Psychiatric Horrors in History pt. 3

Rosemary Kennedy (JFK’s sister) was the most famous of Freeman’s patients. There is controversy regarding Rosemary’s condition prior to the Lobotomy. Naturally, the more normal she was, even if severely troubled, the more inappropriate and barbaric the treatment appears to have been. It is widely reported today that she was mildly retarded, and emotionally disturbed. Kessler and others have argued that she was not retarded at all. Her diary and performance at school also seem to back Kessler’s claim (246). Even if she was mildly retarded, and it does not appear that she was, the treatment was a dramatic failure. She was left as an invalid, incontinent and unable to communicate intelligibly. Prior to the surgery she wrote in a diary, performed math and played tennis all at levels beyond what could be considered retarded (Kessler 246, 251). Opinions about her father, Joseph Kennedy’s role in the matter range from him being viewed as either cruelly selfish or honestly naïve. Either way, this attempt at a physical remedy for mental, emotional and behavioral problems was a complete failure—from Rosemary’s perspective at least. Her brother did go on to fulfill the political aspirations of their father without the distraction of their troubled family member. From that perspective the operation achieved one of its ends, albeit with more severe harm to Rosemary than anyone wished.
Howard Dully was another of Freeman’s victims who was lobotomized when he was only 12 years old. He obviously did not experience the same extent of injury to his brain that poor Rosemary suffered from this procedure. The extent of damage done to Rosemary by the surgery was disclosed through a description by someone who assisted in the operation, “”We put an instrument inside,” he said. As Dr. Watts cut, Dr. Freeman put questions to Rosemary. For example, he asked her to recite the Lord’s Prayer or sing “God Bless America” or count backwards. … “We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded.” … When she began to become incoherent, they stopped. (Kessler 243-244)”
Since the procedure was so imprecise, varying levels of damage could occur. The surgery would even be repeated if necessary to create a more passive and subdued state in some patients. Dully’s more mild effects are evident in that he was recently working as a school bus driver and appears, and sounds, relatively normal. However, the account about what led up to his lobotomy is chilling and telling about the amount of “science” and good “medicine” that were being practiced. NPR reports:
“A search of Dully’s records among Freeman’s files archived at George Washington University turned up clues about why Freeman lobotomized him
According to Freeman’s notes, Lou Dully said she feared her stepson, whom she described as defiant and savage looking. “He doesn’t react either to love or to punishment,” the notes say of Howard Dully. “He objects to going to bed but then sleeps well. He does a good deal of daydreaming and when asked about it he says ‘I don’t know.’ He turns the room’s lights on when there is broad sunlight outside.” On Nov. 30, 1960, Freeman wrote: “Mrs. Dully came in for a talk about Howard. Things have gotten much worse and she can barely endure it. I explained to Mrs. Dully that the family should consider the possibility of changing Howard’s personality by means of transorbital lobotomy. Mrs. Dully said it was up to her husband, that I would have to talk with him and make it stick.” Then on Dec. 3, 1960: “Mr. and Mrs. Dully have apparently decided to have Howard operated on. I suggested [they] not tell Howard anything about it.” In an entry dated Jan. 4, 1961, two and a half weeks after the boy’s lobotomy, Freeman wrote: “I told Howard what I’d done to him… and he took it without a quiver. He sits quietly, grinning most of the time and offering nothing.” Dully says that when Lou Dully realized the operation didn’t turn him “into a vegetable, she got me out of the house. I was made a ward of the state.”
From bleeding patients, starving brain cells until coma ensues, inducing brain damage through metrazol and electric shock therapy, to directly cutting nerve fibers in their brains, the history of Psychiatry has certainly been a disturbing one. One thing that all of these errors have in common is a belief in a bodily remedy to mental and emotional problems. As Christians we should be able to recognize the evils that have been done to psychiatric patients and not turn a blind eye. This record of psychiatry should help remind us that just because someone wears a white coat, and graduated from Medical School does not mean that they are a compassionate person with good judgment. Our Christian world-view allows and even compels us to recognize the capacity of men and societies to commit great acts of evil. After all, the Scriptures describe mankind as living “according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. (Eph. 2:2).  The history of psychiatry displays the awful abuse of a weak and disadvantaged group by their would-be care-takers. It is one example out of the many demonstrations of the sinfulness of man in history. I should add, that not all Psychiatrists participated in these barbaric treatments. God’s common grace which prevents unsaved men from being as bad as they could be also applies to Psychiatrists.
From my discussions with advocates of psychiatry, I know that some will raise the objection that this is creating a false dichotomy. In other words, it is not necessarily an either/ or situation, and we can address both our physical and ‘spiritual issues’ with help from the medical and pastoral communities. While that solution sounds good, it does not stand the test of examining what types of symptoms apply to which of these two realms. Sorting out the differences between “psychiatric” and “spiritual” problems will be the focus of  another post.

Kessler, Ronald. The Sins of the Father. New York: Warner Books, 1996. Print. ‘My Lobotomy’: Howard Dully’s Journey. November 16, 2005
Whitaker, Robert: Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill. Cambridge, MA: Basic Books, 2002. Print.

Breggin, Peter. Toxic Psychiatry: Why Therapy, empathy, and Love Must Replace the Drugs, Electroshock, and Biochemical Theories of the “New Psychiatry”. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Print.