The Foetid Halls Essay

This essay has a total of 3002 words and 17 pages.

The Foetid Halls

From my webpage at Foetid Halls.htm

From the 1930's to the 1960's, early attempts to combine the psychiatric goals of
restoring mental health with new advances in medical science would produce tragic results
for many of those who trusted modern psychiatry to provide comfort and healing. During
this time, science, psychiatry, ambition, power, and politics came together to leave
behind a controversial history of events that destroyed the trust and hope placed by many
upon modern science and left behind a trail of scarred minds and ruined lives.

When Allen Ginsberg, the famous Beat poet, attacked the American mental health care system
of the 1950's in his poem, "Howl", he knew the subject well. These experiences, which he
described as "memories and anecdotes and eyeballs kicks and shock of hospitals", were
vivid, yet accurate descriptions of psychiatric practices of the time (Ginsberg 50). Both
Ginsberg and his mother, Naomi Ginsberg, had been committed to mental hospitals.
Tragically, his mother would spend her most of her final years as a resident of New
Jersey's Greystone and New York's Pilgrim State mental hospitals, often heavily sedated
with medication, then finally lobotomized (Asher).

In 1936, Egas Moniz, a Portuguese neurologist, introduced the world to a radical new
procedure to treat the mental illness of schizophrenia. This procedure was a surgical
operation performed on the brain, called a prefrontal leucotomy and would become more
commonly known as the lobotomy. The operation consisted of the insertion of a needle to
perform incisions that destroyed connections between the prefrontal region and other parts
of the brain. This helped to reduce incidents of the negative behavior, but often left the
patient with little or no emotional responses (Jansson).

Moniz was a well-respected leader in the field of neurology, having held the academic
chair of neurology at the University of Lisbon. He completed his postgraduate studies in
Bordeaux and Paris, under some of the foremost neurologists of his time (Critchley). He
was active in Portuguese politics, as a member of the Portuguese Parliament, as the
Portuguese foreign minister to Spain in 1917 and as President of the Portuguese delegation
to the 1918 Paris Peace conference (Nobel). With his professional reputation behind this
new procedure, it would soon see widespread use. For his pioneering work in his field,
Moniz was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1949 (Jansson).

The results of the lobotomy seemed positive at first. An English study indicated that
9,284 of the patients surveyed showed that 41% had recovered or were greatly improved
while 28% were minimally improved, 25% showed no change, 2% had become worse and 4% had
died (Jansson). However, the stories about those who underwent the procedure began to draw
the public's attention to the human cost.

As Allen Ginsberg grew up, he watched his mother fight a losing struggle with mental
illness. Louis Ginsberg, Naomi's husband and Allen's father, was exhausted by a losing
struggle with his wife's mental breakdown and divorced her. The years of gradually
worsening psychotic episodes resulted in Naomi Ginsberg's permanent commitment to the
Pilgrim State mental hospital in New York (Asher).

Ginsberg wrote of his mother's mental collapse and commitment in his famous poem, "Howl":

"With Mother finally f*****, and the last fantastic book flung out of the tenement window
and the last telephone slammed at the wall in reply and the last furnished room emptied
down to the last piece of mental furniture." (Ginsberg 53)

Desperate to get his mother's violent behavior under control, Allen Ginsberg, along with
his brother, Eugene, consented to allow a lobotomy to be performed on their mother
(Asher). Allen Ginsberg chronicled the experience of watching his mother's continued
mental decline in his poem, "Kaddish":

"One hand stiff—heaviness of forties & menopause reduced by one heart stroke, lame
now—wrinkles—a scar on her hard, the lobotomy—ruin, the hand dipping downwards to
death—." (Ginsberg 107)

Rosemary Kennedy, sister of President John Kennedy and U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, underwent
a lobotomy in 1941. Unable to cope with his daughter's aggressive and violent behavior,
Joseph Kennedy arranged for his daughter to undergo the surgery. The surgery left Rosemary
unable to live a normal life, and she would end up a permanent resident at St. Colletta's
Convent, in Wisconsin. This episode remained a sore point within the Kennedy family, as
Joseph Kennedy had acted without consulting other family members first (Sabbatini).

