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

Luke Dittrich. Random House, $28 (464p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9273-1
In this courageous mix of scientific investigation and memoir, journalist Dittrich recounts the life of Henry Molaison (1926–2008), an epileptic man hailed by many as the most important human research subject in the history of neuroscience. A 1953 operation by Yale neurosurgeon William Beecher Scoville (1906–1984), Dittrich’s grandfather, on Molaison’s hippocampus left the 27-year-old without memory, in a world where “every day is alone in itself.” The story of “what led my grandfather to make those devastating, enlightening cuts,” Dittrich writes, “is a dark one, full of the sort of emotional and physical pain, and fierce desires, that Patient H.M. himself couldn’t experience.” And he unravels it by documenting the decades-long studies Molaison’s extraordinary amnesia spawned and the researchers he would inspire and confound. Those threads are woven around the history of neurosurgery—including the professional infighting that can obscure the legacy of scientific advances and failures, the torturous mid-20th-century treatment of the mentally ill, and the rise and fall of lobotomies. At the heart of this breathtaking work, however, is Dittrich’s story of his complicated grandfather, his mentally ill grandmother, and a long-held family secret, with Molaison stranded “where the past and the future were nothing but indistinct blurs.” Agent: Sloan Harris, ICM. (Aug.)
Reviewed on: 06/06/2016
Release date: 08/09/2016
Paperback - 480 pages - 978-0-8129-8252-7
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Audio book sample courtesy of Penguin Random House Audio

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