don’t remember the actual operation itself. I do remember being in the hospital. … It takes your self-esteem. You feel freakish, like an experiment. You feel you’ve been robbed of your childhood. After age 12 I was institutionalized and all the ‘dancing through the flowers’ you do in you teen years, I didn’t get to do. It also kept me from going to college at 20 and getting to start a job and work at that age. I didn’t take off until I was in my 40s, 20 years too late.
NOW, 40 YEARS LATER, DOES IT STILL BOGGLE YOUR MIND THAT YOU WERE THE YOUNGEST PERSON EVER TO RECEIVE AN ICE PICK LOBOTOMY?
It boggles my mind that I even had one, period, because someone goes in and egg beaters your brain. It’s almost like science fiction, like a monster movie, so I try not to dwell on the fact that it was done to me. There’s a place in Freedom that will do an MRI for me, so I can find out what was done to my brain. (He’s hoping to have this scan done soon.)
DO YOU THINK YOU SIMPLY HAD A CASE OF CHILDHOOD REBELLION OR ADD?
Yeah, something similar to that. It has to be what it was. I was living in such a confined time—a time where doctors were the ultimate word and you trusted doctors. My dad worked three jobs so it was very hard for him, and so [Lou, my step-mom] was it. … My dad said he trusted her and he was duped. They (Lou and Freeman) conspired with him and he wound up getting the operation done [on me] because he was told it was the only way to save things. Out of the six shrinks she took me to see, four of them said she needed the counseling and she wouldn’t accept that. This was told to me by my brother. All of them said there was nothing wrong with me.
HOW DO YOU THINK YOUR LIFE WOULD HAVE TURNED OUT IF YOU HADN’T HAD A LOBOTOMY, AND WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU MISSED OUT ON IN LIFE BECAUSE OF YOUR LOBOTOMY?
Oh Lord, I don’t know. I’d love to think I’d be the president of GM, but there’s no way of knowing so I don’t dwell on that. I find it useless.
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