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White Matter: A Memoir of Family and…
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White Matter: A Memoir of Family and Medicine

by Janet Sternburg

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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. ( )
  Carolee888 | Sep 30, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0989360490, Paperback)

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?

(retrieved from Amazon Fri, 17 Jul 2015 06:48:42 -0400)

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