Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich (4 Stars)

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Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

This is the disturbing true story of Patient H.M., 27-year old Henry Molaison, who undergoes a lobotomy in 1953.  From then until his death at age 82 in 2008, Henry was unable to form new memories.  While he retains some of his long-term memories from before his lobotomy, he is unable to form short or long-term memories from that point forward.  His doctor, William Beecher Scoville, is the author’s grandfather.  The author delves deeply into his grandfather’s work and his family’s secret as well as the abject horror of the treatment of mental illness in the earlier part of the last century.

Henry goes on to become one of the most studied research subjects.  Unfortunately, science, research, ambition and ego weigh heavily, and ethics, morality and human kindness sometimes take a back seat as Henry turns from patient to commodity.  During his life, Henry becomes the pawn of researcher Suzanne Corkin, who keeps Henry under wraps.  Unfortunately, her intention really isn’t to protect his privacy, but to restrict access to Henry and protect her research.  She admits to a book and movie deal.  Even after his death, she fights others for control of his brain to ensure that no one else shares credit.

I was very much bothered by a few of the passages where researchers and assistants just dismiss Henry.  Ms. Corkin admits it was easy to let Henry “go” once she had studied him all she needed as it is hard to love or connect to someone who isn’t able to form a connection with you.  What about empathy?  Don’t you think Henry would have wanted to be more than just your guinea pig?  One researcher who drove Henry from one facility to another tired of him saying he had an aunt who lived in that town every time he saw a certain sign, so they would distract him when they neared it.  It felt as if they had robbed him each time of just a little enjoyment by being able to recall a past memory.  If we are our memories, and Henry has none, is it okay to treat him inconsiderately?

This is a well-written and well-researched book.  This is a fascinating story, in the train wreck way of not being able to look away.  It’s definitely disturbing, and might also set you to thinking.  For me, it raised some questions about our present medical research.  While lobotomies are no longer performed, don’t we still perform research that has horrible outcomes?  Don’t we prescribe pharmaceuticals that have side effects such as death, stroke, heart attack, blood clots, suicidal thoughts, depression, muscle pain, etc.?  If you have breast cancer, we give you Tamoxifen, which may increase your chances of uterine cancer.  If you are diabetic, we give you Actos, which may increase your risk of bladder cancer by 80%!  What about cloning and the ethics surrounding that subject?  Aren’t we still experimenting on humans?  Have we really learned anything?

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