The day before the surgery, my parents told me I was going for tests. The next day, Dec. 16,1960,1 was put in a room and given shots to calm me down. Then the attendants checked my heart and eyeballs. I don’t remember getting electroshocked, but years later I read in the doctor’s files that he gave me four jolts of electricity—”one too many,” he wrote.
What happened next would spin Howard Dully’s life into decades of chaos. He underwent a transorbital lobotomy performed by the maverick neurologist Dr. Walter J. Freeman—a flamboyant pioneer in neuroscience who drove ice-pick-like instruments through the eye sockets to sever neural pathways in the frontal lobes of the brain. Though the procedure sounds barbaric today, much of the medical community initially viewed it as a promising way to blunt a patient’s uncontrollable emotions. After the advent of psychiatric drugs, however, Freeman gradually lost credibility—and he became increasingly indiscriminate in his choice of patients. By the early 1960s, for a $200 fee, he was willing to operate on Dully, nothing more than a rambunctious 12-year-old facing a family crisis.
I loved my real mother, June, very much. She died of cancer when I was 4. I remember crying in the car when she passed away, just throwing a fit. I had no idea she was sick. She was just gone. After my father remarried I very much resented my stepmother, Lucille—Lou, as she was known. We antagonized each other. I wasn’t an angel, and there was a big rivalry between me and her son from a previous marriage. One day Lou hit me with the metal end of a vacuum cleaner nozzle over the head and asked if it hurt. Being the tough guy, I said no. She hit me a little harder, then a third time, harder, and I had to say it hurt. I was afraid of what she’d do next. I was about 9 at the time
According to Dully’s brother Brian, 54, Howard was “a typical kid.” But Lou—who died at 80 in 2000—saw him as a threat, says Brian, and “was shopping for a solution. She had taken nursing classes, and she knew enough to be dangerous.”
Then she found Freeman. I met him once or twice in his office. He was very warm, articulate, with a beard and moustache. If you were looking for Freud, he would be the one. I talked, he took notes. He asked me about my step-mom. I was foolish to tell him the truth, that I didn’t like her.
Dully says his father, Rodney, 80, a retired teacher, signed the consent form under pressure from his new wife.
I remember nothing of the procedure. I woke up in the recovery room, and the first thing I remember seeing was a nurse. The people at the hospital were very nice and gave me a lot of attention, which was better than my life at home. My father visited me, but my stepmom and brothers didn’t. I wasn’t told immediately I’d had a lobotomy. But I had shiners under my eyes and my eyes hurt.
It wasn’t long afterward that I did learn of the surgery. More than any physical effect, I think I suffered the emotional pain of knowing that I was different and not being sure exactly what I lost by having the surgery. I felt tremendous insecurity and I had no real friends. Here I am with a lobotomy. Am I normal? Am I a freak? How do you scramble the front end of someone’s brain and there isn’t something missing? I am not green. There is no sign on me that says my brain was played with. I’m intelligent enough and speak well. I do have vision problems, dry eyes, tear duct problems. I see well enough but get headaches when I read.
One major way I think the lobotomy did affect me was that I lost ambition. As a kid, I dreamed of going to college to major in computer sciences. That didn’t happen.
Instead, Lucille dumped Dully into a San Jose juvenile detention hall—and later a state mental hospital in Agnews, Calif., which eventually passed him on to a school for troubled children. Released in 1966 to a succession of halfway houses, he was soon arrested for cashing government payroll checks that had landed mistakenly in his mail. He avoided jail time, however, by going back to Agnews. There he met fellow patient Martha Bishop, whom he married at 20. The 6’7″ Dully regrets that he was abusive during their stormy five-year marriage.
I spent my 20s and 30s not working, using my lobotomy to collect disability checks from Social Security or going from job to job like being a cook at McDonald’s or a repo man. At one point I lived in a Chevy Corvair with a girl. I was promiscuous, one girl after another. Fat, skinny, blondes, brunettes, redheads, as long as they didn’t have a beard.
I met Christine Heriman, the mother of my son (Rodney, now 25), and in 1982 scraped up money to buy a print shop in San Jose. But the next year we got into financial trouble and lost it.
Dully broke up with Christine and by the early 1990s quit drinking and began to turn his life around. He met his current wife, Barbara Clevenger, a dietary supervisor, in 1984, and earned a junior college degree in computer information. For the past decade, he has worked as a bus driver in San Jose. Then, in 2000, he began to research his past, first combing the Internet, and meeting radio producer David Isay, who was making a documentary on Freeman. With Isay’s help, Dully traveled cross-country to examine Freeman’s files, now at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
I went to the archive and I held the ice picks in my hand, and it was uplifting. It took all the power away from them. But when I began reading the file, it was very traumatic. I got choked up. How could a 12-year-old boy stand against all these people who are supposed to care for you, nurture you? I’m disappointed that my father let this happen to me. He was supposed to protect me. But I’ve forgiven him. The lobotomy was supposed to take away my emotions. But it didn’t do that, not a bit. I am a man. I cry. I feel anger, I laugh. I can love. If it was all a game, I have won. I survived.
As told to Frank Swertlow, with additional reporting by Ken Lee in Los Angeles