Oliver Sacks meets Stephen King in a piercing study of one of psychiatric medicine’s darker hours.
Well known for recent takedowns of psychic charlatans, Esquire contributing editor Dittrich expands a feature story there to point an accusing finger at the old practices of lobotomy, electroshock, and other supposed therapies for mental illness. His accusation lands squarely on his own grandfather, a pioneer in the use of surgery to treat mental illness. “None would perform as many lobotomies as Freeman,” he writes of another leading doctor of the day, “who was as prolific as he was passionate. My grandfather, however, would come in a close second.” The problem was, no one in that day was sure why cutting into the frontal lobes had the effects it did or, indeed, how the brain really ticked. Dittrich’s story begins and ends, in frightening, graphic detail, with an unfortunate young boy who suffered an injury to his brain, which “sloshed forward in its watery womb, pushing up against the thin membrane of the pia mater and the thicker membranes of the arachnoid and dura mater, its weight compressing them all until it crashed against the unyielding barrier of his skull.” Surgery did not help; indeed, medical intervention played a role in what would become a textbook case of amnesia, made all the more tragic because the patient could not form new memories and could not remember who his aging mother was except against the index of the long-ago picture he held of her as a young woman, part of the “eternal limbo to which my grandfather’s operation had sentenced him.” Dittrich’s riveting tale turns up numerous other surprises, including a battle among academic giants over the ownership of the poor patient’s brain and a skeleton in the family closet involving, almost literally, a mad woman in the attic. Though long, there’s not a wasted word in the book, which should make readers glad we live in the age of Prozac and not the scalpel.
A mesmerizing, maddening story and a model of journalistic investigation.