Cover_WhiteMatterThe Family


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


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


BENNIE b. 1909


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.

By the time I was born, my uncle, my mother’s brother, had already undergone a prefrontal lobotomy. My aunt, my mother’s sister, was lobotomized more than a decade later. These events, these people I grew up with, seemed an ordinary part of my life. A child says to herself, “This is how they were, this is how they had to be.” Later, an adult questions whether anything has to be.

“In one family? Your uncle and your aunt?”

A friend asked me this some years ago, unable to believe I grew up taking for granted two lobotomized relatives as part of my everyday life. I’d mentioned this casually to her—only a parenthesis in another story—but she was aghast.

“Your mother was one of six siblings?” She did the division: “One third of her family?”

My friend had heard about lobotomies; many in my generation had read Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with its portrayal of lobotomy as a surgical punishment for speaking out against authority. But she’d never heard of anyone with two lobotomized relatives. She looked at me strangely, trying to comprehend how I could have failed to realize that something horrifying had happened in my own family.

When I was no longer a word-crazy child in Boston, no longer a naïve young woman in New York but instead an adult, living in California, secure and happy, only then did the so-called ordinary return as mystery. The years came back to me when my aunt and uncle were driven to our house, my uncle in a corduroy car coat like the ones my father and other uncles wore, my aunt dolled up by her other sisters, her hair Spray-Netted stiff. They were greeted; they sat blankly on the couch—Bennie at one end virtually unmoving, my aunt crumpled into the far corner—while my mother made dinner, my aunt brought over a Bundt cake, my father and uncles played cards, all of them through the years succeeding, or failing, or something in between.

With the sharp return of memories came the realization that even as a child I had a slight awareness, compounded from fear and pity, that something wrong had been done, that it couldn’t be right for people to be this way, expressionless and indifferent to anything around them. But on the surface I saw my mother and aunts as they saw themselves—good, kind people who went out of their way to help others—to drive the widow home, to drop in on the old and lonely childless couple who lived downstairs. Now I asked, “If my relatives had been so good and kind, how could they have done this to their siblings? Especially the second lobotomy, when they’d seen the consequences of the first?” My questions grew, encompassing my family and more: What converges—our selves, our histories, our knowledge, imperfect as it may be—as we come up against the great difficulties that ask us to make decisions?

And how do we live with the decisions we make?

I began with research, getting a kick out of finding movies in which lobotomy makes a surreptitious appearance, perhaps most obviously in Planet of the Apes when Charlton Heston sees a scar on the forehead of his unresponsive friend and wheels around to accuse his ape captors: “You did this to him! You’ve removed his frontal lobes.” Or, less overt, in I Walked with a Zombie when a doctor diagnoses a character’s zombified condition as the result of a fever in her frontal lobes: “I prefer to think of her as a sleepwalker who can never be awakened—feeling nothing, knowing nothing.”

Then I went on a long reading excursion into what I thought of as Famous Relatives of The Lobotomized, among them Allen Ginsberg (his mother) and Tennessee Williams (his sister), their stories transformed into “Kaddish” and The Glass Menagerie. I spent a long period reading up on findings in neurobiology, then made a dip into philosophy to read about the problem of evil. Then I faced it: all this research, while compelling and an intrinsic part of the story, was also a way for me to stay at a safe distance from the implications of what was close to me.

It wasn’t possible to stay at that distance; everything I learned brought my own story near. When I read about what happened before a lobotomy, I saw my aunt’s shaven head. When I found out about what happened during the surgery, it was my uncle Bennie’s brain I pictured, his frontal lobes disconnected.

When I read about people submitting their relatives to lobotomy, I understood. It was my own family I needed to speak with.

But only one was left.

Here is what was done to Bennie: holes were drilled in his skull; the blade of an instrument was inserted through the holes, its handle swung as far and deep as possible.

This description is as brief as I can mercifully make it.

