Steve Luxenberg: Secrets can have consequences 2010.05.19

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

Each generation has its secrets, says Steve Luxenberg, and those secrets can have consequences.

Luxenberg, 57, an associate editor at the Washington Post, visits Stair Public Library at 7 p.m. Thursday to discuss the secrets of his family—secrets kept when mental illness was a subject not to be discussed.

Luxenberg’s book, “Annie’s Ghosts,” was chosen a Michigan Notable Book for 2010 and his visit to Morenci marks the final stop in a series of speaking engagements at five Michigan libraries.

Family secret

Luxenberg never learned until after his mother’s death that she had a sister who lived for many years in Detroit mental institutions. His mother had said that her sibling died at a young age, but she kept secret the truth of the situation.

Luxenberg eventually learned his “invisible” aunt, Annie, was born with a deformed leg and suffered from behavioral problems. At the age of 21, she was committed to an asylum named Eloise and lived her final years at the state hospital in Northville.

The search for information about his aunt led to encounters with a few of the people who knew her. Along the way, he learned a lot about the time when his parents were young and much about mental health care in America.

Luxenberg started collecting information about his family long before he ever thought of writing a book.

“I had a busy day job and I sort of put it aside,” he said.

Actually, it was a literary agent who told him he had the makings of a book. She liked his writing and called to ask if he had considered writing a book.

“Funny you should say that,” he responded. “I have an idea for a book, but it’s not something you would expect from someone who’s editing a [newspaper] section about politics and commentary.”

They went to lunch and the initial half hour meeting stretched into a much longer session.

“My instincts as a journalist and editor told me it was a good story,” he said, but he didn’t know if it would stand the test of general interest.

He sees a newspaper as a smorgasbord with something for everyone, but a book is only an entrée for a more specific consumer.

“My goal was to write a universal story, a story about any family that confronted the situations that my family confronted, that any woman might decide to keep secret.”

Long after he decided to try writing the book, he encountered someone who had known his aunt and then he knew: “I’ve got a reality. I think I can do a real book out of this.”

He set a schedule for himself, with people at the top of the list. He knew he could always research facts later, but the people he needed to contact continued to age—in fact, two of them died before he made their acquaintance.

He learned a lot from the half dozen people who knew his aunt, but relying on memories always proves a challenge for a writer trying to go back in time.

“The book is partly about the vagaries of memory and how it changes stories and sometimes distorts them,” Luxenberg said.

Mental health care

Luxenberg was fascinated by the Detroit institution known as Eloise that once housed about 5,000 residents with mental problems and thousands more who were homeless. A farm furnished meat and produce for the community—an operation so successful that excess food was sold to the public.

The peak for institutionalized patients in the U.S. came in 1955 with about 550,000 in asylums. Since then the country’s population has doubled, yet the number of mental patients in institutions has fallen to fewer than 40,000.

Luxenberg doesn’t begin to suggest that he’s become an expert on the care of the mentally ill, but he’s learned a lot while researching his family’s history.

In years past, he said, there were people committed to institutions who shouldn’t have been. Today, with fewer public resources dedicated toward mental health, there are people walking the streets who could benefit from care.

“There’s a huge debate going on in the mental health field both about that population and the population in jails,” he said.

In some locations, those with mental health issues have been segregated into a specific area of a jail.

Ironically, Luxenberg said, putting those with mental problems behind bars marks a return to society’s response 150 years ago. That approach, he said, is not showing much progress in care.

With the decline of the public asylums, families took over a larger role in care-giving, where in the past people were giving up their family members to asylums.

Debates about personal freedom versus forced treatment continue.

“It’s a complicated world and the people in the field are not all in agreement,” he said.

The secrets

“I think every generation creates its own secrets,” Luxenberg said.

When his parents were growing up, mental health was the hidden issue. In the 1980s, the secret was AIDS. In the 1990s, homosexuality became an “official secret” with the military’s don’t ask-don’t tell policy.

“That’s got to have consequences and that’s kind of what my book is about—the consequences of secrecy. It’s a good story on the one hand, but I’m also interested in showing there are consequences, often unintended.

“My curiosity as a writer is to see how things play out that couldn’t have been anticipated.”

When Luxenberg was growing up, families didn’t look backward at the past. Attention was forward on the future. When he visits Morenci tomorrow, he’ll talk about how that practice played out in his family.

Remember, Luxenberg says, every family has its secrets.

• Steve Luxenberg’s talk will include time for questions. Refreshments will be served.

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