Review: White Matter: A Memoir of Family and Medicine by Janet Sternburg

Review by Hannah Straton

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white matter cover old family picture“This is the story of a family who made mistakes. Who made choices based on imperfect knowledge of the world, and of themselves—and had to live with their consequences…”

Janet Sternburg’s White Matter (Hawthorne Books and Literary Arts, 2014) is a memoir of a family torn apart and brought together when two of its six children were given lobotomies. White Matter is Sternberg’s quest to discover what really happened to her lobotomized aunt and uncle and what effect those choices had on her family.

White Matter is broken into three volumes. The first begins with Sternberg’s 2002 visit to her elderly aunt, in hopes to talk about her uncle’s lobotomy. She learns the procedure was not a unanimous decision, despite his violent outbursts and psychotic behavior. With this information, she begins her journey to uncover the truth of a desperate situation in a time where there was with no good solution.

Born to Jewish immigrants, Sternberg’s mother, Helen, was one of six children: five girls and a boy. Helen’s brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia in early adulthood, and her father walked out soon after. Helen’s mother was overcome with grief and love for her severely ill only son and unable to react clearly; this left his fate to his sisters. Throughout the book, as she recounts the sisters’ decision-making process, Sternberg interjects history of the lobotomy; for example, the man who invented the procedure won the Nobel prize, and for a brief period in time the lobotomy was at the height of science.

Sternberg attests her uncle came out of the procedure as a little less than a shell of a man: “He looked more or less the same. But he was not as he had been. He didn’t speak. He walked slowly, and once he sat down he barely moved. He didn’t react to anything or anyone around him.” However, the change was not altogether unwelcome, as she quotes one sister as saying: “we weren’t scared anymore.” His violent tendencies were gone, but so were all of his personality features and everything that made him unique — or even just a person.

When the youngest sister fell into a deep depression and tried to take her own life after her husband walked out, lobotomy came up yet again, even after seeing what had happened to their brother. It was interesting to see how dependent this family was on the doctors, how the sisters believed the medical professionals when they said a “micro lobotomy” would be different. But the fact remains that whenever frontal lobe brain tissue is removed/destroyed it results in severe permanent damage.

Writes Sternberg: “The doctors said Francie was one of the fortunate ones for whom the operation had worked. Had it? One night Francie phoned my mother to tell her with pride that she’d made a TV dinner all by herself. My mother understood that for Francie—Francie, as she was now—this was a genuine feat, while inside she mourned her sister who had once so delicately tapped and released the bombe.”

Again, the problems were gone, but so were almost all of the other aspects of her person.

Because I have a mental illness and electroconvulsive therapy (electric shock) saved my life, I went in to this book cautiously. However, I found that White Matter treats mental illness with respect and recognizes that this story is one person’s experience.

White Matter is an incredible story of a family forced to make difficult decisions in a time with limited information and the consequences they faced because of it. The history of the lobotomy is seamlessly interwoven to create a book worth reading.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

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