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Ariana Marquis Interview with Janet Sternburg, author of White Matter

Posted by Ariana Marquis on 09 Sep 2015

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I’m going to get straight to it with this interview that I did a few weeks ago with Janet Sternburg. White Matter: A Memoir of Family and Medicine publishes next week on September 15, and I feel very lucky and happy that I got to interview Janet all about it just before launch day.

Ariana Marquis You’ve spoken about Walter J. Freeman II, inventor of the transorbital (“ice pick”) lobotomy, who toured the country during the 1950s and ‘60s in a mobile lobotomy clinic he dubbed, absurdly, the Lobotomobile. Although the lobotomy had many detractors from very early on, Freeman still personally performed more than 3,000 operations. How could a procedure like lobotomy, which was controversial from the beginning, still manage to gain widespread acceptance in the way that it did? Was it desperation on the part of mental health caregivers, spin from people like Freeman, or something else?

Janet Sternburg It’s a fascinating tale of hope, brilliance, and arrogance. I tell the full story in White Matter, but briefly lobotomy wasn’t controversial at the beginning. It was sold to the American public as the great cure-all. Even before the first lobotomy was performed in the United States, Walter Freeman began to promote this new operation that had been first developed in Portugal by Egas Moniz, a neurologist who won the 1949 Nobel Prize for this discovery! You can imagine the effect that had—everyone believed in the Nobel.

Even before that, Freeman so believed in the surgery that he would waylay reporters, talking up its wonders and giving them scoops. In turn they wrote articles for major newspapers; some appeared with headlines like: “Psychosurgery Cured Me,” and the “No Worse Than Removing A Tooth.”

No one had known what to do for the mentally ill, especially when violent, other than to put them in horrific asylums—this was before pharmaceuticals had been synthesized for mental illness. A further incentive to keep doing lobotomies is that they were cheap; it cost the state $35,000 a year to keep a patient in an asylum; a lobotomy cost $250 and the patient could be sent home.

For desperate and bewildered caregivers, their problems were so intense that they didn’t stop to think why people were turning into zombies.

Ariana Marquis The lobotomy has completely fallen out of favor today, but the risk that a practice that is widely accepted now may later be regarded as harmful feels as relevant as ever—there are so many things in our lives, from drugs to foods to technology, for which we don’t understand the long-term effects. Has your family history of lobotomy affected the trust you put in current practices, medical or otherwise?

Janet Sternburg My rational mind says, “Oh yes, I know how to be skeptical, to research, to ask the right questions.” My irrational mind says, “Forget about that. If it promises relief, go for it.”

In the course of White Matter, I track down the psychiatrist whose father had recommended my uncle’s lobotomy. I mention to him that I take antidepressants, and that they’ve helped my garden-variety problems. Then I say that I’d go on taking them even if someone told me they’d be harmful in the long run, that’s how much better my life is with them. At which point in the conversation, I stop short—I heard my own family!

I’d been investigating what I thought was a terrible past abuse, and here I was in the present, saying I’d overlook something potentially awful for release from pain.

I think we’re all like that.

No one is rational all the time. And we just don’t know. We often have to make decisions in the dark.

When is knowledge ever sufficient? There’s no end point when you can say, “This is completely good. Let’s do it.”

Ariana Marquis You’ve mentioned before that this book took eleven years for you to write. Can you describe your emotional journey through this period of your life? Did your emotions toward the family members whose actions you explore in White Matter morph or change over the course of researching and writing it?

Janet Sternburg If I narrow down my answer to the time of writing White Matter, I would say that my feelings toward my family members had to change; otherwise there was no point in writing the book. 

Growing up, I’d accepted my two lobotomized relatives as a strange but ordinary part of my life. It took quite a while for the penny to drop: two lobotomies in one family?

That’s unheard of.

So I began with a deep sense that something evil had been done by my mother and aunts. These were people whom I’d always thought were good and kind: How could they have made decisions that turned their siblings into zombies?

One surgery I could understand. But after they’d seen what happened to my uncle, how could they have chosen a second one for my aunt some fifteen years later?

The answer to that isn’t simple; it’s a story, with many characters, one of whom is myself. I found myself swinging over from the evil side to its opposite, what I call the “make nice” side. I said to myself that they had done the best they could, and besides, it was the times.

I wanted, as women so often have done, to make sure I was giving everyone a fair break. In general, we want to ameliorate in order to be loved. That’s not the best thing for a writer!

