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Edward Lambert, the patriarch, is a retired neurosurgeon, and his character has played a large part in shaping his family.
This means that we may end up writing about relatives who are public figures, which becomes complicated. Whose is your voice, and what is your relationship to your subject? Everyone knows that no-one is objective about her own family; you may be too forgiving, or too harsh. But in our family these are multiplied by our own ubiquitousness, so that two of us may write about the same relative, creating a kind of Chinese puzzle box. Scoville is a part of our family history, but he’s also a part of medical history, and his story is compelling and in some ways terrifying.
Writing candidly about your family is difficult to begin with. My uncle was involved in the history of neurosurgery, and in particular the dark chapter of lobotomy.
William Beecher Scoville was a distinguished neurosurgeon, head of Neurosurgery at Hartford Hospital, president and founder of several organizations, author of over 100 scientific articles, a mentor and pioneer.
Despite professional recognition, he’s been mostly unknown to the public until recently, when the journalist Luke Dittrich’s new book brought him into the public view.
All my discoveries, of course, were colored by my knowledge of the man. I needed to know how my uncle could act like this—do things so drastic, so irreversible, so apparently brutal—and still be human? For a novelist, what happens inside a family is the most powerful story there is: look at Tolstoy and Shakespeare and Woolf. I wanted a man whose power would be enormous (the father’s always is) and would be so intrusively commanding that it would continue to affect the family through the generations.
He was handsome, charismatic and dashing, with his thick slicked-back black hair, patrician nose, gleaming new sports cars. Edward is self-centered, intelligent, brilliant and arrogant, traits which have powerful effects on his wife and his children and his grandchildren.
Our experiences shape us as human beings, which comes even before our being writers.
So the way we see the world is shaped in part by our family members—who may be scornful of scholarship, or sentimental about holidays, or Puritanical about emotions.
Whether we’re novelists or journalists or historians, those responses play a part in our views of the world.
We go on to follow our own paths, but the family has formed us.