August 1, 2002
Out on a Limb
Janet Sternburg accomplishes in a phrase what usually takes pages, even books, to describe. She uses the image of the phantom limb -- the phenomenon whereby someone who has lost a limb continues to experience pain even when the limb is no longer attached -- as a metaphor for the memory of pain and loss. A neurologist, an authority on phantom limb, explains the phenomenon to her: it's "the body's unwillingness to relinquish its past."
At a time when many people are writing and publishing memoirs, Sternburg's "Phantom Limb" is uncommon. The book is a meditation on memory. The author experiences difficulties and writes about them, but she does so without a sense of victimhood or self-pity. Instead, she tells a tender story of the expansiveness of love.
Although she had long before left the Boston area where she grew up, she returns frequently to care for her aging parents, and she describes their final years. "My mother resembles a Russian dancer, one of the old ones who become teachers and stand in class beside a piano, beating time," she writes.
Her mother's declining health results in the amputation of part of her leg, and she experiences phantom limb in an ongoing way. The daughter is someone who copes with life's difficulties by researching them; thus, she reads a great deal in neurology and cognitive studies.
Sternburg writes in spare prose, filling brief chapters with descriptions of people, scenes in her parents' home, their deaths, meetings with doctors, memories of growing up and especially of her eccentric aunts, her struggles with tough decisions and even touches of humor about the artificial legs her mother keeps at home.
A cousin tells her in confidence that whenever she leaves her own ailing parents, she gets into her car, rolls up the windows and screams. "All over America," Sternburg writes, "adults are screaming. I hear them in small towns in Maine, in front of doorman buildings on Park Avenue.... I hear America screaming, its grown children trying not to be heard."
In an interview, Sternburg explains that while visiting her folks, she would often need to escape from their home. She'd go to a nearby coffee shop with her notebook and vent. Although aware that she had some good material, she didn't think of it as a book until some years later when the image of a phantom limb -- "someone or something no longer with us that nonetheless stays a part of us" -- came to her.
There were other phantom limbs in her life, too, she realized. Tragically, two of her mother's siblings were given lobotomies. "It was barbaric," she recalls, "but in the climate they were living in, it was almost a trend."
She writes openly about what their operations entailed and what their lives were like. "They were left with phantom limbs of brains, phantom limbs of their selves." She adds, "The world is full of multiple dangers, losses, memories and, most important, complexity. That's what I found."
Sternburg poses the question whether remembering is worthwhile, even if it brings pain. Her approach is affirmative. In fact, the sensation of phantom limb can be helpful, a source of strength, even "essential for walking," she says. "When a prosthesis is strapped on, the phantom shoots out and 'fills' it. The brain then begins to accept the artificial leg as though it were a part of the body, able to be used for walking."
As a caretaker, Sternburg, an only child, moves from resistance to profound love; her memoir honors the challenges of being a caretaker. This book went through numerous drafts. Even as writers revise their work on the page, she says, "a lot of the revisions are off the page, within oneself."
However, she doesn't speak of writing in terms of healing. In fact, she still feels a stab-like wound when she thinks of certain regrettable but inevitable decisions she made about her mother's care.
Sternburg, who resides in both Los Angeles and Manhattan's Upper West Side, is a poet and essayist whose career in the arts has been varied. Now on the faculty of the California Institute for the Arts, she has taught at the New School and produced and directed award-winning films for public television. She served as a program officer for the Rockefeller Foundation and director of the Writer in Performance Series at the Manhattan Theater Club.
The author is also an accomplished photographer, whose work is currently featured in the art magazines, Aperture and Art Journal. She turned to photography in 1988, while working on this memoir.
The jacket of "Phantom Limb" shows a detail of one of her photographs, with an air of mystery and a sense of phantom light, fusing borders between inside and out, past and present.
Sternburg's next book signing is Aug. 7, 7:30 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, 1201 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica, (310) 260-0158.