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by Anna J. Michener
University of Chicago Press, 1998
Review by Molly Mitchell on Jan 31st 2000

Becoming Anna

I was asked to do this review with two advance notes: one, that two previous reviewers had found this book too difficult to read, and two, that I should take a look at the Amazon.com customer reviews because they included heated comments and reviews from people who know the author. I made a conscious decision not to look at these comments until I had finished the book and had formed by own opinions. This turned out to be a wise choice, as the reactions are intense and varied. They are interesting, but I would recommend the same to anyone else, read this first for yourself.

Becoming Anna is written by Anna Michener, a 16-year-old girl. She is actually called ‘Tiffany’ throughout the book, as this was her given name; she changed her name to Anna and took the last name of her adoptive parents when she went to live with them at the age of 16. Anna tells the story of her life in great detail and it is riddled with abuse, neglect, anger and confusion. She is one of two children born to a physically abusive father and a rage-filled and neglectful mother who is chronically ill and unable to care for her children. Anna and her brother are instead often cared for by their grandmother, who lives next door and who blames Anna for all of her daughter’s (Anna’s mother) problems. The majority of the book describes Anna’s experience of being psychiatrically hospitalised on more than one occasion.

I was fascinated to read this book, having spent the best part of the past 10 years working with adolescents in psychiatric hospitals. I have always wondered about their perceptions and thoughts regarding this experience. Herein lies what I find to be a major reason for the mixed reactions to this book; the author is 16. She is very entitled to her point of view but, if any of us remember 16, it is not the most objective time of life. Especially if one is attempting to "look back" on an awful, difficult set of experiences. She is condemned by several of the reviewers on Amazon.com for not presenting the whole story, and while I do agree that this is probably not the whole story, I think it is ridiculous to expect that a 16-year-old would write an objective, scholarly discourse on an experience she is essentially still going through.

I am not surprised at the reactions to this book, and they do fall to both ends of extreme; again, check Amazon.com for "customer reviews." They range from absolute horror at Anna’s story and praise for her courage in telling the truth, to, and this is the most interesting, members of Anna’s biological family discounting much, if not all of what Anna says in this book. I won’t get into a "who do I believe debate" since that will go nowhere. I will just acknowledge that I can see where this level of reaction could come from. In some ways this book is very well written, encouraging the reader to forget the young age of the author, while in other ways this reads exactly like the diary of an emotionally immature young girl. It is quickly apparent that this book is very one-sided and there are clear and sweeping judgments of who is good and who is evil.

Then I say to myself, maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to discount. Just because I have worked in these types of institutions but have thought myself and my co-workers to be rather terrific, maybe we aren’t in the eyes of our clients. This leads to another point which I would make about this book and that is that experience has a reality, as does truth, and they are near impossible to separate. Truth requires objectivity and when it comes to human experience, this is rare to come upon.

So, in regards to Anna’s point of view, there is a consistently negative tone that gets tiring and begins to make me suspicious about the true purpose of this book. I also got annoyed at the use of italics and " " to imply sarcasm at any adult’s title or role in her life. She makes assumptions about the motivations of adult’s actions that are always negative. I wanted to like this book, the details are amazing and the descriptions very evocative. It’s not really the anger that is hard to take, and there is plenty of that, it’s the self-importance. I had to keep reminding myself that she is 16. I wish she had waited to write this when she was 26, it would be interesting to see how the story might differ with the perspective that time offers.

I think the main problem with this book, which is reflected in the professional review clips: "…gives voice to the thousands of children and adolescents trapped in the system" and "a compelling and courageous advocate…", is that this story is getting passed on as absolute truth. The mistake is in allowing this book to be much more than it is. It is a well-written descriptive account of a personal experience, it is not scholarly and it is not objective. And it should not be these things; it is a 16-year-old’s story.

Molly Mitchell is an American psychologist now living and working in Ireland. As a therapist she started out with a degree in Expressive Therapy and then went on to obtain her doctorate in Clinical Psychology. Her particular interest is in working with children and adolescents