Howard Dully’s life story is so tragic it boggles the mind. At the tender age of 12 his step mother, fed up with what she perceived as his overly rambunctious, rebellious and messy ways, arranged for Dully to be lobotomized. After undergoing a transorbital lobotomy with an ice pick at the hands of Dr. Walter Freeman, the father of the American lobotomy, Dully would go on the spend the next forty-plus years living a mostly empty life. Disappointed the lobotomy did not leave him servile and mute, his parents placed him in a series of mental hospitals, foster homes and juvenile detention facilities. This was followed by periods of jail, homelessness, alcoholism, poverty and dead-end jobs. Eventually, he began asking questions about the horrific operation he suffered as a child. After his search for answers attracted the attention of a small team of NPR reporters, his story was featured in 2005 as part of the radio network’s Sound Portraits series. Listeners found Dully’s story so powerful and gut-wrenching they flooded NPR with email messages. As a matter of fact, his segment generated so many email messages that the deluge crashed the server. In a word, unbelievable.
Although I didn’t hear the original broadcast, I did hear the follow-up one that aired shortly after. Like many listeners, I remember being blown away by what I heard. And also like many listeners, I remember being outraged by the comments of his douche bag father who denied any responsibility for having his young son lobotomized. Later, when I saw Dully’s memoir My Lobotomy displayed in the window of a local bookstore, I vowed to someday read it. A few years later I bought a battered copy at a neighborhood garage sale. After letting it sit ignored and unread on the shelf for a number of years last week or so I finally got around to reading it. Wow, what a story.
It feels crazy to say this but the lobotomy wasn’t the worst thing to happen to Dully. He lost his mother to cancer shortly after she gave birth to his second brother. (Perhaps because of mother’s cancer the child was born severely brain-damaged and was promptly sent to an institution.) His father, despite working as many as four jobs at once could never adequately provide for his family. That family would grow dramatically in size after Dully’s father remarried, bringing into the fold a wife and her children. Emotionally unstable, narcissistic and manipulative, she quickly grew to hate Dully, blaming him for everything under the sun and punishing him mercilessly for even the most minor of transgressions. Her sick quest to find a way to have Dully removed from the family or in some way severely attenuated brought her to lobotomist Freeman. Easily manipulated by Dully’s stepmother, Freeman agreed to perform the lobotomy and Dully’s father heartlessly acquiesced to his wife’s twisted plan. The result was a horrible operation committed on an innocent and undeserved young man. This, combined with parents’ rejection of him has a human being, would result in Dully drifting aimlessly through for decades.
This is one of those rare books I recommend not because of its writing, but because of the unbelievable story that it tells. Yes, the writing is good, but holy cow, this tragic story is off the charts insane. Highly recommended.