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White Matter: A Memoir of Family and Medicine

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White Matter: A Memoir of Family and Medicine is the story of a Bostonian close-knit Jewish working-class family of five sisters and one brother and the impact they and their next generation endured due to the popularization of lobotomy during the 20th century. When Janet Sternburg’s grandfather abandoned his family, and her uncle, Bennie, became increasing mentally ill, S White Matter: A Memoir of Family and Medicine is the story of a Bostonian close-knit Jewish working-class family of five sisters and one brother and the impact they and their next generation endured due to the popularization of lobotomy during the 20th 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 familial decisions they made were to have Bennie undergo a lobotomy to treat his schizophrenia and later to have youngest sister, Francie, undergo the same procedure to treat severe depression. Both heartrending decisions were largely a result of misinformation disseminated that popularized and legitimized lobotomy. 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?


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White Matter: A Memoir of Family and Medicine is the story of a Bostonian close-knit Jewish working-class family of five sisters and one brother and the impact they and their next generation endured due to the popularization of lobotomy during the 20th century. When Janet Sternburg’s grandfather abandoned his family, and her uncle, Bennie, became increasing mentally ill, S White Matter: A Memoir of Family and Medicine is the story of a Bostonian close-knit Jewish working-class family of five sisters and one brother and the impact they and their next generation endured due to the popularization of lobotomy during the 20th 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 familial decisions they made were to have Bennie undergo a lobotomy to treat his schizophrenia and later to have youngest sister, Francie, undergo the same procedure to treat severe depression. Both heartrending decisions were largely a result of misinformation disseminated that popularized and legitimized lobotomy. 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?

30 review for White Matter: A Memoir of Family and Medicine

  1. 4 out of 5

    Amber Spencer

    Some parts are very difficult to read. This is about the choices made by a family when confronted with mental illness. At a time when mental illness wasn’t understood, and the choices they felt they had available to them to deal with mental illness were limited. This book tells the story of the family, a small history of lobotomies and helps the writer understand and love her family despite their mistakes.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Carol

    White Matter by Janet Steinburg is the second book in her three part memoir. It and the other volumes are unusual as memoirs because they explore questions that she had. I have only read this book but I am very interested in the other two after reading this one. I must say for those like me, this book will be a physical challenge to read because it is written in such tiny print. The author probably had no choice in the matter, I am stating this because although I was fascinated by this memoir, it White Matter by Janet Steinburg is the second book in her three part memoir. It and the other volumes are unusual as memoirs because they explore questions that she had. I have only read this book but I am very interested in the other two after reading this one. I must say for those like me, this book will be a physical challenge to read because it is written in such tiny print. The author probably had no choice in the matter, I am stating this because although I was fascinated by this memoir, it was difficult to read because of the print size. The question that she explores in this book is her mother’s family, a Jewish family living in Boston decided to have her uncle Benny lobotomized. Her grandmother and aunts came together on the decision in 1940. For those who are not familiar with the term a prefrontal lobotomy was a surgery done in the 1940s and 1950s to calm the patient by cutting the white fibers that connect the thalamus to the prefrontal and frontal lobes of the brain. This had the effect of turning the patient into a person devoid of all emotions. Besides exploring her own emotion reactions to this, she also informs us with the history of lobotomies. I was shocked to learn that at one time there was a lobotomobile. I picked this book to read because I remember my father visiting his sister in the state hospital. I sat in the car because I had met her. Now I wish that I had. I strongly remember him saying “at least they didn’t lobotomize her”. I didn’t know what that meant at the time. But now I have a much fuller picture of what a person is like after it. This operation is was very popular at one time because there were no drugs to deal with mental illness effectively. It is such a drastic operation that is easy to see why the author probed the question. Some plausible reasons are given as the answer by the author. I applaud Janet Sternburg for bringing this subject out into the open, it must have been very painful to explore what lead up to the operation. I highly recommend this book to anyone with mental illness in their family. I received this finished copy from the publisher as a win from FirstReads but that in no way influenced my thoughts or feelings in this review.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Mary

