Monday, September 8, 2014

Attitudes Change So Slowly

Our college has an across the curriculum theme book as a teaching device this term, Annie’s Ghost, A Journey into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg. It is a nonfiction (shouldn’t we have come up with a better name for true stories long before now?) narrative about a Jewish family in Detroit. In the 90s the Luxenberg children learned shortly before their mother’s death that she had a sister. They grew up believing their mother an only child. Steve set out to find his lost Aunt Annie. We (professors) talked about how to use this book yesterday. It has multiple themes, the first being, as the title indicates, family secrets.

As composition instructors who frequently assign narrative essays soon learn, it is always surprising what horrors students are willing to disclose. Not all of them had my secure childhood.  It's scary, really. We talked about how sharing family secrets could cause trouble. Authors should feel free to tell anything about themselves that they wish to, but when telling the secrets of a family member or members, other issues rear up. Two of these concerns include ethics and the possibility of harming someone. We talked a lot about family secrets. It seems we all have them. As an author, Steve Luxenburg was well aware of the duality dilemma of his position as author and family member. What could or should he tell?

There was more. Annie was both physically and mentally handicapped, possibly raped. In 1940, at age twenty-two, Michigan incarcerated Annie at Eloise in Wayne County, an asylum for the homeless and those deemed insane, because her parents were too poor to get better care. She was supposed to stay for a three-day assessment, but that shortly turned to a life sentence that had little to due with Annie's diagnosis. She lived there until her death in 1972, visited by her mother when she could find someone to driver her to Eloise, and no one after her mother's death. At the time, families still often hid from public notice any member who might embarrass them, especially those with various types of mental conditions such as low IQs to those with obvious mental disturbances. This of course lead us to a discussion of how we treat those different from us, and not just the mentally ill or handicapped. For Annie and thousands of other men and women it meant oblivion. They were literally lost as individuals, forgotten by their families, their names, life histories, diagnosis, and even burials, often lost in bureaucratic labyrinths.

A few decades ago many of these ‘insane asylums’ were closed. I remember seeing the 1966 edition of Christmas in Purgatory, A Photographic Essay on Mental Retardation by Burton Blatt and Fred Kaplain. Their photo essay alerted the public about the dismal and inhuman conditions found in many institutions. Now we don’t have enough psychiatric beds in hospitals to treat all of our soldiers coming home with PTSD, let alone the requirements for our non-military population. I remember walking in Washington DC after the Vietnam War and seeing homeless soldiers. How do I know they were soldiers? They told ever passersby about how their country showed appreciation for their service. I now wonder how many of those homeless suffered PTSD with no help or understanding. Perhaps their claims as soldiers were not true, but I think they were, and I doubt our facilities were any better then, perhaps worse. Such conditions tell a lot about us as a people.

There are more intriguing themes in Annie's Ghost such as why such a large Jewish population migrated to Detroit. It gave some background on Detroit’s history that interested me as a Michigander, and an example of the horrors Jews faced in Eastern Europe (Ukraine) during WWII. In the last few years I've met many Christian refugees from the Ukraine, I can't imagine what it was like being Jewish. Besides learning of previously unknown family, Luxenberg told of his problems tracking family genealogy, and the frustration of hitting one dead end after another in research. All edifying topics, not only for students, but for me.

I will use this book in one of my classes, but it will be challenging. On the other hand, as a writer, I know the impact of this narrative reinforced many human conditions I can use in my own writing.

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