My name is Roberta Reb Allen and I am the author of Examined Lives, a memoir that explores my mother’s and my own mental illness. I was inspired to write the memoir for several reasons. One was initially simply for myself. A second was to fight the stigma surrounding mental illness. I wanted to write a no-holds-barred look at what it was like in the hopes of creating greater understanding and of lessening the sense of isolation felt by those experiencing mental illness themselves or in loved ones.
A further reason was to share how social and familial forces can shape mental illness for better or worse. And in both my mother’s and my case there was better and worse. Finally, I am an historian by nature and training. Ever since I was a teenager in Beirut, Lebanon, where my father was a diplomat, it has been my passion and I subsequently received my B.A. and M.A. in history from the University of Chicago. Here in writing Examined Lives I was given the opportunity to look at my and my mother’s lives not just as a participant but through a historian’s lens.
But it all started with putting the pieces together for myself. All my life I have had confusing mental videos of my childhood bouncing around in my head like balls in a pinball machine. After my second major depression, I was determined to try to understand what had happened to the best of my ability and create some sort of order. In doing so, I had to face what happened to my mother, who at the age of thirty-three, was unnecessarily given a lobotomy by Walter Freeman, the same doctor who had botched the lobotomy of Rosemary Kennedy. This meant I had to face reading through the letters saved by family members describing the details of what happened at that time. I had had the letters in my possession for some time, read them once cursorily and put them away as too upsetting. Now I brought them out.
Historian as I am, this was not enough. I read through every family document I could put my hands on — my mother’s 5-year diary, her scrapbooks from her time in Chicago, her books of poems in which she had handwritten poems that she loved, my father’s poetry, and his unpublished novel. Then I went further and found where Walter Freeman’s patient records were housed and went through the necessary legal steps to gain access. To my surprise the mental institution to which my mother was taken after undergoing the lobotomy had kept much of their patients’ records and I gained access to my mother’s. I skimmed or read over a hundred of Freeman’s professional papers as well as his unpublished autobiography. I obtained my parents’ marriage and divorce documents. All this along with my own personal memories were turned into Examined Lives.
Writing to me is a thinking process. I learn from what I write. And, I learned a great deal from Examined Lives—about myself and about my parents and other members of my family whose lives I examined. Examined Lives is a cautionary but also a hopeful tale that I share with you.