A lobotomy, depression and a mother’s revelation9/11/2013
My most vivid memories of my paternal grandmother date from my childhood, when my family and I visited Grandma and Grandpa Kirsch at their home in Fairmont, Minn.
I remember Grandma hugging me and asking me how I was and generally making a big deal out of me. I pretended to be embarrassed, but deep down inside I loved every moment of the attention she lavished on me.
Even though Grandma Kirsch passed away in 1993, I have been preoccupied with her ever since my mother told me that Grandma Kirsch had a lobotomy at a mental health institute in Cherokee in the 1950s.
The news shocked me — Grandma Kirsch had a lobotomy? I couldn’t reconcile that knowledge with the warm, loving person I remembered.
But the revelation also struck a deep chord because I had recently spent three days in a mental hospital in Texas.
My experience was uneventful compared to my grandmother’s. I had a bad panic attack brought on by job stress and voluntarily checked myself into a mental ward, where I was diagnosed with severe depression. After a couple days of group therapy, I felt better and returned to my apartment in a suburb of Fort Worth.
But I continued to struggle with depression, and that made me feel distant from family and friends, even though they tried to help.
So when my mother told me what had happened to Grandma Kirsch, I felt I had something of a kindred spirit in my family. I set out to learn more about what had happened to my grandmother.
My first step was to ask the state of Iowa for copies of records of my grandmother’s treatment at Cherokee.
Many of the things the doctors wrote were hard to square with the happy memories I had of Grandma Kirsch.
“On admission she seemed still somewhat confused and verbalized delusions and hallucinations of a bizarre nature,” one of the doctors wrote.
According to another report, “The husband states that the patient has had hot flashes and believes that she is going through the menopause, which, he thinks, might account for some of her symptoms.”
I learned that Grandma Kirsch had undergone shock treatment several times at a hospital in Council Bluffs.
She seemed better for a while after each treatment, but then the symptoms, such as fighting with Tony, her husband, and fears that she was being ostracized for her religious beliefs, would return.
The doctors at Cherokee decided that Grandma Kirsch was suffering from schizophrenia and that a lobotomy offered the best hope of putting an end to her disturbing behavior. The doctors used an electroshock machine to put my grandmother in a coma, and then performed the lobotomy procedure, which took three minutes, according to one of the reports.
Afterwards, Tony told the doctors that “he was very impressed by the wife’s warm affect, and the real interest in her home she seemed to have developed. He stated that he had never seen her so good during the last years. He requested her parole, and the writer recommends it,” according to a report.
I have read that particular document many times but still can’t figure out how someone could put my grandmother’s name and the word “parole” together in the same sentence.
At the State Library of Iowa, I found reports that the director of mental institutions submitted to the board of control of state institutions.
The writer of the 1958 report, Dr. James Cromwell, began by assuming the role of a TV show host introducing “to you the mentally ill and mentally retarded of Iowa, with the numerous and complex problems involved in their care.”
The idea of portraying mentally ill and mentally retarded people as guests on a TV show dismayed me, but as I read the report I had to concede that Cromwell successfully conveyed the impression that modern methods were replacing cruel and outdated approaches to treating those deemed mentally ill. However, I couldn’t overlook the fact that my grandmother had undergone a lobotomy only four years earlier at a state institution, just at the time when powerful new drugs were starting to make lobotomies less common. On one of my visits to the institute in Cherokee, I toured the museum and got to hold one of the surgical instruments that doctors used to perform lobotomies.
The instrument was, essentially, a long, extra-thick needle designed to penetrate through bone and into the brain of the patient.
As I held the instrument in my hand, I had a difficult time believing that some doctor had actually driven one of these needle-like things, perhaps the very one I was holding, into my grandmother’s brain. My entire research project became much more real to me at that moment. I realized that I would not and should not try to keep my emotions out of the book.
My father, who passed away in 1990, never said a word to me about his mother’s lobotomy and schizophrenia. Maybe he simply found the subject too awkward to discuss.
My mother died last year and, despite my prodding, she never gave me much more information than the bombshell she dropped on me that night eight years ago on the deck of her condo in Ankeny. I have often wondered why she told me in the first place. Maybe she was saying, OK, you were in a mental hospital for a few days but that was nothing compared to what Grandma Kirsch went through.
My sense of having tackled an elusive subject is increased by my uncertainty about whether to use my grandmother’s first name. It’s a distinctive name, and I like it, but using it would absolutely identify her. Do I have the right, even as her grandson, to do that? But if I don’t use it, doesn’t that just reinforce the shame that surrounds mental illness to this day?
I also feel uncertain about how to approach this project as a writer. The documents and other material are helpful, but they can only take me so far. At some point, I suspect my informed imagination will have to fill in the gaps.
The idea of inventing dialogue and scenes in order to bring my grandmother’s experience to life seems daunting. After more than two decades, I can still remember the sight (and sound) of Robert Woodward, one of my journalism instructors at Drake University in Des Moines, as he pounded his lectern and shouted “accuracy, accuracy, accuracy!” to my fellow students and me.
Woodward was obviously correct about the importance of factual accuracy but couldn’t there also be an accuracy that goes beyond facts (I can’t believe I just wrote those words) and that aims to find the hidden connections between people and the significance of those connections?
Such an approach would seem to involve the use of that ill-defined thing called “creative non-fiction,” or even fiction itself. Venturing beyond the “just the facts, ma’am” approach I learned in journalism school makes me uneasy. But that’s where I appear to be headed, urged on by mother’s revelation and my desire to understand my grandmother and myself. CV
John Kirsch is an associate editor for an English-language publishing company in Mazatlan, Mexico. He is a native Iowan and worked as a reporter for newspapers in Fort Dodge, Dubuque, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City before moving to Texas to work as a reporter for papers in Bryan-College Station and Fort Worth.