Corrections or additions?

This article by Fran Ianacone was prepared for the April 6, 2005

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Finding Skeletons in the Attic

‘Part of the reason I wrote this book was to make a memorial to Jean

and also to serve as warning that desperate people do desperate

things," says poet Penelope Scambly Schott. "I didn’t even know about

Jean. I was protected from even knowing that she existed. I mean I

knew that there was a niece, but I didn’t know that she was in a

mental hospital."

Schott’s distant relative, Jean Heuser, was a lively, charming young

dancer who was forced to undergo a lobotomy in 1954, when she was just

33 years old. During what Schott calls an "epidemic" between 1938 and

1954 anyone who was considered "not normal" for any number of reasons

– approximately 50,000 people – had the front portion of their brain

surgically removed.

On Saturday, April 9, Schott will read excepts from her book about

Heuser, "The Pest Maiden, a Story of Lobotomy," at Chestnut Tree

Books, in the Princeton Shopping Center.

Schott and her husband, Eric Sweetman, now retired from his position

as a member of the technical staff at the Engineering Research Center

at Lucent Technologies, lived in Rocky Hill for 30 years before moving

to Portland, Oregon. Their son, Daniel Kramer, teaches theater at

Kenyon College in Ohio. Their daughter, Rebecca, works in Venice,

California, as a website developer for the handicapped.

In popular culture, the word lobotomy might quickly bring to mind Jack

Nicholson’s character in the movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,"

who undergoes a lobotomy procedure at the end of the film. But the

most famous victim of the epidemic was Rosemary Kennedy, President

John F. Kennedy’s older sister. Unbeknownst to her mother, Rosemary

was taken by her father to be lobotomized because she was thought to

be retarded. Actually, she was dyslexic and also may have acted in a

sexual manner that was considered inappropriate in those days. The

lobotomy left her paralyzed on one side, incontinent, and unable to

speak coherently. She lived for 60 years in a home for the

developmentally disabled before passing away in January, 2005, at the

age of 86.

Around 1936, it became apparent that Schott’s relative, Jean Heuser,

then 15 years old, was mentally ill after she danced down Route 22 in

New York, a crowded and dangerous highway. At 17, she was placed into

a mental hospital. Schott says, "It’s one of those things. I know

several people who have schizophrenic children. They go through good

periods and bad periods, but they have a life."

The tragedy of the story is that Heuser was lobotomized just weeks

before the first drug treatment became available. "If they had waited

one more month, thorazine would have been available, and Jean would

not have been considered a problem," says Schott.

A New York native, Schott holds a bachelors in history from the

University of Michigan, and received her masters in early renaissance

literature from City University of New York in 1971. She teaches

modern American poetry, Shakespeare, and creative writing, and

conducts distance-learning classes for Thomas Edison College in New

Jersey.

Schott’s book explains Heuser’s story and her connection to the young

girl. Heuser’s father was an artist who was institutionalized when his

daughter was eight years old. Heuser’s mother founded Edith Heuser’s

Dance School but died when her daughter was 20. Heuser’s aunt,

Viola-Jean, an early example of an independent woman and Heuser’s

namesake, became her caretaker. Viola had traveled to Montana in 1916

and produced a report for the federal government by visiting

homesteads and taking a birth census. She never married and spent her

life in Greenwich Village writing books and teaching. She outlived

Heuser, who died of cancer in her early 50s in a state hospital in New

York.

‘When Viola was quite old, she moved to one of the earliest continuous

care facilities in Medford," says Schott. "I was geographically the

closest relative, so I would visit her once a month. When Viola died,

my mother came with a green box (of letters and papers). She said to

me, `You might want to look at this.’ Instead, I stored it up in the

attic. Eventually, when I opened the box, I spent a lot of time just

deciphering the handwriting."

While researching "The Pest Maiden" took years and years, writing it

actually only took about a month, at a writer’s retreat called the

Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. "When I go away

to a writer’s retreat, which are generally a month long," Schott says,

"I work really, really hard. I usually have a project that I take with

me.

"I decided to tell this story using a poetic narrative because it’s

more intense. A poem allowed me to move through many ideas by

association. The word ‘pest’ in the book’s title comes from

pestilence. I meant a pun of the word ‘pest’ because people who were

annoying were lobotomized. And in the book I make connections between

the plague, which was an epidemic, and lobotomy – which became a

plague as well."

Schott says that after an article appeared about the book she received

a phone call from an obviously elderly gentleman who had been

connected with a hospital. "He was not a medical person, he was an

orderly and then a manager. This gentleman was describing the

processions of people he had witnessed (receiving a lobotomy). When

the epidemic started, the surgeons were drilling holes in the skull.

From there they progressed to putting a sharp scalpel through the top

of the eye socket, making it possible to set up a sort of assembly

line. They lined the patients up on Monday mornings, and they just

wheeled them in and wheeled them out."

The original title for the book was "The Dances of Madness" but Schott

says no one else liked it. "If that had been the title, it would be

apparent why I included some of the things I did in the book. I

developed several tangents tying together the themes of madness,

dance, and epidemics, such as ergotism, which caused victims to dance

madly."

While the poems cover the disorder of Heuser’s young life in

chronological order, the text also includes very literal pieces of

Heuser’s experience – a written prescription for thorazine and a

letter from a hospital administrator that Schott turns into poetry.

"I used to write in very tight stanzas, and now I’m playing more with

the arrangements of the words on the page. In a way, that’s almost a

loss because I like to think of poetry as a spoken art. Once you start

playing with it on the page it becomes a multi-media art. But, we’re

becoming a multimedia society," Schott says.

Schott seems to have sprung from a line of strong, formidable women.

Her mother, Marian, who lives in Westchester County, New York, ran a

market research business. Her father, Elihu, who is deceased, was an

attorney.

Schott says: "My mother was an interesting person. She majored in

anthropology and went to Howard University, a college for mostly

African American students, in 1942 to do graduate work. She was very

interested in African anthropology."

When her mother decided, ahead of the trend, that she needed to go to

work, she practiced applied anthropology by conducting focus groups

that helped companies create products and services that fit people’s

lifestyles.

Does Schott, who has been very honest in publicly stating that she has

suffered from depression, feel that she has a mission? "I very much

do. I think that’s part of the reason that I felt I had to tell this

story. I was depressed from childhood but I didn’t get anything useful

to treat it until I was over 40. One friend I know of has a

16-year-old son who is depressed and who smokes marijuana. I pointed

out to her that at another time in the recent past, he and I could

both have been lobotomized."

Schott has several speaking engagements planned in Oregon with some

local chapters of the National Association of the Mentally Ill (NAMI).

"The message I want to get out is compassion and hope. We don’t ever

have to be that destructive again."

People have often asked Schott why it is that she writes. "My reaction

is, how do you live without writing?" Rather than have her writing

memorialize her when she is no longer alive, Schott says she writes to

memorialize others. "I hope my writing says that Jean was worth

remembering.

"It’s very important for people to tell stories. Stories can become

our source of wisdom and understanding. No matter what happens in

life, good or bad, it’s important that someone tell the story. I want

to do the equivalent of standing there and saying, ‘Look. Look.’ Know

that this person lived. Know that this thing happened."

"The Pest Maiden, A Story of Lobotomy," reading and

signing by author and poet Penelope Scambly Schott, Saturday, April 9,

4 p.m., Chestnut Tree Books, Princeton Shopping Center. 609-279-2121.


Previous Story Next Story


Corrections or additions?


This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments