Speak, memory

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Book review: Patient H.M. by Luke Dittrich

Books like this don’t come along every day. Patient H.M. is an extraordinary true story worked into an excellent piece of narrative nonfiction. At its core is the legendary patient whose ‘broken’ brain helped science understand more about how non-broken brains work, to borrow a line that the author uses throughout the book. There are so many stories and so many threads woven throughout this book, connecting past and present and people and industries, criss-crossing time and coincidence all around the world, and all so beautifully done and written. I was in awe – that couldn’t have been an easy task to pull off. This is one of the best examples of an author’s inserting himself and his own story into a piece of narrative nonfiction that I’ve ever read.

The basis for the book came from the author pitching an unrelated idea for a magazine story. His pitch was rejected, and the editor suggested he think about a story that he has a special connection to, either personally or through some unique access to its subject. So he did think about that, and boy did he ever have a story that fit. His grandfather was a pioneering surgeon in the field of psychosurgery, that controversial method of treating mental disorders that had a disturbing peak and heyday in the 1930s and ‘40s. He’d operated on a patient that anyone who’s ever studied a psychology textbook would know – the legendary Patient H.M., an epileptic who was left with a kind of permanent amnesia after undergoing an aggressive, somewhat experimental lobectomy. A passage in the book describing a choice the surgeon made regarding this procedure was gut-wrenching, I don’t know another way to describe it.

It’s a very important story, because our basic modern understanding of memory and brain function and related disorders, and how to help them, is heavily reliant on what this man’s experience was able to contribute to scientific study. But to read about him on a personal level was devastating. Science and medicine’s treatment of our human guinea pigs is not kind, especially considering what immense value they’ve given us in return. A story like this gives so much more to Henry Molaison’s legacy, it even seems like a kind of thank-you for all he gave, even if he didn’t know it. Maybe it’ll even make his name more widely known than his so far ubiquitous psych textbook initials.

The publisher’s description likens this to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and The Hare with Amber Eyes and I agree that it’s a blending of the best of both of these kinds of stories. The only drawback of Patient H.M. is how deeply sad it can be to read about how some of these people, so crucial to our own understanding and developments, were treated both in the procedures done to them and their lives as research subjects after. I got a little choked up a couple of times. I’m only admitting that because it’s testament to what an impacting story this is and how well it’s written. Whenever anyone tells me that they don’t like reading nonfiction, because it’s dry or not as imaginative as fiction, this is the book I’ll point them to.

I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for review.

Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets
by Luke Dittrich
published August 9, 2016 by Random House Publishing Group

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