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Legend, Fact, and Fiction: Reading into Lobotomies

“Now lobotomy, that’s chopping away part of the brain?” McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

There is no denying that Americans have a fascination with the history of the treatment of the mentally ill. Rock videos are full of images of straight jackets, asylums, and other dark and stereotypical images. No treatment is more controversial or has more darkness and tragedy surrounding it than the lobotomy.

One of my earliest memories of the procedure came from the movie, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” I recently read the book and watched the movie again. As in most cases, I found the book to be much better than the movie even though actors like Jack Nicholson and Danny Devito put on stunning performances.  In the work of fiction, a character who is full of life, humor, and fight gets himself admitted to a psychiatric hospital. The character, McMurphy, is not mentally ill, he tried to get placed in the hospital to avoid his sentence on a work farm.

McMurphy has a positive impact on the other men on the ward. The others learn to stand up for themselves, laugh again, and enjoy life, in fact, they begin to “get well.”  The loveable hero is not loved by the head nurse, though, and she finally destroys him by arranging for him to have a lobotomy. I think for many people the story of McMurphy is what comes to mind when they hear the word, lobotomy.

If someone is unfamiliar with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” then maybe they have heard a song about the procedure, because the novel isn’t the only part of popular culture that has tackled the issue.  At least five bands (as well-known as Culture Club and Nirvana) have written songs about Frances Farmer, an American actress that popular culture has created a legend involving a lobotomy. I use the word legend because hospital records, her autobiography, and family testimony do not support the conclusion that she underwent the controversial surgery. I read “Will There Really Be A Morning?” an autobiography written by Farmer and titled after the Emily Dickinson poem with the same name. The book, published after Farmer died of cancer in 1970 is not without controversy; many doubt that Farmer was responsible for writing most of it. The book was a bumpy read as it seemed to have inconsistencies in the voice of the narrator.

I also watched the film “Frances” starring Jessica Lange again for the third or fourth time. There is little debate that the movie is more fiction than fact. While diving into popular culture’s take on the history of the lobotomy and the character (McMurphy) and talented artist (Frances Farmer) that are the backbone of most people’s understanding and beliefs about the procedure, I ran into a thread between legend and life. The doctor who introduced the lobotomy to America, Walter Freeman, and who later simplified it to the “ice pick” behind the eye socket, performed lobotomies all over the country. In fact, he performed some at Western State Hospital where Frances Farmer was indeed a patient, and this fact probably increased the believability of her legend, and this same doctor, who performed a lobotomy on Rosemary Kennedy and Howard Dully.

Rosemary Kennedy, the sister of President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Teddy Kennedy, had a lobotomy in 1941 when she was 23 years old. I read the biography, “Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter” and her story is deeply tragic. After Freeman had performed the procedure on Kennedy, she needed round the clock care until her death in 2005. Unfortunately, Freeman had a long career, and in 1960 he performed a lobotomy on 12- year- old Howard Dully. Dully wrote about the surgery in his memoir, “My Lobotomy.”  Dully’s young age and the fact that his brain had not stopped growing when Freeman inserted the metal picks behind his eye sockets and moved them back and forth damaging the frontal lobes, didn’t leave him unable to care for himself.

Although I love urban legends, pop culture, myths, and fiction, the stories that best helped me understand the impact and the rise and fall of the lobotomy were the personal stories of Dully and Kennedy. And if you think the lobotomy is something from our way distant past, consider that there are people alive today who underwent the surgery. We can put ourselves above and beyond certain practices, but we can’t outrun the voices that know the truth without myth and legend.


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Legend, Fact, and Fiction: Reading into Lobotomies

Rebecca Chamaa

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APA Reference
Chamaa, R. (2017). Legend, Fact, and Fiction: Reading into Lobotomies. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 23, 2019, from


Last updated: 19 Mar 2017
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 19 Mar 2017
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