The lobotomized were our mothers, and our mothers’ mothers.
Of all the ways the world of medical care has gotten worse, one way it’s gotten better is the end of lobotomy as a treatment for depression and mental illness, especially as it was practiced on marginal and at-risk populations, like depressed single women in the 1940s and ’50s. It’s easy to forget at this remove that lobotomy was once a legitimate, even popular treatment for mental illness, and that its inventor won a controversial Nobel Prize in 1949. The procedure, according to the Wiki definition, “consists of cutting or scraping away most of the connections to and from the prefrontal cortex, the anterior part of the frontal lobes of the brain” and was done to an estimated 20,000 people in the United States from the early 1940s to mid-1950s when chemical treatments put an effective end to it.
Janet Sternburg’s memoir White Matter is the story of the two members of her immediate family who were lobotomized or, as she says in the book’s first line “the story of a family who made mistakes.” The two were Sternburg’s mother’s siblings, an uncle and an aunt. In middle age the author goes looking for the answers of how and why her family made the decisions to lobotomize these two people and explores the consequences for the family’s next generation.
The legacy of lobotomy is one that’s close to my heart. I can imagine no greater violation than a procedure that removes the self and leaves the body here, defenseless. And I can only imagine the suffering of the victims’ relatives when they discover that their loved one is there but absent, a ghost of their former self, just out of reach forever. It seems like the kind of thing that could not happen in any kind of civilized society, but it did.
So I had high hopes for this book. I wanted to gain insight into the horrors and venal bureaucracies of how this procedure came about. I wanted to read medical theory about how these operations worked, were believed to work, didn’t work, and understand what current science brings to light on the past. I wanted names and numbers on the perpetrators. And most of all, I wanted some kind of homage paid to the victims. What were their capacities? Who were they as a population? How do we understand them as metaphor? As people we loved?
I didn’t find what I was looking for in Sternburg’s book, which is uninspired as a work of non-fiction and unilluminating as memoir. The medical and historical detail White Matter provides is a broad-strokes overview. It doesn’t seem like Sternburg did original research on either lobotomies in America or on her own family. I wanted documents, medical records, facts. She talks to her one aunt who is still alive and calls the son of the doctor who recommended the procedures (Abraham Myerson, a Boston-area physician of some note who later developed the first antidepressant). But in both cases she seems reluctant to ask hard questions and doesn’t follow up those she does ask. She recreates a fair amount of scenes from family history, but it’s never clear what her sources are, and there’s way too much imagining what might or must have happened. There’s even a scene where she hears an aunt’s voice in her head, explaining something, and dutifully transcribes it.
Worse was the feeling that Sternburg didn’t seem to know what to make of this odd fact of her family. Early on she explains that growing up with her lobotomized relatives “seemed an ordinary part of life,” and that she didn’t recognize until much later how unusual it was. She leaves home, puts the past behind her, and writes that “nothing they told me about the family ever touched me.” This emotional disconnection drains meaning from the story. To her question of How Did This Happen?, her best answer is banal: Her family had two difficult members—the uncle was mentally ill and violent; the aunt extremely depressed—and respect for medical authority, and they succumbed to the tides of their times. It’s a truth, but it doesn’t add much. Sternburg realizes the answer is inadequate and repeats the question “What was wrong with my family? … What was wrong with them?” twice on one page near the end. We don’t know. She doesn’t know. Eh.
It’s also worth noting that we don’t learn an awful lot about Sternburg as an adult, beyond that she finds this story important and puzzling and wants to pursue it. I am certain that she was affected, deeply, by her family’s medical history. In one of the scanty chapters about herself she describes how she left home and became “a girl of my times” who did “a number of wild and interesting things, all of which are sufficiently familiar to readers of sixties memoirs that they do not need to be repeated here.” She’s distancing, not self-revealing, dismissive. She tells us that she once plagiarized a paper in college, but she doesn’t connect the dots between her emotional detachment and that of her callous relatives who allowed not one but two of their loved ones to be irreparably damaged by lobotomy. She manages to write a whole book on this terrible, terrible story and not once show personal pain.
Actually, not everyone in White Matter was callous. The matriarch, Sternburg’s grandmother, whom she admits she didn’t like, was ferociously devoted to her mentally ill son. Despite the disadvantage of her sex and class status, she managed to keep Sternburg’s uncle out of institutions through sheer force of rage, and against determined opposition. She was not included in the decision to lobotomize him, and we don’t know what she felt about it, but after the surgery, she was able to keep him peacefully at home with her until the end of her life. That’s a lobotomy story too, a sad one, but worth hearing.
The mothers of the lobotomized have probably mostly passed away now, as have most of the procedure’s victims, a footnote of medical history whose stories we’ll mostly never know. Ghosts. Dear, innocent ghosts, some of them. They deserve more, then and now.