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Letters 04-14-14

Benishek Inching

Regarding “Benishek No Environmentalist” I agree with Mr. Powell’s letter to the editor/ opinion of Congressman Dan Benishek’s poor environmental record and his penchant for putting corporate interests ahead of his constituents’...

Climate Change Warning

Currently there are three assaults on climate change. The first is on the integrity of the scientists who support human activity in climate change. Second is that humans are not capable of affecting the climate...

Fed Up About Roads

It has gotten to the point where I cringe when I have to drive around this area. There are areas in Traverse City that look like a war zone. When you have to spend more time viewing potholes instead on concentrating on the road, accidents are bound to happen...

Don’t Blame the IRS

I have not heard much about the reason for the IRS getting itself entangled with the scrutiny of certain conservative 501(c) groups (not for profit) seeking tax exemption. Groups seeking tax relief must be organizations that are operated “primarily for the purpose of bringing about civic betterment and social improvements.”


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Annie‘s Ghosts

Elizabeth Buzzelli - June 1st, 2009
A Family Secret Reveals Mental Illness and Death in
Annie’s Ghosts
Elizabeth Buzzelli

ANNIE’S GHOSTS
By Steve Luxenberg
Hyperion, $24.99

As family secrets go, maybe Steve Luxenberg’s isn’t the biggest. As obsessions go, maybe it is. Annie’s Ghosts, his investigative memoir, covers a lot of bases, from family secret to family secret; from family tragedy to tragedy, while along the way he raises as many questions as he answers. The biggest of these questions being why he wrote the book at all?
Before his mother, Beth Cohen, died, her long guarded secret came to light. She wasn’t the only child she’d always claimed to be. There was a sister, Annie Cohen, who died in a mental hospital. Beth told her children she didn’t remember the sister. After all, she’d only been four years old when Annie entered Eloise, near Detroit, an asylum for the insane.
When that proved to be a lie too, Luxenberg, began to delve into the reasons behind his mother’s now obvious subterfuge. He took a leave of absence from his job at the Washington Post and began this very personal trek which would take him from Depression era Detroit to the Holocaust in the Ukraine, and even more disturbing, to the mental facilities of the time, to the forced incarcerations, to moves to other facilities without as much as an announcement, let alone agreement.

SELF-INVOLVED
The lies of his mother become almost beside the point as Steve moves through his ghostly aunt’s life. From his mother changing her name from Bertha to Beth; from an abortion she finds less onerous to talk about than the sister she has denied for years; from demanding friends never mention her crippled and mentally handicapped sister; from never visiting her and asking others not to take her mother to see Annie at Eloise, the picture he paints of Beth Cohen is ugly. It is a picture of a woman so self-involved, so selfish, so shallow that the memory of her, now given to her children and grandchildren, is far worse than a non-memory of an aunt hospitalized for over 30 years; a victim of a cruel system; a family member ostracized because she didn’t fit into the family or into the society around that family.
It all seems so ugly. It all seems so unforgivable. So much of history, taken out of context and judged by current standards, can be just as cruel and misshapen. Luxenberg, seeing this himself digs deeper. He finds he is crafting a book about his mother, and her mother and father—a junk collector in Detroit for most of his working life, without knowing what it was like to live in Detroit in the 1930s, with a daughter made fun of for her amputated leg, her mental retardation, and her quick slide into mental illness.
What he finds is a neighborhood, Euclid Avenue, that would gossip about the Cohen’s 20-year-old daughter who screamed all night, who wouldn’t stay in her bed because she feared she would die there, who had had her leg removed, and who would, at times, stand at a street corner for hours, afraid to try crossing. He found that children were afraid of Annie, intimidated by her. And more—when Annie Cohen claimed she’d been sexually assaulted, no one listened. No one cared to do more than hide Annie.

EUTHANIZING BABIES
Added to this, Luxenberg found, were the beliefs of an era when they sterilized the mentally handicapped; ‘for their own good’; when euthanasia of deformed babies was done at time of birth, by the doctor, and when a nationwide movement to euthanize those deemed less than perfect was advocated by some of the best medical journals of the day.
Friends would later remember the small mother carrying her grown daughter around on her back. They would speak of the Cohen’s poverty. And in this house, at this time, lived Bertha Cohen, tall, pretty, and afraid she would never marry if a man found out she had an institutionalized sister. Mental illness was thought to be genetic. Mental illness brought shame. It brought isolation.
Annie Cohen should never have been.
A family friend has a story:
“Maybe I shouldn’t repeat it. I heard when Annie was born, the doctor knew right away that she wasn’t going to be normal. I heard that the doctor had said, ‘I can do something about this right now,’ but your grandmother wouldn’t hear of it.”
Maybe Beth Cohen wasn’t a hero. Maybe she was an ordinary girl who wanted an ordinary life made impossible by her sister. Once that sister was gone, out of the house, safely warehoused at Eloise, maybe it was finally Beth’s chance. She took that chance, married a man she was deeply in love with, had children, aged, lost her husband—all of this while Annie languished alone. Thirty years after Annie’s consignment to Eloise, when, in 1972, she was briefly moved to Northville State Hospital, a social worker wrote of Beth, “She admitted to Wayne County General that she hated the patient.”
One simmering antagonism begot others. When Luxenberg interviews a cousin, Anna, he finds a woman angry after 30 or more years because Beth had ordered her not to take Tillie Cohen to see her daughter at the asylum. So many years later she still gives vent to her anger at Beth and how she treated Annie. Family secrets, Luxenberg has discovered, create their own vortex of emotions that never die.
I have the feeling that Steve Luxenberg never imagined the Pandora’s Box of buried secrets he would uncover while writing this book. I can only imagine there were many times he wanted to chuck the whole thing and go back to a state of ignorance that cost him nothing. That isn’t a good journalist’s way. Once the box is opened, the research begun, there is no stopping it: not the soul searching nor the pain of looking at a loved one with different eyes. Truth, as Luxenberg shows, isn’t pleasant; it isn’t easy; it isn’t sometimes even the whole truth. It just is.
Annie’s Ghosts is aptly named. There isn’t one ghost here—but many. Not one family—but millions. Poor Annie Cohen—only a symbol even now.










 
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