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Friday, July 16, 2010

A tribute to Edward Missavage, 1924-2010

Readers of Annie's Ghosts will be familiar with the name of Ed Missavage, a generous soul and long-time psychiatrist at the hospital where my secret aunt spent 31 years.

Ed died last Saturday, July 10, at age 85. I wrote the following remarks to be read at the funeral service held in Detroit today.

Comments for Edward Missavage funeral,
July 17, 2010

From Steve Luxenberg,
author of Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret

Our relationship began in contention.

It blossomed into friendship.

Boldness and a bit of luck brought me into Ed Missavage’s orbit four years ago. On a chilly spring Saturday, while researching a book about a buried secret in my Detroit family, I ambushed Ed as he peered over a microfilm reader in a darkened room at the Detroit Public Library.

I had asked a librarian in the Burton Historical Collection for help in unearthing any information that the library might have on the former county psychiatric asylum known as Eloise. It was the early days of my research, I told her, and I was hoping to find a history or other documents about the institution where a hidden aunt had spent 31 years, nearly all of her adult life.

“You should talk to the man doing his own family research in the room over there,” she said. “He was an Eloise psychiatrist for years.”

If I could have sprinted the fifty feet to Ed’s location without someone summoning a security guard, I would have. I pretended to be calm as I approached a man with bifocals as large as coasters and the bushiest eyebrows I had ever seen. I introduced myself quickly, afraid that he would tell me to go away. I thrust the 12 pages from my secret aunt’s hospital file at him, silently praying that he would read the name “Annie Cohen” and say, “Why, yes. I remember Annie. She was the one with a wooden leg. I saw her many times during my three decades at the hospital.”

No such luck.

Instead, Ed fixed with a gaze – a gaze that I would come to know well during the many, many hours that I would spend with him – and he said, “Is this all you have? These are just the admission records and the social worker’s report. Where are the clinical records? I could tell you a lot more if I had the clinical records.”

If I were a flower, I might have withered. But I’m a journalist, and I’m not easily deterred.

“I’m trying to get them,” I said. “It’s not easy. There are certain legal restrictions, even for family members, and I’m trying to figure out a way around them.”

He replied with what can only be called a grunt. He didn’t seem terribly interested in my story. We talked a while longer about Eloise, and I asked him to put me in touch with others who had worked at the institution. We exchanged phone numbers, but when I said goodbye, I was pretty sure that this relationship was going nowhere.

The next morning, before 9 a.m., I answered my cell phone to hear his distinctive voice. “I’ve got some ideas for you.”

He always had ideas for me. He couldn’t help it. He had a native curiosity and restless intellect that was something hard to match. As I sat at his kitchen table, so crowded with papers and books that there wasn’t a single square inch of bare space visible to the eye, he would take notes in his cramped, tiny handwriting, jotting down the facts and details of my family so that he could study them later. My job was to offer my lap to Supercat, who seemed perplexed that his master was suddenly too busy to offer his own.

Ed dedicated himself to educating me about the field of psychiatry in general and the practice of psychiatry at Eloise in particular, squiring me around the Eloise campus in his ancient Cadillac, pointed out where the buildings once stood.

He also dedicated himself to finding someone who had known Annie at Eloise. Even the publication of Annie’s Ghosts in May 2009 didn’t stop him. As Detroit News columnist Neal Rubin wrote just four days before Ed’s death, Ed kept up his single-minded pursuit with a boyish zeal. His medical problems limited his mobility, but they didn’t diminish his enthusiasm. The last time I saw him, on a beautiful Sunday in late May, he told me excitedly of yet another avenue that he hoped would bear fruit for what he now called “our book.”

He wasn’t trying to take credit. It was our book in much the same way that it was our friendship. We both understood that most activities, most stories, most of life itself is as much about the journey as it is the destination.

Ed’s journey was longer than many, and richer than most. I said at the outset that a bit of luck had brought me into Ed’s orbit. I was the lucky one – lucky enough to have met him, and lucky enough to benefit from his knowledge and generosity.

Thanks, Ed. It was quite a journey.

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