This post contains explicit descriptions of psychosurgery, sexual assault, emotional abuse, and violence in general. If you’re at all unsure if you should read this, you probably shouldn’t.
please note i’ve written a follow-up to this article, “sing for the teachers who told you that you couldn’t sing” and this follow-up clarifies and refines a few things. i’d appreciate it if you saw them as a unit, but i’m leaving this post otherwise untouched.
In case you’re wondering why the tone of this is different, it’s a draft of something I’m preparing for a more formal audience. They care about things like capital letters and citations and all that rot that i ordinarily don’t. Further blog posts will return you to your normally scheduled “hi i’m erica and i want to be e.e. cummings omg i’m so emooooooooo” style.
“Do you know what these scars are?”, Valerie persisted.
“No, what are they?”
“I’ve had a lobotomy.”
-Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, p.192
Hi, I’m Erica. You might know me from my Twitter antics, from the extensive navelgazing that is my blog, or because you have the misfortune to know me IRL. Like most women my age, I wear a lot of hats: big sister, college student, nanny, goalie, best friend, bad dancer, trans woman, former lead singer of a bad high school riot grrl band, etc. I also have a much darker hat that I don’t really like to talk about: lobotomy survivor. Just like Valerie, I’ve had a lobotomy. Unlike Valerie, I don’t tell everyone I meet…this is the farthest I’ve ever stuck my head out of the psychosurgery closet and let me tell you, dear reader, I am terrified.
People tend to greet this with what ends up being a slew of rapidfire questions, so let’s get them out of the way:
- I was eight and a half.
- It had something to do with gender identity but it also had something to do with that I had a “maladaptive personality” but no specific diagnosis was ever given. I’ll discuss this a bit more later.
- Yes, this happened in the United States.
- Yes, this happened in the 1980s.
- I had a transorbital, aka “icepick” lobotomy, where an instrument called an orbitoclast is placed above the tear duct in a patient’s eye and forced through the skull and into the frontal lobe, where it is then swung about to separate the frontal lobe from the thalamus, followed by a deep cut across the frontal lobe, and then the instrument is removed.
- No, I’m not a unique case; the hospital in question performs lobotomies to this day, as well as the more socially acceptable versions of psychosurgery like cingulotomy. (They admittedly do fewer than five lobotomies a year so far as anyone can tell, as the hospital in question is fairly secretive.)
- No, I’m not telling you this because I want you to take pity on me.
- Yes, I’m still angry.
- Yes, I’m sure.
The thing about being a lobotomy survivor is that it’s not exactly polite dinner table conversation, so it’s kind of developed a bit of a parallel to being trans in my life. As a person without a whole lot of privilege, the relative blessing of being able to pass for cis in a world which requires it as a condition of existence is somewhat useful, but it can make it difficult to talk about being trans and find an appropriate space to do it. Similarly, I have to pass as an ordinary, whole-brained person on any given day, since as much as the writer of the song in the title treats disability for attention and laughs, I don’t have the option of ascribing everything that I do right or wrong to the fact that there’s this dead chunk of my brain sitting in my skull. I can’t just say please excuse her for the day, it’s just the way the medication makes her. In other words, just like I have to pass for cis the second I walk out the door of my bedroom, I have to be able to pass for someone who hasn’t had a lobotomy.
For years, since I had a diagnosis of such, I was just told to say I was autistic, though that’s disrespectful to autistic people since autism is naturally occurring (whereas lobotomies are not), poorly studied, and mostly surrounded by curebies, non-autistic people who speak for autistic people and effectively silence them rather than encouraging society to look at them on the whole. My little sister is autistic, and we’re like peas in a pod anyways, but…it’s unfair to both someone who has had a lobotomy and someone who is autistic alike to tell me to just say that’s what it is. I mean, after all, “I have a diagnosis…” just means a doctor says that’s how it is, and my track record with doctors is not great. I’m not telling a half-truth to cover for them anymore, I shall not be their dupe.
