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Tech Q&A

Jack El-Hai

Describe your latest project.
My book, The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness, was just published in paperback by Wiley. It's a biography of Walter Freeman, M.D., the physician who introduced lobotomy to the United States and tirelessly demonstrated and advocated it for decades — until his dying day in 1972. From 1936 through the 1970s, about 50,000 lobotomies were performed in the U.S. The procedure involved severing neural pathways in the brain between the frontal lobes and the thalamus. The idea was to dull the symptoms of many psychiatric illnesses by reducing the strength of the emotional signals coming out of the thalamus.

When I began researching the book, I had read One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, had seen the movie Frances (about the supposedly lobotomized actress Frances Farmer), and had assumed that lobotomy was most often used as a punishment against troublesome mental patients to make them passive and vegetative. Anybody who performed lobotomies, I believed, must have been a monster. Freeman showed me that the issues that gave rise to lobotomy's arrival in the mainstream of medicine were very complex. And Freeman himself turned out to be not a monster, but a deeply flawed human being with many admirable qualities, as well. The Lobotomist is my attempt to illuminate his behavior and set his work in the context of the fascinating neuroscience and psychiatry of the time.

What inspires you to sit down and write?
I'm inspired by my curiosity about the people I'm writing about — especially by what motivates them. In The Lobotomist, I was writing about Walter Freeman, a neurologist and psychiatrist who was clearly gifted, intelligent, highly respected, and caring. What on earth could have inspired him to become a lifelong advocate of lobotomy, a procedure that today seems so brutal and destructive to psychiatric patients? And why did Freeman remain dedicated to lobotomy for so long, to his dying day, past the point of reason? Those were the questions that carried me forward as I sat down to write the book. I believe that the best writers, fiction and nonfiction, are the ones who ask the questions that they feel driven to answer.

Describe your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
I had a science teacher in middle school, Mr. Curry at Daniel Webster Jr. High in Los Angeles, who kept a box on his desk. Whenever students had questions that they were too embarrassed or shy to ask in front of the class, they could write them down on a piece of paper and slip them into a slot on the box. Once a week, Mr. Curry read aloud the questions — all of them — and provided answers. The questions were usually as interesting as the answers. Many of them were about puberty or sex, but some touched on chemistry, astronomy, computers, and the weather. It was a great way for all of us to find out what was on each others' minds. Sometimes Mr. Curry built entire lessons around these questions. I learned from him the power of asking questions — how a good question could lead us into wonderful realms that we never expected to visit.

Chess or video games?
I have never liked chess or video games, and I'm not a fan of games in general. I do play games with my young children, but it is probably my least favorite activity with them. Deep down, I think I resist the idea of doing something that simulates life or conflict when there is so much real life and real conflict to think about. Every family reunion I attend, my relatives think I'm a party-pooper.

What do you do for relaxation?
I used to be a very dedicated player of the mandolin and the mandocello, and I started a band that is still going strong without me. Now most of my time for music has dried up, but I still try to pick up an instrument a couple of times a week. My old instruments are not great for solo playing, so I've been spending a lot of time with the guitar, using fingerstyle and classical playing. My wife thinks I'm terrible, but I find comfort in believing that I play just for myself.

What was your favorite book as a kid?
Like a lot of kids, I read dozens of books in the Hardy Boys series. Frank and Joe Hardy were not afraid to grow obsessed by the mysteries they found around them. They offered some good lessons for an aspiring journalist and book author. I was puzzled by their resistance to growing up, but maybe that was part of their charm.

If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
He's little known today, but the nineteenth-century American neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell lived a fascinating life, and I would love to get inside his head for a day. Mitchell did important research on the effects of brain injuries on Civil War soldiers, and he also studied a strange disorder called neurasthenia, early psychiatry, and the lives of snakes. On top of it all, he was an accomplished novelist and essayist. He was a true polymath.

What was your best subject in high school? Your worst?
My best subject was American history. I had the potential to become an excellent math student, but I was tracked early on into an experimental mathematics program called SSMCIS, which was developed at Columbia University. The curriculum baffled everyone, including my teachers. I remember one night when I asked my father to help me with my math homework. He had an engineering degree and a strong math background, and he could not understand what I was supposed to do. He nearly tore my textbook in half. Unfortunately, the SSMCIS program turned math into my worst subject.

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