I remember standing in my kitchen, phone in hand, listening to the ring. I’d just finished talking with my agent, who’d informed me that he’d negotiated my first book deal. It was exciting, life-changing news, and I was about to share it with the person who’d always been my biggest fan.
My mom picked up, and I told her.
“Oh no,” she said.
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I remember rummaging in the archives of an old asylum, digging through boxes full of dusty documents. I found the asylum’s surgical logbook at the bottom of one of the boxes, fished it out, cracked it open, scanned through the lists of experimental lobotomies. Hundreds of them, a relentless stream of attempts to cure madness — or depression, or anxiety, or homosexuality — by destroying different portions of the brain. Most of the people operated on were women, and most of the operations were performed by one man: Dr. William Beecher Scoville.
My mom’s dad. My grandfather.
I was by then already about halfway through the reporting of my book, Patient H. M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets
. The book’s central character was a man who suffered from profound amnesia and lived his life in 30-second increments. He could seem almost normal on the surface, but the present would constantly slide away from him, each passing moment tumbling into an unfathomable abyss. His loss was our gain: Patient H. M. — as he was known in the hundreds of journal articles that were written about him — was the most important human research of all time. Much of what we know about how memory works came from the almost six decades of experiments he participated in.
My grandfather created Patient H. M. He did so 63 years ago, by drilling open the forehead of a young factory worker named Henry Molaison and suctioning out some of the deepest, most mysterious structures in his brain. Those devastating, illuminating cuts had been intended to cure Henry’s epilepsy. They did not. Instead, they caused Henry’s amnesia, and marked the beginning of modern memory science. Ever since I’d first heard about the case, I knew I’d one day have to write about it. Even without the personal connection, Patient H. M.’s story would have fascinated me. With the connection, it was irresistible. I became obsessed.
From the beginning, many people in my family — my mom among them — were wary of me digging too deep. My grandfather was an almost mythic figure to them. He was a renowned neurosurgeon, a Yale professor, the founder and chief of Hartford Hospital’s Department of Neurosurgery. He owned a rotating fleet of sports cars and was so handsome a New York Times
reporter once described him as “almost unreal in his dashing appearance.” He’d died in a car accident when I was 10, and loomed like a cross between Cary Grant and James Bond in my imagination. He’d saved countless lives. Why focus on his most famous mistake?
But I couldn’t let the story go, and by the time I found that dusty box in that old asylum, I’d learned that the surgical transformation of Henry Molaison into Patient H. M. was far from an isolated accident. Instead, it was only one of many hundreds of radical, transformative surgeries that my grandfather performed. The story of Patient H. M., it turned out, would be incomplete unless I also told the story of a vast, troubling, and largely untold campaign of human experimentation my grandfather conducted at asylums and hospitals across America.
Oh no, indeed.
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I remember sitting beside a dying man in a fancy house, listening to him tell me an almost unbearably dark secret about my grandfather. They’d worked together for a long time, and what the man was telling me — horrible as it was — rang true. This was during the final stretch of my reporting for Patient H. M.
, and in many ways the man’s revelation was the missing piece that suddenly made the whole story click, a hidden connection between its separate threads. Still, a part of me hoped it wasn’t true. It was a painful, shocking story, one that struck at the heart of my family.
I’d been working on the book for almost six years by then, following its threads on a twisty journey around North America, from cutting-edge neuroscience labs to anatomical museums full of misshapen skulls. Many of the stories I’d uncovered cast a spotlight on the moral and ethical murk that can descend when the lines between medical practice and medical research become blurred. I’d come to believe that those stories deserved to be told, no matter what.
I’ve done a lot of investigative journalism in the past, which means I’m used to causing pain. Usually, that pain is inflicted from a distance. I’ll do my reporting, then lob the result like a grenade into somebody else’s life. This was different. Some of the lives most affected would be the people I most care about, my mom included.
The book came out last week. I didn't hold much back, not even what the dying man told me. I followed the threads wherever they took me, and did my best to braid them together on the page. I tell myself it’s worth it, what I’ve done.
My grandfather told himself the same thing.
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is a National Magazine Award–winning journalist and a contributing editor at Esquire
. Patient H. M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets
is his first book.