AuthorPhoto_JanetSternburg

Were you concerned that people would be put off by the story you were telling? It’s difficult material, your family with its two lobotomies.

I was worried all the time. I knew that life had given me an incredible story to tell—six siblings, two lobotomies: one third of my mother’s family.

 

Incredible, yes. But who would want to read that?

I’d tell people what I was writing and watch as they turned green when they heard the word lobotomy. But it turned out that there was a story behind the story. People have since come forward to tell me they too come from families with mental illness. Allen Ginsberg, whose mother was lobotomized, wrote: “It would seem odd to others…that is to say, familiar—everybody has crazy cousins and aunts and brothers.’ What I first thought was strange turned out to be a universal story.

Cover_WhiteMatterThe Family

IDA SMALL

(b. unknown, Byelorussia; Smalnitsky changed to Small at Ellis Island)

marries

PHILIP GOLDSTEIN (b. unknown, Poland)

Their children (b. Boston), in order of birth starting from eldest

MINNA b. 1904

marries SAM Son DAN b. 1930

JEN b. 1905

Unmarried

BENNIE b. 1909

Unmarried

HELEN b. 1911

marries Lou Daughter JANET b. 1943

PAULINE b. 1914

marries GEORGE Son PHIL b. 1939

FRANCIE b. 1920

marries HARRY

This is the story of a family who made mistakes. Who made choices based on imperfect knowledge—of the world, and of themselves—and had to live with their consequences, as did I, the next generation of that family.

The words “prefrontal lobotomy” were spoken often, common currency growing up in my family. Sometimes I’d hear the term shortened to “frontal” lobotomy. I had no idea what premeant, but it seemed to confer authority, as though the speaker knew what he was talking about. This childhood recognition of distinctions made me—a Jewish, lower-middle-class child—a true citizen of Boston, a city that prided itself on being correct. I really should not have heard any of those words.