Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Hidden Person

Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret
by Steve Luxenberg

Imagine finding out as an adult that you had an aunt whom you never knew about - or any hidden family member. Wouldn't that blow your mind? About a year ago, I heard an NPR interview with Steve Luxenberg in which he described such an experience, and his quest to find out about this mysterious woman - his mother's sister, long deceased, who had been kept hidden from him and his siblings.

A few years before his mother's death, one of Luxenberg's sisters overheard her mother (named Beth Cohen Luxenberg) say that she had had a handicapped sister who died as a child. The siblings were all incredulous about this, as being an "only child" had always been a major part of their mom's identity. However, due to their mother's failing health and some fear about rocking the boat, they all chose not to ask her about this vanished sister. It was after his mother's death that Luxenberg began pursuing the truth about what had happened to his aunt. What he discovered was stranger than he had ever imagined.

Beth Cohen and her parents had colluded in keeping not a child, but a grown woman, hidden - for over 30 years. With the detailed, meticulous technique of a journalist (which he is) Luxenberg gradually put together the pieces of the puzzle. Beth's sister Annie had been born in 1919, with a deformed leg and some intellectual impairment (the reports over the years varied, giving Annie's intellectual age as anywhere from 5 years to 12 years). As a young adult, she apparently developed some sort of mental illness. Her leg had to be amputated when she was 17 years old. Some understanding that she was not "normal" and could not look forward to living independently and raising a family of her own caused Annie much depression and grief, which probably contributed to the erratic behavior that led to her institutionalization.

Annie became a patient at Eloise Hospital in Detroit, Michigan at the age of 22. Except for a brief stay in a nursing home at the end of her life, she never lived outside the hospital from that time on. Her mother visited her for the first few years that she was there, but after her mother's death, there was really no one to even acknowledge this person's existence, except for the hospital staff. When Annie died, her chart showed that she had not had a visitor in at least a decade.

In addition to finding information about Annie, Luxenberg also probed the question of WHY? Why would Annie's parents and sister keep her existence a secret, and how did they do it for so long without suffering some kind of mental collapse? Luxenberg investigated the immigrant past of both his maternal grandparents, his mother's social and academic history, and the cultural attitudes towards the mentally and physically disabled at that time, trying to understand what prompted them to take such a drastic step. The family lived in the Detroit area both before and after Annie went to Eloise. In an effort to preserve their secret, they moved to a whole new neighborhood and made a different set of friends, severing ties with people who had known Annie.

Luxenberg's book is interesting - the detective work reminded me of The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, about a journalist's hunt for members of his family who perished in the Holocaust. The analysis and intellectual chances that he takes are an interesting story in themselves. However, even though Luxenberg was able to find out enough about Annie to give us some idea of who she was and what her life was like, the person who remains hidden is his mother, Beth. Since he did not talk with her about this deep secret while she was alive, he inevitably winds up relying on conjecture to try to figure out what she could have been thinking. I never felt like he came to any firm conclusions about what his mother hoped to gain by hiding her sister, or how she suppressed that information for close to 70 years. All of his digressions about immigrants having to be in good health or risk being turned away at Ellis Island, social perceptions of the mentally challenged, cultural stereotypes about mental illness, and many other avenues that he explored still ultimately leave us with a sense of emptiness.

It is difficult to comprehend shoving a person into a warehouse for unwanted humans and forgetting about them. One astounding thing that Luxenberg discovered on his sad quest is that this happened to a lot of people. "Defective" persons were sometimes seen as the result of parental sin or bad genes - some thought it was best to just erase such individuals from their family history. People like Annie paid the price for that kind of thinking, and I believe that as a society we were diminished for treating our most vulnerable people in such a way.

Reverent Reader


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