Episode 3 - In My Mother's Words


In week 3 of the podcast I delve into the words of family members as they describe my mother. I begin to unpack and introduce the psychosurgery I believe my mother underwent in 1970. This event was part of a large scale research project by Harvard University Psychiatric Surgeons. The story goes deep and dark and I will cover it in more depth later in the podcast. 

Here I am reprinting an article I wrote in 2016 and published on Invisible Illness. 

My Mother's Mental Illness and the Legacy of Psychosurgery

Two years ago I had an epiphany about my mother.

Throughout our relationship she suffered serious mental illness. Her problems took many forms: narcissism, lack of inhibition, lack of impulse control, psychosis, depression. There was never one label that "fit" my mother. She left the many psychiatrists and psychiatric hospitals with a variety of diagnoses: depression, paranoid schizophrenia, manic-depression, schizophrenia.

Her family's explanation was "She's just Bunny being Bunny."

The epiphany I had was:

maybe the brain surgery mother had in 1970 was psychosurgery (similar to a lobotomy).

It was like a voice coming forward from a vast history of silence. I had grown up knowing my mother underwent brain surgery in 1970 just a few weeks after my brother was born. Her version was that she'd suffered a stroke and almost died. My mother was the only one who ever spoke of it. That also seemed a little weird to me. I had an intuition that my mother's version was fiction.

Maybe my mother had a lobotomy.

I told my sister and brother and last spring I started researching lobotomies in Massachusetts in 1970. I found some interesting information that strongly supported my hypothesis about my mother.

The biggest clue was how my mother always told us that during the surgery they had drilled two holes in her skull to release the pressure. She had often pointed to the location of the holes and we had all felt the soft indentations on the back, top part of her skull. We felt the soft skin and could easily feel the permitter of two perfectly round holes. The location of the holes drilled into my mother's skull were in the same proximity as x-rays I found of psychosurgery being conducted in Massachusetts in the 1970s.

This resurgence of brain surgery in the 1970s for emotional and psychiatric problems is a little talked about, nefarious era in psychiatric practices. Like the predecessor frontal lobotomy, psychosurgy in the 1970s exploited the most vulnerable populations of individuals with and without mental illness: minorities, women, the institutionalized, children, and individuals with disabilities. These psychosurgeries differed from the older lobotomies in a number of ways. There was less impact on personality. Instead of targeting the frontal lobe of the brain, 1970s psychosurgeries targeted parts of the brain's emotional center, the limbic system. As you can see in the x-ray above, small wires were inserted into holes in the skull and through "x-ray" mapping and stereotactic surgery (see images below), a wire was inserted and specific limbic structures were cauterized (i.e., burned with wires or sometimes hot wax).

The following images were taken directly from "Violence and the Brain" by Vernon Mark and Frank Ervin (two major figures in the 1970s psychosurgery movement).

As I continued to research psychosurgery, it became more plausible that my mother did-in fact- undergo one of the psychosurgery procedures in August of 1970. I found out that Massachusetts was the epicenter of psychosurgery at the time. In fact Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital received a large NIH grant to study "aggressive behavior," brain disease, and research the effectiveness of psychosurgery as treatment. Two prominent Harvard doctors, Mark Vernon and William Sweet proposed screening African American males in response to the race riots taking place during the time. Their racism was met with a strong and swift response from activist both within the African American community and other human rights organizations. However, psychosurgery was on the rise in the early 1970s. One doctor -Peter Breggins, also from Harvard- began a crusade against psychosurgery. As a result the Harvard NIH grant was withdrawn and regulations were established to protect patients and insure informed consent.

These changes were not in place until after 1975, five years after my mother underwent surgery.

As far as my mother's case, by late summer this past year I'd found a strong body of evidence to support that my mother had undergone one of these psychosurgeries. Not only was the hospital where my mother's surgery performed less than an hour away from Boston, but my mother had been receiving psychiatric care by a psychiatrist who had studied in Boston and completed his residency at a state hospital where psychosurgeries were being conducted. I believe my mother had been under his care prior to the surgery and continued under his care immediately following the surgery and for many years there after. Immediately following the surgery my mother suffered from agoraphobia and severe anxiety and was put on anti-psychotic medication (prolyxin) and tranquilizers (valium).

I have vivid memories of my mother after the surgery. While I was only five years old at the time, the change in my mother must have been startling and dramatic to me. Her head was shaved and she was unpredictable. Her eyes had a dark, evil look and she became manipulative and mean. My memories are hazy before that time but I remember the shock at terror over how my mother had changed.

Concurrent with my research about psychosurgery in Massachusetts in the 1970s, I also conducted interviews with my sister, brother, and our kids in order to get a sense of everyone's memories of my mother and thoughts on what may have happened to her. I also went through old photographs and letters (the few I had left-my mother and I had been estranged for over 20 years).

I knew that at some point I would have to talk with family members who knew mom before and after the surgery. When my mother underwent brain surgery all of her relatives from Georgia (her sister, brothers, and mother) all traveled to Massachusetts to be with her. My mother's brain surgery was a serious event. My mother always said she'd gone into a coma, was close to death, and then came back to life. So, these maternal relatives all have some information about the event. There are several surviving relatives who likely have information about my mother before and after 1970. The rest of the family, including both my parents, have passed away.

