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Cannonball Read IV: The Lobotomist by Jack El-Hai

By squeakytoy | Books | May 4, 2012 |

By squeakytoy | Books | May 4, 2012 |

Walter Freeman is a polarizing character. He popularized and promoted the more traditional lobotomy, developed a new one (the ice pick lobotomy), and performed them on thousands of the mentally impaired (and sometimes not so impaired) throughout a relatively short time span. But the man did it to try and alleviate their suffering. He felt that if most of his patients were able to be released from their asylums, then he did good work.

I was particularly aggressive towards Freeman’s ideas, especially after reading My Lobotomy. After reading The Lobotomist by Jack El-Hai, I realized that I would have a really good time hanging out with Freeman. He was a showboating, witty, and brilliant guy. Like everything else in this world, our choices are colored by the times we live in, and Freeman was no different. He was looking for a solution and the evidence he had pointed to the lobotomy’s direction. It certainly helped some, but not entirely for the reasons Freeman identified. Our knowledge today allows us to perform better and more precise brain surgery, and I’m certain there are more Freeman’s today, just with more restrictions.

When Freeman died, he left behind many of his letters, journals, and other writings. His children were willing and happy to talk to El-Hai, and provided many of the colorful stories of their father. El-Hai does a fantastic job of following Freeman’s thought process and merging it with By following Freeman’s thought process, he becomes a more sympathetic individual.

There were some points in the book that felt disjointed, particularly near the end. I understand that El-Hai had to describe the changing climate that lead to the downfall of the lobotomy (and Walter Freeman), but it felt shoe-horned into the narrative. Other than those awkward history lessons, the book was a great read, especially for those already interested in psychology and history.

I wanted to include one of my favorite anecdotes from the book, but it is mildly inappropriate, so [be forewarned]:

Soon another patient commanded Freeman’s curiosity: a young man who arrived at the hospital with his penis in dire shape. Inflamed and dark, the organ was encircled by a ring that the patient’s girlfriend had thrust over it but was unable to remove. Freeman ended the patient’s agony by filing through the ring and twisting it free with foreceps. ‘The patient asked for the ring but I told him it was a specimen and that I would have to keep it,’ Freeman wrote. ‘I had the ring repaired and the Freeman crest engraved on it.’ For years afterward, Freeman wore the specimen on a gold chain.

This review is part of Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it, and find more of squeakytoy’s reviews on the group blog.