Steve Luxenberg, Senior Editor at the Washington Post is shocked and baffled to learn that his mother, who is 80, grew up with a sister that he had never heard about. After his mother dies, he begins to search for answers and finds many more questions. Why did his mother lie about her life and tell everyone that she was an only child? Did she tell this lie even to her husband? Why did his mother change her name from Bertha to Beth?
Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into A Family Secret, Luxenberg’s real-life search for answers to his family’s mystery is a compelling read. He soon discovers that this mysterious sister was both physically and mentally handicapped, and that she lived with her sister and parents until her early twenties. Of course, this does nothing to satisfy his questions. Instead, it raises others: why would his mother and grandparents have hidden this information? What became of this sister Annie?
While he attempts to conduct clinical research into these questions, Luxenberg is torn between his loyalty to his mother (there must be some explanation) and a growing realization that Annie was abandoned by her family out of shame. Luxenberg interviews former medical personnel from Eloise, the state mental institution, researches medical records, and interviews family members. He learns that Annie was institutionalized at the age of 21, that his grandmother visited her regularly, but that neither his mother nor grandfather ever visited her there. Annie was eventually transferred to a hospital further away and never saw her family again. She died at the age of 53.
As the author uncovers these truths he begins to search for answers in old correspondence between his mother and father, learning more about their relationship and his family’s background during the Holocaust and about his father’s personal struggles as a soldier during World War Two when he had something resembling a nervous breakdown - another closely held family secret.
At the same time that Annie’s Ghosts is a story of one family’s struggle with mental illness, it’s also a sad statement of a sordid chapter in the treatment of persons with mentally illness. As recently as the 1960s and '70s, mentally handicapped family members were a stigma to be hidden away in institutions, often permanently abandoned by their families and forgotten. Facilities such as Eloise State Hospital in Michigan were crowded and treatment was not focused on recovery.
Annie’s Ghosts is a memoir that examines the responsibility that families have to one another and the failure of one family to claim that responsibility. The author forgives his mother for her human failings while managing also to highlight the inhumanity of hiding and abandoning Annie. A good book improves us – Luxenberg has done an excellent job of presenting these hard and ugly truths in a way that makes us resolve to do better.
Where Luxenberg’s story leaves us feeling ashamed of one family and larger society’s neglect, Lisa Genova’s novel Still Alice shows us a path for redemption. Alice Howland is mother, wife, Harvard professor, and author when she is diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease at the age of 50. She’s a bright, accomplished woman with a passion for education and her career, which makes her diagnosis all the more ironic and tragic.
As reader, we witness and feel her horror when she can’t recall certain words, loses her way a mile from home, forgets the topic of her lecture and repeats things she forgot she said to her academic peers. She loses her ability to teach, to read, to converse normally, and eventually, to recall the names of her children and husband.
Alice knows what is happening to her. Speaking at an Alzheimer’s convention in front of her family and hundreds of people, Alice says “I’m losing my yesterdays. … I often fear tomorrow … I am, someone with dementia…But I am fundamentally more than that. I am a wife, mother, and friend, and soon to be grandmother. I still feel, understand, and am worthy of the love and joy in those relationships.”
At the beginning of the novel, before she is diagnosed, Alice is frustrated with her relationship with her younger daughter. Lydia has chosen acting as a career and refuses to attend college. While her husband supports this, Alice believes it is a mistake, and pushes her daughter away by constantly arguing about it. Later it is Lydia who moves home and becomes Alice’s main caretaker.
Other family members make accommodations for Alice - her husband takes up running although he hates it, so that Alice can continue to run. Alice’s disease and her lesser self are treated with care and respect - as the title of the book Still Alice implies. Toward the end of the book, her husband John, also a Harvard professor, readies her for commencement in her academic robes and guides her through the ceremony. (“We’re here to see Dan graduate. He’s your student.”) Alice has lost much of her mental abilities, but thanks to her family, Alice Howland has maintained her dignity.