Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets

Patient H.M.

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Review by Brittany Brolley

Luke Dittrich’s New York Times bestseller, Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets is exactly that. Part biography and part memoir, Dittrich tells the unforgettable life story of how a young factory worker named Henry Molaison (Patient H.M.) became the most studied person in the history of neuroscience.

An Interesting Connection

Dittrich has an interesting connection to Patient H.M.; his grandfather was the surgeon who operated on him. The author’s telling of his own life experiences and family history combined with the vivid depictions of Patient H.M. are both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Dittrich writes, “My grandfather plays a part, but it’s much bigger than my grandfather. It’s a story about science, and about nature, human and otherwise.”

Alarming Truths

He tells us alarming truths about mental health facilities in the 1940’s, such as: “Keeping the guests from discussing their mental states with one another was a part of the institution’s efforts to maintain its meticulously normal appearance.” From shock treatments to induced fevers and hypothermia, the array of “treatments” in those days was nothing short of terrifying. Even more chilling was the use of lobotomies in treating mental disorders. Although Patient H.M. had epilepsy and not a mental disorder, the lobotomy operation was performed in much the same manner. Like many of the asylum patients who received the same operation, he was left severely altered with profound amnesia.

Patient H.M.’s personality became entwined with the aftereffects of his operation and he was known to be “docile, passive, uncomplaining.” While this may have made him an ideal research subject, would it also serve as evidence of contentedness? Dittrich admits, “It is impossible for anyone to ever know what it was really like to inhabit Henry’s mind and to live in Henry’s world. There is no evidence, however, to support the conclusion that it was anything like nirvana.”

Even before becoming the notorious Patient H.M., Henry’s life couldn’t have been easy. Due to his frequent and often severe seizures, he was already quite limited. Losing the ability to create lasting memories or learn new skills further restricted how Henry would live. In the end, Patient H.M. lived his adult life for neuroscience. Scientists have him to thank for his unintentional sacrifice so they could learn much of what they know about memory. Even after Patient H.M.’s passing, he remained of value to neuroscience – so much so that Dittrich even tells of a long and messy custody dispute over the rights to Henry’s brain.

Strikes a Delicate Balance

Throughout the entirety of his book, Dittrich strikes a delicate balance of beautiful story-telling and accuracy within the context of medical science. He helps readers appreciate what Henry wasn’t able to. Dittrich writes, “In the end, this is the difference between Henry and us: Henry could no longer hold on to the present, could no longer make new memories, which meant that he could no longer tell or even understand stories, at least ones that lasted more than a few moments. We can.” Dittrich’s thirst for knowledge and fondness for nostalgia evoke the same rich emotions in his readers and makes “Patient H.M.” a truly captivating read.

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Brittany Brolley of Laura’s book review team is a lifestyle writer, childfree advocate and founder of therinkydinklife.com, a website dedicated to breaking free of the stereotypes surrounding the childless.

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