Really, doctors? Luke Dittrich's "Patient H.M."
07 December 2016
Everything I read about Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets indicated it would be a good read. And you know what? It was.
Of course, "good" is a relative term here. The story centers on one lobotomy, performed on one man, but the author does a good job of combining the many story points: the story of "H.M."'s brain injury, seizures, and eventual treatment by lobotomy (which made him into one of the most studied psychological subjects of all time, as his lobotomy affected his memory, and how we store and process memories is a ridiculously complex process to try and understand); the history of the lobotomy procedure in general; the biography of William Scofield, a pioneering neurosurgeon; and the author's family, including his grandmother, married to his grandfather (that same William Scofield), who suffered her own mental hospitalization and horrific mid-twentieth-century treatments. Dittrich also delves into the horrifying treatment of psychological subjects like Henry Molaison, and the possessiveness of one scientist he made famous, Suzanne Corkin, and her destruction of many of the files (the raw experimental data). This last part of the book has led to some controversy; MIT, where Corkin worked, has since questioned Dittrich's facts and reporting.
So it's an interesting book on a lot of different levels. I enjoyed the good journalistic writing, although I felt the organization lacked a little something, and the book sometimes bounced around a bit too much in time and subject for me. It wasn't poorly done--this is clearly a well-researched and documented (Dittrich, in his response to MIT's questions, even provides an audio clip of one of his interviews with Suzanne Corkin) labor of love. It just means you have to pay a bit of attention to it while you read it.
But I can find no faults with the prose. This is Dittrich's re-creation of his grandmother's state of mind before she became a patient of a mental hospital and her own husband:
"There were people in the cellar. My grandmother could hear them. She had thought she was alone in the house, except for her children, who were asleep in their bedrooms. Now it appeared she was wrong. The children were asleep and my grandmother was not and she could hear people in the cellar.
She was terrified.
It was late January 1944, in a comfortable single-family home on Frankland Street in Walla Walla, Washington. My grandfather, as usual, was at work, this time on an overnight shift at the U.S. Army's McCaw General Hospital, where he served as chief of neurosurgery. Just the day before, he had come back from a weeklong conference in Spokane. They had been married for ten years, and it had always been like that, his career constantly pulling him away." (p. 51.)
The medical descriptions of brain surgery and lobotomy are also compelling:
"Without him having to ask for it, the scrub nurse passed my grandfather a long, thin tool called a flat brain sptaula, reminiscent of a shoehorn, which he inserted carefully into the hole in the right side of Copasso's forehead. He levered up that hemisphere of her frontal lobes and peered inside. He was looking for the nueral fibers connecting the lower, orbital portions of the grontal lobes to some of the deeper structures in the brain. Once he spotted his targets, he inserted another tool, a suction catheter--a very small, slender, electric-powered vacuum--and sucked the fibers out. The he retracted the sptual and the catheter and moved to the other hole." (pp. 147-148.)
I'd like to say I read a lot of this book in a state of disbelief, but I know enough about the history of lobotomies and the ridiculous shit that doctors will try, that I didn't. It was completely believable, sadly. And even once you got past all the lobotomy stuff, the experiments H.M. (an individual named Henry Molaison) had to endure, the author's personal history, well, then there was still all the stuff about the ethical treatment (or lack thereof) of patients like Molaison, and the power squibbles and squabbles that go on between medical personnel, academics, and researchers.
I don't think this book will be the huge hit that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was, simply because it is more complex, and not quite as immediately personal (if that makes any sense). Skloot's book was a bit more of a page-turner, told with more righteous indignation. But I think Dittrich's book is even more chilling in its excision of all the layers of the story. One thing I do think this book should be used for is to discuss how "nonfiction" rests so much on personal accounts and personal storytelling, that it is almost impossible to announce what is the whole truth and nothing but the truth.