'I Wasn't Sick or Crazy. I Was Simply Impossible to Control.'

By Howard Dully
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

I'm a bus driver. I'm a husband, and a father, and a grandfather. I'm into doo-wop music, travel and photography.

I'm also a survivor: In 1960, when I was 12 years old, I was given a transorbital, or "ice pick," lobotomy.

My stepmother arranged it. My father agreed to it. It took 10 minutes and cost $200. And it was done by Walter Freeman, the father of the American lobotomy.

The surgery damaged me in many ways. But it didn't "fix" me, or turn me into a robot. So my family put me into an institution. I spent the next four decades in and out of insane asylums, jails and halfway houses.

Then, in 1998, when I was 50, I decided to find out what had been done to me.

* * *

I don't think my stepmother was shopping for a lobotomy the first time she met former George Washington University neurology professor Freeman, who gained notoriety by performing hundreds of lobotomies starting in the 1930s.

But she was fed up with me.

I wasn't sick or crazy. I was simply impossible to control. I was always in trouble at school and at home. I was big, and I had a lot of energy, and I made a lot of noise. If you ask me, I was just a kid. I was doing pretty much what kids that age do.

Lou met with six psychiatrists during the spring and summer of 1960. She wanted to know what was wrong with me and what she should do about it. But all six of the psychiatrists, I found out later, said my behavior was normal. Four even said the problem in the house was with her.

Nonetheless, I was admitted to Doctors General Hospital in San Jose on Dec. 15, 1960.

My father and stepmother and doctor had all told me I was in the hospital for tests. I had no reason to believe they were lying.

I don't remember being prepared for surgery. I remember waking up the day after. My head hurt. I had a fever. They kept taking blood and giving me shots. I thought something had gone wrong: What had happened with the tests?

Freeman had been assisted in the operating room by Robert Lichtenstein. His notes on the procedure sounded almost like a carpentry project:

I introduced the orbioclasts [the name Freeman had given to the instruments he had designed] under the eyelids 3 cm from the midline, aimed them parallel with the nose and drove them to a depth of 5 cm. I pulled the handles laterally, returned them halfway and drove them 2 cm deeper.

In other words, he poked these knitting needles into my skull, through my eye sockets, and then swirled them around. Then he took a picture of me with the needles in, and that was that.

I don't remember coming home from the hospital. Neither does my brother Brian; he wasn't there. When he came back, my parents brought him upstairs.

"You were sitting up in the bed, with two black eyes," Brian said later. "You looked listless. And sad. Like a zombie."

My memory began to return to me that spring. But the pressure at home continued. My dad and Lou tried to get me placed in a state mental hospital.

At their request, Freeman wrote a letter to the superintendent of Napa State Hospital saying, "Howard Dully is now 12 years old and a schizophrenic since the age of four."

The doctors reported back a while later that I was not qualified for residence. "We did not find him psychotic," the superintendent wrote.

But problems continued and eventually the people in charge of my welfare decided I should be sent to Agnews State Hospital, the great asylum for the insane, marking the beginning of my odyssey through various institutions.

* * *

I am at the end of my journey now.

When I was 50, things changed. I had suffered a heart attack. I had married a woman I really loved. I had gone back to school and earned a degree. People who met me didn't know I'd had a lobotomy, or spent 10 years in mental hospitals. They didn't see a man who was tormented by his shadowy past.

Many times I have wondered: Where were the authorities? Was there no medical standard for giving someone a lobotomy, especially a child? Is that all it took -- one doctor saying it had to be done and he'd be the one to do it?

This article is adapted from "My Lobotomy" (Crown) by Howard Dully and Charles Fleming. Comments:health@washpost.com.

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