Ironically, several years prior to her death my mother had begun researching her brain surgery. She had ordered her medical records and was trying to find someone who could decipher them and tell her what happened. Sadly, at that time no one really took it seriously. It seemed like another one of my mother's crazy stunts or schemes. The records have since been lost and are no longer on record at the hospital.

In my mind, my mother was a very different person after the surgery but she did have mental health problems before the surgery. I know she suffered from postpartum depression and psychosis. I figured she probably had an episode after my brother and the decision to do the surgery came after that.

I'd also grown up knowing my mother had been in a car accident in 1957 and was unable to finish high school because she'd needed wrist surgery. I wondered if maybe she had a brain injury and that had something to do with her underlying mental illness.

I decided to contact some of mom's relatives. People I hadn't spoken to in decades.

I was afraid to contact these relatives because I had been estranged from them for over 30 years. It wasn't so much that I feared this side of the family-they were all very kind to me growing up- I was afraid to open any door to my mother's life. She had abused me and her family loved her, knew a different person.

About a month ago I called a cousin of mine who grew up with my mother in Swainsboro, GA and lived near my mother for the last 20 years of her life (my mom died in 2008). After my parents divorced in the 1980s my mother moved from Massachusetts back to Georgia.

At the time of the call, I hadn't spoken or seen this cousin in over 25 years.

The call and information my cousin shared opened a whole new understanding of my mother's mental illness. Three things stood out from our call. The last likely -at least in part- explained my mother's underlying mental health problems. Or more accurately her personality disorder.

The first piece of information my cousin shared was that my mother had been in the army in her late teens. This was completely new information. I can't picture my mother with her lack of impulse control doing very well in the strict rule-governed U.S. military. Why had no one mentioned this to us kids?

The second insight came from my cousin's response to a bit of information about my mother that I knew: my mother had lived in Texarkana sometime before she met my dad. She married my dad at 21 so if you count her time in the army and her time in Texarkana she would likely have been pretty young when she left home. I asked my cousin about my mother moving to Texarkana. "Well that isn't so unusual, a lot of teenage girls did at the time."

Hmmm. Her apprehension made me wonder if I have a long-lost sibling somewhere.

The third and final piece of news answered at least some of my questions about my mother's mental state and it started a new line of inquiry. My cousin told me about something that happened to my mother when mom was a young teenager, probably around 1956 (my mom would have been 15). It went like this.

I asked my cousin, "What was mom like before the surgery?"

"Bunny was Bunny. You know she is just who she is. She would get an idea in her mind and she would argue the point and not let go."

"So there was no difference after the surgery?"

"Not that I knew of. Of course I was graduating high school at the time. I was young and caught up in that."

"What was she like as a teenager?"

"Well you know Bunny. She'd get something in her mind and wouldn't let it go. I remember her telling daddy that when she turned 16 she was moving out. On her sixteenth birthday daddy knocked on her door and told her 'well, you're sixteen. I suggest you pack your bags.' Your momma packed up a suitcase and walked over to her aunt's house. She stayed there about three days and then came on back home. You know how she was. Stubborn. Won't let anything go. She was just larger than life."

Then, my cousin then told me something I'd never heard before.

"When your momma was a young teenager she was out sitting on the hood of a car with a bunch of kids, just hanging around the way teenagers do. She was sitting on the hood of the car and someone backed the car out. Bunny fell off of the hood of the car and hit her head. She was unconscious for 3 hours and when she woke, momma [my cousin's mother, Betty] told me that m Bunny was just never the same after that."

I'd never heard this story before.

So, my mother had at least two brain injuries. The fall off the hood of the car and the brain surgery in 1970. It seems likely that while I wanted to believe my mother's mental illness was caused by her brain surgery, more likely I lost my mother long before I was born.

Now I want to know who she was and what her personality change was like. I know very little about traumatic brain injury but I think it might explain some of her underlying issues with impulse control and lack of inhibition. Not very good qualities for a 1970s wife and mother suffering from postpartum depression.

This November I am going to visit my remaining family -including my mother's sister, Betty. I'm going to my mother's home town of Swainsboro, Georgia and interview anyone who knew my mother in high school. I will go through old newspaper archives at the Swainsboro Blade looking for family information. I will visit places she lived.

I will try to immerse myself in my mother's life as it was in the 1950s before and after her head injury. I don't know what -if anything- I'll find out. It seems my journey is taking a slight turn, maybe the search is already over. My mother most likely had undergone psychosurgery in 1970 but that's not the whole story of her mental illness. Now there is more to uncover. My brother is joining me and my nephew is going to film the interviews and investigation on an old video recorder.

Here is a clip from an old Super8 of a family visit to Georgia a year before my mother's surgery.

Related Content: What Remains Inside

Epilogue to my memoir (the start of my investigation into the origins of my mothers mental illness)

My memoir about being a teenager and my mother's mental illness.