Monday, February 06, 2012

Book 8: Annie's Ghosts

For some reason, I have been spending more and more time in the biography and history sections of bookstores lately. While walking through Barnes and Noble Saturday night, this book caught my eye, and I can't say why. It wasn't shelved in a way to draw attention, I'd never heard of the title or the author, but after checking it out on my Amazon app, I ended up buying it. Its topic and set up reminded me of two very different books I read last year - The Lost which chronicles one man's search to discover what had happened to part of his family that had been in East Europe during the Holocaust (the family all knew they had died, but not how), and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks which has a few scenes were the youngest daughter tries to track down information about an older sister that was placed in an asylum.
Steve and his siblings have always believed that their mother is an only child. When she is sick in the mid 90s, a caseworker asks about a younger sister that their mom mentions as part of her case history that had been institutionalized, but given the context, it sounded like this had happened when their mother Beth was around four. They never asked, and it wasn't until after their mother's death that the topic comes back up when one of the brothers gets a yearly notification about flowers for three graves (Beth's parents' and her sister's plots). However, this soon leads to the discovery that the sister died in 1972 at the age of 53, much later than they thought, and that she had been institutionalized at the age of 19, not 2. This gives Steve a whole different perspective on this mysterious sister - this wasn't a little girl that his mother vaguely knew about, this would have been someone that his mother grew up with and then kept hidden for most of her adult life.
The book chronicles Luxenberg's journey to explore what had happened, why his mother had kept this secret, and to find out who his aunt Annie was. Since many of the people that would have any knowledge are dead by this point, the author must rely on court records and medical documents to build a picture of Annie, though many of these records are out of his reach, or destroyed due to their age. He also discovers family members he never knew existed, and it puts many of his mother's comments and stories in a new perspective.
Luxenberg never does find all the answers: the records show when Annie lived but he has hard time figuring out much about what her life was like beyond generics from talking to psychiatric specilialists, and workers at the institute where she spent most of her life. Additionally, he can make guesses and assumptions of what drove his mother but will never have clear answers. Given some of the people he interacts with, he realizes that the shame she felt for her sister portrays her negatively but he doesn't shy away from telling this story to the world, or trying to reconcile his idea of a caring mother with the woman that left her sister behind. His research also leads him into the history of mental disorders in this country, and most of the experts assure him that based on what the case files say of Annie, her case would have been treated very differently today than it was then due to available medication, treatment and attitudes about free will and institutionalization. That isn't to say that everything is better now than it was - the comment is made repeatedly that "some portion of the homeless today are the mentally ill of yesterday" (315).
Overall, I quite liked the journey and the way Luxenberg portrayed exactly what routes he had available to him to discover information. One of his newly discovered cousins lost her family in the Holocaust, and as result, her take on Beth's actions are understandably harsh. After all, this woman had lost her family only to confront a cousin that hides her family. I compared it to The Lost earlier since both chroncile the author's search into family histories with very little to go on due to a lack of paper trail, and a lack of surviving witnesses. I would say, though, that this is more tightly written and focused than the other narrative. I admit, though, that some of the parts about Luxenberg's father's service in the military struck me in the wrong way though it shows more honesty on the author's part. He doesn't try to turn his father into a war hero, and while he tries to find a motive for his mother's actions, he doesn't try to justify them. I'm not sure what kind of audience this book was written for (genealogist? People interested in the history of mental illness in the US?), but I definitely enjoyed it.

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