“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 decision, by her mother and aunts, to allow doctors to perform lobotomies on two of their siblings — their brother Bennie in 1940, and their sister Francie a few years later. Embedded in the declarative statement with which Sternburg opens her memoir are questions: Why did they make these mistakes? How could Sternburg’s mother and aunts have subjected the brother and sister they loved to such brutality? What kind of love is that?
Sternburg looks for answers both within her family and in the history of lobotomy itself. But 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. In White Matter there is no “background material.” 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.
It’s difficult today to think of lobotomy as surgery, and not torture. After hesitating for a moment before describing the procedure, Sternburg reminds herself that most of her family is long dead. “I have no reason to spare anyone,” she reasons. “I am writing a story that I haven’t faced for many years.” Despite her own squeamishness — and, presumably, her readers’ — she forges ahead:
- Here is what was done to Bennie: holes were drilled in his skull; the blade of an instrument was inserted through the holes, its handle swung as far and deep as possible.
In a later version of the procedure, the ice pick lobotomy, surgeons inserted the instrument through the eye socket directly into the frontal lobes. The procedure could be done in as little as 12 minutes. One doctor performed lobotomies throughout the countryside in an operating room on wheels — a lobotomobile.
To read the entire article, go to Los Angeles Review of Books.