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Book Club Reflection: Annie’s Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg

4 Feb
Cover Image via

Cover Image via

As promised, here is the second of four posts I will do about the book Annie’s Ghosts before May. You can read my previous book review here. My first book club met last Monday to discuss the book. Annie’s Ghosts was chosen as the Michigan Read book for the year and as such we’ve gotten a lot of outside involvement. Our discussion was led by a representative from Jewish Family Services. She is a social worker who works with Rozanne Sedler, the woman who first told Steve that his mother had mentioned having a sister.

As always, I feel the best place to start is with some character analysis. Our #1 pick for this was Tillie Cohen, Annie’s father and Steve’s grandmother. Though she was the one to put Annie into the state’s hands for psychiatric care, she seemed to always regret her decision. We felt her motivations were numerous and tried to discuss them in turn. We thought she seemed overwhelmed and scared and that a large part of her fear was Annie’s interest in men. One of our members had a personal friend with a mentally handicapped man. The family was terrified when he became interested in women because they were afraid of any pregnancy resulting from that romance. If someone with reduced mental capacities has a child and they don’t have the ability to care for the child, it falls to the handicapped person’s parents to care for the child. Now, that generation has the two below it to take care of; the mentally handicapped and the young child. This fear seems justified to Tillie, who was struggling enough with Annie.

Another argument for Tillie’s actions were that she didn’t know any better. She wasn’t aware of any other option available to her. Truthfully, I think she would have chosen institutionalization in the end any way. Tillie had labeled herself as a poor Jewish immigrant and immigrants came to American in search of the American Dream. No part of that dream dictates what to do with a mentally ill daughter who stays up half the night screaming. Tillie may have felt at the end of her rope. In her head, her children were supposed to do better than her in America, the land of opportunity. Instead, they had escaped disaster in the Ukraine only to find a second disaster in America. She had nowhere else to run to escape. If they hadn’t been poor, would there have been better options for Annie? Probably. Unfortunately, that’s not the way the cookie crumbles and their financial burden made Annie even more of a burden.

Tillie seemed to carry a great shame for Annie. A report at Annie’s admittance says “patient’s mother felt somewhat guilty about the patient’s illness and related that the sins of the parents are paid for through their children” (page 18, emphasis mine). We wondered if she was referring to the fact that some mental disorders are traced to genetics and that Tillie felt Annie’s condition was partially her fault, due to corrupted genes.

The other major character we discussed was Beth, Annie’s sister, Steve’s mother, and arguably the main character of the book. Annie repeatedly told people that she was an only child. We asked if her saying this so frequently was strange and in the end, decided that it was not. Our conversation leader said that she herself is an only child and that it’s something she tells people frequently. If someone’s not told you’re an only child, they assume you have siblings, that you’re part of a ‘sibship’ of sorts. Saying one is an only child is necessary to escape that assumption and not out of the ordinary.

What was extraordinary was the way Beth kept her secret. She seemed to have a great deal of shame, like Tillie, that she was related to Annie. In much of the same way, she saw Annie as an impediment to her and her family doing ‘better’ in America than they had in the Ukraine. We all felt that there is a desire for the first generation born in a new country to be ‘better’ and escape from being associated with the ‘old country.’ I remember a time when I was working at an ice cream shop and a family (I think from Korea) came in to order. The mother and father didn’t speak a word of English and had to have their six-year-old interpret for them so I could make their order. I remember the child looking embarrassed, as if she was sorry that her parents couldn’t order by themselves.

This was something I saw in the book Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides as well. Milton, the protagonist’s father, was a first generation immigrant from Greece and he never wanted to learn to write in Greek and always encouraged his parents to learn English so they wouldn’t be held back in America. My group though that Beth felt held back not just by her immigrant parents but her impaired sister as well. Her shame was twofold.

Eloise, the institution where Annie stayed, is now closed. Without the large state-run institutions, many of the people who would benefit from that care are living on the streets. The book mentioned that Elise would take in about 3,000 homeless men and women during the cold Michigan winter. Without that option, those people are left exposed to the elements. This seems especially hard to imagine on cold nights like the ones we’ve been having with temperatures reaching below zero.

This discussion reminded me of something I learned when I was studying abroad in England. We visited Southwell Work House, a building constructed in the 1800s for the poor and destitute to live as a place of last resort. It was a great shame to live in the work house and the life was nothing near desirable. Men and women were separated from their children and forced to work at jobs with little to no purpose. They would pain rooms that didn’t need painting, clean windows that were already clean, etc. The work house kept them busy, fed them, and gave them a ceiling over their heads. It was not a place anyone wanted to live. Nevertheless, it provided the country with a way to protect its citizens who couldn’t hold a job, something America arguably now struggles with.

We talked about the reasons that Eloise and similar institutions were closed. The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, was passed in the late 1970s and argued that people with disabilities do better in a community setting as a way to rehabilitate and treat them. This helped spike the popularity of group homes which are still common today. ADA did not take away funding for mental health, but it did seem to redirect it. The funding was reduced in 1991 and has landed the country in its current situation.

When Annie was at Eloise, there were very few ways to treat someone with schizophrenia, as she was diagnosed. Before treatments with lithium were possible, there was very little that could be done for a patient and in that way, they couldn’t improve and escape from the mental health system. There were much like inmates in jail and this is what they were called.

Annie started showing signs of mental illness during a time when those symptoms normally appear, ages 18-25. What we’re still unsure of is if there was a trigger to these events. The facts implied that she’d been the victim of a sort of sexual assault, but because there was no witness, there’s no way to know for sure. One thing that is for sure is that Annie seemed to suffer from a psychotic break that kick-started the worst symptoms of her condition, the yelling and insomnia mentioned in the book. The social worker leading our group told us that once a patient suffers from a psychotic break, they tend to have one more easily and in this way spiral downward into their disease. With no treatment to bring her out, Annie had no means from which to escape.

One of our members had a very similar story to the one Luxenberg wrote about. Her relative was a Lapeer State Home and she saw her relative often. At the young age when she knew the relative, she did not realize that this person was handicapped. It wasn’t until much later in life, after the relatives death, that she was told the relative had been mentally handicapped.

Another of our members shared this book with a friend who had family at Eloise. She wrote up a statement I was provided a copy of to share in this blog. The second part of it I found particularly moving and I’ll share it here. “A first cousin of mine… had his wife hospitalized at Eloise, while she was pregnant with their first child. She had the misfortune to give birth there, and was sterilized during the process. This was approximately in 1940.” This is particularly interesting because it doesn’t appear in any of the Eloise records that sterilization was practiced (Luxenberg, 275).

Late last year, there was a story in the news about a senator whose mentally ill son attacked him before committing suicide. Virginia senator R. Creigh Deeds has a long scar down his face from where his son attacked him with a knife on that night. The attack came less than a day after Deeds had taken his son to a hospital for treatment and he was released hours later. Virginia law did not allow the hospital to hold the son against his will because he was 24.

I left this discussion with a newfound awareness of mental illness and the way it has been ignored by the government for so long. I’m looking forward to the next discussion of this book, which I think might focus more on characters.

Until next time, write on.