- American Lobotomy: A Rhetorical History by Jenell Johnson
A book about lobotomy carries certain expectations. Tortured souls. Demented doctors. Ice-picks through the nose. Insane asylums. I admit to the temptation to associate the title American Lobotomy with the horror stories of American pop culture: American Psycho, An American Werewolf in London, or American Haunting. However, the goal of Jenell Johnson’s compelling and well-researched book is not to scare but to sympathize, not to deride but to dignify.
In American Lobotomy: A Rhetorical History, Johnson unravels the monsters of lobotomy by following the families, communities, doctors, and institutions deeply affected by lobotomy practices. She skillfully explores how lobotomy became the stuff of ghost stories and horror films, tracing the construction of the “medical marvel” that has for so long eluded nuanced investigation (p. 10). Ultimately, Johnson does not denounce lobotomy nor relish in the sheer terror of a doctor “blunting the emotions” through piercing skulls and poking at brains (p. 21). That would be the easier and older move. Rather, Johnson traces lobotomy as a “historical and rhetorical” creation (p. 18), crafting a book that respects doctors, patients, and families. She adds another, more responsive and precise, history of lobotomy here, one focused on the “origin and impact of the marvelous” (p. 10) and how lobotomy came to be lobotomy. Both gripping and touching at times, the book comprehensively investigates meanings attributed to lobotomy and depictions from the 1930s to the present day, citing an array of audio recordings, notes, personal stories, medical records, photographs, and films.
Compellingly so, Johnson chooses to self-reflexively infuse the book with her own emotional reactions to digging through the charged, spine-tingling lobotomy archives, refusing to shy away from relating her own medical(ized) experiences to those of the patients she contemplates. For this reason, as well as the careful way that Johnson weaves together multiple strands and perspectives with clarity and conscience, the book not only achieves its stated goal to shape new meanings and revise “representational mistakes” (p. 178) but also reveals how studies of medical rhetorics often need to toggle between institutional and personal records, first-hand accounts and dramatized narratives in order to dislodge popular imaginations and craft complex readings. In brief, the book stands as an excellent example of the way that rhetorical and literary scholarship can pay attention to the bodily and affective and do so without overlooking the larger structural and economic exigencies at play and without ignoring the experiences and expectations of the researcher.
In chapter 1, Johnson initiates the effort by drawing connections between human emotions in scientific discourse and arguments for or against lobotomy. Using stories [End Page 263] told by surgeons, transcribed interactions between doctors and lobotomy patients, and accounts of debates about lobotomy, Johnson exposes how the prioritization of dispassionate language and emotional detachment was judged proper to scientific discourse and, ultimately, to the rational, healthy medical subject (pp. 26–27). Here, Johnson traces out the place of emotions in arguments about lobotomy. She shows how strong emotional reactions could be presented as a negative trait needing to be repaired in a patient but then shows how emotions, ironically, are framed as a positive force facilitating the sound judgment of a doctor.
In chapter 2, Johnson shifts to examine the stories of men and women affected by lobotomy—including Rosemary Kennedy and Frances Farmer—as a way to register the rise of lobotomy in the media. In so doing, Johnson exposes the “rhetorical use of gender” in lobotomy (p. 62). Whereas the “rebellious, drinking, smoking, fighting, desiring” women needed pacification, the shy, sensitive, withdrawn, emasculated man needed strengthening (p. 69). In both cases, Johnson shows how lobotomy was painted as a “miracle brain surgery” (pp. 60–61) and how people with “abnormal” behaviors suddenly become subjects of medical interest and media fascination. This chapter appeals to feminist scholars and scholars in disability studies, and it spurs consideration of gender in current brain discourses. Although I kept hoping that Johnson would address current neurorhetorics research with...