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disturbing and sad--but a story that needs to be told
on November 12, 2009
American Experience: The Lobotomist tells the not so pretty story of the rise and fall of Dr. Walter Freeman and his surgical lobotomy procedure, a controversial treatment even when it was done in large numbers in an attempt to treat patients with chronic and severe forms of mental illness. This type of surgery took place, for the most part, back in the 1930s, 1940s and even the 1950s when psychiatric hospitals were little more than warehouses for people with mental illness; the best of the best simply had no idea how to treat them besides observation.
Enter Walter Freeman. The grandson of a doctor who was famous for the fist successful removal of a brain tumor on a living patient, Dr. Freeman wanted to prove himself a God. This wasn't all too hard at the time since doctors were generally regarded as Gods and almost nobody ever questioned their authority. In Dr. Freeman's time patients simply complied and there was no such thing as "informed consent." Freeman wanted solutions for chronic mental illness and he wanted them fast just as he also wanted fame and fortune for his efforts. He read so much that he finally discovered a crude form of lobotomy and after a few years of making this procedure a bit more sophisticated (not that it ever was an answer nor did it turn out to be sophisticated in any true way), lobotomies across the nation were occurring more and more frequently. Eventually thousands of people were having lobotomies and despite the fact that the results weren't really all that positive Dr. Freeman continued his surgery which was sometimes done outside a hospital in a most unprofessional way.
Even then, when some of his medical peers strongly disapproved of the procedure, Freeman was able to do lobotomies because at that time doctors simply didn't badmouth a peer in public and they had to admit they themselves lacked any other way to try to help very ill people. The story moves on from here to examine other angles of the story (I don't want to spoil it for you) and we see and learn in detail what eventually happened to Dr. Freeman and his now infamous lobotomy procedure.
The movie flows along well and the interviews with relatives, professionals and even one man who was lobotomized at the tender age of 12 really make this program on DVD fascinating. The archival footage is very well presented although some of it will be a bit tough to take for sensitive people.
In addition, the DVD comes without extras unless you count the referral to the PBS website for more information on this topic. I would have loved a few extras; but the film is so well done with its interviews that I can overlook this disappointment.
This film tells quite a story and I highly recommend it for students of psychology. People in any other field who interact with or treat mentally ill persons would do well to add this to their collections.