I have long pondered the idea of using this blog to do some book reviews too. I’m a voracious reader, even if I often find myself wishing I had a lot more time to read. A lot of the books I read fit with this blog’s history theme, if not the wine theme. Although, now and again, I read a book that artfully combines wine and history!
My mom bought Annie’s Ghosts because she has an interest in genealogy, and because she also grew up in and near Detroit, Michigan, where the story takes place. It is a non-fiction book by Steve Luxenberg, who is an editor at the Washington Post. Steve expertly tells the story about his experience, finding out shortly before his mother’s death that she had a sister who her children never knew about. The family made the decision to let the sleeping dog lie while their mother was alive, but after her death, he decided that he needed to find out the real story of his aunt.
He details his search, beginning with the discovery that his aunt, Annie, had been committed to Eloise, a mental institution in Detroit, in the early 1940s when she was just shy of her 21st birthday. For reasons unknown, what was supposed to be a temporary commitment lasted for over 30 years, until Annie’s death in 1972. Steve’s search for information about the commitment, Annie’s mental illness and physical handicap, and who in his family knew what leads the readers through a series of twists and turns. The story sheds a lot of light on the difficulties of the search for genealogical information, public records, medical records, as well as the challenge of finding a living family member or friend who remembers anything and is willing to talk about subjects that were at the time taboo and a source of family embarrassment.
The story is very well written, and Steve Luxenberg does a great job of tying together information that he discovered in bits and pieces over the course of several years. He is candid and open about discussing the shortcomings of his mother, who hid her sister from everyone closest to her, trying to understand the motivations of a woman who took her secret to the grave, while not being judgmental. He is honest about the fact that sometimes we can’t understand the influence of a different time in history.
Secondary to the search for Annie, but no less interesting, Steve shares with the reader what he has learned about the rise and fall of mental institutions in the United States. He provides a history of the first asylums that rose out of the county poorhouse model, to the heyday in the mid 20th century of housing the mentally ill to keep them away from the general population. He also discusses the shifting societal views that led to the emptying and closing of a large number of institutions across the country, beginning in the 1970s. Annie’s Ghosts candidly discusses the stigma of having a family member who was mentally ill, and the challenges that home care posed in an era before effective medications had been developed for treating many mental illnesses. Overwhelmed family members were often relieved to have someone taken off their hands. But he doesn’t try to excuse or explain away society’s willingness to let millions of Americans rot away in overcrowded asylums with inadequate care. Interestingly, he does touch on the powers of television to medicate patients where care providers had very few options for settling or soothing an agitated patient.
In the end, I ended up wishing that he had found more answers about why Annie was institutionalized, and why his mother kept her hidden for the rest of her life, but perhaps that is expecting something unrealistic. Although he never expresses it bluntly, the reader feels his regret at not asking his mother before she died about Annie. It is a message for all of us that we need to be more open about sharing our secrets with those closest to us. Sometimes easier said than done.