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The Powell's Playlist | June 18, 2014 0 comments
Like many writers, I'm constantly haunting coffee shops with a laptop out and my headphones on. I listen to a lot of music while I write, and songs... Continue »
Jack El-HaiDescribe 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.
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.
Chess or video games?
What do you do for relaxation?
What was your favorite book as a kid?
If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
What was your best subject in high school? Your worst?