WHITE MATTER by Janet Sternburg


A Memoir of Family and Medicine
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A woman's search for the truth surrounding the two lobotomies performed on family members.

In this haunting memoir, Sternburg (Optic Nerve, 2005, etc.) seeks to understand why her aunts, mother, and grandmother allowed a lobotomy to be executed on her uncle Bennie after he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and, 10 years later, permitted the almost exact same treatment to be carried out on her aunt Francie. The author weaves together multiple threads: the stories handed down by her aunts and their spouses regarding Bennie and Francie; medical research and insight into lobotomies and why they were so popular for a time; and her own memories of growing up in a disjointed, unhappy family where fear and the feeling of never being good enough lurked in every room. The result is a complex balance of personal thoughts and feelings coupled with the actual and imagined dialogues that must have taken place regarding these challenging decisions. The book is a disclosure of family secrets and an airing of unhappiness, affairs, unfulfilled longings, and desires that created an atmosphere of tension, anxiety, and dread. It is not necessarily a pleasant read with a happy ending, but Sternburg’s writing is incisive, and she deeply explores the boundaries that were unjustly crossed by family members in the name of love. The author also touches on other well-known individuals whose family members had lobotomies, such as Allen Ginsberg's mother and Rosemary Kennedy. Numerous photographs of Sternburg's family, a genealogy, and a comprehensive timeline add additional useful elements to this memorable story.

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.

Pub Date: Sept. 15th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-9893604-9-4
Page count: 232pp
Publisher: Hawthorne Books
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