Merciful be damned. I have no reason to spare anyone. I am writing a story that I haven’t faced for many years. I can’t let myself avoid it now, even though I myself have been made so squeamish that I had to put down Eliot Valenstein’s groundbreaking 1986 book on lobotomy, Great and Desperate Cures, when I read “the instrument was withdrawn, [and] pieces of healthy brain tissue came out with it.”

So much for Myerson’s claim that nothing would be removed. Because the surgeons had no way to see inside the skull, their wild cuts permanently damaged the lobes.

I steeled myself and picked up the book again. “Having observed,” Valenstein writes, “that the optimum results were achieved when the lobotomy induced drowsiness and disorientation… the surgeons asked patients to sing a song, or to perform arithmetic, and if they see no signs of disorientation, they cut away more.” It is reliably reported that when Rosemary Kennedy, the sister of President John F. Kennedy, was lobotomized by Walter Freeman she was asked to sing “God Bless America.” Like all the others, 5,000 by 1941, Bennie must have added and subtracted, multiplied and divided, sung “Mary Had a Little Lamb” all the way to oblivion.

Little lamb, little lamb … its fleece was white as snow …

As he had so many times before, Bennie was brought home from the hospital. He looked more or less the same. But he was not as he had been. He didn’t speak. He walked slowly, and once he sat down he barely moved. He didn’t react to anything or anyone around him.

His sisters waited for him to emerge from what seemed like a prolonged unnatural half-sleep, frightened he’d take up his old violent ways. Then—perhaps suddenly, perhaps gradually—they realized that this was the way Bennie was going to be. Minna, who only wanted to think nice thoughts, once said something to me that must have shocked her with its implicit admission of relief at what their brother had become.

She said, “We weren’t scared anymore.”


Bennie after his lobotomy

This is Bennie as I knew him many years later. When I’d visit him with my mother, he’d open the door of the apartment, his eyes dull, unchanging when he saw us standing in the doorway, a little girl and her mother seeking entrance. He’d acknowledge us with a small upturning of lips—not a smile, more of a grimace—then with his eyes averted, he’d lean forward and for an instant graze his stubbly cheek against mine. He reached out his hand and touched me behind my ear. To this day, I can still feel his touch. No one can touch me there. I flinch.

Bennie would silently turn back to the living room, where he sat in his overstuffed armchair, crocheted doilies on the arms to protect it from his sweat. He held a magazine in his lap, turning its pages without looking down. My mother and I would head off in the other direction, down the hallway to the kitchen, where my grandmother held court amid her collection of the ordinary crazy people—the ones who hadn’t been labeled as such but who included her brother, who spent his days in that kitchen wearing an undershirt and suspenders, arguing with the newspaper, punching a finger into its pages to make his point.

Those were years when my mother and aunts flourished, their lives no longer filled with menace. They settled into the rhythm of everyday life, of individual pleasures and family solidarity, of day-to-day problems that could be managed.


AuthorPhoto_JanetSternburgJANET STERNBURG is a writer of memoir, essays, poetry and plays, as well as a fine-art photographer. She lives and works in Los Angeles and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. White Matter: A Memoir of Family and Medicine publishes this month from Hawthorne Books.

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TNB Nonfiction features some of the web's best essays, excerpts of up-and-coming books, self-interviews, profiles, and humor from a wide range of authors. Past and future writers include Emily Rapp, Mira Bartók, Nick Flynn and Melissa Febos, among many others.  Our editorial team includes:  SETH FISCHER is the Nonfiction Editor. His work has appeared in Guernica, Joyland, Best Sex Writing, and elsewhere, and he was the first Sunday editor at The Rumpus. His nonfiction was selected as notable in The Best American Essays, and he has been awarded fellowships by Jentel, the Ucross Foundation, Lambda Literary, and elsewhere. He is also a developmental editor of nonfiction and fiction, and he teaches at Antioch University Los Angeles, UCLA-Extension, and Writing Workshops Los Angeles.

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