Did any of you read “The Brain That Couldn’t Remember,” yesterday’s cover story in the New York Times Magazine? It was an excerpt from the book you’re looking at here, Patient H.M., by Luke Dittrich, and it’s about Henry Molaison, the most studied patient in the history of brain science. The short version: As a young man, Henry suffered from debilitating epileptic seizures and in search of relief, he approached Dr. William Scoville, a pioneer in the emerging field of “psychosurgery” to help him. Scoville performed a novel, and radical, form of the lobotomy and for the rest of Molaison’s life — he lived another 55 years, known only to the world as H.M. — he was left with a short-term memory of thirty seconds, incapable of forming any new memories. The story is tragic, but as Dittrich notes, in medicine, “the broken illuminate the unbroken” — and much of what we know about memory today is because of HM. Among other things, this book contextualizes Henry’s story – and makes clear, at last, the sacrifices he made for all of us.
The thing is, if the book were just about the history of Patient H.M., it would be fascinating in its own right, but it’s so much more than that. The pioneering surgeon who performed the botched operation was the author’s grandfather, a brilliant, larger-than-life figure who collected sports cars, climbed suspension bridges for fun, and was the leader of a renowned group of psychosurgeons who, from the 30s on, experimented with the lobotomy as a way to cure mental illness. Though Dittrich had heard about H.M.’s operation his entire life, he never knew the real, chilling story — about his grandfather’s role in it, about his grandmother’s own struggles with mental illness, about this dark chapter in medicine — until he started reporting. If you’re looking for one last end-of-the-summer book, I can’t say enough good things about it. I read it two months ago, and I’m still thinking about it.
Note: While it’s true that I’m married to the editor of this book, you don’t have to take my word for it. Head over to its starred Kirkus review, where they describe it as “Oliver Sacks meets Stephen King;” or the review, which came out today, saying it “will rank with Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks;” or read the Times excerpt to see for yourself.