Though we remain many, we’re hard to locate, and the veil of shame around psychosurgery is truly wretched. I’ve talked online to someone else who’s a lobotomy survivor…one other person. She’s a bit older and had a lobotomy for a condition which sounded a lot like schizophrenia but she was never formally diagnosed other than by the doctor who lobotomized her; she was one of Walter Freeman’s last creations in the 1960s, a contemporary of the most famous living lobotomy survivor, Howard Dully. For me, confronting my identity as a lobotomy survivor is much akin to when I pulled myself out of my post-transition denial of being trans: I just haven’t found other people like me, even though I know they’re out there. Unlike being trans, there isn’t just a random chatroom out there on the internet, so finding each other is a lot harder, especially for the post-Freeman era of lobotomies because Freeman’s narcissism led him to keep extensive records, something that isn’t as likely when it’s a bunch of doctors trying to figure out whether or not something works. I know that the hospital in question was involved with a number of dubious experiments around gender identity and sexual orientation at the time and I know that until the time comes that I have better answers, I am assuming that this was done to attempt to force me to be happily cisgender, especially given the dark past the doctor in question has. As for making me happily cisgender, it didn’t work.
Crawling through the web of shame and horror has been pretty messy. I’ve known since I was 16. My mother, who was still angry that I had commenced eating meat, took me clear across town to my favorite restaurant, the Shady Glen Dairy Store (the original, not the poser one in the Parkade) and told me, as I ate the second bite of my delicious Bernice Original cheeseburger, that I’d had a lobotomy and it wasn’t her fault. That’s exactly what she said: Well, you had a lobotomy but it wasn’t my fault. I assumed this was one of my mother’s many lies and just let her keep talking, trying to pick up if there was so much detail in her story that it must be true. The Shady Glen, full of depections of laughing gnomes and smiling children eating ice cream, would never be the same again; I had nightmares about those gnomes for years. My mother, for once, told me the truth, and did it on her terms in the most abusive way possible. I never ate at the Shady Glen since, and I pretty much put up a solid wall of denial that my mother could be actually telling the truth, even though her narrative was filled with a level of detail and blame-shifting that I knew damn well indicated she’d found the will to pull through her pseudologia fantastica for long enough to tell the truth. She even told the truth as to why, basically that I wouldn’t refer to myself as male and that I had had a ‘psychological break’ about a year before lobotomizing me. With every detail, it was like watching snow pile up…there comes a point where there’s so much snow that they’ll cancel school, and with a pathological liar, there’s a point where there’s so much detail you realize they’re telling the truth.
One night, the next summer, I “fell down the stairs and hit my head” at my grandparents’ house. My grandmother drove me to the hospital, where they promptly performed a head CT (that’s a CAT scan of the head) to preclude serious injury. I had indeed fallen down the stairs, but there was planning involved. The doctor who handled the head CT looked like he’d seen a ghost and ran the head CT again, and I knew then that something had indeed happened. Eventually he pulled my grandmother and I into a room, and after dropping the slide four times, just asked point-blank if there was some kind of head injury that could explain this. I muttered like a transorbital lobotomy? and he said but they don’t do those anymore… Oh, sir, how I wish you had been right. He treated me with respect, compassion, and kindness, though, and gave me a copy of the slides and told me to keep them somewhere very safe.
The entire drive back to my grandparents’ farm was pretty much my grandmother muttering about how much she wanted to kill her firstborn and me complaining about how much the seatbelt hurt my chest. The next morning at breakfast we explained things to my grandfather, who did as he does and nodded and grunted a lot and just made sure I was okay. I owe much of my being allowed to be myself to my grandparents and this was no exception. I mentioned that I didn’t really want to talk about it anymore and they’ve respected that boundary ever since. My grandmother had business in Minneapolis that week, and I went to the library and started reading. I found out about Rosemary Kennedy and realized that we’d both been tarred with the same words and lies. I learned about Sigrid Hjertén and that a botched lobotomy killed her. I learned that for once, I wish my mother had been lying. My grandmother and I really grew together that whole summer to the point that I’ve considered her my real mother ever since.
