By Steve Luxenberg
As family secrets go, maybe Steve Luxenbergs isnt the biggest. As obsessions go, maybe it is. Annies 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 wasnt the only child shed always claimed to be. There was a sister, Annie Cohen, who died in a mental hospital. Beth told her children she didnt remember the sister. After all, shed 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 mothers 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.
The lies of his mother become almost beside the point as Steve moves through his ghostly aunts 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 didnt 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 fathera 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 Cohens 20-year-old daughter who screamed all night, who wouldnt 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 morewhen Annie Cohen claimed shed been sexually assaulted, no one listened. No one cared to do more than hide Annie.
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 Cohens 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 shouldnt repeat it. I heard when Annie was born, the doctor knew right away that she wasnt going to be normal. I heard that the doctor had said, I can do something about this right now, but your grandmother wouldnt hear of it.
Maybe Beth Cohen wasnt 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 Beths chance. She took that chance, married a man she was deeply in love with, had children, aged, lost her husbandall of this while Annie languished alone. Thirty years after Annies 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 Pandoras 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 isnt a good journalists 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, isnt pleasant; it isnt easy; it isnt sometimes even the whole truth. It just is.
Annies Ghosts is aptly named. There isnt one ghost herebut many. Not one familybut millions. Poor Annie Cohenonly a symbol even now.