Effects of Lobotomy: My Mother

Growing up and into adulthood I knew that my mother had been given a lobotomy, but I never looked into what that involved nor had any notion of its effects.  I took my mother as she was as I had no notion of what she had been like as a young woman and, therefore, had nothing to which to compare her behavior after the lobotomy.

All this changed as I did the research for Examined Lives during which I read her diary, handwritten books of poetry she personally enjoyed and which she sometimes wrote herself and perused her many scrapbooks detailing her life in Chicago in her early 20’s.  There before me was a woman I had never met—vibrant, adventurous, going to plays and concerts as well as visiting many of the nightclubs and bars around Rush Street, taking art classes at the American Academy of Art.

From that perspective I could see what the lobotomy had done to constrict her life.  When she would visit me in Chicago, she showed no interest in exploring the city.  I remember particularly taking her to the Field Museum and being annoyed that her major concern was where the nearest bathroom was located.  When I visited her in Dubuque, Iowa, where she and my grandmother lived, she showed no interest in cultural matters.  Instead she focused a great deal on her Catholicism and we visited a monastery to buy bread and toured a religious grotto someone had constructed out of bits and pieces of pottery shards, shells, etc.  We did visit fairly regularly the Wisconsin Dells.  My mother’s love of physical activity, particularly swimming, remained and she taught swimming at a local YMCA to physically handicapped children.  Thus her kindness also remained.  But when I took her to a new restaurant in Dubuque and we were served Vichyssoise soup, which of course is served cold, she was puzzled and did not enjoy the foray into French fare.  Newness I think frightened her to a degree.  When Vatican II stopped making meatless Fridays mandatory, she was very upset. She wanted to follow some regularized pattern.  I told her she could still abstain from meat on Fridays if she wanted to, as a sort of “free will offering,” but she rejected that solution.

Most of all I think her art suffered.  Below are some of the drawings and paintings she did as a young woman.

After the lobotomy she mainly did a very few charcoal sketches of people from photographs, not very good, and Christmas cards, very unimaginative in design and done in crayon, basically a child’s drawing tool, with occasionally touches of white watercolor.  Crayon hardly allows for precision in drawing and her choice of it I think speaks volumes about the effect of the lobotomy.  It was of course a major tragedy for her and, in the end, for me who lost a mother.









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