Saturday, August 27, 2016

Patient H. M.

Title:  Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets
Author:  Luke Dittrich
Publication Information:  Random House. 2016. 464 pages.
ISBN:  0812992733 / 978-0812992731

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The laboratory at night, the lights down low."

Favorite Quote:  "Maybe the human brain is an object beyond the reach of metaphor, for the simple reason that it is the only object capable of creating metaphors to describe itself. There really is nothing else like it. The human brain creates the human mind, and then the human mind tries to underhand the human brain, however long it takes and whatever the cost."

First, the actual history. Henry Gustav Molaison (1926-2008) was a young man who suffered from debilitating epileptic seizures due to a childhood bicycle accident. As part of his treatment, surgeon William Beecher Scoville performed psychosurgery, specifically a lobotomy, on Henry when Henry was 27 years old. Dr. Scoville attributed the epilepsy to significant portions of Henry's brain and proceeded to surgically remove them. The surgery did alleviate the seizures; however, it had  other catastrophic effects, leaving Henry an amnesiac. Henry could function, but was unable to retain new information beyond a short period of time. In this way, Henry Gustav Mollison become Patient H.M. For the decades he lived after his surgery and even after his death, he has been perhaps one of the most studied patients in neuroscience. His brain has been the subject of battles for ownership and an online brain atlas, and continues to provide scientists information on the study of memory.

Second, the author. Luke Dittrich is a journalist and editor, but he also has a very personal connection to this story. He is the grandson of William Beecher Scoville, the surgeon who operated on Henry Molaison. His grandmother, William Scoville's wife, also suffered from mental illness and was also a lobotomy patient. No clear lines are drawn, but connect the dots to see the underlying implications of this book.

Now, the book itself. The objective of this book is unclear. Is it about Patient HM as the title would suggest? Is it about William Scoville as the subtitle of "memory, madness, and family secrets" would suggest? Is it a broader survey of the scientific study of memory as the case studies presented in the book would suggest? Is it the author's struggle to understand his own family history as the inclusion of personal commentary would suggest? The book attempts to do all of those, and, as a result, completes addresses none of them.

The book is classified as nonfiction, but the line between nonfiction and fiction seems unclear in the book. The book is not just a documentation of history. It is a personal story with a dark tone and an agenda. The author's interviews, particularly the one with MIT professor Suzanne Corkin, include commentary that clearly conveys the author's feelings towards the interviewee and towards what is being said. The content of Dr. Corkin's interview has already been called into question by MIT and by Dr. Corkin's colleagues. Dr. Corkin unfortunately, passed away earlier this year; so, her views cannot be known. The veracity of the statements in the book remains a question.

Even in the rest of the book, it is difficult to separate the facts from the connections introduced to create a story. The book has no footnotes, end notes, bibliography, or anything of that sort to support the history or science presented in the book. The acknowledgements section of the book states that the book was a work in progress for six years. It acknowledges the contribution of interviewees, archivists, and librarians. It seems odd that such notes are not included, particularly in a book about history and science.

I still find Patient H.M.'s history and Dr. Scoville's career fascinating. Perhaps, I will have to look for a more clearly told and more definitively annotated version that focuses only on that history.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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