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Sunday, July 19, 2009

The case of the mysterious jacket

Promoting a book can be hard work, but it has many rewards, including the possibility of the unexpected, surprising encounter, such as this one that comes out flying at me out of my past:

The scene: The Birmingham Community House outside Detroit, my native city and the locale for much of the narrative in Annie’s Ghosts. It’s a Tuesday night in early July, and there’s an overflow crowd of nearly 200 who have come to hear a talk about the book.

A few minutes before the program is set to begin, the sponsoring organizations direct me to the signing table for a photo session. The organizers ask a few people to come over to have their books signed. A line forms. After the photo, I keep signing, thinking that with a crowd of that size, it would be good to reduce the number of people who will have to wait in line after the talk – a plus for everyone.

Two women approach. Their faces have an expectant look, as if I might recognize them. But I don’t. I’ve long since gotten over being embarrassed by a situation like this. A mumbled apology just makes the moment more awkward.

One of the women sees that I’m clueless about her identity, and she decides to offer a clue. She pulls open the jacket that she’s wearing, revealing the lining. Stitched there, in bright gold yarn, is my name. I stare, befuddled, at “Steve Luxenberg.” In the momentary silence that follows, I’m thinking: Did she stitch it herself? She doesn’t look like a groupie. Did she buy it at a flea market, see the newspaper article that mentioned my talk, and decide to come? No, that’s too weird.

Finally, she takes me off the hook. The story, of course, is much simpler. She’s my former next door neighbor. When she was 10, and I was 14, I babysat for her and her brothers. Her name is Shellee, and we haven’t seen each other in about, oh, 35 years. She had come with her mom, Joann, who still lives in the house next the one that my parents once owned.

The jacket? It’s my high school “letter” jacket, the one that athletes wear to show off that they belonged to one of the varsity teams. My sport was basketball. When Shellee got to the same high school, she earned a varsity letter, too.

Now I have to let Shellee narrate the rest of the story, and how she came to have my jacket, because I have no memory of what she is telling the small knot of listeners now gathering around her at the signing table.

She explains that in those days (the early 1970s) letter jackets were the exclusive province of the boys’ athletic teams. Girls could have letter sweaters, just like the guys, but not jackets. That made her mad, and when I was home from college at some point, she complained to me about the unfairness of it all. She says that I retrieved my letter jacket, and brought it to her. Here, I said (according to Shellee), take it and wear it.

She did just that, proudly.

I examine the jacket now. It shows a few signs of its age – fraying cuffs, tattered collar, a few tears in the lining – but it’s in good enough shape to be the centerpiece of a brief and emotional reunion of old neighbors.

Someone standing close by, hearing Shellee tell the story, suggests that she return the jacket to me.

“Do you still wear it?” I ask.

“I throw it on occasionally,” she says.

“You keep it,” I say. “It’s yours. It’s hasn’t been mine for a long time.”

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Monday, July 6, 2009

The war between privacy and history

Frequently, in my talks about Annie’s Ghosts over the last six weeks, the conversation winds its way around to this question: Can families obtain the records of relatives who spent time in state or county hospitals?

The answer: Maybe, but it won’t be easy.

For decades, states have withheld certain government records, particularly medical records, from public scrutiny. States also have policies about how long it must retain its records, and how to dispose of them. While every state and the federal government maintains historical records, often at special archives, most publicly-generated records are not preserved.

The National Archives, for example, saves only about fraction of the millions of pages of new federal records created annually. The Archives judges only three percent of all government documents to be historically significant enough to preserve.

Journalists and historians, of course, would love to see them all. We don’t have to pay for their upkeep or the mountain of hours that would be required to sift and catalog them, and make an index or finders’ guide to make the information more useful. On the other hand, digital technology changes the rules of the game, allowing governments to store much more data in much less space. Searchable databases would reduce (but not eliminate) the cataloguing process.

Those are the logistical challenges, which are tough enough. The philosophical challenge is even harder. To be blunt, there’s a silent war going on between privacy and history, and privacy is winning. Recent changes in federal and state laws has exalted privacy at the expense of history. HIPAA, the reigning federal law, has conferred privacy rights on the dead, allowing medical records to remain under wraps permanently.

In the case of a celebrity, some form of privacy might make some sense in the short term (imagine the mad rush for medical records every time a Michael Jackson died). But keeping patient records closed forever (or destroying them after 20 years) only serves to guarantee that historians can’t write a meaningful history of some of our public institutions.

In researching Annie’s Ghosts, I was told that records of my aunt’s 31 years in two of Michigan’s public psychiatric institutions no longer existed. They were destroyed, a state official told me, because they were older than 20 years, the limit under the state’s “record retention” policy.

The rise of digital technology will lead governments to re-evaluate the necessity of destroying all those paper records. That will put the focus on who should have access to sensitive records, and when.

Census records are opened to the public 72 years after they are collected. Robert Gellman, an expert on privacy law who helped craft legislation on Capitol Hill for two decade, told me that privacy rights and the historical record could both be served by some sort of time limit for the opening of medical records, although he would favor something far shorter than 72 years.

Most people would claim to be in favor of both privacy and history. That’s the problem. “Genuine tragedies in the world are not conflicts between right and wrong,” Hegel, the German philosopher, once observed. “They are conflicts between two rights.”

Exalting privacy has come at the expense of history. That’s one tragedy, to use Hegel’s word, that we can prevent.

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