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Luke Dittrich is a National Magazine Award–winning journalist, and a contributing editor at Esquire. This is his first book.Luke Dittrich is available for select readings and lectures. To inquire about a possible appearance, please contact Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.prhspeakers.com.
If you’re a student of brain science, you’ll know the name William Beecher Scoville. He’s a pioneer of psychosurgery, the practice of surgically removing parts of the brain in order to cure conditions like epilepsy, schizophrenia, and depression.
Dr. Scoville’s most famous patient was Henry Molaison, whose true name would be revealed to the rest of the world only after his death in 2008. He was known simply as Patient H.M. since 1953, the year Dr. Scoville performed an experimental brain operation to relieve Henry’s epilepsy and instead destroyed his short-term memory. Henry became an anonymous research subject, his identity and whereabouts hidden by a small team of research scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who subjected him to decades of tests and interviews looking for answers on what human memory is and how it works. Thousands of pages of textbooks and research papers were filled with what they learned from him.
To journalist Luke Dittrich, Dr. Scoville was known for something entirely different: he was Dittrich’s grandfather. In Patient H.M., the tale of the search for the most famous patient in the history of brain science, Dittrich uncovers a hidden world of medical subjects, experimental surgery, and his own family’s direct ties to that controversial time in medical history.
We spoke to Dittrich about what he found when he went searching for Patient H.M.
PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE:By the end of your book, I realized it could have been called Finding Henry. What was looking for Patient H.M. like for you?
LUKE DITTRICH: The book was something I was circling around for a very long time. I began looking into it more than a decade ago, in 2005 back when Henry was still alive. I sort of first pitched it as a magazine story and I envisioned it at that point as a much more straightforward and concise story than something book-length.
I was fascinated by what I knew about his story at that point and I wanted to profile him and get a chance to sit down and meet with him and get my impression of Henry firsthand by interacting with him and speaking with him. That ultimately became very complicated. My first step was to make an interview request to Suzanne Corkin at MIT. I had known her my whole life. She was at the dinner table when I was growing up. She and my mom were very old friends, they grew up together, across the street from each other. I thought it was one of those situations where I had an in and could get access very easily. And it was not going to be: I got a contract from MIT saying that I could meet with him only if she had total control over what I wrote, which is incompatible with journalism.
I took a stab at finding him on my own. I knew the general areas where he was living and that he was in a nursing facility, I tried to find him on my own, and I didn’t find him. I put the story aside. Years later in 2009, I was sitting in a coffee shop in Yukon where I was living at the time, and I happened to see a link about Henry in the news popping up in an email that there was a live dissection going on with Henry’s brain, and I watched it as about 500 other people did that day. And I was fascinated with him as both this very famous and anonymous figure. I remember I wasn’t sure if it was a story I was going to write. I emailed Tyler Cabot, my editor at Esquire, and I pointed out what was going on in the news with Henry and he said, let’s figure out how to tell this story now. So I ended up after that initial effort trying to figure out Henry, knowing at that point that Henry was never going to be directly accessible to me.
I tried to bring him to life as much as possible, but there’s always this sense that though he’s this central character, there’s something missing about him, he was this guy who was always present, but there was this vacuum, he was only in the present. I had to build this portrait of Henry by getting the story of the people who were present in his life, and those were the researchers, and my grandfather. In some sense he was the most intensely scrutinized individual of all time. There are hundreds of hours of interviews conducted with him that helped bring him to life. But there was this constant, animating frustration that I was never able to actually meet him myself that drove me through the process of this book. How do I make him come alive even though I’ve never met him. As a journalist I’m usually able to speak with the people I’m writing about.
PRH:Henry’s story unearths yours and your family’s too. What was that like?
LD: I tried to never lose sight of the fact that my grandfather was a very talented surgeon and also a surgeon who saved a lot of lives. The work that occupies that gray zone between medical practice and medical research was only a part of what he did; he also helped people. He loomed large in my childhood as a great doctor who was very good at what he did and who saved a lot of lives. The other side, the great lobotomist, was something I was not aware of until I started looking at Henry’s story more than ten years ago. But it wasn’t until a few years that I realized the scope and the scale of the work that he was doing in the asylums and it was kind of stunning and shocking to see that other part of his career and also at the same time trying to remember that that wasn’t all he did, and I kept in mind throughout the reporting that this was also a product of the times and I tried not to engage in too much presentism.
The conditions in the asylums were pretty bad. The treatments people would endure were pretty horrifying even if they weren’t as permanently mutilating as lobotomies were. Going back to the mentally ill being viewed as somewhat disposable, there were no real good solutions. People were desperate to try anything and they did try almost anything on many, many people including my own grandmother, I had no idea what she went through until I started researching for this book. Treatments that I’d never heard of like hydration therapy, things that show that even before my grandfather and the other psychosurgeons it was no picnic to be in an asylum back in the ’40s and ’50s, but grappling with what my grandfather did is still something I’m going through.
