The Lobotomy

~ “By 1955 over 40,000 men, women and children in the United States alone had undergone psychosurgery which left large parts of their brains irreparably vandalized by doctors who didn’t even need a formal qualification to practice the operation…

During the winter of 1945, Freeman tried to develop a trans-orbital approach to lobotomy, practicing on corpses. Watts cooperated, believing that ultimately he would do the surgery, and Freeman would, as usual, navigate. The two men came up against a familiar problem; the instruments they were using were not strong enough to penetrate the orbital bone and kept breaking off inside the head of their experimental corpses. They needed an implement that was slender, sharp, and strong. 

One day, mulling over the problem at home, Freeman remembered that the apple corer had been a source of inspiration for Moniz, and began to rummage through the contents of his kitchen drawers. Soon he found precisely what he was looking for: a cheap, mass-produced ice pick for stabbing pieces of ice off large commercial blocks. Normally used for making cold drinks on hot summer days, it now made its debut as an instrument for brain surgery. Freeman put a special hammer-shaped head on the ice pick, which allowed it to be pushed and pulled more easily. It was this instrument that was used in the first trans-orbital lobotomies in America in a procedure that became known as the “ice pick lobotomy”. 

Armed with his new weapon, Freeman was convinced that a trans-orbital would be a simple piece of surgery which would not require a neurosurgeon. He decided that he would operate on the first living patient without telling Watts, whom he hoped would be sufficiently impressed to offer his encouragement thereafter. Secretly, he tried his hand on a series of patients, to whom he explained that the technique had been used successfully in Italy for a number of years, which was being quite economical with the truth. He did not dwell on his own lack of surgical experience. He anaesthetized them with three rapid bursts of electric shock. He then drew the upper eyelid away from the eyeball, exposing the tear duct. The sharp point of the ice pick was placed in this, and then, as Freeman put it, “a light tap with a hammer is usually all that is needed to drive the point through the orbital plate”. The ice pick was plunged into the brain. When it was about 2 inch inside, Freeman would pull the ice pick about 30 degrees backward, as far as he could without cracking the skull, and then move it up and down in another 20-degree arc, in order to cut the nerves at the base of the frontal lobes. The procedure took only a few minutes. Freeman’s post-operative advice to relatives was restricted to the order: “Buy them some sunglasses…

Lobotomy was finally seen for what it was: not a cure, but a way of managing patients. It was just another form of restraint, a mental straitjacket nailed permanently over the brain. It did not create new people; it subtracted from the old ones. It was an act of defeat, of frustration. The Director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, Nolan Lewis, asked: “Is quieting a patient a cure? Perhaps all it accomplishes is to make things more convenient for those who have to nurse them. The patients become rather child-like; they are as dull as blazes. It disturbs me to see the number of zombies that these operations turn out. It should be stopped.”








Have ever loved,

Resides, in your face.

Wide set, soulful, deep deep deep brown eyes,

(Seen even in the blue blue eyes of both of my Fox loves].

Lips meant to kiss,

(And did they ever?)

A face full 




Of hope, 

Of expectancy,

So lovely you were,

My uncle who




In this photograph,

Taken at Boston Latin School, 

Boston Latin,

Founded in 1635, dedicated to educating young men (sic)

Of all social classes, 

Yes, even you, and my father, poor Jews, studying alongside 

Boston Brahmin elite.

My father, 

My father

My father,

Almost 89, 

Once running legs, turned into draping appendages,

Sitting at the linoleum kitchen table, 

I was tentatively asking my parents questions about Sydney, 

About Sydney my uncle,

When my father told my mother and I: 

“ if you want to kill me tonight, ask me to talk about my brother” –

He who.

He who.

He who, signed the papers for your lobotomy,

I imagine you, 

Playing your German made boilerplate violin,

The one thing my grandfather brought with him from Russia.

I imagine you, 

Sitting Shiva, twice a day, 

Although it was not at Temple Ohabei Shalom,

It was at an Orthodox Shul somewhere in Roxbury, 

My grandfather, dead of stomach cancer at 45,

My father, often accompanying you, 

Every day, you went, for a year, 

My father was not quite 13 when his father died.

Thank you, thank you, thank you uncle Sydney, 

For telling my grieving father, for being the only family member,

Member of my once family, taking my father, Bennett,

To the Torah,

When he turned, from twelve, to thirteen. 

If I don’t tell these stories, who will?

You were a young student then, at MIT, 



You, you were

Studying with the famous Richard Feynman,

American theoretical physicist.

You, rebelled against The Reserve Officer Training Corps

And was kicked out of this (military group), my kindred one,

For being against the war.


This was 


It was known here in America,

What was happening to the Jews, of Europe.

Thank you, thank you, thank you

For believing the way to peace was through talking and not fighting.

And then, when we heard

(“we” I include myself here even though I was not yet conceived, 

My parents had not yet even met, dancing, at that dance at 

The Officers Club,

In Boston…)

The news, the news sent you to bed,

From where you would not ever again rise,


Your brilliant mind, then, utterly destroyed, by your love

For our people.

Photos taken long ago haunt my life,

In this, the only one I have of you as a young man, you are,

Dressed, in a wool suit jacket and tie, 

You look so much like Adrien Brody

The Pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew,

In Warsaw, the last Holocaust film I’ve been able to watch,

Chopin’s Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor,


It will always


Be echoing through my soul.

We are all a conglomeration of the lives and bodies

Of those who have come before us.


My beautiful uncle,

Were as deeply rooted in our lives in that house in Newton, 

As the ancient oak tree which towered over the neighborhood.

You have been buried now for over three decades

Uncle of mine, 

In whose face I see everyone I have ever loved,

And everyone I shall ever love. 

You would be an old man now, if

Your anti-war soul had not been brutally

Ripped from your body in 1949, only six years before I was born.

You lived on for decades 

In the aftermath

In a mindless body,

Hidden behind stone and brick walls




We your brother’s children,

Did not even know

You existed, 

Until close to the end.

And for the past eight years, 

I’ve lived with 

Your gravestone, I brought it back from

The City of Dead Jews, it’s

Leading against the outside porch wall of my house,

I walk by it every day,

Saved and returned to me, after,

I respectfully replaced your stone, thirty years later, alongside my Now dead fathers,

Both, with the hands of the Kohenium. 

I was raised in a haunted house.

I am who I am today because of your ghost, 

You were dead but alive, walking the halls,

Wailing, ringing bells, dragging chairs, as all ghost do,

It was you, all along, in that coffin, in the room in the attic,

How is it possible?

That part of the house not yet even built,

When I had that repetitive childhood nightmare.

My father never again could trust doctors, 

And, who could blame him?

Who could blame me?

Living forty years now with a rare liver disease.

I would have died for you,

You would have been one of the many,

I would have sacrificed myself for if it meant we could reverse history,

If you could live and I could never have been born.

Instead your tragedy saved my life, Sydney.

I who rarely follow the advice of doctors.

So much of their foolish protocol would have killed me,

Acutely aware we are all mortal, all fallible, all groping in the dark,

You bestowed this gift upon me.

In my life, I only acquiesce to those who earn my deference.

My own brother, an attorney,

Perhaps incited by the need to be able to create change, 

And I, I I have been, a radical psychologist, 

Always questioning 





I will never know many women’s bodies have I prevented from

Falling into the abyss,

One would be enough and of one, I am sure. 

My beautiful uncle, 

In whose face I see

The face of everyone I have ever loved and

Everyone I will ever want to.

@ Susan Lynn Gesmer, The Lobotomy, 2009-2020, Goshen, Massachusetts

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