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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
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
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
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
‘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
"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
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
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
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
"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."
signing by author and poet Penelope Scambly Schott, Saturday, April 9,
4 p.m., Chestnut Tree Books, Princeton Shopping Center. 609-279-2121.
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