What a sad, sad story. I've reconciled myself to the fact that memoirs are, by and large, sad. Most of them are a means for an author to purge himself of pain or atone for past sins, and that's all right. It's what keeps us reading, the thrill of living vicariously through someone else's abuse, addiction, illness, and sorrow while we're tucked up comfy and safe in our beds. For some reason, this book touched me more than the last few memoirs that I've read. I don't know if it's because Dully's anguish is rooted in childhood or because he is obviously just a simple man, a bus driver telling his story in order to stand as a voice for thousands like him without any affectation or sense of importance. The point is, it's a sad sad story but one very much worth reading.
Howard Dully's mother died when he was very young, and his father remarried a woman who was her opposite: where Dully's mother had lavished him with love and affection, his stepmother Lou treated him like a black sheep, punishing his severely for both real and imagined transgressions while his stepbrother and brother were exempt. Dully was also often physically punished, with great force, by his father. Howard was a mischevious boy, often in trouble in school and at home, but not malicious; were he a child today, he would probably be overmedicated on Ritalin for ADD when it seems that he was just a bright child (he used to disassemble and reassemble electronics when he was a toddler) with a vivid imagination and a dearth of intellectual challenges at school. His stepmother, however, couldn't stand Howard and tried various ways of removing him from her household; eventually she came upon the idea of having him lobotomized by the field's pioneer, Walter Freeman, who decided that Howard had been a schizophrenic from the age of four. Howard had no idea what was going to happen to him and the decision was made by his parents in a matter of days. After, Lou's campaign to get Howard out of her house was successful as he was bounced to foster families, relatives, and mental institutions. He was never allowed to return to the family home.
As Howard grew to adulthood, he moved from halfway houses and dead end jobs to homelessness, going from woman to woman, drinking heavily, marrying, divorcing, and fathering a child, but with no purpose. He was arrested time and again. It was only after years of such aimless existence that he realized he couldn't blame the lobotomy and decided to get his act together. He married a good woman, got clean, and got a steady job as a bus driver. Soon after he decided to research what had happened to him, Howard was contacted by two NPR producers who were putting together a segment on Freeman and the devastating effects that his cavalier lobotomies had had on his patients. After hearing Howard's story, the producers revamped the focus of the piece, choosing him as its center, and convinced him to interview patients, their families, medical professionals, and others, including his own father, who ultimately refuses to accept any responsibility or blame for what happened to his son. Eventually Howard became the voice for Freeman's patients as the narrator of the NPR piece "My Lobotomy," which was so well and widely received that the emails coming in after its initial airing crashed NPR's server. That program, in turn, led to the writing of this book.
Howard Dully uses an honest voice as he recounts and rediscovers his past. He is modest and candid, and the story is all the more powerful for it. At the end, you are glad that the adult Howard has picked up the pieces and rearranged them into a better life, but sad that the child ever had to endure such pain and absence of love. I'd like to give Howard Dully a hug.