Annie Cohen died alone at age 52 in Eloise mental hospital in Westland, seen above in a 1940s photo. (Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University)
Edward Missavage didn't write "Annie's Ghosts," but he and his bushy eyebrows are in it, and he feels more than a little attachment to it.
In fact, says Steve Luxenberg -- who did write "Annie's Ghosts" -- Missavage now refers to it as "our book."
As honorary co-author, Missavage has taken it upon himself to continue Luxenberg's research into the sad but arresting tale of the aunt he never knew he had. Annie Cohen spent her adult life at Eloise, the mammoth mental hospital in Westland where Missavage spent his working life.
Missavage, an 85-year-old from the northern suburbs, didn't know Annie, but he hopes to track down former employees who did. Luxenberg appreciates his zeal, but can't quite match it: "Once you've written the book," he asks, "what do you do with the information?"
Complicating things, Missavage has taken ill. His daughters are hoping he'll regain enough strength to undergo treatment, so he can be weakened again but perhaps ultimately cured. And because no situation is so confusing that it can't be muddled even further, he has misplaced his hearing aids.
Since Missavage can't speak for himself, even by telephone, he's being channeled by daughter Karen Dunnam, 53, of Grand Rapids. Dunnam says her father's interest is part natural curiosity, part pride of not-actual-authorship, and part boredom born of being first retired and then 10 years widowed.
Luxenberg describes him in the book as having bifocals the size of coasters and the bushiest real eyebrows he's ever seen. Dunnam describes Missavage in part by recounting her parents' first meeting -- at a company picnic. Both were psychiatrists at Eloise, and he strolled up to the future Freda Missavage and said, "What's your blood type?"
Not an only child
So that's the hunter.
As for the book, "Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret" (Hyperion, $15.99) won a Michigan Notable Book award for 2010. It's the lavishly praised work of a Washington Post editor who grew up in Detroit with a mother who repeatedly and even eagerly claimed to be an only child.
Only when she was old and sick did Luxenberg learn otherwise, and only after she died in 1999 did her secret surface again and inspire him to find out more.
The trail led to Eloise, which at one point was one of the largest and best mental facilities in the country, and which seems by modern standards to have been hellish.
Eloise opened in the more blunt and less enlightened 1830s as the Wayne County Poorhouse. It grew into a sprawling mini-city with more than 8,000 patients, 75 buildings, and its own fire department, library and dairy. Officially renamed Wayne County General Hospital in 1945, it still answered to Eloise until it was shuttered in the early 1980s. By then, Annie Cohen had died, alone at 52.
Putting the word out
Missavage has been posting a message in a newsletter for retired Wayne County employees. In the official documentation, Annie dealt with schizophrenia, retardation and a congenital leg deformity that forced an amputation at 17. In Missavage's call for help, he words it this way:
"She was a small woman, with a right leg prosthesis, so she must have been in one of our disabled or 'dysambulatory' wards. I am appealing to any female attendant, who may have worked with Annie and remembers her, especially for her physical condition and limitations."
He wants to know precise details like where she had been confined, and less definable things as well -- how she acted, what her life was like, if she ever wondered aloud why her family had abandoned her.
I won't pretend that it's my book, but I don't have to pretend to be intrigued.
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