Tag Archives: Family Secret

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.


Book Review: Annie’s Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg (4/5)

16 Jan

This will be the first of many posts I add about Annie’s Ghosts. This book was chosen for the Michigan Reads program this year so two of my book clubs are reading it and then I’m going to hear the author speak in May. Maybe I can convince you to read it!

This is my Michigan book for the Where Are You Reading? Challenge.

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Annie’s Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg

During his mother’s final years, Steve heard from a doctor’s assistant that his mother had said she had a sister. Steve and his siblings were confused because their mother had always made a point to say she was an only child. The family pushed the comment to the back of their minds until after their mother’s death. Then, a letter asking for the maintenance payment on his grandparents graves came and to his surprise there were three graves; his grandparents and his aunt, Annie.

No one in the family knew about Annie, his mother’s sister and Steve’s journalistic tendencies kicked in and he began investigating. Annie had been institutionalized in the 1940s at Eloise, a mental hospital in the Detroit, MI area. She had lived well into Steve’s childhood and he’d never heard mention of her. Through long-lost cousins and old neighbors, Steve starts to piece together his mother’s secret. It’s a trail of old documents, travels to California and back, and even darker secrets into his family that Steve weaves into a wonderful book filled with the real life mysteries of family secrets.

When I read the summary of this book, I thought it was going to bore me to death. About fifty pages in, I started to be intrigued. By halfway, I was completely captured. Luxenberg has a very conversational and natural style of writing which made me forget all the facts and history he was throwing at my face. Luxenberg wrote the book to follow the order in which he discovered the information so the mystery unravels naturally and the reader feels like he is taking the journey with Luxenberg.

There are a few times where Luxenberg runs into legal snags which stop him from getting the data he wants to see. He has to find legal documentation that he is the heir to his mother’s estate, who is the heir to her sister’s estate. Luxenberg is put out that it is so difficult for relatives to find information on their ancestors when they want to. There is a secretary who, early on in the book, comments that she gets several calls a month from people looking for information on long-dead relatives and that she’s seldom able to help them. I was just at a book club meeting where one of the participants said her grandmother died at Eloise but she had no information on her because it was impossible to get access to it. This makes me sad because if the documents exist and the person is a relative, who is being protected by barring the documents? The book implies that it’s to protect doctors but the doctors are probably gone as well. I agree with Luxenberg that it shouldn’t be so difficult for loved ones to get information on their relatives after they pass away.

Luxenberg kept trying to figure out why his mother had lied so frequently about having a sister. By the end of the book, he had concluded that his father had no idea he even had a sister-in-law. Friends of Luxenberg’s mother, Beth, were under the impression that she didn’t want anyone new in her life told about her sister. She thought that she was too old to marry after being a bridesmaid in all of her friends weddings at the beginning of World War II. Beth suspected that having a handicapped sister would further hurt her chances because the men would fear the problem was genetic. After marrying Duke (Luxenberg’s father), Beth might have been ready to reveal her secret, but when Duke himself was institutionalized, Luxenberg things his mother sealed her lips forever, not wanting her husband to doubt their genes. Talk about unfortunate circumstances!

I read another book last year about delving into a family secret, A Secret Gift by Ted Gup, which I did not enjoy as much. I think what intrigued me more about Luxenberg’s book is that he treated his fact-finding like a mystery that the reader was investigating with him instead of retelling a story. I do like that both of these books are based on family histories and the fact-finding of the current generations. It’s cool to hear ‘real’ history about ‘real’ people in the early 1900s (or at least I think it is).

I had to do a family history project when I was in high school about where my grandparents were during World War II. If you’ve never done anything like this, I encourage you to at least ask your older relatives what they were doing in a given decade. I was really fascinated to hear my maternal grandmother was a Candy Striper and my paternal grandparents lived in the Detroit area during the war. I’ll have those memories all my life, even after they’re gone and I won’t have to go memory hunting like Luxenberg did.

Writer’s Takeaway: I think Luxenberg is very engaging as a writer and the way he took the reader through his personal mystery was wonderful because it allowed me to be ready for every twist and turn.

The other thing about Luxenberg’s story that I loved was how non-linear it was, but I was still able to follow it well. His research took him to California, Chicago, and the Ukraine and he ran the gamut of relatives from all sides of his family to conduct interviews and track down old friends. He might jump from Annie to his father as he researched the relationships that these people had, but I could still follow and what Luxenberg wrote always came back to his family. This book was a great example of getting everything summed up and finished at the end of a book that had more arms than an octopus.

Overall, a solid read and I look forward to all the follow-up I’ll have with this book. Four out of five stars.

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