Lobotomy's Hall of Fame

Not many important personalities were subjected to psychosurgery, but a few ot them were well known public figures. In this section, you will also read about two great plays/films which have portrayed with poignance and drama the use of psychosurgery as an instrument of social control.

Rosemary Kennedy (sister of American president John Kennedy)

Born in 1918, Rosemary was mildly retarded as a child and had to be tutored by private teachers (in the picture, she is the rightmost child). By the time she reached adolescence she was having periods of discontrol and violence, although she was enjoying a high life of travels and parties provided by her rich father, Joseph Kennedy. Troubled by the inability of the familty to cope with Rosemary's aggressive behavior, the Kennedy elder, without consulting anyone else in the family, contacted a neurosurgeon and ordered that a prefrontal lobotomy be performed on Rose, in 1941 (remember that at that time, lobotomy was considered a "miracle cure" for aggressive and inadequate behavior). The operation left her totally incapable of living a normal life, and she was then permanently interned at the St. Coletta's Convent, in Wisconsin, were she still lives. This has always been an extremely sore point in Kennedy's family, and Joseph and Rose Kennedy, tormented by the fate of their daughter, donated a good deal of money and effort to help retarded people. They established the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr Foundation for this purpose (named after their son, killed in the Second World War).

Rose Williams (sister of American writer Tennessee Williams)

The once gentle, slender and beautiful sister of noted American playwriter Tennessee Williams had several nervous breakdowns and was diagnosed as a schizophrenic (some biographers believe that Blanche DuBois, the unforgettable character of a  "Streetcar Named Desire", was created after her). After many unsuccesful attempts at therapy, she was finally subjected to a prefrontal lobotomy in 1943, in Washington DC. As in Rosemary Kennedy's case, the surgery was botched, and Rose was disabled for life. This was a great shock for Tennessee Williams, who was very attached to her, and was probably one of the factor who made him into an alcoholic. The topic of lobotomy turned out in another of William''s most famous plays, "Suddenly Last Summer", written in 1957 (see below).

Frances Farmer (Hollywood actress)

Frances Farmer was a stunningly beautiful blonde actress and movie star (born 1914, in Seattle), who had been very successful in Broadway and in Hollywood. However, she was a radical political activist, communist sympathiser and of a rebellious and aggressive nature (when she was 15 year old, she won a trip to the Soviet Union, as an award to an essay she wrote). After several squabbles with the authorities, in 1942 she was wrongfully declared 'mentally incompetent' and committed by her parents to a series of asylums and public mental hospitals, where all therapies failed to tame her into "normalcy". Thus, in October 1948, in the dismal Western State Hospital, in Washington, at the tender age of 34, the famous neurosurgeon Walter Freeman, who was singlehandedly responsible for disseminating prefrontal lobotomy in the USA, was asked by the Hospital's director to perform his even more famous trans-orbital lobotomy in Frances Farmer. She was released in 1953 from the Hospital, no longer a threat to society. She supported herself initially by taking a job as hotel clerk, but later as able to move back to the show business, appearing in TV shows and hosting her own show. She died of cancer in 1970. Her life was the subject of the movie picture Farmer, starred by Jessica Lange, and a song named "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle", by rock group Nirvana.


Films and Plays

Nothing captures more the imagination of the public than the drama of mental disease. Burning social and psychological issues are powerfully influenced by Hollywood productions, such as "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest",  "Suddenly Last Summer" and "Snake Pit".

Suddenly Last Summer

An one-act drama by American writer Tennessee Williams, it made great success as a 1959 film directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and featuring Elizabeth Taylor in a neurotic and sensual rôle. In the plot, an aging and domineering Southern matriarch named Violet Venable (played in the film by Katharine Hepburn) hires a young doctor named Cukrowicz (played by Montgomery Clift) whom she wishes to perform a frontal lobotomy on the brain of her niece, Catharine Holly (played by Elizabeth Taylor), because she supposedly has become insane due to her witnessing the mysterious death of Mrs. Venable's son, a decadent poet named Sebastian. In her madness, according to Mrs. Venable, Catharine is telling horrifying stories about her son's death. Dr Cukrowicz has been asked to observe the girl, in order to determine whether she needs a lobotomy. Mrs. Venable proposes to establish a foundation to finance his work in brain surgery if he complies ! At the end of the play, we know the truth, told by Catharine to the physician, under the influence of a drug. A dark story of cannibalism and horrible death emerges, but Mrs Venable still wants to "cut this hideous story out of her brain,"

In this play, lobotomy is clearly shown by Williams as a device to suppress the truth and to repress weaker people. He was probably influenced by the lobotomy of his sister, performed in 1943, and emphasizes a pessimistic view of the voraciousness of the universe. It also explores many of the themes which have haunted Williams all of his life: madness, death, desire, the indifference of God, and savagery. A new social dimension was added to the film by showing the awful conditions of the sanatorium, portaying the violence of patient against patient, and the indifference of the staff. The film's screenplay was written by Tennessee William himself and Gore Vidal. Elizabeth Taylor won an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, and the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

This was a best-selling and influential novel by American author Ken Kesey, written in 1958, which was transformed into a highly successful film in 1975 by the Czech director Milos Forman (it won five major Oscars -- for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Actress, several awards of the British Film Academy, several Golden Globe Awards, the American Society of Film Critics award, etc., which has not happened again since). It is the story of Randel P. McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson, in a stunning performance), a rebel inmate who feigns insanity in order to be transferred to what he thought was an easier place, the madhouse. The ward where he is commited to is dominated by powerful nurse Ratched (played by Louise Fletcher), and she and McMurphy fight each other from the very beginning. Eventually, after a series of incidents that lead to an awful episode of electroconvulsive shock, Nurse Ratched wins by convincing authorities to perform a lobotomy on him, who is then transformed into a smiling, compliant zombie. At the end, one of the patients, an Indian giant, Chief Bromden (Will Sampson), frees McMurphy from his vegetable existence by smothering him with a pillow.

The screenplay is highly effective in portraying the sanatorium, the use of drugs, electroconvulsive shock and lobotomy as devices of repression of human free will. It was tremendously influential, since it was released during the crazy decade of the seventies, with the hippie movement, leftist student rebellions and the Vietnam war. The audience is led to side with the inmates rather than with the asylum wardens. As such, tt has helped to made ECT and lobotomy  into "politically incorrect", undesirable and dictatorial tools of the establishment to impose punishment and atonement.

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