When I got the book, Violence and the Brain and started skimming it and looking at the pictures, I felt a little traumatized at first. It was written in 1970 and one of the main authors Vernon K. Mark is / was a neurosurgeon at Mass General. The book discusses the brain and origins of violence. I found it on line and I bought it originally because of the photographs of psycho surgery and the xray of a skull after stereotastic surgery. So the book came in the mail today and it was sickening to me to see the photographs of the surgery. It made me feel very sad because even if it wasn't a lobotomy or psychosurgery, my mother underwent something like that. The book however, made me think that she did undergo psychosurgery. The pictures in the book must depict something like the operating room where my mother had her surgery. I decided I wanted to see if I could find out if the book was still copy written so I can use the photographs and maybe some of the text. As I started doing copyright look up, I found out it that it's not really that easy to find out if a book before 1977 has a renewed copyright and what I found said to assume it has a 96 year copyright protection. So then I thought what if I looked up this doctor? I have contacted other researchers for my work, experts to consult about a study or related topic. So I started looking up Dr. Vernon H. Mark. And, he I found a page indicating he was still a neurosurgeon at Mass General. There was no reason for it but I felt like I'd found a ghost. No. I felt like he was the one who did the surgery. He wasn't I'm sure—or probably wouldn't have been the one. Boston was an hour from Mass General. But, what if? If I talked to him, he could tell me the likelihood or if those surgeries were conducted at hospitals like St. Lukes? Then for a moment it seemed weird that they would do a surgery like that at that small hospital. So, then that led me to think maybe it was an emergency surgery for a stroke or something else. What else would they do brain surgery for?
I believe she was in the hospital six weeks. I don't know for sure but the story my mother told –her retelling of the events around the brain surgery included being in a coma for six weeks after undergoing brain surgery. She did undergo brain surgery. I don't know if he had been in a coma. I felt like if I had been able to talk with him, some big door would swing open.
But then a Google search pulled up his obituary.
Of course I can't talk to him. He's dead.
Ok. So the next thing is to look at historical newspapers and maybe do some searches for his name and St. Lukes' Hospital. I'll still try and figure out copy write stuff and post some of the pictures from his surgeries. I don't know if it's just me, but I really don't like the way he looks in the picture. Terrible to say, but something about him, I don't know. I'm always amazed too at the accolades these kinds of doctors get into their old age and after their death. It's interesting that they say "neurosurgeon" with no mention of the psychosurgery he pioneered. How many did he conduct and for what reason? There is a woman in his book that I started to read something about on line. He treated her for violent behavior during epileptic seizures and basically, he caused her harm. Anyway, I have to read the book and do the searches.
These pictures were a couple of years after when my brother refers to my mother setting fire to a doilie with a cigarette lighter.
I am trying to understand what difference it makes to me whether my mom had a lobotomy or some other kind of brain surgery. Both have the potential to cause personality disorder. I guess if it were a lobotomy then there would be someone to blame for all of it—or most of it. If she had a stroke or something and required surgery then it would have just been a horrible tragedy. Why does it matter now that she's dead and all that happened 45 years ago. What difference does it make? I think it's because it is shrouded in so much secret. If it had been a stroke then it wouldn't have been covered up in all this family lore yet secrecy. Why would NO ONE in my family other than my mother ever mention the brain surgery. That seems very weird to me. It seems like a big event. Something is wrong about it.
And the question of my dad. Why would he stay with her for so long? A part of me thinks he felt guilty because of what he signed off on. But I don't know.
This is what I do know:
In 1970 mom had brain surgery
Her personality changed or became permanently psychotic
She lacked inhibitions
She was abusive
She had two holes drilled for the surgery. From what I remember they were near the top, back of her head. I could be wrong about this. My brother said there were three holes. (She told everyone different things)
So I'm finding different kinds of psychosurgery used during that time, more precise than the frontal lobotomy. My mind keeps returning to this neurology professor I took a class from. I wonder if he would meet with me and let me ask some questions about these kinds of surgeries and the plausibility that a botched surgery could cause the kind of behaviors my mother exhibited. Or, another option is that she didn't have postpartum, that it was the onset of schizophrenia and it was exacerbated by the trauma of the surgery. I don't think that's likely because her brand of psychosis was not like someone with schizophrenia. She rarely had hallucinations. She was mostly narcissistic, sadistic, lacked inhibition, very emotional, and delusional. Violent. I would say she was violent. But, she could carry on a normal conversation. (sort of). She would do almost anything for attention, really crazy stuff. She wasn't above pretending to be unconscious, making us look sick, screaming, doing humiliating things in public.
Really all these things are limbic system (except maybe the inhibition part is the frontal cortex)? I wish I knew more about neurology!'
