Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

2 Memoirs of Abuse: My Lobotomy and A Stolen Life

Posted by nliakos on April 11, 2016

My Lobotomy: A Memoir by Howard Dully and Charles Fleming (Crown 2007; ISBN 978-0-307-38126-2)

A Stolen Life: A Memoir by Jaycee Dugard (Simon & Schuster 2011; ISBN 978-1-4516-2918-7)

I sometimes circumvent my ever-lengthening To Read lists and just cruise the biography shelves at the public library. Dugard and Dully must have been next to each other on the shelf, so I picked them up together. Coincidentally, both describe the abuse suffered by the authors as children, abuse that in both cases lingered on into their adulthood. That is why I have chosen to blog about them together.

Jaycee Dugard is the more famous of the two. She was eleven when she was abducted on her way to school in 1991 and kept prisoner by her deranged abductor, Phillip Garrido, and his wife Nancy for eighteen years, during which she bore two daughters fathered by and delivered by Phillip Garrido. She describes her life living in two sheds and a tent in the Garridos’ back yard, alternating between narrating what happened to her and reflecting on the meaning of what happened, and why she reacted as she did (for example, why she did not try to escape when she had the opportunity). Her reflections are informed by the counseling she has received since her liberation. I was alternately appalled by her descriptions of sexual and psychological abuse and amazed by her refusal to let it fill her with hate. Although she describes herself as meek and compliant by nature, Jaycee Dugard is not a victim. She is a survivor.

As I was reading, I thought of the child brides and young girls sold into sexual slavery in many countries around the world. Like Jaycee Dugard, they are sexual objects for older men who repeatedly rape them. There is usually no escape (other than suicide), because the entire society in which they live assumes that they have no right to choose their sexual partners (or to decline to have any sexual partners). If Jaycee Dugard was lucky in any way, it is that when Phillip Garrido stupidly took his wife, Jaycee, and her two daughters on a visit to his parole officer and Jaycee was finally able to reveal her true identity–she had been forbidden to say or write her name during the 18 years of her captivity–her society and her family welcomed her back with open arms. In a society where girls are forced to marry their rapists to uphold their families’ honor, there is no rescue.

Howard Dully is a survivor of another kind of abuse. After his mother died when he was four, his father married a woman who took an active dislike to him. She withheld affection from him, verbally abused him, punished him frequently, and when he was twelve years old, lobbied hard for the controversial “treatment” championed by Dr. Walter Freeman–a transorbital lobotomy, in which Freeman inserted an icepick behind Howard’s eyeball and then stirred it around in his brain. Perhaps she was hoping that he would die (many did) or be transformed into a vegetable whom she could then institutionalize. Miraculously, Howard survived the lobotomy, changed but still functional. He spent the remainder of his adolescence at home at the mercy of his stepmother, in juvenile detention, in an insane asylum for adults, and in a boarding school for special education. Not surprisingly, he did not acquire the skills he needed to function as an independent adult in these places. He had always been a somewhat difficult child (he speculates that he probably had ADHD), and as a young adult, he continued a life of petty crime and refusal to take responsibility for his actions. He married, fathered a child, and raised a stepson. He abused drugs and alcohol. He separated from his first wife and through her, met another woman who was able to give him the love and support he needed to make something of his life. Despite all that he had been through, Howard Dully is basically a good person, and his second wife Barbara must have recognized that goodness. She encouraged him to return to school, to get a responsible job, and to raise his children responsibly.

Dully always wondered why his parents had given Dr. Freeman permission to perform the lobotomy. When he was in his forties, he realized that the people who might have the answers were getting older, and some, like his stepmother Lou, died, so he began to research Freeman’s career (the man kept voluminous records) and his own story, which eventually led him to Sound Portraits and NPR. In 2005, Dave Isay and Piya Kochhar made a radio documentary about Dully titled My Lobotomy. The book came out two years later.

Howard Dully could easily have titled his story A Stolen Life. His life (at least between the ages of four and fifty) was also stolen from him–by the stepmother who unaccountably despised him, by the father who would not protect him, by the doctor who mutilated his brain, and by the many people he encountered during his years of incarceration and petty crime who might have helped him but didn’t–no less than was Jaycee Dugard’s. Yet today, Dully harbors no hatred and claims that he is finally at peace, having discovered to his satisfaction that he never did anything so bad as to warrant the treatment he received. He and his wife live in San Jose, where he works as a bus driver. A victim of abuse and neglect for most of his childhood and adolescence, Howard Dully, too, is a survivor. His story shows how crucial it is for social workers and others who recognize child abuse to reach out to help its victims. Had the representatives of the state of California acted more responsibly in the case of Howard Dully, his rehabilitation could have taken place that much sooner.

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5 Responses to “2 Memoirs of Abuse: My Lobotomy and A Stolen Life”

  1. La revue de Claire said

    Very interesting

  2. Terrible life stories. Sometimes I wonder why we had such a happy life. Nobody deserves so cruel treatment . And the most surprising thing is that they don’t hate the people who hurt them, maybe that’s why they are survivors.

    • nliakos said

      Terrible indeed, Susana. It’s amazing what the human spirit can survive. Like you, I sometimes wonder why I have been so lucky. It’s certainly not a question of deserving (unless you believe in reincarnation and punishment for wrongdoing?).

      Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving a comment!

  3. I remember stumbling upon Howard Dully’s book a few months ago and bring very curious. It sounds like a real journey. I’ll have to remember to check it out.

  4. Hi there to every body, it’s my first go to see of this weblog; this weblog contains awesome and in fact good stuff designed for readers.|

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