By the time I started writing, all my aunts and my uncle and my mother were dead, with the exception of one aunt who begins the story by telling me that my uncle had never been seriously mentally ill, that everyone else in the family had lied about him. She overturned everything I’d believed all my life. That encounter, and with it the mystery of what really happened, gave me the motor to tell the story.

Finally I came to realize that neither blame nor exoneration would get me anywhere. I had to find a path between those poles.

In the end I did, and my feelings toward them changed.

If, however, I expand my answer to this period of my life in general, beyond the book, my emotions were often in high, ecstatic gear. I had started to take photographs that led me to see and think about the world in a new way. Then the world said yes to my photographic work, and I was having shows all over the world. In those years, I was driven to get White Matter right. I was so lucky that, at the same time, there was another art form that let me feel joyous and free.

Ariana MarquisIn addition to this book, which is part memoir, part medical history, and part family history, and your previous memoir Phantom Limb, you’ve also worked in playwriting, essay, poetry, and fine art photography. Is there a thematic through-line in the different types of art you practice, or do they represent different creative sides of yourself?

Janet SternburgWhether an artist is working in one art or in another, she can never find a thematic through-line. Everything has to feel new and different.

As for me, I was pretty blind to any cross-overs until I had an epiphany. I had published Phantom Limb, a memoir in which I set out to learn about the phenomenon of phantom limbs in order to help my mother, who had lost a leg and suffered from pain in a limb that was no longer there, from a ghost limb that’s generated by the brain, sending impulses along the circuitry even in the absence of the thing itself.

A few years later, the then-curator of photography at the Getty saw my photographic work. When he understood that my images were in no way manipulated—although people think they’re double exposures or superimpositions—he said: “You’ve got to let people know that these are real places, that you’ve stood there and taken these pictures, and ghosts enter as though invited.”

Those ghosts!  A ghost is a phantom that’s there and not there, in my photography as in my book, where I used the metaphor to point toward a condition we all have, feeling the presence of someone or something even though it’s no longer there. Oh yes—a through-line, which I was able to realize later after the fact of making.

Ariana MarquisWhite Matter required you to act as nonfiction reporter and creative reimaginer, to be a factual researcher and an emotional excavator, to report a history impartially and yet be deeply, desperately close to it. How did you keep yourself balanced while grappling with the contradictory tasks involved in this work? You’ve said that you wrote this book partially to explore whether your mother’s family, whom you always knew to be good but who did what could be argued was a very terrible thing, were good people or bad people. Did you ever reach a point of reconciliation on this? 

Janet SternburgI love your phrase, “a creative reimaginer.” It’s exactly right. To it, I added a category of my own devising: “scrupulous imagination,” which means trying to stay within what I really think might have happened.

That could be seen as fooling myself—when all is said and done, I was making up the material at times when I wasn’t present. But it stuck with me as a kind of yardstick—or maybe better, a writer’s Jiminy Cricket.

To your question about balance, I would say that I kept myself balanced only AFTER all my grappling to get the story right.

Balance came along only in the later stages of editing and assembling. That’s when I could see the story as outside of myself, when the book is an artifact with its own stand-alone life. At that point, the book is asking me to be a craftsperson, and that’s when balance is necessary.

As far as reconciliation, yes. Greater understanding brought me to mercy, a kind of grace that allows a person to navigate between those black and white poles I had started with. 

The breakthrough moment was when I realized that I could bring back a story I’d already told, toward the beginning of the book—about my schizophrenic uncle hitting my cousin.  At the end of the book, my cousin’s father comes home and has to decide what to do about this monster, his wife’s brother, who had hurt his child. He makes a decision in the direction of mercy that pointed the way to come to a reconciliation, not only with my family but with myself.

Ariana MarquisFinally, a simple question, but maybe not a simple answer: What part of writing White Matter was the easiest? What was the most challenging?

Janet SternburgI want to make it a simple answer. Easiest was the researching and then trying to find the places where information presses on the story and can transform the entire body of work—I think of it as kind of like acupressure, and it’s fun. At least it’s a writer’s idea of fun.

Hardest: going back and back and back and . . .  you get it.  I think my drafts were in the high three figures. I’ve said I was driven, but I was also discouraged. But I couldn’t stay away.

Then one day, you know it. You just know it. It’s done. Time to stay away.

Well?

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