Saturday, November 17, 2007

My Lobotomy book tells tale of medical survivor

Advocate news services

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Until he was 5, Howard Dully was a happy child. That was the year his mother, June, died of cancer. June was “loving and indulgent,” Dully writes, so devoted that his father once said, “I could’ve dropped dead and it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference. She had you.”

After his mother’s death, neighbours started sewing and cooking, doing laundry for the Dullys. One of them, Lucille “Lou” Cox, became his stepmother two years later. Rigid and punitive, Lou hated Howard. When he was 12, she arranged for the boy to have a transorbital lobotomy.

The surgeon, Dr. Walter Freeman, did the procedure at Doctors General Hospital in San Jose, Calif. After sedating Howard with four jolts of electroshock, Freeman inserted two skewer-like steel knives into his skull, entering through the inside of the right and left eye sockets.

“(He) swirled them around,” Dully writes, “until he felt he had scrambled things up enough.” The lobotomy took 10 minutes to perform. The charge was $200.

This is the story that Dully, a 58-year-old San Jose bus driver, tells in his memoir, My Lobotomy. It’s a gruesome but compulsively readable tale, ultimately redemptive. Unlike most lobotomy patients — some became vegetables, 15 per cent died — Dully was relatively unscathed.

“The biggest impact it made on me was my self-esteem,” Dully says during a conversation in Jimmy’s, a San Jose coffee shop with early-’60s decor.

“You know, they changed me. They rearranged me. ‘Am I me any more? Am I really crazy and don’t know it?’ These things all go through your mind.”

Dully is hardly the picture of victimhood.

Six-foot-seven, 330 pounds, he’s a bear of a man with enormous hands, a voice like a cello and the visage of a grizzled biker. Until last year, he wore his mustache super-long and droopy, like Yosemite Sam, and then decided “I was hiding behind it.”

He’s on a leave of absence from San Jose Charter Bus while he promotes his book.

My Lobotomy began as a radio documentary on NPR’s All Things Considered in November 2005.

Producers Dave Isay and Piya Kochhar intended a profile on Freeman but when they found Dully, who had recently started researching lobotomy on the Internet, they fell in love with his story. They decided to focus on him instead, and urged him to narrate the piece in his gentle, resonant baritone.

The NPR piece captures a conversation with Dully and his father, Rodney, a former schoolteacher who was later divorced from Lou. “I was manipulated, pure and simple,” his dad says in regard to the lobotomy.

But when Howard breaks down and professes his love to his dad, his father answers, “Whatever made you think I didn’t know that? You shaped up pretty good!” He doesn’t say “I love you” back.

“Ever since my lobotomy I’ve felt like a freak,” Dully says at the end of the broadcast. (But) I know my lobotomy didn’t touch my soul. For the first time, I feel no shame. I am, at last, at peace.”

The response to the broadcast was huge. So many e-mails flooded in that NPR’s Internet server collapsed. Today, Dully says, there’s interest from Hollywood producers to make a TV movie or feature film from his book. “I’d love it, provided it’s done with truth. I don’t want any fictional account making someone out worse than they were or better than they were.”

There’s also a playwright in New York who, inspired by the NPR documentary, has written a play about Dully called The Memory of Damage.

Dully, who looks like a Buddha as he sits in his favorite coffee shop, seems to regard the celebrity as a cosmic joke. For someone who spent his life plagued by self-doubts, who says he’s still intimidated by his father, it’s difficult to accept this attention.

“I tease my wife and other people, and say I have a swollen ego,” he chuckles. “But I don’t have any news people camping outside my door. I don’t live in any mansion.

“My idea for writing the book was first to get a little closure — which I find a little selfish, but that’s OK. The other reason was to help people to think about how we treat each other daily. Not just loved ones but everybody.

“Something you start here or say here may affect somebody’s whole day, maybe their whole life. Ten minutes of what Freeman did to me has affected me for 47 years.”

Edward Guthmann writes for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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