New Voices: “A Portrait of the Lobotomist as a Young Man” by S. B. Kleinman

April 22, 2024

“But inevitably, someone realized that people already have holes in their skulls; they keep their eyes in them.” S. B. Kleinman’s “A Portrait of the Lobotomist as a Young Man” begins with a photograph, the narrator’s parents on their wedding day. What follows is as unsettling as it is measured. Explore the origins of Kleinman’s Lobotomist in this new story below.


She is not beautiful, the teenage girl in the photograph, though those who prepared her have clearly done their best. Her limp hair has been firmly restrained atop her head, her lips darkened, her freckles obliterated with powder; someone probably instructed her to arrange her face like that, not smiling, head turned slightly, as if someone off to one side has just called her name. She is not ugly either. Merely plain, unequal to the long white gown with its tight sleeves buttoned at the wrists, its frothy, trailing skirt and tight bodice hysterical with lace. A three-stranded pearl necklace clasps her throat, a match for the pearl-headed pins anchoring the veil to her knotted hair. Only a slight vagueness, the merest suggestion of a blur, shows that the bouquet in her hands is trembling.

The groom, my father, stands beside her, but he seems like an afterthought, his presence overwhelmed by the baroque clottings of my mother’s dress. And indeed he was generally an afterthought to me, a vague presence who was sometimes somewhere in the house but more often out, at the office, one presumed, or in some other masculine space to which women and children were denied access. I was the one shepherding my mother from place to place, making sure she put clothes on before leaving the house, keeping her from walking into traffic or otherwise hurting herself. It seemed perfectly natural to me at the time. She was the center of my universe; it was not safe to let her be anything else.

And there is something uniquely fascinating about a person with no emotions. My mother said even terrifically alarming things in a very calm tone of voice. Once it was, “The kitchen is on fire,” which turned out to be the case; another time it was, “I’m having another heart attack,” which was also true and the last thing she ever did say. My father, concerned that I might find this emotional vacancy distressing, explained it to me when I was very young. As alcoholics are powerless over alcohol, he told me, my mother had been powerless over her feelings, which when she was a girl had been so intense as to make her scream and throw things and even soil herself. Often these tantrums would end only when she fell to the ground in a frothing seizure. So it had been necessary to take her feelings away.

“All of them?” I asked, as this seemed like a rather extreme solution to the problem—though of course soiling oneself was not a problem that could be left unaddressed. Yes, he said. Unfortunately, it was not yet possible to take away only distressing feelings; it was all or nothing.

He didn’t use the word lobotomy. Maybe he didn’t want me to look it up in the encyclopedia; maybe the word itself was horrible to him, as it is to some people, or even pornographic. He called it a brain operation, and I imagined the cap of my mother’s skull sawed off and lifted away, hair and skin still attached, to reveal the glistening organ within. Later, of course, I would learn that to call a transorbital lobotomy an operation is to confer upon it a dignity it does not deserve. A prefrontal lobotomy, which involves the drilling of burr holes into the skull to expose the brain matter, may fairly be considered an operation. This is the procedure for which Dr. Moniz was awarded the Nobel, and for a time, in some countries, it was very popular. But inevitably, someone realized that people already have holes in their skulls; they keep their eyes in them. One need only insinuate the instrument past the eyeball, through the thin bone behind it, and into the frontal lobe. It is an act anyone with fairly steady hands may perform, bilaterally, in seven minutes. Seven minutes to kill Lazarus and resurrect him; seven minutes to turn a shrieking teenager into the placid creature my mother was.

Only after that had my parents met. My father seemed anxious that I should understand this, as if having known my mother before she was lobotomized would have been a kind of preemptive infidelity. That part of the story I knew: he had been an employee of my grandfather’s, and my grandfather had invited him to dinner. He had courted Maggie somehow. They had married almost immediately, in May 1947. She was nineteen, he forty-four. I was born nine months later.

It was kind of my father to wish to reassure me, but I had never found my mother distressing. On the contrary, her imperturbability delighted me. It was so restful, for one thing. If I was unhappy, I could put my head in her lap, and she would not ask why. If I wanted her to play the piano, or come with me to Prospect Park to hold my kite, or perform any other office that came to mind, I had only to ask. She would do whatever she was told, though my father and I were always careful to word our instructions as requests. Best of all, she would answer any question I put to her, and I never tired of asking them. I consulted her like a Ouija board. “Mother, what is the soul?”

“It’s what’s left after we die.”

“What does it look like?”

“It’s invisible.”

“But if you could see it.”

She was sewing when I asked her this, and here she drew the needle to arm’s length. Her hands trembled constantly, a side effect of her seizure medication, and so the needle trembled, winking in the lamplight for just a moment before stabbing back into the cloth. “It looks like you,” she said, “if you weren’t there.”

It was obvious to me, as perhaps it is to all children, that most of life is dull, consisting endlessly of sameness: the same rooms, the same hours, the same people, day after day. Only my mother was different, capable of saying something like this, something that maybe no one had ever said before. Like you, if you weren’t there. She hadn’t even paused in her sewing to say it. She was not stupid, I had always known that; stupid people were everywhere, part of that endless sameness, and there was only one of her. She was something else, and now my father had told me what it was.

That was the beginning of my obsession. I would watch my mother sew, or prepare dinner, and imagine her screaming until she convulsed. And if that was possible, what wasn’t? What else might she become? What else might anyone become?

How many rooms in the house of the soul?

That is why I must do it. That is why I must pierce their eye sockets and crack open their skulls. Do you understand? It’s the only way to let the light in.

S. B. Kleinman, aka Eyeteeth, is a writer, copyeditor, and cartoonist living in Manhattan. She is the creator and protagonist of the webcomic
Small Peculiar ( and a member of the Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers. Her work has appeared in Dissent and Wyngraf. She is currently writing a funny novel about serial killers, including the narrator of this story.


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

Follow Us On Social

Masters Review, 2024 © All Rights Reserved