Being a lobotomy survivor makes you a little different, yes. Your frontal lobe controls a lot more than your ability to avoid saying bitchy things (the rest of my brain has to do that), but also lobotomy survivors have certain patterns to our existences. The almost inescapable consequences are childishness, weight gain, seizures of various sorts (mine look like I’m shivering and are mercifully rare), apathy, and often incontinence. I have all of those except, thank whatever belief system you have, incontinence…and most days, I’m not apathetic, actually. The issues of mental development are open to debate, as all the studies done about the effect of lobotomy on intelligence involved lobotomies on adult women, given that women accounted for 60-70% of all lobotomies, not people who were lobotomized as children or in early adolescence.
The prevalence of lobotomy in women is particularly chilling given that frequently the very traits that led to someone being targeted for lobotomy were the same traits that society suppressed in women, such as assertiveness, sexual aggressiveness, and oppositional behavior. In other words, being an uppity woman could cost you your frontal lobe. As for how I turned out, it didn’t make me a happy cis man , it didn’t make me any less “uppity”, and though it does diminish how I perform on stupid statistical tests like IQ or whatever standardized “intelligence” test is in vogue this week, I’m happy to report I’m about a month and a half from being, at least on paper, Dr. Erica. You can keep calling me just Erica, thank you very much, that whole honorific thing makes me feel old, as we discussed yesterday.
A couple of years ago, when I started to figure out how to stop being ashamed of being trans, I started telling a few people in my life what was really going on with me, because I know I have to stop being ashamed of being a lobotomy survivor. The interlinked stories of my trans narrative and my psychosurgery narrative are woven in the same cloth perilously close to each other. And though I feel like talking about it is begging for attention, I really need to say it because this is why I bristle so hard at accusations of being “lucky” for the age I transitioned at: I’d already paid the price earlier in life and that price has left me with lasting damage both in my brain and to my body, because messing with someone’s brain does that. By the time I transitioned, they’d tried to cure me with everything from rape to physical violence and then when that didn’t work they came for my brain. In short, though there are many ways in which I am fortunate in life. from being a poor disabled female with another statistical anomaly, secure safe housing, to having gone to college to my amazing friends to yes, having lived most of my life in the right body. But please don’t ever think I’m “lucky”…as much as I’ve learned to live without an entire mind and with the flaws that come with it, I do wish I were whole.
and there’s the name of my blog explained: inchoate — imperfectly formed or developed. erica – well, duh, that’s me.
There are many things I’ve learned on this journey: that a security clearance done on me (come get me, Cathy Brennan) will show that I’ve had a lobotomy but not that I’ve ever had another name. (You do get about 15 misspellings of my legal name, though.) I learned that lobotomy’s ugly children have enjoyed a rebound in popularity in procedures like cingulotomy amongst others, and that on occasion, lobotomy remains part of medicine’s awful toolbox. I’ve learned that I inherited an awful bit of my mother’s pseudologia fantastica myself…not the ability to lie, but the ability to believe that you have done awful and bad things in life, including the belief that I deserved to be lobotomized for some unspeakable horror that I had done, for some reason too complex to ever explain.
My little sister has the same problem that I do, namely believing herself to be some subhuman creature who deserves all the bad she’s lived with…except she’s autistic and hasn’t had a lobotomy. She and i both are recovering from a lot of unspeakable and unpleasant horror, and discovering that maybe we’re both strong enough to make it. She’s working through the horror of how my mother and society tortured her, too, and you know…we’re both getting better little by little in our own ways, and writing this piece is part of that for me. I don’t believe I deserved it anymore, and it’s taken me until a few weeks ago to know this, though I’ve been trying to believe I didn’t deserve it since, well, the day I had my last cheeseburger at the Shady Glen.
Thank you for listening and thank you for your support…I love each and every one of you.