There’s no logical explanation why Deb Newell chose a used book called “My Lobotomy” from the sale rack at the West Shore Community Library in Lakeside.
She’s typically drawn to historical fiction, not memoirs. A volunteer librarian even questioned Newell’s choice of that particular book because it was so far astray from what she normally reads.
“Why am I drawn to this book?” she wondered. “It wasn’t appealing to me.”
But she bought it anyway.
The memoir is the poignant story of Howard Dully’s life before and after he was given a transorbital, or “ice-pick” lobotomy on his 12th birthday in 1960. Psychiatrist Walter Freeman performed the horrific procedure, inserting an ice pick through Dully’s eye sockets to alter his brain.
“He poked these knitting needles into my skull, through my eye sockets, and then swirled them around until he had scrambled things up enough,” Dully recalls in the book he co-authored with Charles Fleming.
When Newell, a longtime Lakeside resident, began reading the unusual memoir in the middle of the night a while back, she was astounded to learn that Dully’s family had lived at the low-income Spartan Village student-housing complex near San Jose State University during the same time Newell’s family had lived there in the early 1950s. The photographs in the book of him as a young boy triggered memories. She was certain she knew him.
At 3 a.m. Newell was compelled to dig out old photo albums — she studied those black and white snapshots from so long ago, then studied the photos in the book, and grew more and more certain he was a childhood pal from her time at Spartan Village.
Her family’s photo albums contained snapshots of Dully and Newell playing together at about age 3, but after so many decades, no one in her family — herself included — remembered much about this boy.
Newell and her husband Jeremy became so intrigued with Dully’s compelling memoir that her husband called the New York publishing company to contact the co-author. He scanned the photos and sent them to Charles Fleming.
Fleming, in turn, got in touch with Dully and Dully contacted Newell, first by email and then a phone call. Sure enough, Dully confirmed it was indeed him in those childhood photos.
Newell talked to Dully via phone for about 45 minutes.
“He doesn’t remember much about Spartan Village, but he remembers a playground, a field and a girl — I’m the girl,” Newell excitedly recounted.
Dully’s mother died of cancer when he was just 5. He was distraught at the loss, largely because his father told him his mother simply wouldn’t be coming home. He wasn’t told she was dead.
“As it was, I thought she had left me,” Dully wrote. “I was afraid she didn’t want to see me. I was afraid she didn’t love me. What other explanation could there be?”
In the book he said he now realizes how hard his mother’s death must have been for his father, with two young sons at home and a third son, severely mentally handicapped, who would require professional care if he lived.
His father eventually remarried, and it was Dully’s stepmother who arranged the lobotomy.
“I never understood why,” Dully confides in his memoir. “I wasn’t a violent kid. I had never hurt anyone. I wasn’t failing out of school.
“Was there something I had done that was so horrible I deserved a lobotomy?”
Dully, now 69, asked himself that question for more than four decades before he went looking for answers when he turned 54. What he found led to his fascinating account of how that ice-pick procedure damaged him.
He spent much of his life in and out of insane asylums, jails and halfway houses. He was homeless at times and struggled from alcoholism and drug addition.
“I was lost. I knew I wasn’t crazy. But I knew something was wrong with me. Was it the lobotomy? Was it something else? …I thought about my lobotomy all the time, but I never talked about it. I was my terrible secret.”
Newell said reading the book broke her heart.
“I wanted to let him know he was a darling boy,” she said. “He wasn’t a bad child or mean during the time I knew him. He needed to know that.”
During their phone conversation, she could hear his voice trembling when she talked about what a kind, sweet boy he was at Spartan Village.
“He choked up,” she said. “I think it was a relief for him to hear someone had adored and appreciated him.”
Dully’s stepmother, Lou, had most certainly had not adored him.
Admittedly, he was a rambunctious boy and at times a troublemaker. Lou, a strict disciplinarian, brought two sons of her own to the marriage, but none of the boys, Duffy’s brother included, bore her wrath like young Howard.
“Unlike me, the other boys never seemed to do anything wrong, or never seemed to get in trouble for it,” he wrote.
Beyond multiple spankings by both parents, he particularly recalled the time Lou hit him over the head with the metal end of a vacuum cleaner, then hit him again and again when he would not react.
“Did that hurt? Oh, did that hurt…”she taunted.
As Dully grew bigger — today he’s 6-foot, 7-inches tall and weighs 330 pounds — he suspects his stepmother sought professional help to curb his temperament because she was afraid she’d no longer have the upper hand with physical discipline.
Her quest to find a way to control Dully led her to several neurosurgeons who couldn’t find a thing wrong with her stepson. Then she heard about Walter Freeman, whose career in performing lobotomies had exploded. According to a piece done by National Public Radio, Freeman “was a showman and liked to shock his audience of doctors and nurses by performing two-handed lobotomies: hammering ice picks into both eyes at once.”
Dully’s story on NPR thrust him into the international spotlight in 2005. NPR producers arranged permission for Dully to read Freeman’s personal notes and medical records on his case, and he gleaned insight from those records to write his New York Times best-selling memoir that was published in 2007.
Dully’s lobotomy took just 10 minutes and cost $200. His father compliantly went along with it.
The procedure didn’t “fix” him in the way his stepmother wanted, though, so the family put him into an institution.
“My brain, when Freeman got to it, was young,” Dully wrote. “It was still growing. After the surgery, it adapted to the lobotomy and found ways to compensate for it … In an adult, if the right hemisphere is destroyed or damaged that severely, forget it. That person would be finished.”
The lobotomy scene in the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is as close as many people come to understanding the effects of the procedure.
Despite decades of living a broken life, Dully’s story has a happy ending. He was a tour-bus driver and is a husband, father and grandfather. He even earned a college degree in computer information systems.
“Today, I count myself lucky,” he wrote. “I’m lucky to have survived Freeman, and to have survived my childhood and the aftermath of the surgery. …I feel happy and grateful that I have lived long enough to tell my story.”
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or firstname.lastname@example.org.