Book Club Reflection Part II: Annie’s Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg

17 Feb

It was so interesting to have another book club discussion over Annie’s Ghosts. My other book club discussed this two weeks ago and I wrote up my book review about a month ago. Like my other group, there were a mot of personal stories that tied to this book because of the local nature of the book.

We started out the night talking about our own family secrets. I didn’t personally have one to share, but that might be because of my age. Most of the stories that came out were exposed when a grandparent or parent died and I’ve been thankful to only lose one grandparent and neither parent. We felt that most of the secrets seemed to come out at funerals and family reunions. I’ll have to keep my ears open when I go in the future.

What secrets would you keep? We felt that there was still a strong stigma on mental illness, but that there were issues we were more likely to keep. Though some people still see mental illness as some type of ‘moral defect,’ drug therapies have shaped our ability to see them as treatable diseases. Not everyone who is sad can ‘snap out of it’ and might need antidepressants to help them regain their lives. There are other things that some can blame on the individual him or her self that are more likely to be family secrets. My examples were drug addiction and crime. Our other members added incest, domestic violence, rape, and in some circles suicide and homosexuality. It looks like there’s still a lot to hide about our families.

With any family secret, there’s not always a group consensus to pursue the secret. If the secret holder is still alive, most people will let it lie, saying that it’s that person’s ‘story to tell.’ But once that person does, do we want to change our perspective of them by discovering something they purposefully kept hidden about themselves? Our group said that we would want to know, but that there’s a point of frustration and bureaucracy where most of us would give up.

Steve and his brother Mike didn’t agree about pursuing their mother’s secret at first, but Steve was in a good position to push it. When he ran into red tape, he took the time and effort to get around it. Most of us aren’t Washington Post writers who can take months off to dig into the Michigan Mental Health system.

We asked ourselves what Annie’s life would be like in today’s society, with modern abilities to treat her disabilities. We think she would have a job, have gone to school, and would overall have a more engaging life with society. Because she wasn’t a problem in the mental health system, she seemed to be swept under the rug, ignored because she was marked as terminal and didn’t make a fuss. Today, she would likely be put in a group home, made for those who cannot live independently and need a guardian but who are able to hold a job. One of our members was reminded of the play The Boys Next Door, about four men in a group home and how they deal with their own disabilities and the life they were dealt. Funny enough, I was a stage manager for this play in high school, so I’m very familiar with it. If you get the chance, it’s a solid story.

One of the most interesting questions that we discussed was if Annie would have even known she was Jewish. Being a Jewish immigrant was such a strong part of Tillie’s identity and later, Beth’s, but would Annie have known? One of our members was perusing Facebook and saw pictures from Christmas celebrations at Eloise, which suggest that the Christian holidays were practiced. I wonder if Annie had the mental capacity to even question it.

As with any story, we had to talk about the characters, especially Tillie, Steve’s grandmother. We wondered how Beth’s secret affected Tillie. We thought that the stigma of having a daughter who was mentally ill was only compounded by having her housed in Eloise, a stamp of poverty. And then she’d look at her daughter, Beth, who wanted to marry Duke so badly that Tillie kept the secret from her son-in-law so Beth could pretend she was an only child.

We suspect Beth was masking a lot of guilt as well. A few of our members felt that part of her depression that landed her in Botsford Hospital was due to that guilt eating at her for so many years. Much like Annie’s psychotic break that started her spiral downward, Beth’s covering up kept her sister dragged her deeper and deeper down.

So what was Annie’s psychotic break that started her screaming all night and refusing to sleep? The story seems to imply that it was a sexual assault. One of our members contemplated that the uncle who had promised Beth college tuition, Nathan Shlien, was responsible for this. Nathan seemed to disappear around the same time Annie was institutionalized and this member suspected it wasn’t coincidental.

One of my favorite people from this book was Anna Oliwek, the cousin who survived the Holocaust. I was glad to hear some more opinions about her that I felt rang true. Her family values were so strong after losing her own family that she fought with Beth after she denied her own family. Anna seemed to be a very compassionate person toward everyone except Beth, those who shared her values. We thought it was a great story how she wanted to find her ex-husband, even though they’d only been married for one day.

Eloise is well past the prime it once maintained. It’s still on Michigan Avenue, but it’s deterioting and almost creepy looking now. Go look at the Facebook page for some pictures.

I’ll say again how much I enjoyed this book. If you have a chance, pick up a copy. I’ll do another post in May when I hear Steve Luxenberg speak at the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Until next time, write on.

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