This book started a conversation between my mother and I that we may never have had otherwise.
We’re hoping it can help you start conversations with your own family.
This week, I started asking my mother some questions after we’d both finished reading Annie’s Ghosts and she started describing a world I could hardly imagine. Plus, I never knew I had a second Great Aunt named Eunice…
Before I knew it, I was interviewing her…
…just as Steve Luxenberg began employing similar journalistic tactics after his mother passed away, seeking the truth about his Aunt Annie, an Aunt he never knew he had.
Annie’s Ghosts is this year’s selection for our annual Ferndale Reads program -where we encourage the shared experience of reading one book, together, as a community- and follow up with a season-long schedule of events tied to the themes of that book. This year, Mr. Luxenberg’s book was also chosen for the Great Michigan Read (which is basically the Ferndale Reads format on a state-wide level). Mr. Luxenberg, as associate editor for the Washington Post, will be speaking at the Rust Belt Market in Ferndale on May 22nd as a closing ceremony for 2014’s Ferndale Reads (more info here).
“If you’re reading the book, you’ll see how the laws were very different back then,” my mother told me.
My mother has been a registered nurse for more than 40 years.
In 1968, she completed an 8-week nursing rotation in the State Psychiatric Hospital in Ypsilanti. “The Patient Protection Act” back then in Michigan was, to some working in the private sector and certain medical professionals, otherwise known as “The Hospital Protection Act.” As is detailed in Annie’s Ghostsi, next of kin/siblings/parents actually needed a court-order to obtain documents pertaining to admitted family members inside mental facilities.
SPOILER ALERT: You should only read further if (or after) you’ve completed Annie’s Ghosts
Annie’s Ghosts is “part memoir, part detective story” and “party history,” as Luxenberg researches the complex and often closemouthed history of the nation’s “asylums.” Annie was 21 when she was admitted to an institution, just four years after having her leg amputated having been born with a congenital deformity; she’d attended special schools, considered “retarded,” and, after becoming “withdrawn, seclusive, dependent” was “hospitalized” and finally diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia.
This was the sister Beth Luxenberg never told anyone about, not even her own children.
My mom, during her nursing rotation, learned to treat patients with similar “ghosts.”
“People didn’t quite know how to treat or take care of these patients back then, so it was easier for someone to petition the court and get people committed, it was like the accepted practice. You see, 1968, at that time, they were just starting to develop more sophisticated psychiatric hospitals.”
I ask my mom about the patients she saw; Annie, as Luxenberg finds out, went years without receiving any visitors. My mom describes the patients she treated as “custodial” and “long-term… nobody talked to them or they would rarely receive visitors.”
I respond that that almost seems like these people were being locked away in a closet. Like, something out of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest…
“That’s how it was…” my mom comes back. “I mean, Cuckoo’s Nest was certainly more dramatized, but…those people were real. I saw them. People weren’t as accepting of people who had those issues, back then. And, there weren’t as many drugs…”
In hindsight, I say, now compared to then, it makes those treatments seem callous.
“I don’t know if callous is the word I’d use,” my mom replies. “That was…the support that families got if they had someone who was mentally ill. There wasn’t the advances in medicine we’ve seen today or in the last few decades, where we’ve figured out better ways to treat people and with better drugs. Back then, that was the accepted standard. A large number of people didn’t understand.”
Annie is finally diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia. I ask my mother about how she responded to the story of this secret, hidden-away sister, who was finally transferred to a nursing home in Detroit before her death in the early 1970’s.
“Schizophrenia was almost a catchall phrase back then. There were people in there, that I saw, who were not psychotic. But, there weren’t the drugs, yet, for treating schizophrenia. So it was a combination of things and of course there was the stigma of having someone who was… ‘not right’ or not normal, in your family.”
It was that stigma, as well as a certain shame, that turned Annie into a living secret for the Luxenberg family. As Luxenberg writes: “when it comes to secrets, there are no easy answers, and shame is only where the story begins, not ends.” (Read more from Steve Luxenberg’s main site).
I ask my mom about this accepted perception…that there wasn’t a cure…this resignation, or this hopelessness…And I ask about what resonated most, for her, from reading Annie’s Ghosts…
“I think because of my personal experience, as a nurse, I could understand where the family was coming. You have to understand that back in the 1940’s, people couldn’t get the help needed to deal with a person like that inside their homes. It would disrupt their lives and when they’d go to the doctors the doctors would say: this is what we need to do… So it was: ‘because the doctor said so…’ atop the embarrassment, too, because people just didn’t talk about that stuff back then. And, for someone who had a sister or if it was your aunt… was it genetic? People didn’t know because genetics wasn’t a thing people understood as well as they do today, either.”
It seems cruel, I respond.
“It was the professional advice, then, from the medical professionals.”
So this is a story of evolving trends in familial interaction as well as the evolution of medicine….
“I think that’s the story he was trying to tell. But there were many people…you might not remember that Grandma had a sister named Eunice.”
I never KNEW Grandma had a sister named Eunice.
“She was in an institutional setting down in Florida for many many years. Dad doesn’t know much because Grandma never really talked about it. She didn’t disavow having a sister, as in the book, but, she didn’t bring it up.”
Any secrets from YOUR side of the family, then?
“Not that I know of…” she says, following with a soft chuckle. My mother closes by commending Luxenberg’s perseverance in pursuing this story. The fact that it took him several years after his mother died to finally track down all these people…”He was pretty determined and…that’s part of the story, too.”
It’s just one family’s story…
There’s so much more to Annie’s Ghosts – the experience of lower class families in the 1930’s after The Great Depression, surviving the Holocaust and the captivating (sometimes disconcerting) history of mental health care institutions.