The Magazine

Who Was She?

In search of the aunt who was locked away forever.

Aug 17, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 45 • By DIANE SCHARPER
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Annie's Ghosts

by Steve Luxenberg

Hyperion, 401 pp., $24.95

In the 1950s public psychiatric hospitals housed nearly half-a-million patients. By 1980 the number had dropped by 80 percent. Several things had happened: The 1963 Mental Health Act endorsed alternate settings for treating the mentally ill. Activists challenged the process whereby patients could be permanently committed to mental hospitals; others questioned the benefits of asylums and the very concept of mental illness.

Annie Cohen, however, was one of many who did not benefit from new thinking about psychiatric illness. She had been committed to a Michigan hospital in 1940, and after 32 years of involuntary confinement, died unloved and abandoned. No one--neither her parents nor her older sister Beth--had pressed for her release.

In Annie's Ghosts Steve Luxenberg, a Washington Post editor, pieces together medical, social, cultural, and family history as he wrestles with the tragedy of Annie's life. Ultimately, Luxenberg, Annie's nephew and Beth's son, believes that she and her family were innocent victims of a flawed system, as were thousands of other patients unlucky enough to be committed to an asylum before the advent of modern psychiatric treatment.

Annie Cohen was born in 1919 in Detroit. She had a deformed leg and displaced hip, leaving her unable to walk without crutches. Painfully shy, she was shunned by her schoolmates and even by her sister, two years her senior. Although she was able to read, write, and reason, Annie was slow to learn and was sent to a school for the retarded. Just shy of her 21st birthday she suffered a mental breakdown and was committed to a catch-all institution in Detroit called Eloise.

Like many similar places at that time, Eloise was an asylum where the homeless, mentally ill, and retarded were sent and often forgotten. Although Annie begged her mother to secure her release, she was permanently detained. She was not allowed to testify in court on her own behalf, even though it appears she would have been able to do so.

Making matters worse, Beth lied about Annie's existence. She did pay for Annie's burial in a private Hebrew cemetery and, at one point, had mentioned her sister to a social worker. But no one in the family knew anything definitive about Annie until after Beth died, when a bill for cemetery maintenance exposed the secret that Beth had harbored for 57 years.

When Steven Luxenberg received the bill, he was shocked to discover that his mother had hid her sister's existence from the time of her 1942 marriage until her death in 1999, age 82. How could she do this? Luxenberg attempts to recreate the world that his mother, grandparents, and Annie inhabited as Eastern European Jews living in Detroit in the early 20th century. He also wants to make sense of Beth's actions, since they contradict his memory of her as a devoted mother and caring woman. He reads letters, talks to family members, friends, and neighbors; he interviews physicians, professors, historians, and hospital bureaucrats; he researches health records, hospital histories, scholarly tomes, and newspaper articles. His efforts take him to Detroit, Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Eastern Europe, and the Philippines. And he comes up against mountains of red tape, which require a journalist's persistence, skill, and patience to surmount.

Ultimately, he learns a lot about his family's life during the pogroms in Eastern Europe and the Nazi era. He learns that Annie was scarcely the only person to be institutionalized and abandoned in a Kafkaesque mental health system. But Luxenberg never learns why his grandparents and mother abandoned his aunt--which makes Annie's Ghosts a disappointment, informative and well-written as it is. Although Luxenberg never gets to the bottom of his family secret, he's able to surmise what probably happened. Annie's parents were poor immigrants who barely spoke English and did not know how to cope with a disabled and troubled daughter.
Beth, wanting to escape the stranglehold of poverty and ignorance, was afraid she would be labeled a carrier of defective genes.

So no one mentioned Annie and, gradually, she became a secret, one that Beth hid from friends, children, and (probably) her husband. Luxenberg pulls what he knows of his family's secret out of the closet and examines it in exacting detail. But this is not a memoir so much as a chronicle of a journalist gathering facts. And those facts tell their own haunting story, not about "ghosts" but a girl named Annie, who was absent from her own life.

Diane Scharper, who teaches at Towson University, is the coeditor of Reading Lips and Other Ways to Overcome a Disability.