The “Ice Pick” Age and Beyond

In writing the book Examined Lives about my mother’s lobotomy I include pictures taken by Walter Freeman before, during and after the procedure. I do not, however, show a picture of the ice pick-like device he used.  Here it is. It is much larger than an actual ice pick and thus able to penetrate deeper into the brain.

 

 

It seems incredible today that such a device could have been used, but the brain has always been and still is a mysterious frontier.  Despite the great gains made by the use of antidepressants, they do not always work.  And there are other conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s, that have proved ultimately intractable to chemical intervention.  So we are in the age beyond the “Ice Pick” but still in territory with which Freeman would be familiar.  Electroshock therapy is in use.  (As a matter of fact so are lobotomies in rare instances.) And deep electrical stimulation of the brain is being tried to treat depression, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s as well as electromagnetic stimulation.  So far I have seen no discussion in news sources of possible dangers of such treatments, just as was the case in the early days of lobotomies, and what is even more shocking [no pun intended] to me at least is the fact that the average consumer can buy machines that provide electrical and electromagnetic stimulation.  Freeman would approve—inexpensive and widely available, which was Freeman’s goal with lobotomies.

Here We Go!

Although Examined Lives is not yet on the digital market or on bookshelves, I am starting my efforts to get the word out.  My first event will be a reading and discussion at Woman Made Gallery, described in the release below.  Just click on the link.  I hope that those of you in Chicago can attend.

I welcome any suggestions about further opportunities to make my voice heard.  The book offers so many possible angles:  the glamour of my mother’s life in 1930’s Chicago, a no-holds-barred look at mental illness, the hopeful message that it can be faced and overcome, a cautionary tale about embracing medical practices based on hype and  little data as well as about the responsibility one has for making medical decisions for someone else.

WMG Talk

 

 

Walter Freeman and Me

As the time comes ever nearer for the publication of Examined Lives, I am still trying to understand the man who performed a lobotomy on my mother. I never met Walter Freeman, the man who was the very public face of lobotomies as cures for mental illness in the mid-20thcentury and at whose own reckoning performed some 3,500 such operations.  The photo below of his performing a lobotomy, without mask or gloves, in front of curious bystanders was one of his publicity stunts.  The procedure he used extensively, as depicted, involved hammering an ice pick-like device through the eye socket and wiggling it back and forth to severe connections between the frontal lobes and the rest of the brain.

MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, 1986.5.25616

Freeman performed that operation on my mother in 1950.  He saw her for the first time on a Friday, pronounced her a paranoid schizophrenic, and did the procedure the following Monday.  The man wasted no time.

The operation drastically changed my mother’s life and so my own.  Her diary and scrapbooks reveal her to have been a vivacious, competent woman.  She came to Chicago on her 20th birthday and began her rise in the hospitality industry, starting with serving at the lunch counter at a busy Walgreen’s Drugstore at Rush and Oak Streets, where she ended up supervising 12 other waitresses, to serving as room captain at the Camellia Room of the Drake Hotel, frequented by the likes of Greta Garbo and Clark Gable.  In her off hours she devoured the nightlife, visiting numerous clubs on any one night with a string of young swain, several of whom wanted to marry her. One was Jerry with whom she visited a night club and “afterward on the way home Jerry and I spied a baby buggy in an apartment house hall and we stole it and I rode down Rush Street in a baby buggy.  Fun. They took the buggy back though.”

After the lobotomy, her drive and “sparkle,” as my aunt put it, was taken from her and in fact she ended up being “adjudged insane” and institutionalized for a period of time.

What led to her having the lobotomy?  That is the story I tell in my book Examined Lives, based on thousands of pages of family letters, diaries, scrapbooks, medical records, an unpublished novel, poetry, and photographs.  And, yes of course, on the writings of Walter Freeman.