A writer recounts the story of her mother’s schizophrenia diagnosis and subsequent lobotomy in this debut memoir.
After the death of her husband; a prolonged, difficult battle with depression and irritable bowel syndrome; and suicidal thoughts during a solitary Christmas on a remote farm, Allen checked herself into a mental health facility to get her life in order. She decided that, as part of her investigation into herself, she would go through the papers of her dead parents: her mother’s diaries and scrapbooks, her father’s unpublished poetry and novels, and, most significantly, “what remained of my mother’s patient records in Walter Freeman’s files and at the Independence Mental Health Institute to which she was committed.” It was while under the care of Freeman—a physician whose methods would later become the stuff of horror stories—that Allen’s mother, Gretchen Richard, was declared a schizophrenic and forced within days to undergo a lobotomy that completely changed her personality. In this memoir, Allen reconstructs Gretchen’s life as a young, single Roman Catholic woman in Depression-era Chicago, where she met and married Everett Reb, an aspiring writer. The strained marriage and her erratic behavior eventually led her to Freeman, whose swift and drastic treatment changed the lives of Gretchen and her family forever. Allen’s skill as a storyteller is apparent right from the start of the book, which begins, “My life has been messy. At times, it has been almost unbearably messy, and that has had a far-reaching impact on my life. I did not suffer unrelenting misery.” Her parents are perfect subjects: Gretchen, a tragic yet magnetic figure; Everett, an observant and thorough diarist. While there are a few sections where the narrative gets bogged down in the minutiae of biography (moves, relatives), the story is as compelling as it is upsetting. The author not only sheds light on the disturbing mid-20th-century practice of lobotomy (which was mostly performed on female patients), but also thoughtfully examines the ramifications of such practices—and mental illness generally—on subsequent generations. Allen stares boldly into the darkness but manages to find in her own life a glimmering alternative.
A deft account of mental illness and motherhood.