All reporters tell stories. Not many rewrite history.
Michael M. Phillips’s three-part series “The Lobotomy Files” revealed in depth for the first time this astounding fact: The U.S. Veterans Administration lobotomized more than 2,000 mentally troubled troops after World War II. In an instant, his reporting transformed our understanding of the Greatest Generation, medical practice and the nature of war trauma, from shell shock to today’s PTSD.
With graceful writing neatly supplemented by videos, documents and other graphics, the articles are emblematic of how the best reported feature writing can take readers to places they never knew about and never imagined venturing.
The package was a blockbuster, assembled from previously undisclosed VA documents, interviews with aging relatives and doctors, and military records. The reaction instantly acknowledged its significance. Senior Congressmen from both parties pressed the VA to track down veterans still living who underwent lobotomies. David Finkel, a past Pulitzer winner, called it “great, great, great work.”
Readers were drawn in by the multimedia storytelling, despite being repelled by the details of what they were learning about their country. Their comments showed the tension. “Grim & necessary,” wrote one. A “great, awful read,” said another. “I was transfixed, horrified, devastated,” said a third.
Here is the transfixing part: The government, incapable of treating the war’s worst psychiatric casualties, became enamored of lobotomies as a cure, or at least as a pacifier. The treatment cost lives and erased personalities, leaving veterans’ families to pick up the pieces and deal with their guilt for decades.
The procedure’s effectiveness was disputed within the VA itself. And yet, in the thrall of lobotomy’s most prominent salesman, the VA performed the brain-altering operation on servicemen diagnosed as depressives, psychotics and schizophrenics, and occasionally on people identified as homosexuals.
Mr. Phillips, a recent Pulitzer finalist for feature writing, has a long history of reporting dispassionately on stories boiling with emotion, often from war zones. The lobotomy articles were poignant without being mawkish, and detailed without being lurid.
Families with relatives who fought in World War II praised the series for lifting the gauzy veil that colors the memory of that generation. Families of PTSD sufferers from more-recent conflicts similarly saw the daily reality of their lives reflected.
“My boyfriend, Justin Rollins, died in Iraq nearly 7 years ago and a lot of his friends who returned home were not the same, to say the least,” wrote reader Brittney Murray. “Your story, while so eloquently shedding light specifically on lobotomies, touches on a lot of these timeless military realities that have plagued returning veterans and their families for centuries.”
Roman Tritz, a World War II B-17 bomber pilot, whom Mr. Phillips found living today in La Crosse, Wis., was lobotomized in 1953 after previous treatments, including electroshock therapy, had little effect on his mental anguish. Today, he lives isolated with his delusions, eating alone every day at the King Street Kitchen in town.
After Mr. Tritz’s life story was published, Wall Street Journal readers sent hundreds of dollars to the King Street Kitchen to pay for his meals.
Mr. Phillips’s efforts were perfectly complemented—not overshadowed—by the most modern digital storytelling techniques. The online package, which seamlessly incorporated documents and video, was called “flat gorgeous,” by the Columbia Journalism Review. “No bling for bling’s sake here.”
One document featured on the site a take-home guide for families, listed 37 ways in which the man they sent to war was returning home a child. No. 37: “When will he be well?” was answered as follows: “We cannot answer this question.”
That wasn’t all the VA couldn’t answer. The Veterans Administration said it had no official memory of the surgeries it performed and seemed unaware of the archival record. It was as if the VA had wiped these servicemen from its official memory banks.
Mr. Phillips hunted through dozens of boxes at the National Archives and university archives where he found thousands of records. He used patient lists to identify relatives, whom he tracked through burial records, obituaries, library records, military databases and genealogical databases. Warehoused military files offered insight into the combat experiences that preceded the veterans’ illnesses.
He found and interviewed nonagenarian VA psychiatrists to better understand what VA doctors were thinking at the time. Government, university and private archives produced World War II-era photos and footage, including film of lobotomies being performed.
Ted Richman was a psychology major in the 1960s when he came across lobotomized patients at a veterans hospital on New York’s Long Island. The overwhelming sense of hopelessness prompted him to switch his career choice.
“Every once in a while I would think of that summer and people that I met and what we had done to them,” he wrote to Mr. Phillips. “No one ever told their story until now.”