Tag Archives: Steve Luxenberg

Meeting Author Steve Luxenberg

30 Jun

You might not have heard of author Steve Luxenberg if you haven’t been following me long, but for me, meeting him was kind of a big deal. Steve is the author of Annie’s Ghosts, a book I read for two different book clubs which gives you the chance to look at my book review and both book club reflections. So yeah, I was excited.

The event was an embarrassingly long time ago (March 21) and I’m sorry that I’m only getting this posted now. This draft has been sitting in my folder for much too long. There was a moderator who was part of the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace organization; a group that grew out of Germany after World War II which sends youth abroad to work for understanding and peace as a result of Nazi actions during the war. The panel consisted of Steve Luxenberg (Washington Post) and Dana Nemeth, Director of the Wood Co. Historical Center and Museum in Bowling Green, OH. Dana was selected because of her work with the asylum in her county.

It’s interesting to me how different it is to see a fiction writer versus a non-fiction writer. A fiction writer talks about process and inspiration whereas a non-fiction writer talks about their topic even further and maybe touches on how they do their research. A lot of this post will reflect Steve’s research and ideas.

Me and Steve Luxenberg

Me and Steve Luxenberg

Steve says that his book is ultimately about identity. He felt that Beth lost her identity by denying her sister for so long, Annie carries her identity as a physical deformity with her at all times, and that he gained an identity through his research into his family. I can see this as a theme and I think it’s interesting that in a book I perceived as being about mental illness and family, Steve saw something more universal in his writing. That showed me that no matter what you think a book is about, the author might think something completely different. His perception might be different because it deals with his own family so directly. Steve talked about how writing about your own family and friends can be challenging because you’re presenting this person to your readers in a manner in which they can be judged. What if the readers don’t like your family? There was one woman in the audience who really didn’t like Steve’s mother and said so. I think this would be hard for me to deal with, but Steve took it in stride. He told me later that, “All readers are right.” So the woman who disliked Beth, and another who thought she was strong are both right. We as writers just have to choose who we’ll listen to and make sure to bring the scene to life as much as possible. Steve recommends remembering to bring the five senses into each scene to give the reader an experience.

Anna Oliwek is a distant cousin of Steve who he found living in Michigan. Anna is actually in  the Portraits of Honor gallery for Michigan Holocaust Survivors so you can check out her profile. Her son, David, attended the event and Steve recognized him, thanking him for coming and thanking his mother for helping him so much in his research. It was really cool.

The Portraits of Honor memorial is one of many that are active to this day. Another that was mentioned was the Shoah Foundation, which has visual memories of the Holocaust such as video and photos. It was mentioned that Steven Spielberg is active in this memorial. The host location for the event was the Holocaust Memorial Center and they strive to bring in speakers and events like this, Steve, and many others, to continue remembering those who lost themselves to the Holocaust.

Returning to mental illness, it was brought up that a small film is in the making that will focus on Eloise and what happened to those that lived there. The film is supposed to be filming currently in the actual location in Westland, MI. You can read more about it here.

As when I meet any author, I asked him the same question; “I want to be a writer. What should I do?”

Steve gave me my favorite advice; “Read.” When you read, recognize when something works and think to yourself, “Why?” When something doesn’t work, ask yourself the same question. By knowing what does and doesn’t work in books you read, you’ll know what will and won’t work in your own writing. I try to do this in my book reviews, giving a few points about what I thought was unique about the book or why the style wasn’t my favorite. I hope those help you all as well.

Until next time, write on.


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 Club Reflection: Annie’s Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg

4 Feb
Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

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.

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.

Related Blog Posts

Diary of an Eccentric (multiple posts)
“Annie’s Ghosts” and Remembering Cora Davis| Jodee Inscho Research

Recently Added to my To-Read Shelf

23 Oct

I’ve somehow managed to add another five books to the shelf.  I’m at 99 right now and I’m hoping I can keep myself under 100.  The book I’m reading now is short so I’m keeping the positive thoughts.

  • Divergent by Veronica Roth: I have a policy of reading the book before I see the movie.  Thus, Divergent must be read before the movie is release next year.  No excuses.
    Tris lives in a dystopian future where at age 16, all children choose a sect where they will devote the rest of their lives.  It sort of Hunger Games-esque, which makes it all the more appealing to me
  • Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg: This book is the new February book for my edgy book club.  It’s replacing Gone Girl because it’s not available in paperback yet.  (Frustration).
    At the age of 80, Steve’s mom lets slip that she had a sister.  Steve believed that his mother was an only child and is shocked by the news.  Interested, he begins to delve into his family’s past.
  • I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai: Nicole had posted an interview between Malala and John Stewart on The Daily Show and it seemed interesting so I watched it (you can view it here).  I was floored at her maturity and the insightful things she said.
    Malala wasn’t afraid to speak out when her right to education was taken away.  Backed by her parents, she began to fight for schooling.  In 2012, the Taliban boarded a bus she was on and shot her in the eye.  She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest person ever nominated.
  • White Oleander by Janet Fitch: This book was a read-alike for Affinity, appearing on a list our moderator gave at the end of the meeting.
    This is the story of Astrid, a foster child in Los Angeles fighting to find herself.
  • Away by Amy Bloom: This book was the recommended book on my pate-a-day calendar today.  I’m surprised I don’t add more from it, but this one struck me as interesting.
    It’s the 1920s and Lillian has escaped from Russia to America after the death of her parents.  When she hears that her daughter might still be alive, she sets her sights on Alaska and the journey to find the only member left of her family.

That’s it for now.  Have you read any these?  Any I should bump up and read sooner?  Any that aren’t worth my time?  Let me know, Reader.  Until next time, take care.