Frances Farmer was a young rising movie star in the 1930's and 1940's. A political
activist with communist sympathies, Farmer was considered to be very rebellious and had
several run-ins with authorities, until her parents had her declared mentally incompetent
and committed in 1942. After spending several years in a series of hospitals and asylums,
Farmer's condition showed no signs of improvement. In October 1948, Walter Freeman, who
helped introduce the lobotomy to American medicine, performed a transorbital lobotomy on
34 year-old Frances Farmer. In 1953, she was considered to no longer be a threat to
society and released, but her movie career was over. No longer a Hollywood celebrity, with
a diminished mental capacity, Farmer would be consigned to live a low-key existence,
supporting herself with odd jobs, until she died of cancer in 1970 (Sabbatini).

In 1952, the introduction of the drug chlorpromazine gave doctors the first medicine that
allowed them to control schizophrenia without resorting to surgery. With a more effective
and less scarring tool at their disposal, psychiatry would embrace this and other
medicines that followed. As a result, the use of lobotomies would begin to decline
substantially (Jansson).

Electro-Shock Treatment
Science added another controversial tool for the profession of clinical psychiatry with
the introduction of shock treatment, also known by the medical terms "electro-convulsive
shock therapy", "electroshock therapy", or ECT (Eastgate 29). Like the lobotomy, this form
of treatment first appeared in the 1930's and saw widespread use in the United States
during in the 1940's and 1950's.

Ugo Cerletti, an Italian psychiatrist, first tested ECT on humans in 1938. Soon
thereafter, the procedure would first see widespread use in Nazi Germany. It was used by
German psychiatrists who were seeking to prove the incurability of mental illness, as a
justification for their elimination from society (Eastgate 29).

Physicians Lothar Kalinowsky and Leo Alexander, both of whom were trained in Germany,
pioneered electroshock therapy in the United States. Unlike in Germany, the practice came
under early fire. By 1940, at least 20 percent of electroshock patients were found to have
suffered fractures of the vertebrae due to violent convulsions while undergoing shock
treatment (Eastgate 29). Reports emerged of the procedure being used for punishment at
some state mental asylums, including some in Georgia (Shorter 282).

After completing post-World War II interrogations of Nazi German doctors and psychiatrists
for the Nazi War Crime tribunals, Leo Alexander would return to the United States to
continue his work in the field of ECT. He would lead the United States Electroshock
Research Association in 1951 and 1952 (Eastgate 29).

In 1961, suffering from depression, Ernest Hemingway, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author,
was placed on a regimen of electroshock treatment twice a week by his doctors (Ferrell
214). Complaining about electroshock therapy "ruining my head and erasing my memory",
Hemingway sank deeper into depression (Eastgate 30). After several suicide attempts,
Hemingway was placed into a clinic in May of that year. In late June he was released, and
on July 2nd, Hemingway took his own life with a shotgun (Ferrell 215).

Soon after Hemingway's death, a public outcry rose against the ECT. Patients' rights
groups attacked the abuses and negative effects of the procedure, pushing many states to
respond with various initiatives. In 1967, Utah became the first state to pass legislation
regulating electroshock therapy. By 1983, 26 states had passed regulatory statutes, six
states had begun administrative regulation, and one state was regulating the procedure
under a federal court order (Shorter 283).

The ghosts of electroshock's past live on and the procedure still sparks considerable
debate. Writing in the November 1998 issue of USA Today Magazine, Jan Eastgate, president
of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights International, warns readers of the continued
dangers of ECT:

"For years, mothers have been telling children not to put their fingers in electrical
outlets. Psychiatrists expect you to put your brain in one. Any five year old knows
better" (Eastgate 30).

Lobotomies and Electroshock in Literature and Movies
The human toll of these new psychiatric procedures became the stuff of Hollywood. Dark
stories of human destruction at the hands of science gone astray seemed ready made for

In 1962, Ken Kesey, another American Beat poet, wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a
dark tale of a mental hospital where electroshock and pills are used as punishment and
control tools, instead of being used to help the patients return to sanity (KKMP). Kesey
had a deep history of involvement in the Beat movement, traveling with fellow beat poet
Neal Cassady and linking up in San Francisco with Allen Ginsberg, as part of Kesey's Acid
Test Festivals (Asher). In 1959, Kesey volunteered to participate in government LSD
testing while a graduate student at Stanford University (KKMP).

Kesey's novel tells the story of McMurphy, a rebellious prison inmate with a history of
escapes who is placed in a mental hospital and breaks the monotony of the dreary
environment with pranks and rebellious stunts. McMurphy, played by Nicholson, was
eventually lobotomized by staff members tired of dealing with his rebellious, but usually
harmless acts, and was later killed by another patient in the hospital (Adull). Critically
acclaimed, Kesey's novel would be turned into a movie version in 1975, which starred Jack
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