    Part memoir, part historical fiction, White Matter is an interesting read. Though there was a fair amount of information about the science behind lobotomies, I would have appreciated a bit more from a modern prospective. But, based in the time the decisions were made by Ms Sternburg's family, there were few options. It was interesting to hear her memories from her childhood opposed to her adult interpretations of the situation.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Valerie

    A memoir that discusses a Jewish family and the choices they make to prevent what we believe will be tragedy and loss. A moving book this book was filled with some intense emotional experiences as the family tries to deal with the decisions they made. The book is certainly thought provoking and will provide readers with much to consider as they flip through the pages. While I won a copy of this book on Good Reads, all opinions expressed are strictly my own.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Katie Weinstein

    What's done is done, but the author's search for the whys and hows are heartbreaking. We can only know what we know at a time to make a decision, but this true story of lobotomy and how it was pervasive in this family is astonishing. I was riveted.

  6. 4 out of 5

    bea

    A lot of books have too many words. But nonfiction by poets (think: Lucy Grealy) generally doesn't fall into this category. Janet Sternburg, poet, philosopher, photographer, tells a very large story with very few words. Kudos.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    Full Disclosure: Goodreads giveaway winner I can't say I enjoyed reading this memoir - it was heartbreaking. But that's not to say that I am not glad I read it and won't recommend it to others. Parts of it are horrifying - the history of mental health in the 20th century; the fact that family members had to make decisions with the information they were given. I can't imagine being in that position - twice. Reading the interview with the author at the end, I realized that some of the 'blocking' of Full Disclosure: Goodreads giveaway winner I can't say I enjoyed reading this memoir - it was heartbreaking. But that's not to say that I am not glad I read it and won't recommend it to others. Parts of it are horrifying - the history of mental health in the 20th century; the fact that family members had to make decisions with the information they were given. I can't imagine being in that position - twice. Reading the interview with the author at the end, I realized that some of the 'blocking' of text with pictures with white space that sort of bugged me, were intentional by the author and were probably intended to disrupt the reader in the way that mental illness can disrupt flow. As were some of the jerky timeline stops that made my brain do a double take to figure it all out. White Matter is well written, and I imagine heartrending to write - and now I need to track down a copy of Phantom Limb.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Marianne K

    A look into the author's quest to discover the how and why her uncle and aunt had been lobotomized back when this was done. What family dynamics were at work to allow such horror. The reader become intimately acquainted with the five sisters and one brother, with medicine's views on mental illness, and society's as a whole. I felt transported back to this time, mid twentieth century, when medicine had no knowledge nor effective treatment of mental illness. Looking back, it's easy to judge, easy A look into the author's quest to discover the how and why her uncle and aunt had been lobotomized back when this was done. What family dynamics were at work to allow such horror. The reader become intimately acquainted with the five sisters and one brother, with medicine's views on mental illness, and society's as a whole. I felt transported back to this time, mid twentieth century, when medicine had no knowledge nor effective treatment of mental illness. Looking back, it's easy to judge, easy to say we would have done things differently, but the truth is we just don't know. Highly recommended.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Kendra

    I received this book from a giveaway...very good book of personal memoir, medical history from 1900's and on, eye opener on little discussed lobotomies that were so widely used and the Effects on individuals as well as family unit. Sorting through her life and whys? Of worries, life and strength.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Kimberly

    Interesting

  11. 5 out of 5

    Miranda

    A little wordy, quite introspective.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Michael Shulman

    Fascinating story of a kind-hearted Jewish family trying to make the world a better place

  13. 4 out of 5

    Lauren Wightman

  14. 5 out of 5

    TJ

  15. 5 out of 5

    Hila Kay

  16. 4 out of 5

    Bobby Joyner

  17. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

  18. 5 out of 5

    Karen

  19. 5 out of 5

    Amy Deal

  20. 4 out of 5

    Susan

  21. 5 out of 5

    Ashton Trimble

  22. 5 out of 5

    Hannah

  23. 5 out of 5

    Chelsea Lobey

  24. 4 out of 5

    Marian

  25. 4 out of 5

    Braxton Thomason

  26. 4 out of 5

    Casady Monroe

  27. 5 out of 5

    Sarita

  28. 5 out of 5

    Olivia Best

  29. 5 out of 5

    Mikey K

  30. 4 out of 5

    Mariah

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