It’s a been a very odd situation reporting on my own family. Probably it’s a very healthy thing for any journalist to be forced to do. Usually we’re a degree removed, and we can be a little callous, but I have to grapple that this book is going to affect people very close to me and I’ve had to sort of go with the mindset that I have to treat this as I would people I’m not related to. It was scary.
This was the most personal story, in a very literal sense, I’ve ever written. My daughter is in it, my mother, my grandmother and my grandfather. Ultimately though whenever I’m working on a story I’m always looking for connections between me and whoever the people I’m writing about are, I’m looking for those connections…using those connections to write the story because if the story doesn’t mean anything to the writer it won’t mean anything to the reader. This was orders of magnitude more personal than anything I’d written before. That becomes its own challenge: is this something that other people are going to care about? Are you willing to take the same journalistic and reporting instincts to your own story that you are willing to take to a story about strangers? If I were writing this story and my grandfather wasn’t my grandfather and I discovered the same things about him, it wouldn’t have been as personally painful but I would have used it then and I didn’t pull any punches, I realized that if I was going to do it justice I had to treat members of my own family as though they were not, to not give them extra latitude.
Henry ultimately was, even prior to his operation and certainly after, an extremely vulnerable character, and a person whose story had been dominated and told by people who had a very particular relationship to him. He was their patient in a sense, he was almost a commodity, a prize to them, and they had a particular interest in telling his story a certain way and that is the the one that comes in textbooks and the medical literature.
When I dug into it, it did seem that there are different ways to tell Henry’s story. One overarching goal I had was to tell it the way he would have wanted. I can’t pretend that I’m any better suited to tell it the way he wanted it told, but it’s in a different way than it has been told and I wanted to show some aspects of it that have not been considered and question the dominant story of Henry as it has been until this point — the basic view of consider the source. There are aspects of Henry’s story and Henry’s mind that are going to remain mysterious to us forever, but I don’t think his story has been done justice in the medical textbooks and literature.
PRH: Your grandfather and Suzanne Corkin, who headed the phycological research on Henry, figure prominently in his story, where he can’t. Can you talk about that?
LD: They were both in many respects the larger-than-life characters, very different, extremely intelligent and very ambitious, single-minded in their pursuits. Readers can draw their own conclusions. Having to excavate my grandfather’s history and confront things about that history that I never knew, that was the biggest personal challenge for me, and I can’t really talk about my grandfather now without mentioning my grandmother who was mentally ill, which is one of the things I didn’t understand until I started diving into the story.
My grandfather performed an experimental operation on Henry in the hopes of treating his epilepsy and inadvertently (and catastrophically for Henry) impacted his ability to form long-term memories, and ended up informing our understanding of how memory works. It was a boon for science but devastating for Henry himself. It really is impossible to understand the story of Henry without understanding that that operation came at the tail end of this long campaign of human experimentation conducted in hospitals and asylums across the United States. Patient H.M. was only one of hundreds of humans who received experimental surgery that were normally conducted on chimpanzees. For me it was horrifying once I realized the scale of the experiments being conducted, patients who couldn’t choose for themselves what was being done to them and how they were viewed: “Psychiatric material” was the term used for them.
My grandmother was institutionalized in one of the same asylums where these people were performing their experiments. What she went through was something that I was never aware of growing up. For my grandfather, there was this very personal aspect to his experimentation. He had this goal of coming up with a surgical cure for madness. He wanted to be able in a matter of minutes to pluck madness from someone’s brain as if it were a tooth from a head. He had this deep desire to do so because his wife was mentally ill and he wanted to find this magical fix. Suzanne Corkin and he were perhaps blind to some of the consequences of their actions.
The psychosurgeons such as my grandfather and some of the behavior of the researchers such as Suzanne Corkin who built their careers on studying the effects that those lesions on the brain had on their patients: in a sense they viewed themselves as having unlimited access and authority over those people, as I discovered when I tried to find Henry myself and was shut down. There are some mirrored effects and resonances between those two individuals.
PRH:You note during Henry’s postmortem that brains contain so much: memories, ideas, emotions, dangerous viruses, and bacteria. You also note at the end of his story that the human brain creates the human mind and then the human mind tries to understand the human brain. Given your years-long work with Henry’s story, as a writer how would you answer the question “What is our brain”?
LD: I think that the amazing thing about the brain is that it’s still very difficult to answer that question, it’s so complicated and remains so mysterious, even in the age of MRI and all sorts of other technologies that at one time would have seemed miraculous. It’s ultimately this inscrutable object that’s at the heart of us, and we’re just starting to understanding how it works, and some of our most astonishing revelations come when it does not work. It remains to me this amazing mystery that we still haven’t cracked.
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