Sunday, January 29, 2023

Q&A with Samantha Greene Woodruff




Samantha Greene Woodruff is the author of the historical novel The Lobotomist's Wife. She was the senior vice president of strategy and business development at MTV Networks, and she lives in Connecticut.


Q: You’ve said that you based your character Dr. Robert Apter on Dr. Walter Freeman II. What initially intrigued you about him, and what did you see as the right blend between history and fiction as you wrote the novel?


A: When I conceived of this story, I was a housewife in the suburbs living the supposed American Dream; I had given up my corporate job and was floundering. And I thought I was supposed to be happy. I was taking a writing class for fun and working on a contemporary novel loosely based on my malaise.


That was when I happened to learn about Freeman and lobotomy. I was listening to a nonfiction book, Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them, by Jennifer Wright, and she included a chapter about lobotomy. In it, she tells an anecdote about Freeman going to the motel room of a reluctant court-ordered lobotomy patient and deciding to perform the procedure on the spot.


I had that horrified/fascinated feeling that I think true crime often gives you – this man was one beat shy of a serial killer. And this was happening in the middle of the 20th century! I needed to learn more. Was he just an evil maniacal doctor? Why did medicine embrace him?


From those questions, I had the “what if?” thought that became the seed of the novel:  What if you were an unhappy suburban housewife in that small moment in history when lobotomy was a reasonable “cure?” What if Freeman was your doctor?


My approach to writing historical fiction is to think of it like weaving a braid between fiction and fact. For this book, I wanted the timeline and medical specifics of the development of lobotomy to be as historically accurate as possible. That was my anchor. 


That said, I didn’t want this to be a biographical fiction about Freeman, so I changed things like the city where the story took place, the hospitals, and the details about the players. For instance, Edward is nothing like James Watts (the actual neurosurgeon who worked with Freeman), other than that they work together.


Wherever possible, I took real moments and anecdotes and wove them into the fictional narrative. Especially when it was something so outrageous like stopping mid-procedure to take pictures of patients or performing lobotomies with two hands at once. But, the relationships, the characters, the places where they live, the hospital, Magnolia Bluff, that is all made up.


Q: Your character Ruth Emeraldine Apter, the lobotomist's wife of the title, is fictional. How did you create her?


A: Freeman’s actual wife was essentially a footnote in most of my research. Their marriage wasn’t good. They tragically lost a child. She was an alcoholic. He was a philanderer. That wasn’t what I pictured for my story.


I wanted to make sense of how a woman could be married to a man who was doing such horrific things to women. Who could help the reader understand the evolution of lobotomy from miracle to nightmare.

In the beginning, lobotomy really was viewed as the “best worst cure” – this was the 1930s and conditions in mental hospitals (especially state-run ones) were dismal. If you were a violent psychotic, you were basically sentenced to a life of being chained up like an animal (if you were lucky.)


In this context, a procedure that rendered you docile and happy – possibly even able to go home to your family – was its own kind of miracle. I wanted the reader to understand that. To see the development of what turned out to be such a monstrous treatment from its origins, when it truly felt like it might offer hope.


Ruth provides that lens. She is an independent woman, with power and agency in a time when women didn’t. She didn’t need Robert, she believed in him. She was as invested in finding a “cure” for mental illness as he was, and she started off as a true partner to him.


But she is also the conscience of the novel. Whereas Robert’s approach to mental health treatment is clinical at best, egomaniacal at worst, Ruth’s motives are always from her heart, with compassion. That is the poignancy of the story, I think. The contrast between her evolution and Robert’s, and the way it plays out is, essentially the heart of the story.


Q: How did you research the novel, and what did you learn that especially fascinated you?


A: Pretty much all of my research was reading. Since the novel spans two decades and multiple topics, I just kept reading until I felt that I knew enough to accurately tell the story.


I read books, articles, academic papers, parts of medical journals…the list goes on – and the topics ranged: Freeman and lobotomy, postpartum depression, the history of mental hospitals and treatments, New York in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, the postwar suburban boom…


I found some amazing things online too. For example, when Ruth and Robert go to the International Neurological Congress in London in 1935, I had found the official pamphlet for US attendees, so the ship they took and the hotel they stayed at were real.


Another way I like to research is to watch movies from and depicting the eras I’m writing about. This helps ground me in time and place, to see how people spoke, dressed, interacted; how women were portrayed. Plus, it’s fun to watch a movie and call it “research.”


I learned so much in my research it is hard to isolate one specific thing. One amazing factoid is that people may have suspected a connection between the physical brain and emotional behavior as far back as the Stone Age. Archeological findings from the prehistoric era indicate early healers used craniotomy as a treatment for the ill.


By the Renaissance, “trephination” (drilling into the skull) was a well enough recognized practice for painter Hieronymus Bosch to make it the subject of his 1494 painting “Cutting the Stone” (alternately called “The Extraction of the Stone of Madness”), which shows a man in the middle of a field while his head is being drilled.


The first modern experimentation with what would come to be called “psychosurgery,” was done in the late 1800s by Swiss psychiatrist Gottlieb Burckhardt, who cut portions of the frontal lobes of psychotic patients. It didn’t catch on until nearly 50 years later.


Q: The writer Elise Hooper said of the novel, “Both tense and informative, this is a timely story not only of hubris and ambition, but also of empathy and the search for truth.” What do you think of that description, and do you see any echoes of the novel's events today?


A: How can you not love that description?? It’s so great and succinctly captures so much of what I was trying to accomplish with this story!


I think part of the reality of any medical advance – good or bad -- is that we only know as much as we can with the information we have at the time.


I look, for instance, at the growing use of psychedelics for PTSD and depression and I think, in some ways, it’s probably not that different from what happened during the era of lobotomy. Right now, it seems groundbreaking, a way to rewire past experiences in the brain to alter behavior in the present and future.


And maybe in 10 years it will be commonplace, and we’ll wonder why people didn’t start using these drugs therapeutically in the 1960s. Or, maybe, they will cause some other negative neurological connections that will ultimately render them a failure. It’s too soon to tell. And that’s a scary thing. It gets even scarier when ego is involved.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m in the middle of writing my second novel (hopefully out in the world in the fall of 2024). It’s another historical fiction but a complete departure from the topic of the first. It takes place in the 1920s and is the story of a twin brother and sister, poor children of Jewish immigrants, and their journey on the rollercoaster of the stock market in the era. It is really a book about a strong woman, family bonds, the complex morality of wealth and the multifaceted meaning of success. Vague enough?


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Beyond writing, I love to read, hike, practice yoga, play games and watch movies with my kids (when they are willing), snuggle with my dogs, and drink wine or tequila with my husband and my friends.


I used to work in television, and I am a huge TV fan, especially bad reality, sappy romances, soapy teen dramas and thrillers (but not horror!) I really like to cook – my specialty is NOT following a recipe -- and I love love love to sing. I was in musicals, rock bands and even a gospel choir in college (I am Jewish, it was comical), so now I torture anyone I can with karaoke in my basement.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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