Just to prove to you that I've been making myself useful, here are three pages from the book. Now you know why I left Margaret out of the family portrait up top.
Poor Aunt Florence! She was sixty-five when her father died, and had never been without him. Not only did they live together, but when he traveled the world she went along. He took her to Persia; he took her to lunch at the White House; there was no vista in her life that did not contain him. She had no husband like her sisters, no children like two of them, no brilliant career like the other; no wonder she fell victim to the "settled melancholia" her father had been afraid he would fall into when he lost the love of his life. (Oh Florence, did you welcome that grief, because he had felt it?) Five years later she was still painfully depressed, and her psychiatrist nephew was looking for painfully depressed people to try Metrazol shock therapy on. From all accounts, the only difference between being given Metrazol and being tortured is the intention of the person holding the syringe: not only did the drug cause convulsions, it was what is known as an anxiogenic, though saying it caused anxiety seems to be understating the case rather. What people given Metrazol often reported was the overwhelming fear of imminent physical and psychic annihilation. No one ever had much confidence in its efficacy, but it was one of the few treatments that existed for depression in the nineteen-thirties, and depressives sometimes got a vein full of it whether they wanted it or not. (I think it was usually "or not.") The extent to which it "worked" at all might be fully explained by the terror it inspired in the people who had been subjected to it, and the subsequent good behavior inspired by the terror.
In other words, Metrazol is pretty much everything lobotomy is portrayed as being in the popular imagination. It was horrible, it didn't work, and it was forced on unwilling people. Oh, and the Nazis liked it. (They didn't have a problem with terrifying people into behaving themselves.) Yet who remembers it? Is there a persistent rumor that Frances Farmer was given Metrazol injections? On haunted house tours do the guides inform you in hushed voices that Metrazol was given to patients in this very room? Well, maybe they would, if Metrazol had had its own Walter Freeman. The actual Walter Freeman did dabble with Metrazol but didn't much care for it -- in his opinion it didn't damage the brain enough. To give it to Aunt Florence he enlisted the help of his brother Norman, who was also a doctor, and Walter and El-Hai describe the first injection thus:
Within ten seconds, "she began twitching, then opened her mouth widely, arched her back, stiffened out in a tonic convulsion that lasted about 20 seconds, followed by clonic movements for another 25 seconds." After turning blue, Florence gasped and resumed breathing. "Gradually, the color returned to her face -- also to my brother's. 'Jesus!' he said, and wiped his brow."
He gave her five more injections over the next two weeks. "She remembered me in her will," he wrote, "but I doubt if she ever forgave me." It's understandable. To pine for the grief of lost love and get a vein full of Metrazol! Not that I think Walter was a sadist for giving it to her; there was so little else for people in pain like hers. But what she needed was love, and Walter never had an abundance of that to give away. It was people who needed love that he hurt the most.