Haunting family skeletons

Luxenburg's piercing examination of mental illness in America circling around his own family story.

annies ghosts 248 88 (photo credit: )
annies ghosts 248 88
(photo credit: )
Annie's Ghosts By Steve Luxenberg Hyperion 391 pp., $24.99 No one is spared the unbearable grief of losing their mother. Whatever the relationship is or was, it is now over and one must renegotiate their place in the world without her. This appears to have been an extremely painful task for Steve Luxenberg who spent most of his 57 years half-believing that he and his mom had been close. This feeling was ruptured by an unexpected phone call after her death that informed him that his mother, Beth Cohen, was not the only child she had always claimed to be. Beth Cohen was the daughter of Jewish immigrants, Tillie and Chaim Cohen, who had come from Radziwillow decades before the Holocaust and settled in Detroit. Luxenberg found out that there had been a sister, Annie Cohen, now dead, who had lived with his mother until she was 20, when the family shipped her off to an insane asylum where she languished for decades before dying in her 50s. Annie Cohen was born unlucky, doubly challenged by a deformed leg that made walking difficult and an IQ that bordered on the low end of normal. The enormity of this lie which his mother maintained with him throughout her entire life seemed to make Luxenberg feel as if their entire relationship had been tainted; all the cherished stories she had told him about growing up now seemed distorted and perverse, grotesque caricatures of the truth. A Harvard-educated Washington Post reporter, Luxenberg soon found himself becoming obsessed with finding out everything he possibly could about his mother's sister, someone he and his two brothers had never been told about. He discovered that Annie Cohen had grown more agitated as she reached young womanhood and began having frequent outbursts. The family had trouble controlling her. Luxenberg's mother's father, Chaim, was by most accounts a broken man barely eking out a living as a street peddler. The precise chain of events is unclear but what is evident is that the young girl was sent away and committed at a hearing she was not allowed to attend, and the family willingly entered into a conspiracy of silence regarding her. Pictures of Annie were removed from the family home, her possessions discarded. What upsets Luxenberg is his gut feeling that Annie, although troubled, was not insane and had no business being sent away for a lifetime of loneliness and neglect. Luxenberg felt his mother and her parents had done something rash and inexplicable, something shameful, and he wanted to understand why. How could they simply expunge her from the record? He managed to get hold of many of Annie's medical and psychiatric records that indicate that the young woman could read and carry on conversations. She liked to sew and had attended school for many years. The cold-heartedness of the family's behavior toward Annie keeps him engaged in a search for a deeper truth that might explain their actions. Luxenberg seems haunted by his mother's ability to cut off her own flesh and blood. He seems to be trying to find his mother's soul, to understand her wounds, perhaps even trying to forgive her. Circling around his own family's disturbing story is Luxenburg's piercing examination of mental illness and the treatment of it in America during the past 60 years. When Annie was sent away in the 1940s, there weren't any of the psychotropic drugs available today, nor was there any public sense that physically and mentally challenged people were entitled to a life of dignity and love, a chance to learn and grow and improve. They were simply hidden away to await their death. One relative who knew about Annie tries to explain to Luxenberg the possible mind-set of his grandparents at that time. She tells him: "In Eastern European towns like the one where she and Tillie and Chaim grew up, it was commonly thought that if one member were 'crazy,' then future children might be crazy, too. So, parents of a mentally ill child worried about the other children. Would anyone want to marry them? If they did marry, would their offspring be mentally ill, too?" The author traveled extensively interviewing everyone he could think of who knew his mother and questioned them about whether she ever spoke about Annie. He interviewed relatives, friends, coworkers, doctors, bridge partners and even the psychiatrist who cared for his mother during her elderly years. Most of them had never heard Annie mentioned, and the few who had an inkling about something knew never to bring up the subject. One relative, Anna Oliwek, refused to keep her silence. Oliwek had lost her mother, sister and brother during the Nazi assault in Radziwillow. She miraculously survived by posing as a German fluent in Polish, Ukrainian and Russian and managed to get herself hired as a translator for the Wehrmacht's military police. When she arrived in America in 1949 she was overjoyed to find her cousins Tillie and Chaim, but disturbed when told about what happened to Annie. She began taking Tillie to visit her daughter at the asylum and, when Luxenberg's mother Beth found out, she asked Oliwek not to intervene. Luxenberg has difficulty picturing his mother trying to prevent her own mother from visiting her daughter. Luxenberg dons many hats in this masterful piece of work; he is simultaneously a historian on Jewish immigration, a Holocaust researcher, an investigative reporter, a memoirist and always a grieving son. The book is littered with pictures of his mother which reveal more than the author realizes. In the many grainy black-and-white photographs reminiscent of that era, Beth Cohen always appears eerily the same. Her hands are usually grasped too tight around whoever she is posing with, and her smile is awkwardly wide. She appears as if she is trying to maintain her composure. There is an almost willed gaiety about her and an intensity that seems aggressive and vulnerable simultaneously, like a wounded bird. Her eyes look sad and hollow and awkwardly placed on her face. Whether she is standing alone on the beach or with her husband or holding one of her children in front of her, one always imagines her as resting on quicksand, someone ready to disappear.