Writing About the Personal: Examined Lives

In discussions about Examined Lives I have repeatedly been asked about my writing process and how I was able to write about such a traumatic experience for both my mother and myself. The truth is that I did not start out to write a book. I started out as strictly personal journey to make sense of what happened in my childhood.

I had had the family correspondence about my mother’s lobotomy long before I began this journey. I had read the letters, found them too confusing and disturbing to deal with at the time and simply put them away. About the time that I first read the letters I had seen the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in which the main character played by Jack Nichols is given electricshock therapy and subsequently lobotomized. I immediately got in the shower and cried my heart out, letting my tears mingle with the shower spray.

Years later, by the time I faced the letters again, I had a new resolve. I had suffered my second major depression and I was determined to get to the bottom of my mental illness. I needed, among other things, a chronology of what had happened. My childhood memories were helter-skelter images with no sense of when they actually took place. So I began going through all the various family materials I had and piecing the information together. In this I had the help of my analyst. The worst for me was the letter which my father wrote his parents and sister in which he stated: “The operation is relative simply and safe, and often highly successful. . . . The operation was performed today—Monday—by Dr. Freeman.” As I reviewed the letters I kept dreading coming to the last statement and unrealistically hoped and prayed  it could be avoided. It of course couldn’t; you cannot change the past, and I eventually learned to accept that it had happened.

I am a historian by nature and training and this helped immensely in my journey by giving me a more objective perspective from which to view what had taken place. I dug deeper into the circumstances, going beyond family documents, to obtain, with my brother’s help, my mother’s medical records from the facility where she was institutionalized after the lobotomy, Freeman’s files on her, as well as many other documents relating to such things as their marriage and divorce, all containing information new to me. I also plunged into Freeman’s publications.

By the time I was finished I felt strongly that I had in some sense a responsibility to share the journey and to be outspoken and frank about mental illness, still unfortunately much stigmatized today. So I started the book, having already processed what had taken place. My background as a historian helped pull the story from one involving my initial personal emotions of sorrow and anger to a more balanced understanding of the forces at work.

I was now writing for an audience, not just myself, and that of course influenced the shape of the book. It meant trying to make it flow and remain interesting and clear. That too involves an objective perspective which helped in writing about such personal experiences and which in fact helped clarify my own feelings about so many issues. I became determined to be as fair as I could about the people involved in my traumatic childhood. So in the end writing the book served in fact to transform sorrow and anger into at least some degree of compassion. I had not expected that and I am grateful that it did.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s