(The following in italics taken from psychosurgery at assignment point. http://www.assignmentpoint.com/science/medical/psychosurgery.html)
"Psychosurgery is a collaboration between psychiatrists and neurosurgeons. During the operation, which is carried out under a general anesthetic and using stereotactic methods, a small piece of brain is destroyed or removed. The most common types of psychosurgery in current or recent use are capsulotomy, cingulotomy, subcaudate tractotomy and limbic leucotomy. Lesions are made by radiation, thermo-coagulation, freezing or cutting. About a third of patients show significant improvement in their symptoms after operation. Advances in surgical technique have greatly reduced the incidence of death and serious damage from psychosurgery; the remaining risks include seizures, incontinence, decreased drive and initiative, weight gain, and cognitive and affective problems. All the forms of psychosurgery in use today (or used in recent years) target the limbic system, which involves structures such as the amygdala, hippocampus, certain thalamic and hypothalamic nuclei, prefrontal and orbitofrontal cortex, and cingulate gyrus — all connected by fibre pathways and thought to play a part in the regulation of emotion. There is no international consensus on the best target site.
Anterior cingulotomy was first used by Hugh Cairns in the UK, and developed in the US by H.T. Ballantine jnr. In recent decades it has been the most commonly used psychosurgical procedure in the US.The target site is theanterior cingulate cortex; the operation disconnects the thalamic and posterior frontal regions and damages the anterior cingulate region. Anterior capsulotomy was developed in Sweden, where it became the most frequently used procedure. It is also used in Scotland and Canada. The aim of the operation is to disconnect the orbitofrontal cortex and thalamic nuclei.
Subcaudate tractotomy was the most commonly used form of psychosurgery in the UK from the 1960s to the 1990s. It targets the lower medial quadrant of the frontal lobes, severing connections between the limbic system and supra-orbital part of the frontal lobe.
Limbic leucotomy is a combination of subcaudate tractotomy and anterior cingulotomy. It was used at Atkinson Morley Hospital London in the 1990s and also at Massachusetts General Hospital. Amygdalotomy, which targets the amygdala, was developed as a treatment for aggression by Hideki Narabayashi in 1961 and is still used occasionally, for example at the Medical College of Georgia.
(all taken from psychosurgery at assignment point. http://www.assignmentpoint.com/science/medical/psychosurgery.html)
A weird thing I'm thinking about as I'm reading about psychosurgery was what society must have been like when brain surgery was an accepted for of psychiatric treatment. That is so damned scary. It is nightmarish. One thing I read described how they sometimes did these surgeries under local anesthesia and how the patient, particularly given their anxious tendencies are nervous and talking about how nervous they are as the doctor is drilling the holes and they can hear the metal instruments clanging. So fucking horrible. (I also saw and realized I never read Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer about a lobotomy. His sister Rose was given a frontal lobotomy and it went bad.)
I made a first pass at the box of things mom sent to me when she was dying. There were two things I didn't expect. (1) I didn't expect so many momentos of us when we were babies. All kinds of congratulation cards, immunization records, baptism certificates, pictures & pictures. It stands out to me as overwhelmingly significant; maybe it's because I am thinking that something happened around the time when my brother was a baby (1970) or maybe it's because if what I believe is true (lobotomy / brain surgery that made her psychotic) then time stopped for my mother then. Or as she always said, she loved her "babies." She did love us when we were babies, according to her. All the pictures tell that same story. I someone out there in the universe is racking up evidence, then there is one point in her favor. It appears that at one time, she loved her children.
The other thing I didn't expect was to feel so very guilty. Selfish maybe. I know my brother took care of my mother when she was dying--the years it took. He took care of her, endured all the feelings that must have plagued him. And, looking at the box of things, it was clear my sister took care of my mother while we were growing up. I guess I knew that. The evidence is in the artifacts. Stupid things: storage container receipts, checks for utilities. All my sister's good grades. I rolled my eyes until I realized I was doing it, every time I picked up another one of her report cars. A, A, Excellent. I was glad that there was no evidence of my elementary and high school career. So, if they both took care of my mother--what did I do? I know what I did. When I was around 13 I started a mantra and I repeated it in my head every time I looked at my mother "I'm a master at the art of placating. I'm going to leave as soon as I can." I must have been the only one with a viable exit plan. Even my dad didn't know how to get out.
I did placate. I made my mom and dad laugh. I entertained them. I let them be the crazy people they were and I never reflected it back. Then, when the time was right, i was like "fuck you.." And they were stunned by my actions. It was justified for certain. I have all kinds of evidence of that. But I ripped myself out of their lives to live my own.
I feel bad about that.
