It often seems to me that writing history is an exercise in hubris. I never felt that more than when trying to write about Walter Freeman’s photographs of the people he lobotomized.
These are really difficult photographs: difficult to see, difficult to analyze, and difficult to talk about. Lobotomy has become a kind of joke (“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me!”), and yet, here you are, faced with real people caught in a terrible situation. How do you talk about them without reducing them to elements in an argument?
I was reminded of how tough this was when Katherine Wells, a producer at NPR’s Science Friday, contacted me to ask about doing a feature for Science Friday’s Science and the Arts website about the lobotomy photographs. You can see the result here.
Katherine is actually a former student, so I knew she’d do a terrific job with the slideshow (and she did). Still, we spent a lot of time talking about how to treat these photographs with respect.
I haven’t previously posted these photographs on the Web, and I even have reservations about using these photographs in academic presentations. These photographs have been widely published before, in Freeman’s book about lobotomy, Psychosurgery in the Treatment of Mental Disorders, so it wouldn’t be their first exposure to the public sphere.
Still, I know Walter Freeman used these photographs to advance his arguments about lobotomy. I’m no lobotomist, but what are my motivations for showing these photographs? Am I, too, using real people as pawns in an argument? Am I using them to advance my career?
This came home to me in Walter Freeman’s archives in Washington, D.C., when I opened a box and suddenly found myself holding Freeman’s lobotomy implements.
When I think about what I hope to do with these photographs, I think about the way that Freeman used them. Here’s a set embedded in the pages of Freeman’s Psychosurgery.
On its own, a photograph could mean anything. There’s so much information here about who this person might be and what she might be thinking.
But when you arrange it as the “before” in a “before and after” story, the meaning becomes very different. Suddenly this person is broken, and then fixed.
The meaning changes even more when you surround these photographs with pages of text documenting the patient’s psychopathy.
What had seemed to contain infinite possibilities is now reduced to an exemplar of psychosis.
If I could get the story right, maybe it would be possible to break the photographs out of Freeman’s narrative. Maybe I could show that these faces contain more possibilities than Freeman ever saw.