The Art of the Lobotomy, and Other News


On the Shelf



  • Happy National Lobotomy Day! Take a moment to reflect on the pioneers of this innovative, deeply disturbing procedure, which proudly lives on in our nightmares, where it continues to stain the reputation of psychiatry. Clyde Haberman recalls one Dr. Walter J. Freeman, who helped popularize everyone’s favorite brutally efficient surgery in the mid-twentieth century. (He even gave a lobotomy to a Kennedy once.) Haberman writes, “Freeman, who died in 1972, presided over an estimated 3,500 lobotomies from 1936 to 1967. Early on, the actual cutting was done by his neurosurgeon partner, Dr. James W. Watts. He sawed two holes in the skull and, with a device called a leucotome, lopped off cells in the brain’s frontal lobes. The partnership dissolved a decade later when Dr. Freeman embraced a procedure called a transorbital lobotomy. It was not for the squeamish. Dr. Freeman would insert a tool resembling an ice pick beneath each eyelid, hammer it into the patient’s brain through the eye socket, and maneuver it to cut away frontal lobe cells believed to be trouble spots … Dr. Freeman set out on his own, performing hundreds upon hundreds of what, unsurprisingly, came to be known as ice pick lobotomies. He delighted in a craft that critics deemed reckless. Part showman, he even barnstormed the country. In one twelve-day period, he operated on 225 people during a swing through West Virginia.”

  • Today in effective and unconventional father-son bonding: Daniel Mendelsohn’s octogenarian dad joined his classroom for a course on the Odyssey. Then the two of them set sail for a ten-day cruise that celebrated Odysseus: “The itinerary, we read, would follow the mythic hero Odysseus’ convoluted, decade-long journey as he made his way home from the Trojan War, plagued by shipwrecks and monsters. It would begin at Troy, the site of which is in present-day Turkey, and end on Ithaki, a small island in the Ionian Sea which purports to be Ithaca, the place Odysseus called home. ‘Journey of Odysseus’ was an ‘educational’ cruise, and my father, although contemptuous of anything that struck him as being a needless luxury, was a great believer in education. And so, a few weeks later, in June, fresh from our recent immersion in the text of the Homeric epic, we took the cruise, which lasted ten days, one for each year of Odysseus’ long journey … ‘The poem feels more real!’ he’d say each evening, as people discussed the day’s activities. When he did so, he’d cast a quick sidelong glance at me, knowing how much the thought pleased me.”
  • In the late eighties, Prince commissioned the architect Bret Thoeny to help him design Paisley Park, his sprawling residence, business center, recording studio, and soundstage in Chanhassen, Minnesota. Rina Raphael talked to Thoeny about it: “ Artists weren’t doing this,’ stresses Theony. ‘It was forward thinking, [this idea] of combining everything under one roof. It had never been done by an artist’ … Prince didn’t want to look at blueprints. Such documents didn’t help him imagine the end product. Instead, Thoeny was required to make a scale miniature model of all of Paisley Park. ‘I would show him in 3-D, and he really got into it—looking inside the little rooms and making suggestions,’ Thoeny recounts … ‘He wanted pyramids,’ says Thoeny, who positioned one in front and one by the living-quarters suite in the middle. The latter would light up in a soft violet glow whenever Prince was in residence, much like the Queen’s flag at Buckingham Palace. He also preferred that the structure be mostly windowless to protect his privacy and to limit sunlight.”