Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich tells a lot of stories simultaneously in an elaborate braided style. It tells the story of Dittrich’s own grandfather, Henry Scoville, an overconfident young neurosurgeon, of his unlucky patient, Henry Molaison, of his grandmother’s own struggles with mental illness, of fifty years of questionable medical ethics, of Dittrich’s own struggle to tell this story. If you think that summary is complex, try reading the whole book.
It is a hard book to read. It delves deep into the history of insanity, asylums, and lobotomies, and it does not shy away from discussing topics like the smell of brain dust and how abominably the mentally ill were (and oftentimes still are) treated. Also, not only does it jump around in telling its various stories, it also jumps around chronologically. This is not the book to get a thorough understanding of neuroscience history from. Nor is it even a comprehensive overview of Henry Molaison (Patient H.M.’s) life (although whether or not one is possible is a question the book itself poses.
Dittrich is a journalist, and that shows. His work is seemingly meticulously researched, and at times he will bring up where he was when he found a certain piece of information. Through this, he takes us on a mini-tour of the neuroscience archives of several libraries and universities. Despite this, he does not always manage to keep his bias under wraps. Parts of that are understandable–after all, who wouldn’t be a little bit biased when discussing how his grandfather performed arguably the most invasive surgery possible on hundreds of people who may not have been able to consent? However, Dittrich’s bias seeps into other areas as well, especially when discussing some of the later Patient H.M. researchers, especially those he had to deal with personally to get any information on Henry.
Another issue where journalism does not serve him well in a longform format. Dittrich’s comfort level clearly lies with the short form, which might explain why he chose to write a braided narrative. The story jumps around so often at times that it feels like reading a series of short, tangentially connected articles. There are also some scenes, especially the ones involving Dittrich and his own story that feel contrived, connected only because he had a page count to fill and considered a tenuous connection between his stories and those he had heard about his grandfather.
Despite its flaws, Patient H.M. was a hard book to put down. Even when it grossed me out, I found myself picking it back up a few minutes later, unable to stop myself from spiraling further into this medical and ethical disaster that spanned over five decades. When I thought the story couldn’t get any worse, it somehow managed to. It was like a train wreck in that I couldn’t look away, and Dittrich managed to tell these horrific stories without ever seeming voyeuristic or self-serving.
For those interested in scientific history or excellently woven ethical narratives, Patient H.M. is an excellent choice. Even for those who may not often turn to nonfiction it is a must-read narrative, one that will keep you guessing and hoping that things will not get as bad as you can imagine (spoiler alert: they will).