This Week's Reads

Jack El-Hai, Robin Meloy Goldsby, and The Friend Who Got Away.

The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness

By Jack El-Hai (Wiley, $27.95) As Freud recedes in importance in our age of Prozac and Paxil, psychopharmacology and neuroscience having rendered him a 20th-century crank, we ought to remember that there are limits to the mechanistic view of the brain. No fan of talk therapy, psychiatrist Dr. Walter Freeman (1895–1972) set out to debunk Freud by ridding patients of their mental problems by operating directly on the brain—never mind that he was not, in fact, a trained surgeon. That he eventually simplified his technique to hammering ice picks in above the eye socket (hence transorbital lobotomy), often in a nonsterile clinical setting, has only contributed to his horrific reputation and legacy. To those who even recognize his name, it's associated more with Dr. Frankenstein or Dr. Moreau than with legitimate medical practitioners. That's why The Lobotomist, though not so brilliantly organized or told by author Jack El-Hai, is still an important book. "Psychosurgery," as Freeman helped to coin the term, is actually making a comeback (though under a different name). Thanks to supercomputers and modern imaging, plus the most delicate of surgical techniques (some of them noninvasive, using gamma knives and the like), surgeons are again operating on people with profound brain disorders. In a sense, since brain maladies like schizophrenia are organic and not neurotic, Freeman paved the way, but he also polluted it as he went. (Incredibly, his mentor, a Portuguese doctor named Moniz, won a 1949 Nobel Prize for originating psychosurgery.) Freeman was involved with some 3,500 lobotomies in the decades following 1936 (when he helped perform the first such operation in the U.S.). El-Hai makes depressingly clear that the surgery's popularity coincided with the huge and costly increase in the number of institutionalized mental patients, most of whom could not give Freeman their informed consent for the procedure. (The boom ended with the advent of antipsychotic drugs like Thorazine, which Freeman ironically opposed because it only masked the root causes of mental illness, rather than treating them.) This is the climate that also gave rise to electroshock therapy and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; Freeman's own daughter called him "the Henry Ford of psychiatry." Indeed, he took an assembly-line approach to the surgery, often driving around the country—including a stop at our own Western State Hospital—in search of patients. Of one road trip, he wrote, "I left a string of black eyes all the way from Washington [D.C.] to Seattle." (Black eyes resulted from the ice-pick procedure, which patients generally didn't remember afterward.) Among his patients were Rosemary Kennedy and the sister of Tennessee Williams; bafflingly, El-Hai skims over these sad episodes. He also fails to integrate much current medical knowledge as he tells Freeman's bizarre saga. Since Freeman surgically violated the brain's frontal lobes, he often succeeded in abating the symptoms of mental illness without addressing their cause; the procedure amounted to "salvage, not rescue," one contemporary noted. Yet El-Hai doesn't really address why the medical establishment went along with lobotomies for so long—despite any evidence-based studies on their efficacy. Still, there's a great story in here. Freeman is like a dark doppelgänger to Kinsey—well-intentioned, more banal than evil, and a bit of a showman. While performing a prefrontal lobotomy on a conscious patient under local anesthetic, he asked, "What's going through your mind?" On the operating table, the patient replied, "A knife." BRIAN MILLER Piano Girl: Lessons in Life, Music, and the Perfect Blue Hawaiian

By Robin Meloy Goldsby (Backbeat, $22.95) The piano lounge, a somewhat forgotten relic of a former age, is where Robin Meloy Goldsby has spent most of her working life, tinkling away at Cole Porter standards and taking requests from show-tune-obsessed drunks. Her memoir, Piano Girl, is exuberant, keen, and at times very funny. Early in her career during the '70s, while playing in the lobby of the Pittsburgh Grand Hyatt Hotel, she bumped into Henry Mancini, at the same moment that she happened to be playing one of his songs. "My dear," Mancini told her. "Playing the piano in a bar is one of the most difficult jobs in music, and you are doing it very well. I just wanted you to know that." This auspicious praise preceded a lengthy stint at the keys in New York's finest Times Square hotels, an exclusive resort in Haiti, and eventually private parties in a German castle. Her view from the piano of unfolding nightlife drama is absorbing, and Goldsby's writing style is sardonic and amusing. The eccentric regulars and freaks that populate piano lounges include Irma, who is obsessed with Goldsby's ankles, the head-to-toe sable-adorned "Gay Baron," and a crazed stalker who eventually tries to stab her at the piano with a sharpened umbrella. Goldsby relates some fantastic stories, including a bizarre one about her close friend getting married on Rikers Island to an Asian gangster (Goldsby is the maid of honor and is supposed to play piano, though there is no piano). On different occasions, she's asked by management to keep playing while a priest is choking, during a fistfight involving New York Yankee Manager Billy Martin, and to distract hotel patrons after a man commits suicide. The author acknowledges that it's not just her knack at the piano that often lands her a gig but her blond good looks and affable manner. Her charm is also palpable in her writing. Her wide-ranging stories possess a low-key, party-girl sense of humor. The unusual career that she has chosen seems endlessly gratifying, though certainly not easy. This is the sort of memoir that makes readers wonder if they made the right career choice and wish that they'd kept up with those piano lessons. ADAM BREGMAN The Friend Who Got Away: Twenty Women's True-Life Tales of Friendships That Blew Up, Burned Out, or Faded Away

Edited by Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell (Doubleday, $24.95) I feel hopeless. With one year to go in college before my entry into the "real world," this book is not exactly a "Go get 'em, tiger" boost of encouragement. As you'll gather from the subtitle, Friend is a collection of downer moments, from girlhood and beyond. What are we to conclude from all this friendship-induced misery? Lesson 1: Losing a friend is harder than losing a lover, or so editors Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell argue in their forward. The stomach tends to churn more when one sees an ex-friend than it does when seeing an ex-lover. Maybe it's because, as women, we want to see our ex-lovers in agony—this usually includes an acne-faced, overweight girlfriend on his arm and unemployment. However, there's always an ambivalence, always a place in our hearts for friends. Lesson 2: "When we begin a friendship, there's no reason to believe it can't last forever," Francine Prose writes in her introduction. With lovers, we tend to prepare ourselves for the worst, even while crossing our fingers for a winner. When a friendship doesn't last forever, many times we are left stunned and confused, just like the 20 contributors to this anthology—it's not like they were bracing for the aftermath of a broken marriage, which can include ugly custody battles for kids, couches, and cats. So why do friendships fade? Causes blamed here include deceit, tragedy, and jealousy. They provide some organization for the book: First are more immature relationships broken by jealously and the divergence of awkward teenage lives; later come the sundering effects of death, marriage, and kids. And yes, some of the younger bonding does include the foreseeable girl-on-girl kissing scene, but most of the friendships are platonic. Writers including Dorothy Allison, Patricia Marx, and Elizabeth Strout bring their distinct voices to the collection, making it ever-changing and unpredictable—just like a friendship. It's easy to page through The Friend for this very reason: Readers on the run or with short attention spans can breeze from section to section. Despite a few unbelievably ridiculous reasons for breakups, the book gets to the heart of the matter: The more women have in common, the longer the friendship will last and the better it will be. So how do we adapt as our friends grow over the years? For these 20 glass-half-empty women, maturity and loss are inevitable. Readers may wish for that everlasting Carrie- Miranda-Charlotte-Samantha bond, and I'd like to think that some of my friendships will follow that model, no matter what The Friend says. But at least we'll always have those six precious seasons of Sex and the City on DVD. SARAH MCGUIRE

 
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