White Matter: A Memoir of Family and Medicine is the story of a close-knit working-class Bostonian Jewish family of five sisters and one brother and the impact they and their next generation endured due to the popularization of lobotomy during the twentieth century. When Janet Sternburg’s grandfather abandoned his family, and her uncle, Bennie, became increasing mentally ill, Sternburg’s mother and aunts had to bind together and make crucial decisions for the family’s survival. Two of the toughest and most heartrending familial decisions they made were to have Bennie undergo a lobotomy to treat his schizophrenia and later to have the youngest sister, Francie, undergo the same procedure to treat severe depression.
Woven into Sternburg’s story are notable figures that influenced the family as well as the entire medical field. In 1949, Egas Moniz was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for developing the lobotomy, and in the three years that followed his acceptance of the award, more Americans underwent the surgery than during the previous 14 years. By the early 1950s, Walter Freeman developed an alternate technique for lobotomy, which he proselytized during his travels throughout the country in a van he dubbed the “Lobotomobile.”
The phrase “prefrontal lobotomy” was common currency growing up in Janet Sternburg’s family, and in White Matter she details this scientific discovery that disconnects the brain’s white matter, leaving a person without feelings, and its undeserved legitimization and impact on her family. She writes as a daughter consumed with questions about her mother and aunts—all well meaning women who decided their siblings’ mental health issues would be best treated with lobotomies. By the late 1970s, the surgical practice was almost completely out of favor, but its effects left patients and their families with complicated legacies as well as a stain on American medical history. Every generation has to make its own medical choices based on knowledge that will inevitably come to seem inadequate in the future. How do we live with our choices when we see their consequences?
The Big Indie Books of Fall 2015
In 1949, Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for “one of the most important discoveries ever made in psychiatric therapy.” The discovery was that surgically removing part of a person’s frontal lobes could...Forward
“This is the story of a family who made mistakes,” begins White Matter, a beautiful, moving, and thought-provoking new book by poet, memoirist, and photographer Janet Sternburg, The mistake to which Sternburg refers is the...Forward
Two new books about Rosemary Kennedy, the lobotomized daughter of the Kennedy family, have been published in recent weeks, one by the niece of Rosemary’s caretaker, the other by an historian. The news they bring had been hidden out of sight, as...Forward
“As she did in her previous memoir Phantom Limb, Sternburg uses all the skills at her disposal, the sensitivity, precision, and lyricism of a poet, the hard edges of a photographer, the intelligence and scholarship of an academic, to plumb the...Forward
“Sternburg’s writing is incisive, and she deeply explores the boundaries that were unjustly crossed by family members in the name of love… A vivid and melancholy exploration into the mental illnesses that affected one woman’s family and the...Forward
It was my cousin on the phone. The call I yearned for, and dreaded.
Yearned with that vulnerability of memoirists when praise is heard not simply for one’s book but also as a response to an unspoken plea: love me.
Dreaded because she had made...Forward
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...Forward
This is a unique book. The writing is beautiful, the observations refined, the subject gripping.
- Antonio Damasio
- Author of Descartes’ Error and Self Comes to Mind
White Matter: A Memoir of Family and Medicine is a stunning achievement, attempting nothing less than to understand the impossible. Sternburg is a master at creating the perfect structuring metaphor through which to tell her family’s history and by which to illuminate a particularly dark time in our nation’s history. The work of White Matter is to find resolution to the dilemma of lives gone awry, despite the best of intentions. Ultimately the book’s wisdom is its graceful depiction of wholeness within loss, the strength Sternburg found to escape her past, and then to return with questions only she could ask. Her answers matter to all of us.
- Ladette Randolph
- Author of Leaving the Pink House and A Sandhills Ballad and Editor-in-chief of Ploughshares
Janet Sternburg’s White Matter—which intertwines the story of two lobotomized relatives, the history of lobotomy itself, and the author’s own coming of age/ coming to writing—demonstrates that sometimes telling it slant needs to give way to telling it straight. As Sternburg grapples thoroughly with her unnerving subject, her antennae admirably stay out for that which makes us human, how we serve and fail each other, what enables both love and grace.
- Maggie Nelson
- Author of The Argonauts
White Matter: A Memoir of Family and Medicine is Sternburg’s tale of what she discovered, put in the context of her family’s history, the currents of 20th-century psychiatry, the fallibilities of the medical profession and the painful decisions that many of us make.
- Nancy Szokan, The Washington Post
While lobotomization is now a discredited procedure, her discoveries were somewhat complicated: “When I began this investigation, I assumed that lobotomies produced only zombie-like people. But I’ve learned since that they sometimes provided genuine relief to people who, to my surprise, were able to say how much better they were.”
Over the last several years, writers as different as the late David Foster Wallace in Consider the Lobster and Leslie Jamison in The Empathy Exams have expanded the boundaries of the essay and memoir. Sternburg in Phantom Limb and now with White Matter is part of this vanguard.
- Forbes Magazine
The author also touches on other well-known individuals whose family members had lobotomies, such as Allen Ginsberg’s mother and Rosemary Kennedy. A vivid and melancholy exploration into the mental illnesses that affected one woman’s family and the radical and damaging operations performed to counteract these ailments.
- Kirkus Reviews
Most of us love a good mystery. Add intergenerational secrets to the mix and you’ve just upped the grip quotient. Add to that a medical procedure that’s the stuff of nightmares and horror movies, and you’ve got a potential hit. Janet Sternburg’s memoir White Matter (Hawthorne Books, 2014) takes this recipe and adds a layer of truth.
- Basya Laye, Jewish Independent
Just because [White Matter is] one that probably won’t make the cut at the neighborhood book club doesn’t mean you can’t find the time to read it.
- Michaela Bancud, The Portland Tribune
A beautiful, moving, and thought-provoking new book…White Matter isn’t a conventional hybrid memoir in which a personal story and its larger context appear in alternating chapters, or in paragraphs separated by space breaks. The subtitle of Sternburg’s book, “A Memoir of Family and Medicine,” signals that the story of Sternburg’s family is inextricable from the story of lobotomy.
Neuroscientists believe that walking, like meditation, yoga, and, yes, writing can actually restore connection and balance between the frontal cortex and the midbrain, between perception and reaction, thinking and feeling. In other words, these activities reinforce the same neural pathways severed in a lobotomy.
Don’t the best memoirs do the same? Reconnect feeling and language, experience and expression; bridge the space, as Sternburg writes, in this lovely, healing book, “between a memory and a story?”
- Suzanne Koven, The Los Angeles Review of Books
In its best moments, this book raises questions about the uncertain contours of compassion…Sternburg is at her most astute when she can hold sometimes contradictory truths in mind…
- Meehan Crist, The Los Angeles Times
I loved the struggle of this book, and Sternburg writes it beautifully: the wrestling with that which has no answer, or at least an answer which won’t sit still.
- Denise Wilkinson, Riverteeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative
White Matter builds with the suspense and gathering unease of a horror story. [There is] a poignant honesty and vulnerability to the narrating voice, as well as a sense of urgency. White Matter shines when creating what Sternburg finds lacking in medical culture: ” fellow-feeling - a link with another person, a baseline recognition that all of us are in this together, as well as a particularized recognition of the situation of another.”
- Katherine Hayes, Women's Review of Books