Thursday, July 30, 2009
Book Review: Annie's Ghost
By Steve Luxenberg
Published May 2009
Washington Post associate editor Steve Luxenberg is a master of investigative journalism. The editor of two Pulitzer prize winning series, Luxenberg has now written his most compelling story. His exploration of his late mother's secret.
Beth Luxenberg always claimed to be an only child, but a chance mention led to the discovery that she had been hiding the existence of a sister, Annie. The girls had grown up together, living in a series of cramped apartments until Annie's commitment to a mental instituion at the age of twenty-one. Why was Annie committed? How had Beth so thoroughly erased her sister's existence? Why had she wanted to?
Annie's Ghosts is the engrossing eye opening story of Luxenberg's search for the personal motives and cultural forces that influenced his mother's decision to create and harbor her secret. The deeper he digs. the more he finds himself in unfamiliar territory, struggling to balance his dual roles, the tenacious journalist and empathetic son.
The research and investigative work that Mr. Luxenberg did was well documented. You could tell that he was a investigative journalist by his writing style. I thought he did a good job in the research that was done.
He documented the family, friends, relatatives, neighbors that knew his family. He documented the history of psychiatry. in the hospital and in Europe. How the mentally ill were treated with psychotropic meds, insulin, shock treatment. The after effects of Haldol which can cause tardavdiskensia.
The history of mental hospitals, psychiatry, the treatment of patients, the overcrowding. The government's role in mental illness and hospitals. The governments funding in the US. Social culture in the US during the 40's. He summized what life was like for the family under normal conditions. What life was like to have a child with a physical disability and mental illness. How this effected the whole family. His family, his grandparents, his mother.
The research and investigative work was well researched. He did the work objectively. Which was a hard thing to do. Since this was a personal matter, his mother, Beth and Aunt Annie. How do you do investigative work objectively.
The story of the secret his mother, Beth kept from the family till she died. The family lived in Detroit, Michigan during the 30's and 40's. Beth's sister was severely handicapped with mental illness. She was sent away from the home in her early twenties.
Steve's grandmother, Tillie felt that the sins of the parents are passed on to the children. Because Tilly his grandmother and Zeyde married as cousins. In the old country in Europe in the Jewish faith you can marry a cousin to keep everything in the family.
Steve's investigative work also brought us to Europe. In Russia, with the Pograms, the holocaust, mass murders. How families in Europe felt about mental illness and physically handicapped family members. They felt it was right to keep secrets.
During the 40's families felt it was a disgrace to have a family member with a mental illness and a physical handicap. It left you with a stigma and the family felt disgraced in the 1940's. If you expected to marry you did not let anyone know you kept it in the family.
The account of the family takes place, while he's mother is still alive. While she is being hospitalized she tells the social worker the secret. He wonders, why did she wait to tell the secret then. Why not before. What a shock this had to be for him and his family. The brothers and sisters all thought she was a only child.
During the investigation of the early accounts when Annie's is committed to Eloise(the name of the mental institution). He questions her IQ, her mental state, her emotional state. Was she severely mentally ill or was this just a place to put her. Was she schizophrenic? or was this what they labeled everyone.
In the 40's Schizophrenia was a catch-all. Not like today when they distinguish the different mental illnesses. The documents that he finds challanges the reason she was put in Eloise in the first place. He finds documents that states she can care for herself. And can function very well.
At the end of Annie's life she died in 1972. She died alone in her early 50's. She died before the government opened the doors for good. She was buried with a Jewish burial by his mother. She wrote Annie's orbituary that was fabricated. The author questions why did his mother finally recognize her in death but not while she was alive.
Was this a cartharsis for the author? Did he write this to help others that had family secrets? Did he want to understand why the secret was kept? While I was reading the book I wanted to know answers. But there weren't any because Steve' did not know the answers because he's mother kept him in the dark. There weren't any leaads to the questions because his mother and her generation passed away. There were some relatives, neighbors and friends that were still alive. But their memories were fading.
I have mixed feeling about Annie's Ghosts. What I am wondering where are the motivations for each action. Where are the feelings to their actions. How and why did this happen. It is hard for me to relate because there isn't any emotions sprinkled on the pages of the book, only the authors. You can see he took great care to preserve his mother's memory. To protect his mother, and his brothers, and sisters.
I wanted to know the mother and sister's and parents side. How was Annie raised by her parents?? how did Beth actually feel about her? Did she ever feel anything for Annie? Did her parents keep the secret from everyone as well?? The holes were never filled. How it affected them. All the questions he had were never answered, WHY??!!
That is probably why I did not understand why this book was written. With so many unanswered questions. I could not relate to most of the book.
There is a saying you don't judge someone because we have not walked in their shoes. But still I was angry with Bertha. To not have any compassion and not care what happens to her sister. To not care about her welfare and well being really makes her out as a heartless human being.
We will never know if she did or didn't because his mother never told him about his Aunt. She is no longer hear to defend herself.
Annie's Ghost has a good history lesson of the mentally ill, and psyciatry, and what society thought of the mentally ill. If you have no idea what psyciatry was like during that time.
I did enjoy reading this book. The book was well documented, and lot of work, sweat and caring, and investigative work was involved. The book was very compelling. It could help someone that is trying to research family and what happens to a family when there are secrets. I am still glad that I picked up this book and read it.
I am for the first time putting a Jewish book on this blog, as well as books, bagels and schmooze. Because I think this belongs with both blogs. Thank you, Jill, FSB for allowing me to review.