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Manoa 15.2 (2003) 208-209
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Phantom Limb by Janet Sternburg. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. 148 pages, cloth $20.
In contrast to the exposés of personal trauma that flood bookstores, Janet Sternburg's slim memoir, Phantom Limb, is a subtle, thought-filled meditation on loss. She recounts the slow decline and deaths of her parents with a poet's eye for detail and a scholar's curiosity about causes and effects. While she never goes for tell-all flash, this is by no means a shy or prude narrative. Witness its title and metaphorical [End Page 208] center: the somewhat macabre neurological phenomenon of phantom limb, wherein—for better or worse—amputees are still able to feel the part of themselves that is no longer there.
When her mother loses her leg, Sternburg writes, "I am afraid to look." A gruff nurse tells her to rub the stump. "Not too nicely," the nurse says. "Slap it until it becomes calloused, like an elbow." This rough treatment is meant to stimulate a benign phantom limb, which will "fill in" her mother's prosthesis and so help her walk again. Unfortunately, her mother develops a different sort of phantom limb and experiences unbearable, untreatable pain in her lost leg.
"I undertake research as a way to cope," Sternburg writes, and the reader too benefits from her curiosity and intelligence. The book becomes populated not only by Sternburg's family, but also by patients from neurological history, such as "Madame I," who in 1905 was admitted to Salpêtrière Hospital because she no longer had any sensation of having a body.
While this research informs, it cannot answer the questions of why good people suffer or how to be compassionate or find forgiveness. As often as not, Sternburg's paragraphs end in question marks. This memoir offers no false answers or platitudes; rather, it pulls back the sheet, sometimes hesitantly, and it looks. By "re-membering" her mother's "dis-membering," Sternburg takes a good, long look at the scars of her childhood, the hurts and misunderstandings. She rubs the scars, and so invites her ghosts to fill the spaces left by loss.
Sternburg's prose is powered by imagistic accuracy and psychological immediacy—two horses that lesser writers let run wild. She holds their reins in a firm hand, and gently guides this book with intelligence and humility. The jacket copy bills this as a book for older adults who have become caretakers of their parents, but that's too limiting. It is that and much more. This is a book for anyone not afraid to look.
Liana Holmberg has had her work published in Hawai'i Review and Honolulu Weekly. She has received an Academy of American Poets prize and several awards for her fiction. Based in Honolulu, she is an editor at the University of Hawai'i Press.