Sunday, May 17, 2009

Steve Luxenberg's "Annie's Ghosts"

Steve Luxenberg, an associate editor at the Washington Post, has worked for more than 30 years as a newspaper reporter and editor. Post reporters working with Luxenberg have won several major reporting awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes for explanatory journalism. He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new nonfiction book, Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret, and wrote the following:
I know this is a gift, a golden opportunity to introduce Annie’s Ghosts to a new audience. I also know that I would be following past practice for this blog if began by providing a powerful summary of the book’s narrative sweep (“it’s a story of...”) and then slowly working my way to page 99.

I can easily claim that I’m setting the stage when I reveal to you that my mother hid the existence of a disabled sister, and that I went on a two-year search to understand my mom’s motivations, and the consequences of keeping the secret for her and those around her. I might even get away with sneaking in a mention of a starred Kirkus review, which called the book “Beautifully complex, raw and revealing.”

But it would be more fun to turn the tables.

Last night, I visited page 99 of a Vintage paperback edition of Ford Madox Ford’s famous novel, The Good Soldier. It’s a page that moves the story along, but I doubt that even Mr. Ford would say the quality of his work is revealed there. Maybe he would mumble something about how, in the original hardcover, page 99 was a real knockout. Or maybe he would say, wait, you took me too seriously—I was reading a boring novel when I came up with that line, page 99 was the place where I gave up, that’s all.

Ford understood a brutal reality: No one reminds a writer to take care with page 99, but every reader looks at the opening sentence. The Good Soldier famously begins, “This is the saddest story I ever heard.” That line has earned a place in the canon of memorable opening sentences.

So, in the interest of full disclosure and in the spirit of Ford, here is the first sentence of Annie’s Ghosts: “The secret emerged, without warning or provocation, on an ordinary April afternoon in 1995.” And the next: “Secrets, I’ve discovered, have a way of working free of their keepers.”

Okay, okay. I admit to a parlor trick here, a sleight-of-hand. I’ll even defend it. (Ford himself liked to engage in a literary trick or two.) I’m not trying to divert attention from page 99. I’m fond of that page, too, although it’s less personal than much of the book. The page resides in one of the book’s most powerful chapters, “Actually Insane,” which tells the unsettling story of how my secret aunt, Annie, was committed to a public mental hospital in 1940. The chapter is based on court records I found in Michigan.

Two court-appointed doctors had to certify Annie as “actually insane” before she could be admitted for treatment. At that time, patients had few rights; this was three decades before the medical and legal revolutions that brought an end to the nationwide system of large public mental hospitals.

From page 99 of Annie’s Ghosts:

[I]n calibrating this particular scale of justice, the state legislature put a heavy finger on the side of the courts, the medical profession, the asylum, and the family.

Under the law in effect in 1940, “The father, mother, husband, wife, brother, sister, child or guardian” could petition the court to have a family member declared insane, but the legislature didn’t stop there. It specifically allowed a sheriff, a superintendent of the poor, a “county agent,” or anyone that a judge deemed a “proper person to make such a petition” to come before the court and swear that a fellow citizen was “mentally defective”—insane, or “feeble-minded” or epileptic—and needed to be confined in an institution.

As if the courts and doctors didn’t have enough power, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in several cases during the 1930s that some judges were skipping the part of the law that called for the taking of evidence, and were relying instead almost entirely on the two physicians’ findings... Worse, once the judge had issued the order, patients remained insane in the law’s eyes until another pair of physicians, also appointed by the court, had certified their return to sanity.

Page 99, like the rest of Annie’s Ghosts, tries to get to the bottom of something, in writing that is direct and accessible. The language and material reveal, in Ford’s phrase, “the quality of the whole.”
Read the prologue to Annie’s Ghosts and visit Steve Luxenberg’s website, where you can see photos and documents relating to the book and read his blog.

--Marshal Zeringue