Photo: Courtesy Roberta Reb Allen

A reckless procedure left Roberta Reb Allen estranged from her mother, but when she set out to write a memoir, she found they had much more in common than she ever knew.

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“I thought my mother had just been a person who could not live in a larger world,” Roberta Reb Allen says. “And I was wrong.”

Allen’s new book, Examined Lives, is a painful memoir about how her mother lost touch with a larger world, with her daughter and with herself. Gretchen Richards Reb was given a lobotomy in 1950 when Roberta was 7. The operation ended up isolating both mother and daughter. Allen’s book is an attempt at re-establishing that connection, an effort to touch and reconnect with a mother she never got to know.

Allen, who worked as an educator in distance learning before her retirement, reconstructed her mother’s life in part from correspondence which she had kept for years. “I had had the letters and I had read them through once, and they had confused me a great deal and had upset me,” she said. “I hadn’t destroyed them, but I had just put them aside.”

She decided to reread them in 2011, after she had an episode of depression in which she seriously contemplated suicide. Her husband had just died, and Roberta decided to spend Christmas on the farm to which she had just moved. “My fierce independence took over,” she writes. “I somehow felt that I was too much of a drag on others.” Her irritable bowel syndrome kept her from sleeping, and she says, “I contemplated suicide. I envisioned placing a chair at the top of my driveway, bundling up, and sitting there until the cold put me into a deadly sleep.”

Roberta called her brother, and he arranged to get her to the hospital. As she recovered, she decided she wanted to try to understand her childhood better, to learn more about her mother’s life and experience with mental illness.

What she found shocked her.

Allen writes that she had known her mother as someone “pleasant, kind and devoted to her religion, but not very sophisticated.” But Gretchen’s diary as a young woman presented someone else entirely. Born in Dubuque, Iowa, Gretchen traveled to Chicago in 1937, and enthusiastically took to big city life. She worked as a waitress, serving patrons like Clark Gable and Greta Garbo. She studied fashion illustration, went to movies and plays, and left a string of broken-hearted young men behind her. She loved exploring and adventure and city life. She was young and happy, or, as she said in her diary, ‘During this time I lived and learned and had lots of fun.”

She worked as a hostess at a restaurant, where she appears to have flirted with both the father and son owners. A highlight of her diary is a romantic airplane trip to Racine, WI with the father, which she characterized as the “happiest day of my life,” and enthused about “Walking in and out talking to the aviators of the airliners, feeling important cause we were allowed in the field.”

Roberta Reb Allen used her mother's diary, letters and other records in her research for the memoir on her mother. Courtesy Roberta Reb Allen

That started to change after she met Allen’s father, Everett Reb, an aspiring journalist who rented rooms in the same building as Gretchen. The marriage, like many at the time, was rushed as couples hurried to formalize their relationships before the men went off to war. The two quickly discovered they were not compatible. Gretchen found housework a drudgery, and Everett’s lack of interest in sex made her think he was cheating on her.

Gretchen experienced increasing mental distress and something like a nervous breakdown. Everett and her family were especially disturbed by her frank and sometimes inappropriate comments about sex. She talked about her sexual interest in women and told her mother she wanted to have sex with her. She also had a car accident in 1950; she drove into a telephone pole. Everett regarded this, for unclear reasons, as a suicide attempt. The family sought help as the marriage dissolved. Gretchen went back to her mother in Dubuque and was committed to a mental institution.

In June of that year, Gretchen received a lobotomy.  It was performed by Walter Freeman, a doctor who, Allen explains, saw lobotomies as a simple, cheap option for mental health care. Allen’s examination of all of Freeman’s published work revealed that most of his procedures, like most lobotomies in general, were performed on women.

The lobotomy, in theory, was supposed to sever nerve tissue connections with paranoid parts of the brain. The operation itself was brutal and imprecise. Freeman would give a patient a series of electroshocks to knock them unconscious. Then he covered the patient’s nose and mouth and pushed an ice-pick-like device under the upper eyelid. He drove the pick through the orbital bone with a hammer. “He would then maneuver the instrument in various directions to make the cuts,” Allen writes. Since there was no way to see the inside of the skull, cutting the nerve was done blindly; “Freeman could literally not see what he was doing.”

Freeman typically downplayed the side-effects of a lobotomy and the need for continuing care. In a single afternoon, he could perform as many as 35 operations, plunging his pick into women’s eye sockets, swishing the device around to cut nerves at random, and moving on to the next patient. But the after-effects could be severe. Freeman performed a similar operation on Rosemary Kennedy,  in 1941; afterwards, Rosemary was completely disabled, regressed to the level of a two-year-old, and was unable to speak.

Since there was no way to see the inside of the skull, cutting the nerve was done blindly. “Freeman could literally not see what he was doing.”

Gretchen consented to the lobotomy casually and apparently without any great preparation or investigation. Everett did too, even though he had a college education, and the dangers of lobotomies were discussed in the press at the time. He followed Freeman’s lead, and treated it as a minor procedure. He was already working to get a divorce and custody of Roberta and her younger brother, and had little investment in Gretchen’s well being. “He had not even looked much into the lobotomy,” Allen told me, with some anger. “He thought that they didn’t change a person much.”

Gretchen did not experience the devastating effects that Rosemary Kennedy had, but her mental illness became worse after the operation in many ways. She had psychotic episodes where she saw crosses in the sky. She lost her adventurousness and her love of art, and she had less control over her emotions. When she was 8 years old, Allen remembers a terrifying incident when she went to Showboat with her mother, who broke down in a fit of weeping. Gretchen spent most of the rest of her life in the care of her own mother. Roberta saw her during some summers, but never lived with her mother regularly again.

Instead, Roberta stayed with her father, moving from city to city. She had few friends, rotating caregivers and little emotional support. She began to masturbate frequently and sometimes publicly, as a way to soothe herself and because, she told me, “it was something over which I could have control.” It was also an act of defiance. “I was very angry about being neglected as a child,” she says. Everett contemplated giving her a clitorectomy, but Roberta was luckier than her mother in this instance, and the operation was never performed. Her family’s distance taught her not to rely or impose on others—a lesson which badly complicated her own episodes of depression as an adult.

Allen hopes that her book can help destigmatize mental illness and show the importance of informed and compassionate care. “I was never ashamed of the fact that my mother had been institutionalized,” she says. Mental illness is something she and her mother shared. It was only while researching the book that she discovered that they also shared intellectual curiosity, a love of the city, and of art. Examined Lives is a way of grieving for what Gretchen and Roberta both lost, but it’s also about discovering that there was more to Gretchen than just her illness or just her lobotomy. Allen’s memoir allows her to touch her mother in her most difficult moments, but also in her happiest ones.