First try calling St. Luke's Hospital in New Bedford, Massachusetts for my mother's medical records from 1970.
Second call to St. Luke's Hospital in New Bedford, Massachusetts for my mother's medical records from 1970.
No one has ever disputed that my mother had a serious mental illness.
No one disputed her substance abuse, violence, outrageous behavior, her sadistic nature. It had always seemed to my siblings and I that once we turned 12 or 13, we had surpassed our mother emotionally. My sister and I used to say "mom's not crazy but she pretends she is and there is something crazy in that."
Was it her fault?
I had always just hated her. It was the most logical thing to do. It made sense to everyone to hate her. As terrible as that sounds--and I'm aware it sounds terrible--if you lived with my mother as your parent, you'd say the same thing. If she was your wife, you'd say the same thing. She was a burden and she was dangerous. Simple facts.
But why was she that way?
I'm starting to think it had something to do with the brain surgery she underwent in 1970.
Research Notes So Far
I'm going to call the hospital. I did some research and first I looked up the kind of lobotomy I think it was. Right now the only evidence I have is that she did definitely have brain surgery and they definitely did drill two holes in her skull. My brother said he remembered three because she always told him she felt like a bowling ball. I'd never heard that but she always told us all different versions of the same story. And, I wish she hadn't put it that way because she was crude and uninhibited. Why did she have to make a joke of it?
So it seems possible she had something called a bilateral cingulectomy.
"In most cases the procedure started with the medical team taking a number of scan images of the brain of the patient. This step ensured that the exact target, the was mapped out, so that the surgeon could identify it. Then burr holes are created in the patient's using a drill. at the targeted tissue were made with the help of fine inserted at the right angle into the subject's brain based on plotting charts and making sure important and were intact. The electrode was placed in a , or a holder, with only its tip projecting. Upon the correct insertion of the holder into the brain tissue, air was injected and more scan images were taken. Then, after the medical team had made sure they were on the right track, the tip of the electrode was advanced to the plane of the where it was heated to 75-90 °C. Once the first lesion was created it served as a center around which several other were created. In order to confirm whether lesions are made at the right place, images were taken postoperatively and analyzed."
In 2008 I wrote a memoir entitled What Remains Inside. It recounted my experiences with my mother who suffered from severe mental illness. I wrote my memoir during the year she was dying of leukemia. We had been estranged for almost 20 years.
Recently, I was thinking about her psychosis and I remembered an event that happened in 1970. This memory was nothing new. It was something our whole family recalled and my mother often recounted (at least her version of it). Other than my mother's retelling, not one other adult in our family EVER mentioned it. This was how my mother told the story (over and over throughout my childhood).
I had a terrible headache. Back then, I never drank alcohol and I had a beer that night. I went upstairs to lay down because my headache kept getting worse and worse.
I had had a stroke.
They took me to the hospital and did brain surgery. They drilled two holes in my head (she'd point out where on the crown of her head, or have us touch the soft spots that felt like a piece of leather stretched over a hollow hole, about the size of a quarter). They drilled the holes to release the pressure in my brain.
I went into a coma for six weeks. The doctors didn't think they they could save me. And, your dad. He knelt by my bed every day and cried. He prayed over and over "God please don't take Bunny from me."
I was going to die and they called in the Catholic priest. He gave me last rights.
I remember being on an escalator, there was a bright light at the end. I was going up and up. I saw another escalator--I felt such a sense of peace. Then I noticed people I loved and missed so much. They were waving to me. I smiled at them and headed up towards the light. Then, I realized.
They are all dead. These people are all dead.
I woke up.
Whether all of her story was true, she had been taken to the hospital and she underwent brain surgery. The doctors did drill two holes in her head. When she returned home, she was a completely different person. My mother was severely mentally ill for the remainder of her life. She attempted suicide on many occasions, had psychotic episodes, lacked inhibitions, abused drugs & alcohol, and was violent.
As she had with her other pregnancies, I suspect that my mother again experienced postpartum psychosis after my brother was born. I suspect she was underwent psychosurgery, something like a lobotomy.
But I don't really know.
Through interviews, family archives, and diaries I am setting out to find out what happened to my mother. I don't have a lot of hope that my journey will take me too far because so much time has passed and very few people who knew her then are still alive. But maybe...
Introduction Videos 1 & 2 provide an overview of my plans for this project. If you have not yet read my memoir "What Remains Inside" you can find it on wattpad.
Finding My Mother is an investigation into the circumstances surrounding a brain surgery my mother underwent in 1970 and whether the surgery was the cause of her life-long mental illness. If you have not seen the Video Epilogue to my memoir What Remains Inside, you can view it below. It provides the context for this project. What Remains Inside is available free on wattpad.